On the day when people around the world were remembering those who died in two World Wars and countless other conflicts, a BBC television programme chose to pay tribute to a woman who worked for and passionately believed in – peace.
Vera Brittain was the mother of British politician Shirley Williams. Vera lost her fiancé and many close friends in WW1 and worked in a front-line hospital in France, nursing victims of gassing and the horrible wounds caused by shell-fire.
22 years ago, I was working in Belgium, on an IT project that periodically took me out of my Brussels office and down to the Mons area which was the scene of some of the worst fighting in the first months of WW1.
Just by co-incidence, at the same time, I had discovered Vera’s book ‘Testament of Youth’ and I set out to find the grave of her fiancé Roland Leighton in the little village of Louvencourt in a landscape that is even after all this time, still scarred by the conflict of 90 years ago. My journey took me over the border into France and through towns and villages I only knew the names of, as sites of battles such as Cambrai and Albert.
In the TV programme today, Jo Brand, best known as a comedienne, made the same poignant journey to Louvencourt, as she told Vera’s story, from her childhood in northern England to the end of WW1 when she returned to Oxford University to complete her Classics degree. Vera gave up her Somerville College place at the end of her first year to enrol as a volunteer nurse.
If I have a small criticism of the programme today, it was that it missed the details of how hard Vera struggled to get that university place. There was none of the expectation of today’s young men and women that they will have an equal right to further education. She had to fight the opinions of her parents and also to qualify for entrance to Oxford, which seems to have been a peculiarly complicated process for women at that time.
What it did achieve was to highlight first hand experiences of nursing the wounded, of stories from Roland and from her brother Edward and their friends of the horrors of the conflict on the Somme and at Arras.
What is even sadder is that 90 years on from the signing of the Armistice at the end of WW1, the world is still engaged in so many conflicts and wars.
Surely it is time now that we learn to stop fighting over land and religious differences and join together to conserve our planet’s natural resources and share what we have. If that lesson is not learned very soon, I can forsee another World War, except that this time we will be fighting for the very survival of the human race.