Interview: Eve’s War: The Diaries of a Military Wife during the Second World War

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15 August 2017
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isbn9780751567021-detail-77909.jpg Eve's War: The Diaries of a Military Wife During the Second World War
Interview on the wartime diaries of Evelyn Shillington, who followed her officer husband around Britain during his World War Two service, showing courage and resourcefulness.

Interview on the wartime diaries of Evelyn Shillington, who followed her officer husband around Britain during his World War Two service, showing courage and resourcefulness.

Evelyn’s diaries lay in an attic for almost half a century after her death. The diaries were sold at auction by Eve’s cousin, Jacy Wall, who was completely unaware that a truly great piece of family history was about to be lost. Rescued by an enterprising author Shaun Sewell, (author of a Tommy’s War, Tommy’s Peace and The Real Dad’s Army) Jacy discovered a past she didn’t know existed.

Here, Barbara Fox talks about the background to the diaries and their contents, with input from Jacy and Shaun.

What might surprise us about Eve's life as an army wife?

How integral the wives of officers often were in army life if the camp was to run smoothly, and how, through Eve's eyes, the Home Front and the darkest days of the war are still lively, funny and so very human.

The extent of Eve's wartime activities is mind-boggling. Apart from supporting her husband, Rex, she's never idling around and constantly carrying out activities supporting the war effort, whether organising Donkey Derby races in order to raise money to buy Spitfires or cleaning WWI rifles sent from the States for the use of the newly established LDV (or Home Guard). Perhaps the biggest surprise was learning about Eve's time in Italy, an area of post-war history which has been little covered.

To what extent was Eve a 'traditional' army wife for the times in which she lived?

This is one of the really interesting things about Eve. Despite having a playwright mother, her life had been quite conventional in most ways – Army officer father, own marriage to the same, and with it a strong sense of duty to be at her husband’s side and follow him wherever he was posted. Thanks to the war, this was a duty that was tested to the extreme as she found herself constantly having to uproot and follow Rex to his various postings around the country.

Eve was a devout Christian, and yet she is remarkably modern in her attitudes and never judgemental when she sees behaviour that you might expect her to frown upon. For example, when in Cambridge she sees the American servicemen who had proudly shown her their photos of wives and children back home now enjoying themselves with their local girlfriends, she can only lament the tragedy of war, and think sadly that their next mission might be their last.

Yet she performed her traditional duties brilliantly, and because she did not have children (presumably quite unusual) and because of her nature, she was also able to take full advantage of every opportunity that arose – never saying 'no' to anything that came her way and never being afraid to get her hands dirty. She had no control over the larger picture of her life, but set about making the detail of it very much her own, and had little patience with Army wives who did not, illustrated particularly vividly in Venice when she was the only one to bother to attend the Kesselring war crimes trial.

Do you have a favourite story from the diaries?

Jacy (Eve’s cousin): The cat having kittens in Rex's shoes! This is one of the early instances of Eve's sense of the absurd, and also demonstrates that however much she clearly worshipped Rex, she was certainly not worried by him being displeased, and indeed quite enjoyed teasing him. There are many instances in Italy I love, particularly Oscar offering to cook them the Fuhrer's favourite dishes…

Shaun (the finder of the diaries): The friendship Eve made with Eugenia Fisher in the United States. Only Eve could make global headlines about women on opposite sides of the Atlantic being together in thought and deed. From one random note left in the pocket of a dress sent from San Francisco, a friendship blossomed and united these two very different women.

I managed to trace Eugenia and her husband Arthur's grandson, Ken Fisher, who now runs one of the largest financial institutions in the States but always returned my e-mails the same day and provided me with the wonderful photograph of his grandmother that we feature in the book. This connection across the 'pond' is not the first time Eve's family has achieved this feat. Her family were instrumental in landing the first trans-Atlantic communication cables from the States to the UK.

Barbara: I loved reading about all the friendships Eve made everywhere she went. Her friend Jane has a life rather like a tragic soap opera. She is so open to new people and experiences. (Would she have had those opportunities without the war? Almost certainly not.) In Italy she has to live alongside the former ‘enemy’ and has a whole crew of Germans living under her roof and attending to her needs, something that might have provoked hostility in a lesser person. Yet she is never prejudiced and always willing to see people as individuals. She even manages to charm the Italian couple whose beautiful home she and Rex are now living in (requisitioned by the Allied forces) while they, the owners, live in a small lodge in the grounds!

Do you think the diary was written with the fact in mind that a wider audience might one day read it?

Eve had ambitions as a writer – we know that she wrote and tried unsuccessfully to have some short stories published (ironically enough, through Curtis Brown, the agency that now represents her!) – and these entertaining diaries do seem to speak to an audience rather than merely echo private thoughts. But time was not on her side. You might say she was ahead of her time. While today there is huge interest in the war and how it was lived – life on the home front as well as the military side of things – and school children learn about evacuation and living through the Blitz, this view of the war as entertainment (for want of a better word) did not come about until it was too late for Eve, who died in 1981. It seems sad that she didn’t live to see the diaries' publication. She would have been thrilled.

Was Eve living in army accommodation during the time she was an army wife?

On her return from Rex's posting to the Far East in 1935 and up until the start of the war Eve lived in army accommodation with Rex. She had been longing for a home of her own and was delighted with their accommodation in the ordnance depot of Bramley in Hampshire, where she quickly assumed the duties that were expected of her as well as taking on those of the colonel's wife, whose ill health prevented her from living there too. Unfortunately, her undoubted success in this role caused jealousy to arise and sides to be taken amongst the other officers' wives when the colonel's wife did appear, and eventually led to Rex's transfer to another depot.

She spent most of the war living in hotels or other establishments 'on service terms'.

You might say that barrack life prevented Eve from expressing herself and getting things done without being judged. She was certainly able to be more 'her own person' when living away from the barracks.

Favourite passages from Eve’s War: The Diaries of a Military Wife:

Tuesday, 4 June 1940

Glorious news! Our boys are coming back from Dunkirk!

Every small ship and boat, private or otherwise, that could cross

the Channel has been mobilised to go and rescue our men stranded

on the beaches of Dunkirk. Now we know what those boats we

saw were up to! The noise I heard last night was the trains from the

coast bringing them back to England. Oh, thank God!

Our little maid came in in great excitement to say that all the

village is out watching. I couldn’t stay indoors while this was hap-

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pening. The Hutchisons wouldn’t come so Chaser and I went down

and found a field not far from the railway bridge where we could

watch the trains go by. The first were hospital trains with dark

windows, filled with the wounded, then came more filled with

the troops just off the beaches of Dunkirk; just as they had been

rescued, battered and torn, utterly exhausted after their terrible

ordeal, they still had the spirit to stand in the corridors giving the

thumbs- up sign! They who had just come through Hell still came

up smiling! What a lesson for us all!

Thursday, 11 July 1940

Went to King’s College Chapel this morning. What memories of

years ago when my mother and I came down to see Philip Bathurst

and Arthur Clapham in their rooms at college! They were great

fans of Where the Rainbow Ends and always sent my mother red roses

on St George’s Day. Arthur was killed in the First World War and

here we are engaged in another war with Germany. As I watch

workmen removing the lovely stained glass from the windows for

storing away from bombing, I reflect that here we are after all these

years of Christianity still slaughtering one another. I kneel and

say some prayers, hearing in memory the glorious singing of the

choristers in this chapel all those years ago.

Saturday, 3 August 1946

This morning Oscar, through the interpreter, asked if I would

like him to make a pastry with a long German name, which I had

never heard of. The interpreter said that Oscar had often made it

for the German General  Staff, and that it was a particular favou-

rite of Herr Hitler.

While secretly longing to sample it, I felt this would never do, and

told the interpreter, with great dignity, that that was hardly a reason

to recommend it to a British officer's wife, and to Oscar’s disappoint-

ment it was banished from our board. How patriotic can you be!

Eve’s War: The Diaries of a Military Wife During the Second World War is published by Sphere (an imprint of Little, Brown) in paperback.