How One Family Tried to Deal With the Lasting Trauma of World War Two

History Hit Podcast with Eve Wharton

6 mins

01 Sep 2018

This article is an edited transcript from Life as a Woman in World War Two with Eve Warton on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 6 May 2018. You can listen to the full episode below or for free on Acast.

Just before the end of the war, my husband, Ian, was sent to Trincomalee in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). While he was there I was left to look after our newborn baby alone. And then, sadly, after he came back to the UK and just about a week before he was due on leave, the engine of his airplane decided to stop and he crashed into the sea.

In those days, if pilots ended up in a rubber dinghy in the sea they had a sort of dye that they could open and pour into the water around them so that they could be spotted by rescuers. But Ian’s dye burst into his dinghy. He was quite badly wounded in the crash in the back of his head and his back, and the dye – which was poisonous – got into his system. 

The British war cemetery at Trincomalee in Sri Lanka. Credit: Anton 17 / Commons

For the rest of his life he was always in and out of hospital and I think that was why he died so young – in 1958. One of Ian’s legs wouldn’t heal because of the dye and so they decided to amputate it. This was particularly difficult for him because he had a career in the forestry commission that involved walking up hills and things.

Eventually the commission trained him to be their chief education officer, which was nice because he was able to organise a proper examination certificate for the foresters – something that they hadn’t had before.

A roommate reunion

Before the war, Ian had done two years at the University of Edinburgh for his BSC and when the war finally ended he decided to go back and do the last year. But he was on crutches and was obviously a bit worried about whether he’d manage. 

What was interesting is that he’d shared digs with two people at university before the war – one a Canadian and the other an Irishman who’d both had extraordinary wars – and all three had thought that the other two were dead.

After the war was over, they discovered that they were all alive and managed to meet up. All three returned to university to complete their studies and, like before, they shared digs. This was a complete saving grace because Ian kept falling over on his crutches when left alone and couldn’t manage certain tasks. 

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The Canadian, meanwhile, had organised the partisans in Italy throughout the war and earned himself three Military Crosses doing it. He was captured by the Germans towards the end of the war and taken out and shot every single day for a week with blanks and every time told that it was the real thing.

He only escaped because there happened to be an air raid, and the walls of the building in which he was being held were blown out and he managed to get away. So he was having dreadful nightmares and checking the windows of their accommodation at university to make sure that he could get out and that kind of thing. That’s what alerted me to his stress. 

The third friend, Alistair, had been a prisoner of war, having helped to build that wretched Burma railway. He was a tall man but returned home weighing about six stone. All three had stayed home for a year after the war to recover, but they were still in a pretty bad state. Alistair was putting bits of bread and food in his pocket for a year, just in case there wasn’t a meal, while George was having these nightmares. 

An abandoned section of the Burma – or “Death” – Railway in Thanbyuzayat, Myanmar. Credit: Phyo WP / Commons

While finishing their final year in Edinburgh, they came to stay with me at the weekends in Peebles, where I had a house. It only had gas lighting but nobody had any money then and it was cheap.

The long-term effects of war

Ian and his friends were deeply traumatised but because all three were together, they helped each other. They made each other talk about it and they got it off their chest. And they were also able to talk to me about it.

By the time they were qualified, my little daughter was about two and she wasn’t quite sure which one of the men was her daddy. And we had two spinsters living in the house next to us and they always referred to them as “Eve’s three husbands”. 

After they were qualified, George went back to Canada and joined the Canadian Forestry and did very well, though he still had awful nightmares on and off for most of his life. Alistair, however, did not do so well. He was all right for about 15 years and then he suddenly disappeared. 

George came back from Canada to look for him because the two were very close. But he had completely disappeared and we never discovered what had happened to him. I think he most probably committed suicide. 

Eve Warton had been a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service during the war.

For me, I think I was just so grateful to be alive and so determined to build the country up again and put it all behind me that I’d try not to think about all of the suffering. And soon after Ian was qualified I had another baby, so that kept me busy. 

Having my parents always there was also absolutely a lifesaver. When Ian died, for instance, I knew my parents would come and help sort me out and get me going again. And when I used to get tired of looking after the children, I knew I could go there for a nice long weekend and just sort of relax and that they’d cope. 

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Financial difficulties

How I managed financially after the war I really don’t know, but I had a little money of my own from my grandfather. The pension for a war widow was £4.15 a week, so the cost of living must have been very, very cheap. And my parents were always there if I was desperate. But otherwise, I ran a nursery school at home to boost my income and I had a pension from the forestry commission. 

When I decided I was going to try and earn some money, I thought, “Well, I have to do something at home if possible”. My youngest child – by then my third – was still only three, so I thought that if he was ill then I couldn’t let people down and say that I couldn’t come into work.

And it just so happened that I was in the hairdressers and somebody asked me if I would like a magazine. In there was an article about running a nursery in your home, and I thought, “Thank you, God. That’s just what I need.”

A shopkeeper cancels coupons in a British housewife’s ration book in 1943. Rationing continued for nine years after the war.

Partly because of Ian losing his leg, I had learnt to be very practical and not keep asking him, “How do I this?” or “Will you do that?” I had to grow up and  run the house on my own a lot – all the while learning to be very tactful about it so that Ian didn’t feel I was doing everything; for a man with one leg that would have not been funny. So I had to learn a lot of psychological lessons as well as practical ones. 

Psychological lessons

After Ian died, I was searching for a new house and had a very helpful estate agent who used to meet me off the train and take me to look at properties. At the time, my son Neil – who was 11 when his father died – was still in shock. For a whole year he really wasn’t with us at all.

And the estate agent said, “Why don’t you buy a house that’s being built and I will arrange with the builder for your son to go along with a wheelbarrow and help build something or carry the bricks. It’ll make him come back and realise, ‘This is where I’m going to live.'” And it worked. 

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After that I started really seriously thinking about how things affect people and how you can get them going again. It wasn’t very fun being on my own at Christmas and on birthdays. But I had a lot of cousins who I was very close to and had grown up with, and one of them and their family decided that they were going to buy a house close to me for the weekends and holidays.

So they were there quite a bit for me. My children had all their cousins and I had my cousins and that made an extra family for us. 

Over the years I’ve learnt that it’s important to listen, to always be there for your children, come what may, to try and encourage those who don’t seem to be managing very well and to learn how to praise people for what they can do without it sounding too sugary – and I think just be grateful for being alive. I think this is what we learned in the war: all right, lots of people are dead, I lost my husband, but I’m alive.