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Evelyn Waugh: Sword of Honour Trilogy

Waugh’s trilogy about the Second World War is one of his finest, as he mocks the army and, as with all good war novels, shows sympathy for the ordinary soldier but also questions the role of both his country and the individual in this war. The trilogy follows the fate of Guy Crouchback. At the start of the Men at Arms, he is living in Italy, divorced and alone. Though thirty-five, he eagerly seeks to join up and ends up in the Royal Corps of Halberdiers as a captain. There are two men in that unit who cause him considerable, though often comic, grief – his fellow officer, Apthorpe, whom he inadvertently kills at the end, and his commanding officer, Brigadier Ritchie-Hook.

As a good Catholic, Crouchback is not particularly anti-Fascist but more anti-Communist, so he is glad when the Germans and the Soviets make their pact. Moreover his real motive for joining up is to have fun with the lads. Initially, they do have fun as nothing much is happening on the war front. But, subsequently, the fun is not always what he had signed up for. Rescuing Apthorpe’s mobile latrine and raiding Dakar – a spectacular failure, made worse by the anonymous appearance and subsequent wounding of the Brigadier – give Crouchback more headaches than he bargained for. He ends up in disgrace (for the failed raid), rebuffed (again) by his ex-wife and without the fun and companionship he had hoped for.

In Officers and Gentlemen, Guy is rescued from his disgrace to join a commando unit training in Scotland. We have already met the irrepressible Trimmer in Men at Arms but he plays a greater role here, under an assumed name and now a lieutenant. He also has an affair with Crouchback’s ex-wife. While Crouchback is sent out to Egypt, where, with usual military inefficiency, they don’t do much of anything, Trimmer accidentally raids France, destroys a railway line and becomes a hero. The unit is sent off to Crete but arrives too late, as the Germans are clearly winning the battle and the British are falling apart. After chaos breaks out all over, the unit is ordered to help evacuate the other troops and then surrender. Crouchback manages to escape and only just survives. With the Soviet Union now a British ally, Crouchback is totally disillusioned about the war, which is clearly no longer fun.

The final novel of the Trilogy is Unconditional Surrender and, initially, we move away from the war and more to Guy’s personal life. After his military failures, he is kept away from the real action. His father dies and leaves him a fair amount of money. His ex-wife becomes pregnant by Trimmer, whom she dislikes, and starts to court Crouchback. He agrees to remarry her to help her with the baby. However, his name once again comes up and he is sent out to help Tito’s Communists, something which does not please him. He does manage to help rescue some displaced Jews but the ones he befriends most are subsequently executed because of his association with them. His wife is killed by a bomb and he is left to remarry and bring up his step-son, disillusioned.

Waugh’s Trilogy was published at a time when the British were not yet ready to re-examine the justification for the war. Waugh, of course, questions it because of the British alliance with Communists and Crouchback, his hero, strongly feels this. But Crouchback is also concerned about his private honour and feels, particularly after the execution of his Jewish friends, that he has failed as much as his country has failed. Waugh, as he is so often does, ends up with a cynical view of life. But this work, which has worn well with age, is one of Waugh’s finest and deserves reading.

Publishing history

Men at Arms
First published 1952 by Chapman & Hall
Officers and Gentlemen
First published 1955 by Chapman & Hall
Unconditional Surrender (US: The End of the Battle)
First published 1961 by Chapman & Hall