The Sword of Honour Trilogy – Evelyn Waugh
Made up of Men At Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961), this was re-edited by Waugh into a single volume with a different ending – this was the version I read – and is without question his finest work. It is loosely based on Waugh’s own wartime career and follows the career of protagonist, Guy Crouchback, heir of an aristocratic English Catholic family in decline.
Despite his age at the outbreak of war Crouchback returns from self-imposed exile in Italy to offer his services to fight for King and country. After some difficulties, strings are pulled and he secures a position with the rather gentlemanly and eccentric Royal Corps of Halbadiers. But Guy’s military career is not a glorious one. He is dogged by injury and when he sees action he is rather at the periphery – the recipient of a severed head of a severed head courtesy of the one-eyed maniac that is Ben Ritchie-Hook in an unofficial raid in Dakar, a participant in the evacuation of Crete and a liaison officer in Yugoslavia where he befriends and tries to help some Jewish refugees.
Parts of the work are really funny and Apthorpe who appears in the first third of the book is a glorious comedic character. His concerns about his thunderbox and Ritchie-Hook’s attempts to sabotage it will live long in the mind. As the work progresses it loses its lightness and humour, although there are still moments of comedy and Waugh is bitingly satirical about army life. Heavier issues preoccupy us, principally Guy’s moral dilemma over his divorced wife and his gradual disillusionment.
Swords dominate the story thematically. Prior to leaving Italy Guy touches the sword of his crusading ancestor, another Guy Crouchback, an act symbolising his attempt to imbue himself with the crusader’s heroism and bravery. By the time we get to the beginning of the third book the sword of hope and optimism has been replaced by the ceremonial sword, the Sword of Stalingrad, made at the King’s behest to commemorate the resistance of Stalingrad – a symbol of realpolitik and the burgeoning sense of tawdry compromise. Guy decides not to see it at Westminster Abbey, preferring to have a slap up meal to celebrate his 40th birthday, turning his back on the zeitgeist.
It seems as though the best way to deal with the weighty subject of war is through satire and humour. The best works about the Second World War take this approach and today we can only marvel that the bureaucratic and inefficient leviathan that was the British army actually prevailed with, of course, a little help from our friends.
Crouchback is in many ways the end of the line, both genetically but more importantly in terms of outlook. What prevails at the end is the cynicism of the likes of Trimmer and the distinctly odd and creepy Ludovic. It is tempting to draw parallels with Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Rather like Nick Jenkins, Crouchback is a passive observer of what goes on rather than an initiator of action and as a consequence is rather a distant figure and the parallels between Widmerpool and Apthorpe are uncanny. But Waugh’s work is the weightier and knocks all his other books into a cocked hat.