Waughs trilogy is to World War II what John Masters Loss of Eden trilogy is to World War I. The books cover the period 1939-1941, roughly that called the phony war by Sir Winston Churchill. My first impression is that the titles of books 1 and 2 would better describe their contents if they were interchanged. Yet, as Waugh employs a considerable degree of sarcasm towards the British system of officer selection, training, and promotion (also demotion), not to mention the combat snafus, maybe that is why he titled them as such. Book 3 was retitled for publication in the USA (Lord knows why). These books are supposedly based (rather loosely one would hope) upon Waughs own experiences in WW II.
Men at Arms
Guy, our hero, is approaching middle age. He has had a mottled life so far: multiple vocations, divorced, feeling useless. Meanwhile WW II is flaring in Europe. Quite naturally, he joins the Halberdiers, an elite military organization that appears to specialize in accepting and training to serve as officers, politically connected upper middle class nondescripts. The brigade is led by Brigadier Ritchie-Hook who is a modern day meld of Genghis Kahn and Tarus Bulba: in other words a real piece of work. As a temporary officer Guy experiences all of the ennui and humdrum existence surrounding officer training and preparation for combatlittle is said of the actual training. It is written with a smidgen of perspicacious badinage, however. He gains a sidekick, one Apthorpe from South Africa: the Peter Pienaar (Read John Buchan) of the brigade. Together they have some remarkable adventures: a game of housey-housey (bingo), the caper of the thunder-box (a portable loo), among others. Along the way, Waugh intertwines some idiosyncratic views on Catholicism. All the while, the war is in the background. Not much discourse on military training per se, but long on the social side of military life and the stop and go preparations for combat. They finally get to deploy and see some actionsort ofin Dakar. Exit Apthorpe with Guy and Ritchie-Hook left in limbo. Tune in next time for further adventures in
Officers and Gentlemen
After the snafu in Dakar, Guy is back in England where bombs are now falling regularly. Same old grind: no assignment, no action through much of the book. The scene keeps shifting with little or no transition. Is it me or do characters, for whom I have no recollection, keep popping up but I am expected to know who they are? Action number 1a moot attack on an island off the coast of France creates a fraudulent hero Lt. Trimmer (or is it McTavish?). Actually it is neither; he is a hairdresser who has fraudulently joined the officer ranks. After this snafu he is made a hero, promoted to Colonel, and used as publicity front by the government. Shift to the next snafu: operation in the Suez. Hey, in the middle of this he starts to describe a cricket match! Why do British authors insist on working in descriptions of this game? Shift to Crete. There is action here, although only the Germans seem to be shooting and bombing. Our view is limited to another snafu for the Brits. First, the reinforcements cant locate one another; second, orders are conflicting to nonexistent; last, chaos as they attempt to get the devil out. In this he creates an anti-hero of the evacuation in Corporal Ludovic, whose character he has spent considerable verbiage to develop. At least we arent bothered to any degree with Ritchie-Hook. Stay tuned for further adventures in
The End of the Battle
(Originally published as Unconditional Surrender)
Well its two years later (1943) and Guy is still relatively unoccupied in dear old England. Old acquaintances keep cropping up. Ludovic, the anti-hero of the Crete debacle, has received honors and a commission and is now in command of a parachute training school. Of course, Guy becomes one of his students. Ludovic attempts to pack him off to his doom. Waugh must have been trying to stretch this book into the same length as its predecessors as in the middle Guys father dies and is treated to a pointless twenty-page description of a Catholic funeral. His ex-wifes coquetry catches up with her, however this is solved quite finally by a doodlebug. Guy finally ends up in with the partisans in Jugoslavia (Brit spelling). Oops, guess what? Ritchie-Hook is back. Shades of books 1 and 2, there is a staged attack that quickly reverts to another snafu during which Ritchie-Hook buys the farm. Guy eventually gets out but not without more manufactured shenanigans. Skip to 1951 and a reunion of surviving Halberdiers. P.S. Guy seems to have found his niche.
Evelyn Waugh has a very dry, British humour. It was fun to read.