Was Evelyn Waugh in Danger of Being Shot by His Men?

Article excerpt

I am very conscious that many Waughians, perhaps the majority, believe that Colonel Robert (Bob) Laycock had to place a guard over Evelyn Waugh's sleeping quarters to prevent his men shooting him; and that, if he went into action, he was liable to be murdered. But both beliefs are entirely baseless. In response to my essay "I am Trimmer, you know" (see EWNS 41.2), Michael Barber, author of Anthony Powell: A Life, cites Noel Annan as an "authority" on this matter, but Noel Annan is an extremely intelligent critic who places Waugh's oeuvre within a meaningful twentieth-century context; he has no independent knowledge of the detail of Waugh's life. On the matter under review, he merely quotes Christopher Sykes.[1] And as the evidence presented below will demonstrate, Sykes is a most unreliable guide.

Christopher Sykes began the myth that Evelyn Waugh was so "extremely disliked" by his men that "Bob Laycock [had to] set a special guard on Evelyn's sleeping quarters";[2] and he went on to suggest that Waugh would have been shot by his own troops if he had gone into action (Sykes 229). Since then, respected biographers[3] and commentators as diverse as Simon Frazer, Lord ("Shimi") Lovat[4] and Noel Annan have repeated Sykes. But Sykes rests his claim on such bizarre misreadings of simple sources that he lacks all credibility. Sykes "proves" that Laycock "set a guard" as follows: "In Crete an officer of No. 8 Commando had been killed in action, but the circumstances were odd and it was widely suspected that this intensely unpopular man had in fact been murdered by one of his subordinates. (Certainly this was Evelyn's opinion.) Bob was taking no chances" (Sykes 228). It would be difficult for one paragraph to contain more errors. First, No. 8 Commando was never "in Crete"; at the time of the Battle of Crete, one part was engaged at Tobruk, the other was in camp in Egypt. Second, the "intensely unpopular man" suspected of being "murdered by one of his subordinates" was Lt Colonel R. R. N. ("Dick") Pedder, who was not "an officer of No. 8 Commando" but Commanding Officer of No. 11 (Scottish) Commando; and he died, not "in Crete" but at the Litani River in Syria. And far from its "certainly [being] Evelyn's opinion" that Pedder was shot by his men, Waugh leaves the matter wide open: "We shall never know who killed him. Many of his men had sworn to do so and he was shot in the back by a sniper. He had however just led a successful assault and it seems an unlikely occasion for murder."[5]

But what possible parallel can there be between Lt Colonel Pedder and Waugh? Pedder was a very brave officer who ruled his Commando with notoriously ruthless discipline. The private diary of Lt Colonel Geoffrey Keyes VC, who took over No. 11 Scottish Commando after Pedder's death, testifies that Pedder's punishments were so harsh and unjust that certain troops had an understandable motive for seeking revenge.[6] Waugh's case was entirely different. In the Royal Marines early in the war, he was recognized as "keen" and capable and quickly won command of a company; but senior officers came to realize that he "was no good with the men" (as they say). Selina Hastings explains that Colonel Lushington (who had a high opinion of Waugh's abilities[7]) overheard Waugh publicly berating a quartermaster sergeant. This brought to a head growing uneasiness that he and other senior officers had been feeling about the way Waugh handled troops. Major (later General) Houghton, whom Waugh describes as "very decent" (Diaries 463), happily shared a flat with Evelyn and Laura; and he admired Waugh's lectures to the men as the best he had ever heard. And yet he came to the conclusion that Waugh should not be left in direct command of a company.[8] Another friend, John St John, writes: "[Evelyn] was the only temporary officer at that early period to be made a captain and given command of a company, but he handled its members with contempt relieved only by avuncular patronage. …