Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

Happy Warriors in Arms: Aspects of Military Life in Evelyn Waugh's Put out More Flags and Sword of Honour

Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

Happy Warriors in Arms: Aspects of Military Life in Evelyn Waugh's Put out More Flags and Sword of Honour

Article excerpt

The documentary value of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy1 has been widely acknowledged. Apart from the early, oft-quoted appraisals by Cyril Connolly-"unquestionably the finest novel to have come out of the war" (Stannard 337)- and Andrew Rutherford - "probably the greatest work of fiction to emerge from the Second World War" (113)- more recently it was described by the military historian John Keegan as "the greatest English novel of the Second World War", by Antony Beevor as one of the best five works of fiction about the Second World War, and listed by Jeffrey Archer as one of the top roman-fleuves in English, adding that it is "probably the best thing in English literature to be inspired by the second world war." Fellow Royal Marine officer John St John declared that Waugh "describes the war as I experienced it. Nothing is falsified" (55). In turn, Alex Danchev states that "Waugh's treatment of [...] regimental ideology is a miniature masterpiece of social history" (478). Certainly Waugh, who served in different units throughout the war -Royal Marines, 8 Commando, Layforce, Horse Guards, Special Service Brigade, Special Air Service, 37th British Mission in Yugoslavia- had an acute eye to dissect people, institutions and the environment he observed throughout his military career, attracted by whatever absurdities or farcical situations occurred within his view.

The perspective adopted in the trilogy is admittedly limited. Waugh wrote in the prologue to the unified edition that he "sought to give a description of the Second World War as it was seen and experienced by a single, uncharacteristic Englishman, and to show its effect on him" (Waugh 1999, xxxiv). This "uncharacteristic Englishman" is Guy Crouchback, a melancholy and passive Catholic, who, although differing from his author in many respects, views the political implications of the war in a similar vein. Indeed, his passivity serves an interpretive purpose. In the words of Munton, he is "an empty vessel into which the Second World War is poured [...]. The war enters him, and in our reading of Guy Crouchback we enter the war ourselves" (227). Waugh's last hero, Guy still shares with almost all the previous protagonists the role of ingénue through whose innocent or decent eyes a predatory world is perceived. And, as far as his approach to the general mechanics of war is concerned, what we learn from Guy is disillusion.2 Waugh believed that Britain had behaved ignominiously and had mismanaged the war effort, and his works reproduce such indignity on a smaller scale in a series of scenes of military inefficiency accompanied by presumption. Very seldom do we encounter heroism or prowess in Waugh's military: apart from a few exceptions, such as the heroic resistance of the Second Halberdier Battalion in Crete,3 the behaviour of the military all through the trilogy is characterised by inefficiency, chaos, tactlessness or cowardice.4

But Sword of Honour was not Waugh's first attempt to deal with the devastating irruption of war. Put Out More Flags was written in 1941 on his return from the Battle of Crete, a novel reportedly "dashed off to occupy a tedious voyage" (Amory 158). Although little academic criticism has been written so far on this work5 most critics agree that it prepares the way for the deeper incarnation of Waugh's views about the military and the management of war developed in Sword of Honour. This preparatory nature obviously includes a first-hand perspective of various and colourful elements of army life which will reappear in the trilog y in an expanded form. In Patey's words, "the military experiences here distributed among Alistair, Cedric and Peter [the heroes of Put Out More Flags] are all rendered again, briefly in Brideshead Revisited, at length in Sword of Honour" (Patey 198). This general perception has had little controversy among critics, but up till now no academic study has pinpointed the nature of these narrative patterns of military life that were essayed in the early novel and later developed in the trilog y. …

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