Sword of Honor, comprising Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (1961).
Little, Brown and Company (December 11, 2012)
Guy Crouchback is an English ex-pat, living in Italy in 1939. He is in his mid 30s, the last of a line of an old, aristocratic Catholic family, divorced (by the laws of man, not the Church), and childless. When war between England and Germany becomes inevitable, Crouchback returns to England to fight for his native land.
In England, Guy uses his connections to obtain an appointment as an officer-in-training in a storied, but somewhat unfashionable regiment, the Halberdiers. After his commissioning, Guy is posted to several poorly run training centers. Eventually his Halberdier connections allow him to be transferred to a top secret commando group. He takes part in an unauthorized skirmish near Dakkar, and later in the disastrous attempt to hold Crete against the Germans.
With a few black marks on his record, Guy is shuffled from one administrative post to another in London. He tries to reignite passion with his ex-wife, Virginia, and assists his old father in keeping his home during the wartime housing shortage. Virginia returns to Guy, carrying the child of one of Guy’s fellow officers. Guy accepts her return, but is soon dispatched to the Balkans as the liaison officer between the allies and communist partisans. While Guy is in the Balkans, Virginia’s child is born, and for safety’s sake the baby boy is sent away to live with relatives outside of London. Shortly afterwards Virginia is killed in a buzz bomb attack.
The first book of the trilogy, Men at Arms, covers the period from just before Britain’s entry into the war until the Autumn of 1940. That is the time from Guy’s departing Italy until he is sent back to London from Africa following the debacle of the raid on Dakkar, and his involvement in the alcoholism related death of a friend and fellow officer.
The second book, Officers and Gentlemen, begins and ends with Guy in London. He experiences the Blitz of late 1940, is trained as a commando, is sent first to Cairo, and then to Crete. Guy escapes from Crete in a salvaged boat, is lost at sea, is rescued, and after convalescing in Cairo, returns to London just after the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in the summer of ’41.
The last book of the trilogy, Unconditional Surrender, covers a much longer time frame and is more episodic. It begins in the summer of 1943, two years after Guy’s return to London from Cairo, and ends with a reunion party of the remaining Helberdiers in 1951.
This isn’t a war novel as most people imagine a war novel. There are no great battles where the fates of nations hang in the balance. The largest battle depicted is the retreat from Crete (Greece has already been lost), and the only fighting Waugh describes involves occasional small arms fire and brief attacks by enemy airplanes. I can think of just four armed conflicts in the three novels: Crete, the aborted commando raid near Dakkar, the bollocks-upped commando raid by ‘Trimmer’ McTavish on the French coast, and, near the end of the book, the attack on a blockhouse held by fascist sympathizers in the Balkans. All but Crete were played for laughs. They were farcical. In fact, nearly everything to do with the military in Sword of Honor is farcical.
The officers have ridiculous, public-school style nicknames. Guy’s closest friend, Apthorpe, is obsessed with his secret and exclusive use of a chemical toilet he calls the “thunderbox.” People are comically misassigned tasks. The commandos train on a Hebridean island called Mugg, run by a mad laird named simply “Mugg.” Mugg steals the commando’s explosives in an attempt to turn a rocky beach into a sandy beach. Mugg’s castle’s furniture is made from deer antlers and other trophies of the hunt. His dotty niece is an avid admirer of Hitler. The isle of Mugg’s defenses consist of a single 20 inch gun salvaged from a destroyer. The gun cannot be fired because the man in charge of the defense crew cannot work it; in civilian life he was was a hairdresser and a gigolo. In slapstick fashion, accidents and happenstance frequently sideline the best, most ambitious, and able officers.
The exaggerated, surreal description of the British military during World War Two works because it advances the main theme of the novel: Guy Crouchback’s need to feel a that he is a part of something important.
From the beginning of the novels, Guy feels excluded, left out, separate from humanity. As a Catholic in Protestant Britain he felt excluded and different. As an English Catholic in Catholic Italy he felt excluded and different. Because he is divorced under law, but still considered married by the church, he is neither really single nor really married. Guy even believes that this separateness is a family curse. His older brother, Ivor, went mad, hid himself away in a London tenement and starved himself to death.
Guy’s reasons for returning to England and joining in her defense are more than patriotic. Guy wants to be part of a group of men, a “band of brothers”, working together to accomplish some noble task. Defeating the barbarously modern and Godless fascists seems to Guy to be the perfect chance to become what he feels that he needs to be, and what he believes God wants him to be. The aimless, counter-productive actions of the army show him that he may have had diagnosed his problem well enough, but prescribed the wrong cure. This revelation comes to guy near the end of the second book of the trilogy, Officers and Gentlemen.
The escape from Crete in a small, overloaded fishing boat is a symbolic rebirthing. The boat is lost at sea for days. Guy hallucinates freely of the boat being escorted by pods of white-skinned whales and schools of cat-eyed sea turtles. He awakes in a hospital in Alexandria with no memory of his rescue and with no ability to speak. He only finds words when he is visited by the first person he sees who does not wear a uniform, Lady Stitch, an old friend from his civilian days.
Guy and lady Stitch share a secret. Another British officer on Crete, a friend to both of them, evacuated when he had been given a direct order to fight to the last bullet and then surrender. This, Guy knows, is a very serious offense. Officers could be shot for disobeying orders. The evidence of the officer’s cowardice is in Guy’s personal effects, the order book that survived the voyage from Crete in his pocket.
Guy is released from the hospital the same day that Hitler invades Russia. The British radio is ecstatic at the news. Britain now has an ally in ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin and the barbaric, godless armies of the Soviet Union.
The Britain Guy was fighting for had been dying since the start of the war. To further the war effort, British life had been militarized and bureaucratized. The governments of Britain, the Soviet Union, and Germany were converging in their means, if not their ends. Back from the hospital, Guy retrieved his order book and destroyed the evidence that would see his friend court martialed, imprisoned, and disgraced. This act of loyalty to friend over country, itself a bit of treason, is the climax of the first two books of Sword of Honor.
Waugh himself has written that he considered the third act of of Sword of Honor, Unconditional Surrender, to be the weakest. It certainly feels more rushed.
Back in London, Guy is assigned the task of reviewing and expediting military plans. He has become a cog in a machine he has come to detest. He is assigned to travel to the Balkans to liaison with the communist guerrillas fighting the Nazi-backed Croatian government. Ironically, Guy is selected for this mission not by the usual old-boy network, but by a machine that is supposed to match officers with suitable tasks. While undergoing parachute training for his Balkan mission, the now forty-year-old Guy Crouchback injures his knee and is laid up for weeks.
Guy’s ex-wife Virginia, meanwhile, has found herself ‘on the rocks.’ She is pregnant by a man she detests and she is broke. She tries three times to obtain an abortion and fails. Virginia tracks down Guy, still nursing his wrenched knee in London. She is honest with him about her situation. The two reconcile because neither has anyone else to turn to. Virginia is pregnant and penniless. Guy can marry no one else while she lives.
Guy recovers enough to undertake his Balkan mission. Quartered in an old villa in Croatia, he receives two letters in a single day, dated four weeks apart. The earlier letter is from Virginia, telling him about the birth of her child. The second is from Guy’s sister, rather coldly announcing that Virginia has been killed, a civilian casualty of the German buzz bomb campaign. Guy takes this news very coolly. He does not grieve. From his point of view it might have been the best that he could have hoped for. The child was safe, and he could believe that the purpose God gave his life was to care for a child that would otherwise have had a miserable upbringing. Virginia had left him before and she would almost certainly do so again. her ‘wandering eye’ was the reason for their separation. As a condition of their reconciliation, Virginia had converted to Catholicism. Her death meant not only that Guy was free, now, to remarry (and he did eventually), but that Virginia’s soul was destined for paradise (after an appropriate period in purgatory, I assume). The very last line of the novel, spoken by Guy’s brother in law at the 1951 Helberdier reunion party, is “things have turned out very conveniently for Guy.”
The proper way to view Sword of Honor is as a precursor to anti-war novels of the 1960s like Catch 22, MASH, and The Sand Pebbles. Sword of Honor, however, differs significantly from these later war novels. While they tend to view war as a hanger-on from more savage times and that it is not compatible with the modern world, to Waugh war is modernism, in all of its authoritarian, utilitarian ugliness.