Many of Evelyn Waugh’s Second World War experiences are closely mirrored in his trilogy of novels ‘Sword of Honour’ (1952-1961). When war broke out in September 1939, Waugh was 37 and like Guy Crouchback, the hero of his trilogy, he had to make several attempts before he was accepted for active service. He was given a commission in the Royal Marines and spent 4 weeks in basic training at their barracks in Chatham. The diary which he kept assiduously for most of his life, despite the fact that it was against regulations in the armed services, records his pleasure in the civilised atmosphere of the barracks, his dislike of P.T. and his impatience with some of the more trivial aspects, such as learning how to distinguish rabbit meat from cat. More than 10 years later, he ascribed exactly these reactions to Guy Crouchback in ‘Men at Arms’ (1951).
7th December 1939
… there are twelve of us chosen out of 2,000 applicants and it would be hard to find a more nondescript lot. …The regular Marines are delightful people rather smugly obsessed by their obscurity. ‘How on earth did you hear of us?’… All the senior officers greeted us like embarrassed hosts with a flow of apology for the discomforts of our life. Something too of oriental courtesy, ‘Will the noble second lieutenant come into our humble mess and meet our ill-favoured brigade major’, but, like oriental courtesy, based on great self-confidence. The barracks and mess are, in fact, extremely agreeable. I have a large bedroom with a large fire and one-third of a derelict batman. The architecture of the square is charming and the mess full of trophies, though the best pictures and silver have been locked up for the war. The food is delicious. There are almost continuous entertainments. The day we joined we did no work but walked in the fog through Rochester and Chatham and sat about in the mess being given drinks by senior officers. Next day we had a series of speeches from the Commandant and other officials. ‘Gentleman, when we enter the mess all differences due to rank are left behind; all we expect is the deference due to age.’ As I am older than most of the captains that seemed to me a happy note. …
11th December 1939
Our first day of work, none of it except PT at all formidable. As usual, a great deal of time wasted in standing about doing nothing.
Many of Evelyn Waugh’s Second World War experiences are closely mirrored in his trilogy of novels ‘Sword of Honour’ (1952-1961)…