Men at Arms (not to be confused with the Terry Pratchett Discworld novel of the same name) is the first in Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy of novels about his experiences in
the Second World War. His avatar for the purposes of this semi-autobiographical novel is the urbane Guy Crouchback. Guy is in his mid-thirties, has a failed marriage behind him, and his strict Catholicism means he cannot remarry. Hiding away in the family villa in Italy, Guy is moved to volunteer and join the army on the declaration of war in 1939. Being in his thirties he is considered rather old for active service and his extensive efforts to find a posting come to nothing. Nothing that is until a chance encounter leads to a role as an officer in eccentric and ancient Royal Corps of Halberdiers. In real life Waugh was in the Marines (initially at least) and it is clear that many of the experiences and challenges of army life are drawn from Waugh’s own life. Much of the novel focuses on his desultory training as an officer and the various random postings around the country, while the real events of the war take place off-stage, filtered back to the UK in a slowly descending spiral of bad news. Guy’s fellow officers are a series of fellow eccentrics and outcasts, particularly Apthorpe whose large and burdensome collection of personal possessions follows him around the country and becomes a running joke.
On leave in London during a short break in training Guy bumps into his ex-wife and her second husband Tommy Blackhouse, from whom she is also divorced. This is the kind of novel where characters are constantly bumping into friends and former lovers in unlikely circumstances, always responding in a low-key, fancy meeting you here old chap way. This motif is one of the few stylistic remnants from Waugh’s earlier comic novels where London and life was one big party for the rich and fabulous. As Guy is desperate to produce an heir to the Crouchback name, his brothers having pre-deceased him, he conceives an absurd plan to seduce and impregnate his ex-wife. Despite his efforts to get her drunk and into bed, his clumsy execution of his plan, not to mention the constant interruptions, frustrate him.
Back in training, a new officer, Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, takes command of the halberdiers, and threatens to bring some order to the chaos. While a sense of purpose is introduced the brigade seems no nearer to being combat-ready or to actually going into action, despite the steadily deteriorating position in Europe at the front. At this point in the novel there is an extended comic scene revolving round a chemical toilet, also known as a thunderbox. Quite why they need a chemical toilet when they are billeted in a school building is not explained and probably not relevant. This scene was well done and illustrated the ridiculousness of the modern army, with echoes of earlier, much more light-hearted Waugh. The feud between Apthorpe and Ritchie-Hook over ownership and exclusive access to the toilet culminates in it being sabotaged and destroyed in an explosion. Toilet humour may seem a bit out of place in this stiff-upper-lip novel of army life; the Halberdiers is an ancient brigade governed by a strict and sometimes apparently arbitrary set of rules, rituals, conventions and codes. But it is a welcome comic relief from army routine. These scenes reminded me of some chapters in Spike Milligan’s war memoirs such as Adolf Hitler, my part in his downfall, with which Men at Arms shares some dna – the extended and chaotic time spent preparing for conflict, pointless exercises, long journeys around the country ending up back in the same location, and moments of high farce.
Eventually the brigade sets sail for Dakar in Vichy French Senegal. Waugh was involved in a similar expedition to Senegal, which had a similar outcome. Having travelled all this way it comes as no surprise as the attack is called off. Nevertheless a frustrated Ritchie-Hook organises a clandestine raid on the coast, led by Guy, and returns with the severed head of an African soldier as a grisly trophy. For Ritchie-Hook this is all a gruesome game, another anecdote for when he is eventually decommissioned, but the consequences for Guy (for the unofficial raid, not for the decapitation of the guard) are serious, and he leave Senegal under a cloud. The brigade moves on to Sierra Leone where Apthorpe is hospitalised with an unspecified fever, his end hastened by a well-meaning gift of a bottle of whisky from Guy.
I’ve read quite a lot of Waugh in the past, and I am not sure how I haven’t got round to the Sword of Honour trilogy before. It is markedly different in tone from the dark comedy of his pre-war novels. Men at Arms is much closer to a straightforward memoir, with some exaggeration thrown in for comic effect. It is not a plot driven novel – the narrative meanders along at a relaxed pace. It’s also not really a war novel – the amount of combat involved in very limited and Waugh is in no way a triumphalist (the references to Churchill are pretty unflattering). Guy is something of an anti-hero, even of his own novel – he is determined to do the right thing when his country needs him and fully resigned to the discomforts and danger that military service will involve. But at the same time he tries to seduce his ex-wife, causes the death of a colleague, and the only action he sees is farcically unsuccessful. There is an honesty to this account of the early years of the war, when shambolic defeat follows defeat and only the Channel saves the country from invasion. I am pretty sure I’ll push on and read the other two novels in the trilogy to see how things pan out and try to decide whether I would recommend this to anyone other than Waugh completists or not.