“The Waugh Effort” in The New Criterion

Dominic Green has written an essay reviewing Evelyn Waugh’s military career. This is entitled “The Waugh effort” and appears in the current issue of The New Criterion. As one would expect, Green relies on Waugh’s Diaries, his novel Sword of Honour and the accounts of his experiences in writings of his biographers, as well as Antony Beevor and, more recently, Donat Gallagher. The essay opens with this:

“I have been in a serious battle and have decided I abominate military life,” Evelyn Waugh wrote to Laura, his second wife, from a camp in Egypt on June 2, 1941, after his evacuation from Crete on a Royal Navy destroyer. “It was tedious & futile & fatiguing. I found I was not at all frightened; only very bored & very weary.” Waugh’s weariness became a Weltschmerz, its literary expression his obituaries of Christian civilization, Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy. In a Life article of 1946 [“Fan-Fare”, EAR, p. 300] Waugh deployed a telling adjective for the war: “preposterous.” The reality of what came after (posterus) had mocked the ideals that had come before (prae). In 1939, Guy Crouchback, Sword of Honour’s protagonist, has eight years of “shame and loneliness” in self-exile at his family’s castello at Santa Dulcina delle Rocce, near Genoa. He has no heir, and his marriage has failed.

Green goes on to describe Guy Crouchback’s war and compare it to that of Waugh. This starts with Guy’s welcoming the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact so that he can now fight against what he sees as both the world’s principal evils. This section ends with Guy’s final expression of disillusionment when he parts with Mme Kanyi in Yugoslavia. What is omitted is the beginning of that disillusion when the Nazis break their pact by attacking the Soviet Union, leaving Guy and the British fighting alongside half of the evil forces he at first opposed. This occurs at the end of Officers and Gentlemen after what he sees as his own army’s disgrace in the Battle of Crete.

It is Green’s description of that battle, as seen by both Guy and Waugh, that takes up the balance of the essay. For the most part these are the same, but Green does note some points where Waugh’s account (recorded in a Memorandum reprinted with his Diaries, pp. 489 ff.) differs from that in the novel. According to Green:

The power of Waugh’s trilogy—and the Memorandum’s apparent corroboration of his tale of cowardice and betrayal—has encouraged historians and literary biographers to see Crouchback’s shame as Waugh’s reality. It is, in the sense that Waugh felt ashamed at the conduct of the British officers on Crete and unmanned and dishonorable for the manner of his escape. But new research by Donat Gallagher, an eminent Wavian, suggests that Waugh misunderstood the nature of his military position in his last hours on Crete, and afterwards too. Gallagher also strongly criticizes the standard account of the battle, Antony Beevor’s Crete: The Battle and the Resistance (1991), as well as Beevor’s literary followers, the Waugh biographers, Martin Stannard among them, who have repeated Beevor’s account of Waugh’s chaotic final night on Crete.

What follows as Green’s conclusion is a much abbreviated version of Prof Gallagher’s carefully researched account of the events. This was published as In the Picture (2014).

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