Men at Arms

by Evelyn Waugh

Hardcover, 1979




Boston: Little Brown, 1979.


"An eminently readable comedy of modern war" (New York Times), Men at Arms is the first novel in Evelyn Waugh's brilliant Sword of Honor trilogy. Guy Crouchback, determined to get into the war, takes a commission in the Royal Corps of Halberdiers. His spirits high, he sees all the trimmings but none of the action. And his first campaign, an abortive affair on the West African coastline, ends with an escapade that seriously blots his Halberdier copybook. Men at Arms is the first novel in Waugh's brilliant Sword of Honor trilogy recording the tumultuous wartime adventures of Guy Crouchback ("the finest work of fiction in English to emerge from World War II" --Atlantic Monthly), which also comprises Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member thorold
This is the first part of Waugh's "Sword of honour" trilogy, where he looks back at his experience of World War II and tries to fit it into his own, peculiar and somewhat jaundiced, view of the modern world. The central character, Guy Crouchback, is in many ways a version of Waugh as he would like
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to have been: the last generation of an old-established English Catholic family, estranged from his wife and living in exile in Italy, who has returned to England on hearing of the Nazi-Soviet pact to do his patriotic, feudal duty of leading men into battle. Like Waugh, he finds that the British army is not exactly crying out for the services of middle-aged men without military experience. Pulling strings doesn't help much, but, as a result of a chance encounter, he does manage to get into an unglamorous, old-fashioned regiment, the Halberdiers.

As with Anthony Powell's World War II novels, the chief interest of this book for most readers is likely to be the account of military life in 1940 from the viewpoint of an outsider. There is only the most marginal contact with the enemy here, but a lot of fascinating observation of the oddities of the army. Even if we think Crouchback/Waugh's fogeyish disenchantment with the modern world is rather ridiculous, we can enjoy his discovery of, and growing admiration for, the traditions and values of the Halberdiers. But what we really remember from the book are the comic moments, which are superb as always with Waugh. If you mention "Apthorpe" or "thunder-box" to anyone who has read this book, you will see them breaking out in chuckles. And ultimately, the reason for re-reading Sword of honour more often than the military bit of A dance to the music of time is that Powell's books don't have a thunder-box.
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LibraryThing member rocketjk
This is a gently biting satire about the fading of the English gentry and about the absurdity of military life in general. Guy Crouchback is the last of his line, a once revered English family that traces it's ancestry back into the hazy mists of the middle ages. A kindly, yet (self-described)
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ineffectual fellow, Guy has led a life of more or less useless ease in Italy over the years since his wife left him for a chum of his and essentially drained his life of meaning. But with World War 2 in the offing, Guy, at the age of 35, is determined to find himself a spot as an army officer. The novel describes the consequences of his success. The first book of a trilogy, Men at Arms takes us only through training camp. As the ominous opening moves of the war (the British army's botched attempt to forestall the German invasion of Norway up through the disaster of Dunkirk) unfold in the background, Guy's regiment trains, then moves, then trains some more. Guy, all the while, is the likeable schnook constantly stumbling over his own good intentions with a penchant for being taken advantage of by his friends and fellow officers. Waugh's facility with language, his powers of observation about human nature and his light touch with a barb make this book a delight. We like following Guy through his misadventures and like him for maintaining his good spirits and enthusiasm and for his fundamental humanity.
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LibraryThing member Dorritt
Few authors explore the juxtaposition of tragedy, reality and farce as frankly and yet compassionately as Evelyn Waugh. His everyman heroes - to include Crouchback, the central character of this tale - seem intuitively to understand and uncomplainingly accept that rather than representing points on
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a continuum, tragedy/reality/farce exist simultaneously, and that the only thing a good Englishman can do in the face of the chaos that inevitably ensues is to strive to do his duty, preserve his dignity, and maintain a stiff upper lip. Could be that Waugh is just an adept social satirist - but I suspect the fact that he was born and bred a Brit has much to do with it. In 3000 years of history the English have had ample opportunity to observe how often tragedy turns to farce, and how often farce turns to tragedy. This story provides many, many examples of both in the run-up to WW2, embedded in a tale that may leave you - as it left me - simultaneously laughing and crying.
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LibraryThing member ParadisePorch
Winner of the 1952 James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Britain’s oldest literary award, Men At Arms is the first part of Waugh’s The Sword of Honour Trilogy , his look at the Second World War.

It follows Guy Crouchback, the nearly-forty-year-old son of an English aristocratic family who manages to
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get accepted to officers training in the early part of 1940, and is eventually posted to Dakar in Senegal West Africa. While there, he inadvertently poisons one of his fellow officers and is sent home in disgrace.

That’s about all the plot there is. But the book was interesting for its look at British officers’ instruction in WWII, in contrast with other reading I’ve done which focuses on the training of rank and file soldiers, and for the insight into the chaos that was the British Army in the early part of the war: “The brigade resumed its old duty of standing by for orders.”

Waugh’s wickedly dry sense of humour is brilliant.

Read this if: you’re a fan of Downton Abbey – different war, but same country and class; or you love the subtle humour of traditional British writers. 3½ stars
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LibraryThing member karl.steel
Well, it certainly makes one want to turn the pages quickly. Brig. Guy-Richie and Apthorpe, both of whom I know from the The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose (probably one of my 4 most delightful possessions, the others being English as She is Spoke, Pegasus Descending, and The Handy-Book of Literary
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Delights), merit their fame. But I'm not too sure about Crouchback. I'm disinclined to like, first, most author standins, especially when the guy's a conservative and Roman Catholic, and second, the central characters in satire if they're playing straight to the rest of the characters. The straight man feels like a sop thrown to me, the square, and thus an implicit sneer at me for not being able to follow along with the repulsive fun of, for example, Augustus Carp or the delightful tedium of the Diary of a Nobody (or its modern day heir, the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole).

I'll keep reading, though, although I suspect my motives. After all, what's a hater of war like me doing in this novel, about an intellectual and aesthete who discovers himself at his best in defending his great country and civilization? And, btw, did the great critiques of Enlightenment Rationality develop only in the countries that suffered the greatest defeats of the 20th century? Is it cheap to say that France and Germany themselves failed the Enlightenment project?

Yeah, it's cheap. And stupid. But one can't help but wonder.

Extra special bizarre moment: Crouchback, the Waugh standin, is in West Africa in WWII, and his mind brushes up against that great English Catholic novel of West Africa during WWII, The Heart of the Matter: "Later when he came to read The Heart of the Matter Guy reflected, fascinated, that at this very time 'Scobie' was close at hand, demolishing partitions in native houses, still conscientiously interfering with neutral shipping. If they had not the services of the new Catholic chaplain, Guy might have gone to 'Father Rank' to confess increasing sloth, one dismal occasion of drunkenness, and the lingering resentment he felt at the injustice he had suffered in the exploit to which he had given the private name of 'Operation Truslove'"* (322).

* His attempt, after 8 years of near sexlessness, to sleep with his ex-wife (herself married and divorced 3 times since her marriage to Guy ended) once he realizes that: a) since Catholicism doesn't recognize divorce; b) he wouldn't be committing adultery; c) and therefore it was sinless sex! Hilarious.

Or Truslove might be the silly reconnaissance mission into occupied Dakar (that is, occupied by the wrong set of Europeans so far as Guy Crouchback was concerned). Whatevers.
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LibraryThing member MizPurplest
This wasn't the book I thought I was going to read when I picked it up, and I had a hard time getting myself to keep going with it because it was so much more serious than what I was looking for.

But I found that once I did pick it up, the dry, easy tone and the accessibility of the characters
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propelled me through it fairly quickly and enjoyably.

I'm not quite inspired enough to read the two sequels right now, but I do recommend this book to anyone who enjoys war novels and quality writing.
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LibraryThing member mahallett
much better than i expected.
LibraryThing member leslie.98
Maybe even 4.5*!

The dark humor of this novel, the first in Waugh's Sword of Honor trilogy, struck me as quite similar to that in M*A*S*H. The eccentricities of Guy's fellow officers, the stupidities of some aspects of military life, etc. In some ways, this is the first of Waugh's books that
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successfully combined his satire with his more serious thoughts about life as a Catholic Englishman.

Christian Rodska does an excellent job narrating the book. I especially liked his voice for Apthorpe.
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LibraryThing member RonWelton
Guy Crouchback, heir of a declining aristocratic English Roman Catholic family, "For eight years ...set apart from his fellows by his own deep wound, that unstaunched, internal draining away of life and love ...," after a long search finds a place as an officer in training in the Halberdiers, "a
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magnificent regiment." Men At Arms, the first of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honor trilogy, follows Crouchback through his training and his first action. The book is very British and very funny.
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