He might have been the best sort of English writer. He drank too much, smoked too much, never attended chapel, hardly ever attended classes at Oxford, and in 1927, polite society deemed him morally unsuitable for the institution of matrimony.
He also kept unsuitable company and were it not for his father’s allowance of £4.00 weekly, he would have had to give up drinking altogether. He wanted to become a writer but initially could not find a publisher who was very interested in his efforts. The main thing standing in his way was his profanity. Fortunately for him, social and publishing standards were soon low enough to support his many detestable habits. His first work in 1928, titled Decline and Fall, was very well received.
Those who argued amongst themselves that Evelyn Waugh was not suitable for marriage were rewarded with news of his divorce in 1928. It was a messy affair and left him a bitter man. Mr. Waugh was a rolling stone for the next ten years, gadding about the world, writing travel advisories and occasional articles for London newspapers.
In 1939, the thirty-six-year-old writer applied for a commission in the Royal Marines. Given their reputation for rigorous training, no one knows why Evelyn Waugh chose the Royal Marines. According to Waugh’s biographer, field training caused him so much pain that he could not even pick up a pen to write letters home — but the British have a tradition of taking on challenges and seeing them through, no matter what.
After his commission, Waugh revealed himself as an inadequate leader — he was entirely too curt with his men, who deeply resented him. In a short time, he was removed from command and assigned to the regimental staff as an intelligence officer. A year later, he was in a Marine Commando unit working for Colonel (later, Brigadier) Robert Laycock. Waugh’s editors claim that his books about World War II closely paralleled Waugh’s actual wartime adventures. If true, then his readers should presume Brigadier Laycock to be as mad as a hatter — but such descriptions do not seem reflective of Laycock, who had a distinguished career during and after the war.
Waugh’s account of World War II is titled Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender. The trilogy was later made into a film titled Sword of Honor, starring Daniel Craig (2001). If you enjoy reading fictional history, you’ll appreciate these books as a glimpse into a remarkable period. He was also the author of Brideshead Revisited.
Captain Waugh tells us of one of his experiences and (possibly) reveals why he was an inadequate leader of troops. During training, a British captain injured his knee during parachute training and was rushed to the nearest military hospital. It was a medical clinic run by the Royal Air Force.
After x-rays, the captain was transferred to an army clinic, where he was treated and retained overnight. The following day, two officers from his training unit went to visit him, not realizing that he had been transferred away from the R.A.F. facility.
The two officers entered the facility and checked in with the medical staff attendant at the front desk.
“I beg your pardon,” said the one officer, “we have come to see Captain Crouchback.”
The attendant answered, “Right. Well, d’you know where to find him?”
“Actually, no; perhaps you can tell us.”
“I’m sure I don’t know. Did you say ‘captain’? Well, there you go … we don’t take army blokes here.”
“He came in yesterday for an emergency x-ray.”
“Right. Well, I suppose you can try radiology, then.”
After rolling his eyes, the airman said, “Check the board out front; it should tell you.”
Captain Freemantle turned to his companion and said, “I suppose it would be no good putting that man on a charge for insolence.”
“Not in the slightest,” said Captain de Souza. “Insubordinate behavior isn’t an offense in the air service.”