Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1059
The three novels that constitute Sword of Honour present a sweeping panorama of the effects of World War II upon English society, as seen through the consciousness of, and through events which impinge upon, Guy Crouch back. The first novel in the series, Men at Arms, begins by recounting how Guy has frittered away the eight years preceding 1939 in an attempt to forget his divorce from his ex-wife, Virginia Troy. Although he has been unable to overcome the bitterness and depression caused by her adulterous desertion the outbreak of the war fills him with fresh hope. The thirty-six-year-old Guy embarks upon a frantic quest for a regiment which will accept a man of his age and background, and, after many rejections, he is finally accepted for officer training in the Royal Corps of Halberdiers.
This ancient and honorable regiment offers Guy many of the satisfaction he has missed as a lonely, introverted bachelor. The shared privations and consequent camaraderie of military life make it easy for him to relate to his peers, who are drawn from a wide variety of lower-middle-class to upper middle-class backgrounds. Here, Guy first encounters many of the characters who will reappear throughout the trilogy: Trimmer, Frank de Souza, and Ben Ritchie-Hook are among those whose careers develop in intermittent counterpoint to that of Guy, although it is the inimitable Apthorpe who dominates the latter part of Men at Arms.
Apthorpe initially strikes Guy as a paragon of military and masculine virtue, but it soon transpires that Apthorpe’s confident exterior masks an ultimately fatal propensity for failure. The destruction of Apthorpe’s pretensions is treated in an essentially humorous manner, and the account of his struggle with Ritchie-Hook over the ownership of a portable latrine is one of the comic highpoints of the trilogy. Guy’s gradual realization of the truth about Apthorpe parallels his growing insight into the nature of soldiering, which he comes to see as a combination of laudable impulses and ridiculous rules. In the final pages of Men at Arms, Guy helps Ritchie-Hook stage a forbidden raid on enemy territory and becomes the inadvertent agent of Apthorpe’s death, occurrences which put a blot on his army record but which reinforce him in the conviction that he now understands the system well enough to know when personal considerations make it necessary to break with military discipline.
Officers and Gentlemen, the middle volume in the trilogy, offers a large-scale elaboration of the idea that war embodies strong elements of both tragedy and farce. Guy has transferred into a Commando force led by Tommy Blackhouse, who, despite being Virginia’s lover, now impresses Guy as a model officer. After a horrendously difficult period of training in the wilds of Scotland, during which Guy becomes friends with a stylish fellow officer, Ivor Claire, the Commandos are sent to Egypt to await posting to operations in the Mediterranean. Guy has by now become an integral part of his unit and is looking forward to proving himself in battle.
In a farcical subplot, Trimmer, who has had an affair with Virginia during leave in Glasgow, is, through a series of ludicrous misunderstandings, selected to lead an attack upon an enemy outpost. The mistakes continue when he is landed in the wrong place and destroys the wrong objective, but the propagandists’ need for good news results in this being blown up into a daringly successful exploit. Trimmer becomes a national hero and now begins to become a positive embarrassment to those who, like Virginia and his superior officers, previously treated him as an amusing figure of fun.
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Commandos are now ordered into the battle for Crete. Tommy Blackhouse has broken his leg and is unable to come with them, a fact which contributes to their total confusion and ignominious defeat when finally confronted by German troops. During this debacle, Guy stumbles across the Halberdiers calmly carrying out the duties of a rear guard and realizes that it is tradition and cohesion which make effective soldiers out of raw civilians. Such self-discipline is vividly contrasted with the cowardice of Claire and Ludovic, who are seen to be capable of any enormity in their fear for their personal safety. In another series of absurd misunderstandings, Claire’s desertion is exonerated and Ludovic’s murder of at least two British soldier is rewarded with a medal for bravery. Guy then spends the autumn of 1944 recuperating from the physical and psychological consequences of his ordeal much chastened by having learned that war elicits the worst as well as the best from human nature.
The final volume, The End of the Battle (published originally in Great Britain as Unconditional Surrender), begins by bringing the reader up-to-date with Guy’s experiences in the two years following the loss of Crete. He has returned to the Halberdiers and helped to train the regiment’s new recruits, but in the fall of 1943, he is told that he is too old—he is now forty—to go on active service with them. While knocking about London in search of a meaningful post, he learns of Ludovic’s rising literary reputation and becomes friends again with Virginia, who is pregnant with Trimmer’s child and unable to arrange for an abortion. They finally agree to remarry, as Guy decides that here at last he can perform an unquestionably good deed in assuming responsibility for a life that might otherwise be lost.
He then succeeds in being assigned to the British mission to the Communist partisans in Yugoslavia, where he again encounters Frank de Souza and Ritchie-Hook. Although, by this time, Guy has become somewhat inured to the spectacle of human suffering, he is again given an opportunity to make positive moral choice when he becomes involved with a group of Jewish refugees. After many tribulations, he succeeds in making enough fuss so that most of them are evacuated from Yugoslavia, although, in the meantime, he is informed that Virginia—but not her child—has been killed in an air raid Guy takes this news in stride and continues with his work until he is recalled to England, a much wiser if not necessarily much happier man who has come to terms with a chaotic and morally ambivalent world. A brief epilogue set in 1951 finds him contentedly remarried and the envy of his once-dismissive contemporaries.