Evelyn Waugh goes to war

The novelist Evelyn Waugh was 36 and an unlikely military figure, but sufficiently well connected to get himself a commission. His wartime experiences were to form the basis for his Sword of Honour Trilogy arguably amongst the finest novels to emerge from the war.

Went straight to the medical board which was in a flat in St James’s. In a tiny outer room there were three or four youths waiting and two bloods, already in the Navy, who were undergoing an intensive examination for the Air Arm. Doctors in shabby white coats strode in and out smoking cigarettes. I went first to have my eyes tested and did deplorably. When asked to read at a distance with one eye I could not distinguish lines, let alone letters. I managed to cheat a little by peering over the top. Then I went into the next room where the doctor said, ‘Let’s see your birthday suit. Ah, middle-aged spread. Do you wear dentures?’ He tapped me with a hammer in various organs. Then I was free to dress.

I was given a sealed envelope to take to the Admiralty. In the taxi I unsealed it and found a chit to say that I had been examined and found unfit for service. It seemed scarcely worthwhile going to the interview. I went and found the same youths waiting in another waiting-room. They went in nervously, one by one, and came out jointly. Finally myself. A colonel in khaki greeted me in the most affable way, apologized for keeping me waiting and gradually it dawned on me that I was being accepted. He said, ‘The doctors do not think much of your eyesight. Can you read that?’, pointing to a large advertisement across the street. I could. ‘Anyway most of your work will be in the dark.’ Then he gave me the choice between Marine Infantry, a force being raised for raiding parties, and Artillery, an anti-aircraft unit for work in the Shetlands. I chose the former and left in good humour.

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