One of the characteristics for which the English gentleman is famed is his self-deprecation. He is trained in understatement in all things; he has litotes coursing through his veins. The height of vulgarity is to draw attention to oneself, and the more remarkable any of his achievements, the less attention he should draw to them. The cult of the amateur first of all built Britain’s empire, and then managed, by its casualness and determination to avoid confrontation and unpleasantness, to lose it. Perhaps the most famous example of this studied insouciance came at the Battle of Waterloo, when the Earl of Uxbridge had his leg blown off by a cannonball. “By God, Sir, I’ve lost my leg!,” Uxbridge allegedly cried out to the Duke of Wellington, who happened to be near him. “By God, Sir, so you have!,” the Iron Duke is said to have replied. The exchange is almost certainly apocryphal, but the fact that it is so credible to so many people underlines the strength of the cultural idea of the English officer.
One who was entirely consistent with the stereotype was John Verney, an Oxford-educated Old Etonian who inherited a baronetcy (his father, who was awarded it, was for many years the secretary to the Speaker of the House of Commons). After Oxford he trained as an artist and eventually enjoyed a career as an illustrator, author of children’s books, novelist, and writer. Verney was born in 1913 and, like many young men of his generation, was sufficiently concerned by the threat of Nazi Germany to the peace of Europe and the security of Great Britain that, in 1937, he joined the Territorial Army, or yeomanry, whose members trained as soldiers during summer holidays and on weekends. Verney found the men with whom he was thrown into association rather unfathomable: “My brother officers. Are they human?,” he asks. Until the war he worked in the cinema, as an assistant director in Britain’s then-booming film industry. But the war changed everything for him. Before too long he began to fathom his brother officers, and one of the miracles of war was that its necessities bonded them together against a common enemy.
Verney chronicled his war—after a fashion—in two books: Going to the Wars, published in 1955, and its sequel, A Dinner of Herbs, which appeared in 1966. They enjoyed a significant vogue when they first arrived, with reviewers seeing Verney as the voice of his generation; they have, however, rather like their author, been largely forgotten. Therefore it is clever of Paul Dry to rediscover them and put them again before the public in paperback. If new today, in our era of hyperbole in the publishing industry, they would be widely fêted in a way they were not fifty or sixty years ago. They have charm and high literary quality and are testaments to the art of self-deprecation and a world in which memoirists drew attention to the people they knew rather than to themselves. Verney had, at times, a taxing and dangerous war, but to read his accounts of it, one might think he was merely an observer. They are marvelously entertaining reads, not least because they open up to us a world that has just passed from view; and they speak to us in a voice we understand, but that is no longer entirely familiar.
In writing of his experiences, Verney chose to change names to protect the innocent. His comrades and his yeomanry regiment (in real life the North Somersets) have their names fictionalized, and some of his brothers-in-arms are made into composite characters. The first volume is all about his training for war and the war itself, at least up to the point in the summer of 1943 when Verney and his fellow soldiers are parachuted into Sardinia on a mission to blow up German airfields and fail to make it back to the submarines that await them because they are taken prisoner by the Italians. The second volume includes more details of Verney’s escapades in Sardinia, his capture, his experiences in captivity once transferred to the Italian mainland, and his eventual escape. These are mixed with an account of his return there twenty years later to meet the Italians who risked their lives helping him, and the quite astonishing lengths to which he, they, and his comrades went to keep themselves out of the clutches of the Germans, who had by then taken over the country. The Italians’ names are not changed; for their heroism they deserved full recognition.
But Verney is also a satirist, satire being an effective means of depicting the amateurism central to his story. When he joins the yeomanry, he describes his own incompetence and the absurdity of the war games he and the other part-time soldiers play in order to train for an actual war. Verney depicts his commanding officers as having little more clue what they are doing than he does, although, unlike him, they lack the wit and the intelligence to grasp the absurdity of their orders. Verney manifestly found the blind obedience of soldiers to their superiors preposterous, and the authority he earns as a major he wears uncomfortably, as conscious of his own fallibility as he is of everyone else’s. The officer class is depicted as ready to do its duty but constantly frustrated by a lack of opportunity. This is exemplified by Verney’s regiment, which is mobilized as soon as war is declared in September 1939, when their soldiering goes from weekends to full-time. They end up loitering in Palestine and practicing their swimming, eating disgusting food, and getting on each other’s nerves. Eventually, in 1942, a chance comes for Verney to join a special operation—itself organized in the ad hoc, amateurish way much of the British Army was at that time.
Verney goes out of his way not to describe himself as a hero, though he won the Military Cross for his exploits in Sardinia and on the Italian mainland. He married shortly before going overseas, and his wife had their child after his posting; he makes no secret of his determination to be reunited with her and to see his son, and the fact that he looks for a means to be transferred out of the Middle East so they can be together. Perhaps that desire was what genuinely drove him on—it was not necessarily a statement of self-deprecation for him to cite family over glory as his primary motivation. It probably drove him to volunteer to parachute into Sardinia on a mission in which the odds were hugely stacked against him and his comrades. And it drove him to escape and kept him going long enough to survive the rigors of his time on the run with two other officers. Eventually, he got home and spent much of the rest of his war assisting other escapees; he at last was able to be with his wife.
Along the way there were many casualties among his acquaintances; he gives vivid pen-portraits of men who suddenly meet their deaths, sometimes in farcical circumstances. He does not disguise the hostilities that flare up between these understated men when deprived of the comforts of home and with nothing to do: Verney’s main enemy, to start with, is the regimental chaplain. What does come through, especially in A Dinner of Herbs, is the fundamental decency of the British (and, later, the Americans, as they join the Britons in captivity) and of most of the Italians they encounter as they strive to escape to Allied territory, and the thuggishness and beastliness of the Germans and their fanatical fascist Italian lapdogs. When we witness Verney, by now a successful artist who has gone to Florence for some intellectual and cultural refreshment, revisiting the site of his prisoner-of-war camp, it is as though the events he recalls happened to someone else, that the change in atmosphere over the previous twenty years is one that really ought to have taken several dozen. Verney seems to have trouble believing he is the same man who experienced what he did, and it is not a small part of his artistry that he gives the impression that he, as an autobiographical narrator, is in fact replaying a film of someone else altogether.
The first volume of this duo appeared in the same year as the second book in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy; one wonders whether Verney had read Waugh’s Men at Arms, the first novel in the trilogy, published in 1952, because the tone of voice is uncannily similar. That could be not least because Waugh, though a decade older than Verney, came from a similar background and endured a similarly frustrating war spent partly on special operations. Or, perhaps more importantly, it could be because they were both similarly schooled that the English way to deal with a sticky situation is to laugh about it, and to find the ludicrous rather than the heroic or the noble. Waugh dealt in fiction; Verney, despite the name changes, dealt in fact. All his tone does is convey the genuine nobility that he and his fellow warriors against Nazism possessed, and which a whole new generation reading these books may find almost impossible to grasp.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 9, on page 70
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