Waugh’s preface to the 1960 edition of the novel explains how he originally wrote the novel while on leave from the Army during World War II following an injury in a parachuting accident. He admits that the general mood and food rationing of the period led him to describe luxuries—particularly food—more floridly than he might have otherwise.
Toward the end of World War II, Captain Charles Ryder is extremely disillusioned with the Army. His company camps on farmland that would have been absorbed into a local suburb if they were in peacetime. He finds the area desolate.
They are stationed near an asylum, and Charles describes the inmates as happy. The other men of his company often yell through the fence, telling the mental patients to save them a bed. Hooper, the new platoon commander, thinks the mental patients are a waste of resources and evokes Hitler’s gas chambers.
When the company marched into this camp, they thought the Army would soon deploy them to the Middle East, but they now realize this is not to be. Charles describes himself as having become old at thirty-nine and having fallen out of love with the army. He imagines future archaeologists discovering the vacated camp and reading it as a sign that an advanced, civilized culture became overrun by a lesser one. Hooper is late for inspection because he doesn’t rely on his servant to pull his gear together.
Most of the troops don’t like Hooper, but Charles looks on him with amusement. When the new colonel orders someone to cut Hooper’s hair, Charles apologizes for the colonel’s behavior. To Charles’s surprise, Hooper takes no offense. Charles observes that Hooper comes from a generation who learned about social legislation instead of great battles and therefore never romanticized the military. Instead, Hooper constantly compares army operations to the business world. Charles sees Hooper as emblematic of “Young England.”
The colonel inspects the camp and reprimands Charles for the mess he sees. Charles orders his men to clean up the camp even though his men didn’t cause the mess.