The first novel in the Parades’ End tetralogy, Some Do Not, was set in places where the Best People hang out (clubs in London, golf courses at Rye, and the Macmaster Fridays). But this second one is set at Rouen in a transit camp that was accommodating allied soldiers on their way to the Western Front. Ford examines the experience of officers during the First World War and the break-up of the marriage of Christopher and Sylvia Tietjens.
Although there is no mud and blood, Ford evokes the horror of combat with the death of the soldier ‘09 Morgan, who dies in Tietjens’ arms. When awfulness becomes the new normal and is prolonged, it is no wonder that officers lose their minds, as the mad subordinate McKechnie shows.
Also maddening is the ceaseless confusion. The illustration of the fog of war, the bureaucracy of armies, will bring to mind Waugh’s WWII trilogy and Burgess’ A Vision of Battlements. Tietjens can’t quarter, equip, or send on a couple thousand Canadian volunteers because orders from on high are repeatedly rescinded. The incessant muddle causes strain in Tietjens, whose self-esteem depends on doing things right.
On the personal side, his wife is making life as difficult as possible. Sylvia, so conceited she doesn’t even acknowledge the war, is disgusted that Tietjens should be expected to serve the "ignoramuses" and “gaga old fools” who run the war. In order to embarrass her intensely private husband, Sylvia visits the transit camp in France, much to the consternation of Gen. Campion, who won’t have “skirts” on his bases. When Campion has it out with reticent Tietjens in a painful interview, he compares Tietjens with Dreyfus:
"Damn it; they say you're brilliant. But I thank heaven I haven't got you in my command.... Though I believe you're a good lad. But you're the sort of fellow to set a whole division by the ears.... A regular ... what's 'is name? A regular Dreyfus!"
"Did you think Dreyfus was guilty?" Tietjens asked.
"Hang it," the General said, "he was worse than guilty - the sort of fellow you couldn't believe in and yet couldn't prove anything against. The curse of the world .. ."
Too smart for his own good and too stoic to kowtow to power, Tietjens ends up in deep financial trouble due to his own Christ-like inability to say No to people who cadge money from him. The irony of Tietjens falling deeper into trouble due to his own selflessness reminds readers of the irony of The Great War, too, such as the loss of respect for individuality and the dignity of privacy obscured by prattling cant about honor and freedom.