Robert Graves’ Good-Bye To All That

By 1929, when Robert Graves took four months out of his life to compose his memoirs of his experiences in the First World War, he had every reason to be angry with England. The country had sent him – and an entire generation of men beside him – to die in the trenches of France, for a war they neither asked for nor understood. Those who survived were nonetheless shattered by the experience, scarred physically and mentally, and bitterly resentful of the relentless rhetoric of king-and-country nationalism that greeted them upon their return. Graves had even more cause to be bitter: he was born Robert von Ranke Graves, and in a political climate that saw even German dogs – Shepherds, Schanuzers and dachsunds – beaten in the streets, he was singled out for suspicion and brutality. The War marked a turning point in British history, one that upended the old social order and cast suspicion on militarism and nationalism and religion, and Graves is likewise bidding goodbye to a version of England that died in 1918.

The bulk of the book takes place during his military service, first as a lieutenant and then a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and he is unsparing in his depictions of the horrors of the trenches or the incompetency of the British high command. There’s a dark humour at work in much of what he shares with us, as in this anecdote about the relationship between soldiers and their officious betters:

Two young miners, in another company, disliked their sergeant, who had a down on them and gave them all the most dirty and dangerous jobs. When they were in billets he crimed them for things they hadn’t done; so they decided to kill him. Later, they reported at Battalion Orderly Room and asked to see the Adjutant. This was irregular, because a private is forbidden to address an officer without an N.C.O. of his own company acting as go-between. The Adjutant happened to see them and asked: “Well, what is it you want?”

Smartly slapping the small-of-the-butt of their sloped rifles, they said: “We’ve come to report, Sir, that we’re very sorry, but we’ve shot our company sergeant-major.”

The Adjutant said: “Good heavens, how did that happen?”

“It was an accident, Sir”

“What do you mean, you damn fools? Did you mistake him for a spy?”

“No, Sir, we mistook him for our platoon sergeant.”

Is it a testament to the success of drill instruction that both the young men slap the butts of their rifles, in deference to the Adjutant’s high rank, even as they’re confessing to the worst possible insubordination? As in Gabriel Chevalier’s Fear, another memorable memoir of the First World War, gallows humour is seen by the soldiers as a kind of psychological buffer, a means of staving off insanity and laughing at death itself – and death, in the trenches, was everywhere. But there are times when even this method falls short.

June 9th. I am beginning to realize how lucky I was in my gentle introduction to the Cambrin trenches. We are now in a nasty salient, a little to the south of the brick-stacks, where casualties are always heavy. The Company had seventeen casualties yesterday from bombs and grenades. The front trench averages thirty yards from the Germans. Today, at one part, which is only twenty yards away from an occupied German sap, I went along whistling “The Farmer’s Boy,” to keep up my spirits, when suddenly I saw a group bending over a man lying at the bottom of the trench. He was making a snoring noise mixed with animal groans. At my feet lay the cap he had worn, splashed with his brains. I had never seen human brains before; I somehow regarded them as a poetical figment. One can joke with a badly-wounded man and congratulate him on being out of it. One can disregard a dead man. But even a miner can’t make a joke that sounds like a joke over a man who takes three hours to die, after the top part of his head has been taken off by a bullet fired at twenty yards’ range.

Such horrors pass without much commentary from Graves – what more need be said? – but towards the memoir’s end we come to grasp the extent of his psychological trauma, when even from the safety of Britain the memories of the trench continue to haunt him. “England looked strange to us returned soldiers,” he tells us. “We could not understand the war madness that ran about everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language. I found serious conversation with my parents all but impossible.” He is, at this point, a decorated veteran, injured during combat, and so the England he returns to wants to valorize him, but he’s disgusted by their ignorance. He quotes from a widely circulated newspaper letter, “A Mother’s Answer to ‘A Common Soldier,'” whose tone-deaf jingoism could please only the ignorant many who watched the war from the sidelines:

To the man who pathetically calls himself a ‘common soldier,’ may I say that we women, who demand to be heard, will tolerate no such cry as ‘Peace! Peace!’ where there is no peace. The corn that will wave over land watered by the blood of our brave lads shall testify to the future that their blood was not spilt in vain. We need no marble monuments to remind us. We only need that force of character behind all motives to see this monstrous world tragedy brought to a victorious ending. The blood of the dead and the dying, the blood of the ‘common soldier’ from his ‘slight wounds’ will not cry to us in vain. They have all done their share, and we, as women, will do ours without murmuring and without complaint. Send the Pacifists to us and we shall very soon show them, and show the world, that in our homes at least there shall be no ‘sitting at home warm and cosy in the winter, cool and ‘comfy’ in the summer’. There is only one temperature for the women of the British race, and that is white heat. With those who disgrace their sacred trust of motherwood we have nothing in common. Our ears are not deaf to the cry that is ever ascending from the battlefield from men of flesh and blood whose indomitable courage is borne to us, so to speak, on every blast of the wind. We women pass on the human ammunition of ‘only sons’ to fill up the gaps, so that when the ‘common soldier’ looks back before going ‘over the top’ he may see the women of the British race at his heels, reliable, dependent, uncomplaining.

Where to begin? This woman, this mother, this supplier of “human ammunition” demonstrates no understanding or tenderness, no “milk of human kindness” – only an empty patriotism and an eagerness to sacrifice others on her behalf. I am reminded of Mariam Farahat, darling of Hamas, who has been lauded as the “Mother of the Struggle” because she is proud and boastful that three of her six sons (at last count) have died in attacks against Israel.

So, goodbye to all that. Goodbye to jingoism, to trench warfare, to the wilful blindness of England. Goodbye to convention and social expectation. But hello to what, exactly? Socialism and atheism, if you believe his peers; feminism and votes for women, as his wife wishes; a lasting peace, if you trust the newspapers. Graves knew better. He saw the Treaty of Versailles for what it was, and he saw the inevitability of another conflict. Folly begets folly, after all.