Robert Graves in the Great War

Robert Graves was the author of the most famous of all English-language war memoirs, Robert-Graves in uniformGoodbye to All That (1929). He wrote this in eleven weeks in 1929, at a time of great emotional upheaval, and its speed was a problem. Graves’s former friends Edmund Blunden and Siegfried Sassoon annotated over half the pages of an advance copy, noting all the errors, and Sassoon threatened Jonathan Cape with legal action unless some passages were replaced with asterisks (which they were). They were not the only ones to make objections: many ex-soldiers pointed out errors, and even members of Graves’s own family complained that he had misrepresented them. Graves defended himself in a Postscript (reprinted in Trout, 279-305). One of his defences was that he had put things in that people liked: food and drink, murders, ghosts, kings, poets; another was that it was impossible to write an impeccably accurate account of war as a serving soldier.

It was practically impossible (as well as forbidden) to keep a diary in any active trench-sector, or to send letters home which would be of any great post-War documentary value; and the more efficient the soldier the less time, of course, he took from his job to write about it. Great latitude should therefore be allowed to a soldier who has since got his facts or dates mixed. I would even paradoxically say that the memoirs of a man who went through some of the worst experiences of trench warfare are not truthful if they do not contain a high proportion of falsities. High explosive barrages will make a temporary liar or visionary of anyone; the old trench-mind is at work in all overestimation of casualties, ‘unnecessary’ dwelling on horrors, mixing of dates and confusion between trench rumours and scenes actually witnessed (Trout 296).

Graves is “a joker, a manic illusionist […] and the more doubtful his assertions grow, the more likely he is to modify them with adverbs like clearly or obviously.” Paul Fussell’s comment, in the context of his excellent discussion of GTAT in The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford University Press 1995, 203-220), applies to the whole of Graves’s output, but most particularly to his war memoir. In what follows I try to avoid the problems by following the first volume of Richard Perceval Graves’ biography (Assault) rather than Goodbye to All That itself.

Robert Graves’ final term at Charterhouse ended on 28 July 1914—he had celebrated his 19th birthday four days earlier—and two days later he he travelled to the family’s house at Harlech in North Wales. He was inclined to pacifism, but was outraged at Germany’s decision to invade Belgium, and decided to enlist. A friend telephoned the Royal Welch Fusiliers in North Wales, and told him that this young man had served with his school’s Officer Training Corps for several years; Graves was offered a commission on the spot. He had a few weeks training, and then spent some time posted to an internment camp for enemy aliens in Lancaster, where the Welsh guards “were probably more frightened of the prisoners than the prisoners were of them: (GTAT 73).  More training ensued, before he was ready for posting to the Front. On 12 May 1915 he sent a telegram to his parents saying that he was sailing to France that day. He was not going to be with his own regiment, but with the Second Welsh Regiment. His first report from the trenches was enthusiastic (but this was in a letter home: probably as unreliable as an autobiography):

The trenches are palaces, built by the French who occupied ’em for six months. I wish home was as tidy always. Clay walls, bomb-proof ceilings, pictures on the walls, straw-filled berths, stoves, tables, chairs, complete with piebald cat (Assault, 124).

At the end of July he was sent to join his own regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who were in a more dangerous part of the front. He found himself patrolling No Man’s Land at night; the RWF prided itself on this (as they prided themselves on many things: see GTAT chapter 11). After brief home relief, he was sent to Cambrin, and told to expect to take part in an assault. It began on 25 September 1915, with the release of poison gas, some of which drifted back into British lines; some advancing British soldiers were killed by British shelling. B and C companies were largely destroyed, and the attack by A company, where Graves was, was called off at the last minute. Afterwards, Graves found himself in command of the survivors of B Company, and he learned that no one had expected the attack to succeed: it was merely intended as a diversion. Two days later they were told they would be taking part in another diversionary attack, although the orders were never given. Graves at this point was consuming a bottle of whisky a day. The remains of the RWF were withdrawn on October 3; Graves reckoned he had had about  eight hours sleep in the previous ten days.

It was at this point that Graves (now a captain) met the acquaintance of a fellow officer in the RWF (though in a different company): Siegfried Sassoon. They began reading each other’s poetry: Sassoon thought Graves’s too realistic, and Graves thought Sassoon’s too unrealistic.

In January 1916 Graves was sent to Le Havre, far from the lines, to give instruction to newcomers on trench warfare. One day he was told he had to go in the main hall to talk to 3000 Canadians, as he was the only officer with a loud enough voice: “So instead of giving my usual semi-facetious lecture on ‘How to be happy though in the trenches,’ I paid them the compliment of telling them the story of Loos, and what a balls-up it was, and why it was a balls-up” (GTAT 166).  In March he had to go back to England for an operation: even since a rugger accident at school, which broke his nose, he had problems breathing through his nose, but the introduction of a new type of gas-mask made it imperative that he did so. The operation left him very weak; it was not until the end of May that he was regarded fit for duty, and it was another month before he received his orders to return to France. The Battle of the Somme was due to begin, on July 1.

Graves rejoined the regiment, and they were held behind lines in readiness for attack. There had been 60,000 casualties on the first day (20,000 deaths) and casualties continued at the rate of about 10,000 a day. On Wednesday 20th July, Graves’ men were still waiting for orders to advance, when their position was shelled.

There was so much of it that we decided to move back fifty yards; it was when I was running that an eight-inch shell burst about three paces behind me. I was able to work that out afterwards by the line of my wounds. I heard the explosion and felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder-blades, but had no sensation of pain. I thought that the punch was merely the shock of the explosion; then blood started trickling into my eye and I felt faint and called to Moodie: “I’ve been hit.” Then I fell down (GTAT 195).

He was initially left for dead. He was eventually discovered to be breathing, and was sent off to hospital, on the Friday 21st. His CO had not heard, and on Saturday wrote to Mrs Graves telling her of her son’s death.

On Monday 24 July his parents had a letter from him saying he was alive; on Tuesday 25th they received the letter from the CO saying that he was dead; and, later that day, letters from the War Office saying that he was seriously wounded, from the Matron of the Rouen hospital saying that his condition was serious, and from Graves himself saying that he was recovering his appetite. This was not the end of the contradictory information they received, and on Thursday 27th July The Times published the report of his death. On 5 August The Times inserted a free announcement on their Court Circular page:

Captain Robert Graves, Royal Welch Fusiliers, officially reported died of wounds, wishes to inform his friends that he is recovering from his wounds at Queen Alexandra’s Hospital, Highgate.

At least The Times admitted he was alive; it took much longer for Graves to persuade his bank that he was not dead.

On 26 August he was well enough to travel by train to join his family at Harlech, he later recalled “crying all the way to Wales” (Assault 159).

He spent time with his family, with Siegfried Sassoon and with other friends, before being pronounced fit for light duty on 17 November 1916. A month later he was declared fit for service in France; and on 26 January 1917 he rejoined the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Bouchavesnes on the Somme. By the end of February he had been sent back to hospital in Rouen with severe bronchitis, and when asked where in England he would like to go to recover, said Oxford. He spent some time at Somerville, which had been turned into a military hospital, and was then assigned to be an instructor at Wadham College, for the mostly colonial troops that were being trained there. One of his “pupils” was Lester Pearson, the future Prime Minister of Canada, who noted that he was clearly suffering from shell shock and was an odd choice as an instructor. But it was not just shell-shock; the damp climate of Oxford was bad for his lungs, and  one night he fainted and fell downstairs (GTAT 219).

The shell shock was at last officially recognised, and he was sent to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, a home for convalescent officers. “Osborne was gloomy. Many of the patients there were neurasthenic and should have been in a special neurasthenic hospital. A.A. Milne was there, as a subaltern in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, and in the least humorous vein” (GTAT 224). On the other hand, they were all made honorary members of the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes.

This is another of the caricature scenes of my life: sitting in a leather chair in the smoking-room of what had been and is now again the most exclusive club in the world, drinking gin and ginger, and sweeping the Solent with a powerful telescope (GTAT 223).

He was still at Osborne House when he received depressing news about two of his closest friends. Peter Johnstone, a younger boy to whom he had felt very close at Charterhouse, had been accused of propositioning a Canadian corporal, and Siegfried Sassoon, suffering even more from shell shock than Graves (he had hallucinations of corpses in the London street) had effectively deserted. He sent a letter to journalists, politicians and others saying that the war was immoral and that because of the unnecessary prolongation of the war he was refusing to take further part. Graves left Osborne House immediately, talked to Sassoon, and wangled himself a position as Sassoon’s military escort to take him to Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh—Dottyville, as Sassoon called it— so that Sassoon could be looked after by a psychologist. Graves insisted that Sassoon should take the line that he was suffering from shell shock, and, as the biographer of Graves notes, “Robert’s success in avoiding a court-martial had made him a far more respected figure in the senior echelons of the Royal Welch Fusiliers” (Assault 182). Graves changed the dedication of his forthcoming poetry collection Fairies and Fusiliers from Sassoon to the Royal Welch Fusiliers, to avoid jealousy from other friends, as Graves carefully explained to Sassoon.

Graves was assigned garrison duty, training new recruits. He spent time with his wife to be, Nancy Nicholson, and also visited Sassoon in Craiglockhart. There he was introduced to Wilfred Owen, another patient there, and Graves was shown some of Owen’s poems: “Graves was mightily impressed, and considers me a kind of Find!! No thanks, Captain Graves! I’ll found myself in due time” (Assault, 186). Although it looked at the end of 1917 that he would be sent to Cork, where his regiment now was, Graves spent the rest of the war in his instructor role. He married Nancy on 23 January 1918, but they did not spend a lot of time together initially, as she was a land girl, and he was still on duty.

When the end of the war came, Graves got his place at St John’s College Oxford, but still had to get his demob papers signed by his CO, who was now with the regiment in Limerick. Graves went over to get his papers signed, was taken around Limerick, and on 2 February 1919 came down with influenza (from which, of course, in 1918 and 1919, millions of people around the world died). He was close to death; but, by March, he had recovered.

In his “Postscript” to Goodbye to All That Graves puts forward his proposal for future wars, which may serve as a final commentary on his own war service. He notes that the internationalism of socialists is useless as an emotional idea.

The only conceivable occasion on which world-loyalty could be even a temporary substitute for national loyalty would be a discovery that the moon was inhabited and preparing an armada for an invasion of the earth.

The logical conclusion is, therefore, that the only possible alternative to a wasteful competition in modern-war armaments is the general adoption of a bloody, but comparably unobjectionable substitute for modern war, a duel of hand-to-hand fighting between picked national forces, that would be formal, chivalrous and primitive enough to satisfy the most old-fashioned definitions of national honour. […] It must be a sort of warfare, it is clear, in which the element of chance is not great, in which the traditional fighting virtues play the chief part. It must be war in which only volunteers engage and non-combatants and neutrals do not suffer. […] It must not be a noisy war (the most wearing physical element of modern war is noise). It must allow room for that exercise of chivalry or sportsmanship which in modern war is generally acknowledged to be folly. It must have pageant, movement and excitement; but the damage to property must be limited, and the signs of victory must be more satisfying than the mere shooting of a football into a net, the dislodging of bails from a wicket or the award of a silver cup. It must, in fact, be war that falls somewhere between a football match and an eighteenth-century battle (Trout, 301).

He continues with his ideas for this project. There must be no mechanical contrivances. The armies should be between three men and a thousand men, manoeuvring over an area of a thousand square miles. The object would be the capture of as many men and banners as possible. The agreed weapon should probably be the quarter-staff, and the only armour should be a padded wicker-helmet and a loin-protector. Those who inflict injury should be responsible for looking after the injured and compensating them. For every soldier accidentally killed, twenty of the enemy should give themselves up into temporary captivity.  “Nationalism is a primitive, or, if you will, a childish sentiment. It is better to be admittedly childish and play the same of national honour in as romantic and innocuous a way as honour allows, than to pretend to be sophisticated and be ready to commit moral, mental and economical suicide by playing the same game with the most universally destructive weapons that come to hand” (Trout 204).

Richard Perceval Graves’ first volume, Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 1895–1926 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986), is of major importance. I found the introduction by Steven Trout in his edited book Robert Graves: Goodbye to All That and Other Great War Writings (Manchester: Carcanet, 2007) extremely useful; but the edition of Goodbye to All That that I have used (it is the original 1929 version, not the heavily revised 1957 version that is more generally available) is Goodbye to All That: An Autobiography, edited with a biographical essay and annotations by Richard Perceval Graves (Providence RI and Oxford: Berghahn, 1995).



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