History Between Humor and Tragedy: Musings on Robert Graves' Memoir, Goodbye to All That
By David James
*When thinking about the First World War, I am reminded of a quote by Jorge Luis Borges about the 1982 Falklands War, “It is a fight between two bald men over a comb.” In a similar way, we could say that WWI was a fight between a bunch of spoiled children over who got to use the playroom. Though they all had their own toys, sharing and cooperation were unlearned traits. There is something profoundly important to remember about this tragedy, though sometimes the easiest way to deal with tragedy, if not by outrage, stoicism, or escapism, involves a disarming sense of humor and irreverence. I will bring up these four issues in this post by focusing on Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, his memoirs of early life in England, his participation in the trenches of WWI, and his post-war experiences.
Graves was a highly prolific poet and author most famous for his fictional rendering of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in I, Claudius and Claudius the God. He was born in 1895, which made him 19 years old when the war began–a typical age for new officer and soldier recruits. His mother was German, and his middle name was von Ranke, which was no small problem considering the bullying, nationalistic, anti-German WWI-era hysteria that caused suspicion from bullying schoolmates and later from fellow soldiers despite his proven competence in battle. This was a smaller version of the same problem faced by fellow writer D.H. Lawrence, a pacifist married to a German who was under de facto house arrest for the entire war.
Goodbye to All That, published in 1929, 11 years after the Armistice, was Graves’ second work of non-fiction after a biography of his friend T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence and the Arabs. By this time, Graves had already published many poetry collections. The publication of his memoirs came at a time in which the young author had apparently only recently recovered from years of emotional trauma that today we would call PTSD (“shell shock”), and the title references what he calls his “bitter leave-taking of England,” including its war, its politics, its society and education, and even many of his own family and friends. He writes of his post-war experience:
Very thin, very nervous, and with about four years' loss of sleep to make up, I was waiting until I got well enough to go to Oxford on the Government educational grant. I knew that it would be years before I could face anything but a quiet country life. My disabilities were many: I could not use a telephone, I felt sick every time I travelled by train, and to see more than two new people in a single day prevented me from sleeping. I felt ashamed of myself as a drag on Nancy but had sworn on the very day of my demobilization never to be under anyone's orders for the rest of my life. Somehow, I must live by writing.
After publication of Goodbye to All That, Graves moved to the Spanish island of Majorca where he remained for the rest of his life, except for a long stay in America to escape the Spanish Civil War.
Goodbye to All That is important for its ability to capture, from the point of view of an individual soldier rather than from a comprehensive historian, the passing of one epoch to another that occurred with the First World War–from what has been called the “long 19th century” (or the “belle epoque”) to the “modern age,” where we are still living (or transitioning out of to a still-undefined age). These are mere historical categories, but they tend to capture the turbulence that saw many changes to an old-world system dating from the French Revolution, or the Middle Ages in some cases, to a new world where possibilities for progress and destruction both expanded exponentially. Graves serves as a paradigm of a certain type of young person who was not only well-educated and from the middle-class in England but also from throughout the West after the First World War. These people experienced shifts in thinking towards more radical ideas like socialism, atheism, feminism, and pacifism based on their first-hand experiences in the trenches, as well as on their jaded view of a society which they discovered to be neither as civilized nor as progressive as they had thought. (Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, for example, captures this sense from the German perspective.)
Graves opens the book with an account of his family history and early years. The first line states his acceptance of conventional autobiographical genre as he starts with his earliest memories. He mentions witnessing Queen Victoria’s 1897 Jubilee, for instance, and he spends some time in these early chapters detailing his visits to his aristocratic German relatives in their Bavarian castles, relatives who would later become his enemy.
He attended many public schools (what Americans would call private or prep schools), with the longest tenure at Charterhouse. He gives several anecdotes regarding the severity and hypocrisy of the education system. These outdated but still powerful Victorian standards of morality accomplished little more than to stifle emotional development and even foster what would have been considered at the time “immorality.” For example, he talks about the prevalence of homosexuality in these types of all-boy boarding schools, going so far as to detail his own platonic infatuation with a younger schoolmate. He also dwells on his friendship with George Mallory, the famous alpinist who was an older mentor at Charterhouse and later best man at Graves’ wedding. He mentions Mallory, who died on Mount Everest in 1924 after possibly becoming the first person to reach the summit, as one of the only people who treated students like humans, which puzzled everyone. We also learn at this time that Graves took up boxing as much to defend against bullies as to keep fit, and this would later prove useful in demonstrating his manliness (and, thus, his worth) in front of soldiers and superiors alike.
The heart of the book comes in the middle chapters detailing his time spent on the Western Front. At the outbreak of war, he deferred his matriculation to Oxford University in order to join the army. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Welsh Regiment since his family home was in Harlech in northwest Wales. Like so many other young men, he was eager to join in the fighting before the war ended (how many times it is said at the beginning of every war that it will be over “by Christmas?”). While the war obviously did not end by December 25, 1914, Graves witnessed the famous Christmas Day truce soon after joining his regiment on the Western Front (he refers to it as the Christmas 1914 fraternization, and his regiment was among the first to participate). This event, the likes of which are rare in the annals of war, saw the belligerents, German, French, and British, come out of their trenches and join in an unarmed singing of carols and exchange of greetings and gifts. More than anything else, this short-lived sense of shared humanity and brotherhood can be interpreted as soldiers losing the martial spirit and wanting to take back control of some part of their lives, however small or temporary.
I spent two Christmases in Afghanistan and understand well the sentiment of soldiers that comes at times like holiday when all we desire is a temporary break from the stress and trauma of war. Even in 1914, the truce was obviously resented by the generals and politicians, who ensured there would not be a repeat of such non-warlike sentiment the next Easter or following Christmases. They also convinced the Press in the involved countries to keep quiet, where no mention was made for at least a week after the 1914 truce. No one knew right away that hundreds of thousands laid down their arms to hobnob with the enemy. And when it was finally covered, the press distorted and minimized the truce in order to make it seem more freakish and less peaceful. The Christmas Day truce lives on in popular memory and culture. In 2014, the British supermarket Sainsbury’s went so far as to make a television commercial reenactment of it in which a German and British soldier swap chocolate and biscuits.**
One of the central events in Goodbye to All That is the Battle of Loos, a British and French attack on German lines in September 1915 when only few kilometers of ground changed hands and almost 100,000 men died. It marked the first use of poison gas by the British, and also chronicled the battle in which Rudyard Kipling’s son went permanently missing in action, prompting the author of The Jungle Book to write the sad poem “My Boy Jack.”
Graves describes how the gas was euphemistically referred to “the accessory,” and how everyone was highly skeptical of its efficacy because the supervisors were university chemistry professors brought in to administer it. Sure enough, “the accessory” was deployed with a headwind coming into the Allied lines, causing the gas to harm the British more than the Germans for whom it was intended.
The Battle of Loos was a disaster for him. Graves mentions that, much later in the war when he had been sent home to recover from his wounds, he was asked to give a speech to 3,000 incoming Canadian soldiers. He writes
They were Canadians, 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 the real story of Loos, and what a balls-up it had been, and why – more or less as it has been given here. This was the only audience I have ever held for an hour with real attention. I expected Major Currie to be furious, because the principal object of the Bull Ring was to inculcate the offensive spirit; but he took it well and put several other concert-hall lectures on me after this.
A key feature of Goodbye to All That is the farcical and probably invented dialogue, which reads like short theatrical set-pieces. It seems like almost every occasion of reported speech involves a back-and-forth rhythmic dialogue that ends in someone laying a punch-line. Along with the stock characters, this shows the fictionalized nature of Graves’ memoirs (a feature which recalls Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast, or Robert Byron's travel writing masterpiece The Road to Oxiana).
One of the most important characters in Graves’ book is Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow “war poet” who joined Graves’ Royal Welch Fusiliers regiment in 1916. They struck up an immediate friendship. Sassoon published his own three-part fictionalized autobiography in the 1930’s, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. Like Graves, Sassoon had not published any poetry when they first met, and Graves’ realistic style influenced his friend. Sassoon was described by Graves as being one of the most courageous men he had ever seen or heard about in his time in the trenches. He tells one story in particular about how Sassoon single-handedly attacked and took control of a German observation trench, then enraged his superiors by not telling anyone about it. He was found two hours later sitting in the German trench reading a book of poetry. Sassoon, like Graves, later suffered a type of nervous breakdown and wrote his famous 1917 “Soldier’s Declaration” denouncing the war and the government’s incompetent prosecution of it. He was encouraged by anti-war activists like Bertrand Russell and Ottoline Morrell. Sassoon threw his Military Cross for bravery into a river, though he escaped a court-martial, with Graves’ help, and was sent to a hospital to recover from “shell shock”. There he met Wilfred Owen, another war poet hugely influenced and encouraged by Sassoon, and who was himself killed on the Western Front one week before the Armistice.
I find it worth mentioning that Sassoon and Owen were both gay. Another gay soldier was the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein who, like Sassoon, volunteered for service at the outbreak of war and demonstrated repeated bravery in battle on the Russian Front to the point of being thought suicidal. Such examples make me wonder why gay soldiers in the American military have until recently been considered unfit for service.
One of the most tragic, and understated, events of the book occurs when three officers of Graves’ battalion, along with three of his closest friends, were all killed in the same day by shelling and sniper fire. David Thomas, the third member of the trio of poet friends in the battalion, was among the dead. Graves states:
I felt David’s death worse than any other since I had been in France, but it did not anger me as it did Siegfried. He was acting transport-officer and every evening now, when he came up with the rations, went out on patrol looking for Germans to kill. I just felt empty and lost.
Soon after, he says:
My breaking-point was near now, unless something happened to stave it off. Not that I felt frightened. I had never yet lost my head and turned tail through fright, and knew that I never would. Nor would the breakdown come as insanity; I did not have it in me. It would be a general nervous collapse, with tears and twitchings and dirtied trousers; I had seen cases like that.
Graves finished his time in the trenches during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, when he was injured so gravely that he was first reported as dead. He spent the rest of the war convalescing in hospitals, helping train new volunteers to his unit, and was even posted to Ireland where the English garrison was trying to stop (unsuccessfully, it turned out) the burgeoning Irish uprising. The rest of the book talks about his marriage to a feminist activist, their move to the country near Oxford, setting up house, opening a general store, admitting:
The moral problems of trade interested me. Nancy and I both found it very difficult at this time of fluctuating prices to be really honest; we could not resist the temptation of under-charging the poor villagers of Wootton, who were frequent customers, and recovering our money from the richer residents. Playing at Robin Hood came easily to me. Nobody ever detected the fraud.
He had four children in eight years and, he describes what amazes me most about his autobiography– sometimes he would only scrape out half an hour or so of writing a day in between his fatherly and household care taking duties!
In this later part he also deals at length with his friend and biographical subject, T.E. Lawrence. He relates his post-war experience to Lawrence’s:
I knew nothing definite of Lawrence’s wartime activities, though my brother Philip had been with him in the Intelligence Department at Cairo in 1915, making out the Turkish Order of Battle. I did not question him about the Revolt, partly because he seemed to dislike the subject – Lowell Thomas was now lecturing in the United States on ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – and partly because of a convention between him and me that the war should not be mentioned: we were both suffering from its effects and enjoying Oxford as a too-good-to-be-true relaxation. Thus, though the long, closely-written foolscap sheets of The Seven Pillars were always stacked in a neat pile on his living-room table, I restrained my curiosity. He occasionally spoke of his archaeological work in Mesopotamia before the war; but poetry, especially modern poetry, was what we discussed most…Lawrence’s rooms were dark and oak-panelled, with a large table and a desk as the principal furniture. There were also two heavy leather chairs, simply acquired. An American oil-financier had come in suddenly one day when I was there and said: ‘I am here from the States, Colonel Lawrence, to ask a single question. You are the only man who will answer it honestly. Do Middle-Eastern conditions justify my putting any money in South Arabian oil?’ Lawrence, without rising, quietly answered: ‘No.’ ‘That’s all I wanted to know; it was worth coming for. Thank you, and good day!’ In his brief glance about the room he missed something and, on his way home through London, chose the chairs and had them sent to Lawrence with his card.
The book ends in 1929, though shortly after he divorced his first wife, Nancy, and got married and had four more children with his poetic muse, Laura Riding, with whom he established a publishing company at their base on Majorca. He was runner-up for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which was won by Steinbeck that year, and he died at the age of 90 with 140 published works.
Graves’ memoirs are filled with stories of understated humor and pathos. In one case, he describes the last time he attended church, during his Easter 1916 visit home. He tells the story of having to push his mother uphill in a heavy bath chair, since the only available wheelchair in town was taken by “Countess of-I-forget-what,” and then sits through a three-hour service despite being ill himself. About the ordeal he writes:
I forgot my father’s gout, and also forgot that passage in Herodotus about the two dutiful sons who yoked themselves to an ox-cart to pull their mother, the priestess, to the Temple and were oddly used by Solon, in a conversation with King Croesus, as a symbol of ultimate happiness.
During the sermon the “strapping” young curate, one of four men present–compared with 75 women–was “bellowing about the Glurious Performances of our Sums and Brethren in Frurnce today. I decided to ask him afterwards why, if he felt like that, he wasn’t himself either in Frurnce or in khurki.” His father then took him to meet War Secretary (and future Prime Minister) David Lloyd-George, who Graves says
…was up in the air on one of his ‘glory of the Welsh hills’ speeches. The power of his rhetoric amazed me. The substance of the speech might be commonplace, idle, and false, but I had to fight hard against abandoning myself with the rest of his authence. He sucked power from his listeners and spurted it back at them. Afterwards, my father introduced me to Lloyd George, and when I looked closely at his eyes they seemed like those of a sleep-walker.
It is worth mentioning that Graves’ book angered so many people that even his father, one of the offended, felt it necessary to write his own memoirs as a rebuttal to his son’s entitled To Return to All That.
While I have enjoyed and benefited from reading comprehensive history books, the memoir Goodbye to All That is a great example of the importance and edification of reading individual accounts of history. I always find autobiographies of great and famous people illuminating for the perspective it helps give to their time period. Though I have studied history and literature, I am no scholar and seek mostly entertainment and self-improvement in my reading. I will leave it to others to argue more convincingly the faults or short-comings of books like Graves’ or Sassoon’s memoirs but, for me, there are interesting and instructive.
Developing a sense humor towards a destructive war declared by elites but suffered by the common man, is, I think, not only in bad taste but can do more harm than good because it normalizes the illegality and immorality of the war. Thus, I agree with this quote by Bertrand Russell, a pacifist who spent the last year of World War One in prison for speaking against involuntary military service for conscientious objectors:
Alas, I am that extremely rare being, a man without a sense of humour. I had not suspected this painful fact until the middle of the Great War, when the British War Office sent for me and officially informed me of it. I gathered that if I had had my proper share of a sense of the ludicrous, I should have been highly diverted at the thought of several thousand young men a day being blown into tiny little bits, which, I confess to my shame, never once caused me to smile. I am reminded of a Chinese emperor, who long ago constructed a lake made entirely of wine, and then drove his peasants into it only to amuse his wife with the struggles of their drunken drownings. Now he had a sense of humor.
At the same time, the “dark” or cynical sense of humor displayed by veterans against their war may also be a way to ease the personal trauma and represent in a fictionalized way, the collective tragedy in which they played a part. As such, I look up to Graves and his successors such as Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, who have highly influenced the field of war literature.
As for the causes of destructive (and self-destructive) wars like WWI, I will leave it with the wise and quotable Bertrand Russell, and his book Education and the Social Order. Russell writes of the innate violent sense of retributive justice that is easily awakened in humans:
I found one day in school a boy of medium size ill-treating a smaller boy. I expostulated, but he replied: ‘The bigs hit me, so I hit the babies; that’s fair.’ In these words, he epitomised the history of the human race.
Perhaps one of the things that makes us human is the ability to laugh in the face of the tragically absurd, and continue living in spite of it. Graves accomplishes this in his book, Goodbye to All. It is a classic not only in the genre of war literature but for all modern literature that deals with tragedy.
*Article originally published on December 24, 1914 by The Wrath-Bearing Tree. Graciously edited, and adapted for WWrite by the author in April 2019.
** For more on the Sainsbury Christmas Truce ad, see WWrite post by Anna Rindfleisch here.
David James served as a Fire Support Officer in the 173d Airborne in Afghanistan from 2005-2006 and 2007-2008. He now teaches English in Italy where he lives with his wife and twin daughters. His hobbies include reading, writing, and rock climbing. He agrees with Borges that “reading is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual”. He is an editor of The Wrath-Bearing Tree, a veterans' literary collective that explores all aspects of violence, and writes a blog at tigerpapers.net.