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Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

Goodbye to All That (1929)

by Robert Graves

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Robert Graves was one of those well-educated British officers who reacted to the First World War with a kind of wise, Oxford-Book-of-Verse horror and had to expunge the experience as best he could through his writing – like Edmund Blunden, or Siegfried Sassoon. The three of them indeed fought near each other in France and knew each other well. It's a powerful and affecting vision, but it probably needs to be set against the rather different worldview of the private soldiers, as captured in Manning's The Middle Parts of Fortune or Barbusse's Le Feu.

Graves is less funny than Sassoon, more down-to-earth than Blunden – he writes with a dry, easy style which is witty but somehow also rather brittle. As in many similar memoirs, there is an awareness of the natural world which perhaps seems surprising to a modern reader (‘In March I rejoined the First Battalion on the Somme. It was the primrose season’), though the tendency here is nowhere near as pronounced as in Blunden's Undertones of War. There is a numbed sense of distance to many of the descriptions, and a sneaking suspicion that Graves may perhaps not have been the easiest person to get on with in real life. Nevertheless, the details of trench life are very fully evoked, from the boredom of waiting, to the strategy-less confusion of raids, to the desperate recreations available for men behind the line:

The Red Lamp, the army brothel, was around the corner in the main street. I had seen a queue of a hundred and fifty men waiting outside the door, each to have his short turn with one of the three women in the house […]. Each woman served nearly a battalion of men every week for as long as she lasted. According to the assistant provost-marshal, three weeks was the usual limit: ‘after which she retired on her earnings, pale but proud.’

When it comes to the gory realities of shelling and attrition, Graves adopts a chilly but effective matter-of-factness.

From the morning of September 24th to the night of October 3rd, I had in all eight hours of sleep. I kept myself awake and alive by drinking about a bottle of whisky a day. I had never drunk it before, and have seldom drunk it since; it certainly helped me then. We had no blankets, greatcoats, or waterproof sheets, nor any time or material to build new shelters. The rain poured down. Every night we went out to fetch in the dead of the other battalions. The Germans continued indulgent and we had few casualties. After the first day the corpses swelled and stank. I vomited more than once while superintending the carrying. Those we could not get in from the German wire continued to swell until the wall of the stomach collapsed, either naturally or when punctured by a bullet; a disgusting smell would float across. The colour of the dead faces changed from white to yellow-grey, to red, to purple, to green, to black, to slimy.

As with all of these First World War books, there is no animosity towards the enemy whatsoever. Graves's men shout friendly messages to the nearby Germans (reserving most of their hatred for the French) and have no concern whatever for the political currents that may be animating the conflict. Nor is religion a factor; given the old saw about how there are ‘no atheists in foxholes’, I'm surprised Graves isn't quoted more often, since he says exactly the opposite.

Hardly one soldier in a hundred was inspired by religious feeling of even the crudest kind. It would have been difficult to remain religious in the trenches even if one survived the irreligion of the training battalion at home.

In part this is what creates the enormous gulf that soldiers feel between themselves and those at home, who are keyed up with patriotic and religious fervour and who see the fighting men as the embodiment of all these feelings when in fact they share none of them. After the war, Graves falls in love delightedly with Nancy Nicholson, who as a feminist and socialist finds herself as set against conventional society as he now feels himself. Her précis of Christianity – ‘God is a man, so it must be all rot’ – was a huge relief to him.

Nancy sounds, indeed, in common with many women of that generation, completely fucking amazing. She read the marriage vows for the first time on the morning of their wedding, and was so horrified that she almost refused to go through with it – Graves's memory of the service is of ‘Nancy meeting me [on the aisle] in a blue-check silk wedding-dress, utterly furious’ and ‘savagely muttering the responses’ during the ceremony.

[C]hampagne was another scarce commodity, and the guests made a rush for the dozen bottles on the table. Nancy said: ‘Well, I'm going to get something out of this wedding, at any rate,’ and grabbed a bottle. After three or four glasses, she went off and changed back into her land-girl's costume of breeches and smock.

I love Nancy. Robert Graves I'm less sure about, but he is a joy to listen to – witty, anecdotal, and determined to bear witness to the collective stupidities that left half his generation dead in France. You can see why he'd had enough of England. They were lucky to have the use of him for as long as they did. ( )
1 vote Widsith | Jun 14, 2016 |
A very enjoyable memoir with a gossipy tone that adds some flavor to Graves' generally kind-hearted judgements on his contemporaries and his family. ( )
  nmele | Feb 11, 2016 |
Robert Graves is known for his love poems and had an almost comically distinguished pedigree, but you wouldn't know it from reading "Goodbye to All That," his wry, bitter, plainspoken, and ultimately moving memoir of his early life and experiences in the Great War. He hated the prestigious boarding school he was sent to, abandoned organized religion, married a committed feminist, and, most importantly, found himself in the middle of one of the twentieth century's greatest, most senseless tragedies. It's surprising how Graves's very personal account of the war gives a reader some of idea of the scope of the war's tragedy: his unit seems to have been re-staffed half-a-dozen times as the soldiers in it kept dying off, men prayed to be seriously wounded instead of killed, and the natural world, which Graves obviously felt a great deal of affection for, was reduced to ruin. Being from an upper-class background and having had a subtle, understated sense of humor, Graves also has a keen eye for the war's absurdities, or, as Paul Fussell would have it, its irony: we hear a lot about the social conventions of the British officer class, riding lessons, and valuable public-school connections, which provides a weird contrast with the war's endless bloodshed, as does the bucolic, nearly unscathed French countryside that the soldiers could find just a few miles from the front lines. "Goodbye to All That" is often as funny as it is terrible, and it has, as Fussell notes, a rather theatrical sensibility, but there's an unmissable undercurrent of anger running through it, too. Graves's critique of Britons on the home front, who felt themselves a part of the conflict without bothering to experience its conflict or comprehend its illogical premises, is scathing, as is his contempt for the army brass, who hardly seem to have seen a trench as they sent hundreds of thousands of men to unbearably painful deaths. He's also careful about noting that Britain's class divisions became more, not less, visible as the war dragged on. At one point, he wonders whether if the women who worked at officer's brothers (adorned with blue lights) were any different than the one who worked at establishments that serviced enlisted men, which had red lights by the door. There's a lot here for students of twentieth-century letters: Graves seems to have had the opportunity to know a lot of famous literary types, and he provides vivid, funny portraits of them. Still, it's the indifference of the army staff and the public that really powers the book: the contrast between their hidebound ideas and outmoded manners and the horror that Graves experienced first-hand gives the reader a good idea why the Great War transformed European society so completely. It plays out, at times, like some awful absurdist theater piece, but it was all too real. Though the author claims that the book's title comes from his decision to emigrate after the war wound up, one can't help wondering if he intended some larger meaning. Anyway, it's not hard to spot: between public school niceties, knee-jerk patriotism, and endless, mechanized, often pitiably unheroic deaths, it seems pretty clear that an entire worldview died on the fields of France. This one is sad, informative, and recommended. ( )
3 vote TheAmpersand | Nov 18, 2015 |
Last 50 pages or so were quite good....Graves knew many exceptional people.
[on T.E. Lawrence)"To him painting, sculpture, music, and poetry were parallel activities, differing only in the medium used. Lawrence told me:'When I asked Doughty why he had made that Arabian journey his answer was that he had gone there to redeem the English language from the slough into which it had fallen since the time of Spenser'".

Read March 2015

"Hardy then laughed a little. Once or twice recently he had looked up a word in the dictionary for fear of being again accused of coining, and found it there right enough-only to read on and discover that the sole authority quoted was himself in a half-forgotten novel." ( )
  untraveller | May 28, 2015 |
War effects different people in different ways. Some it strengthens their convictions about matters of faith and some it weakens. Tolkien and Graves are two examples of such differing effects.

Some war memoirs very much focuses on the war. There is a little biography before and perhaps after to get the reader a basic understanding of the who the characters are in the protagonists life. This book on the other hand has quite a bit of autobiography in it. We learn about Graves' time in school. His comments about the problems with the British public school system of his youth. One critique he had was that the segregation of the boys from the girls caused quite a bit of homosexual activity, both physical and emotional. He states that for every one genuine homosexual male there were probably 9 experimenter. He was one of the 9 out of 10 though he never admits to anything graphic other than emotional attachment. He marries after the war and never mentions issues with male attraction after that point.

He talks about his love for climbing and long walks in the country. And he talks about getting in the military. He was fortunate enough to be guided into the officer corps. Talks about his time in training, adjusting to the military way of doing things, and finally being sent to France.

Naturally his experiences on the front lines are described. He was wounded on several occasions. Once seriously and he was reported dead. Which report was duly communicated to his family. He was able to communicate with them not to long afterwards and let them know he survived.

He speaks about life after the war. Going to school. Meeting and spending time with Lawrence of Arabia. Moving to Egypt for a year or so to teach. An abortive effort to open a general store. His few friends. Finally moving from England finding the politics and religion there disagreeable. He did return and was there during WWII which he mentions. One of his sons was killed in action as a British soldier.

Worth reading but the effects of his experience were not the effects on everyone who served. His faith was lost but not all responded to the war that way.

He did comment that Catholic priests on the front lines were better than the Protestant pastors. the priests pushed forward all the way into the trenches and were often there during attacks to give last rites and comfort to the dying. The Protestant pastors were rarely at the front. Some commanders noted the same issue in WII. Obviously not to the credit of the Protestants. ( )
  Chris_El | Mar 19, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
Goodbye to all what? Not just to the trenches of World War I, but to all his life in England up to 1929, the year when poet Robert Graves wrote this memoir of his early years. I read it as an accompaniment to Pat Barker’s Regeneration, on which I will be commenting in a few days.

The same characters and the same war appear in both books — Graves himself, Sigfried Sassoon, the trenches, the mutilated bodies. While Regeneration is a novel, Goodbye to All That is a firsthand account of the horrors. Graves tells us how, as a boy of 19, he casually made the decision to fight.

"I had just finished with Charterhouse and gone up to Harlech, when England declared war on Germany. A day or two later I decided to enlist. In the first place, though the papers predicted only a very short war – over by Christmas at the outside – I hoped that it might last long enough to delay my going to Oxford in October, which I dreaded. Nor did I work out the possibilities of getting actively engaged in the fighting, expecting garrison service at home, while the regular forces were away."

And so it goes! Four years later,

"…I was still mentally and nervously organized for war. Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight, even though Nancy shared it with me; strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed."

Although my edition had a brief Epilogue from 1957, in the memoir itself Graves captures the mood of England’s middle and intellectual classes during the years before and after The Great War. As a new officer, Graves learned of his responsibilities as gentleman:

"First of all – I had not only gone to an inefficient tailor, but also had a soldier-servant who neglected to polish my buttons and shine my belt and boots as he should have done. Never having owned a valet before, I did not know what to expect of him. Crawshaw finally summoned me to the Orderly Room. He would not send me to France, he said, until I had entirely overhauled my wardrobe and looked more like a soldier…."

Once in France, Graves found more serious responsibilities than the polish of his belt. His report of those years is almost unemotional. He doesn’t feel sorry for himself, there is no “poor me” to get between us and his account of his experiences. After the war Graves was disabled by shell shock. Nervous and twitching and unable to settle comfortably into a new life, he continued as a writer. I am glad he survived to tell this story and all the others he gave us during a long career.

» Add other authors (6 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Graves, Robertprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Fussell, PaulIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Graves, Richard PercevalEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Spencer, StanleyCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Trevelyan, RaleighIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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As a proof of my readiness to accept autobiographical conventions, let me at once record my two earliest memories.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385093306, Paperback)

The quintessential memoir of the generation of Englishmen who suffered in World War I is among the bitterest autobiographies ever written. Robert Graves's stripped-to-the-bone prose seethes with contempt for his class, his country, his military superiors, and the civilians who mindlessly cheered the carnage from the safety of home. His portrait of the stupidity and petty cruelties endemic in England's elite schools is almost as scathing as his depiction of trench warfare. Nothing could equal Graves's bone-chilling litany of meaningless death, horrific encounters with gruesomely decaying corpses, and even more appalling confrontations with the callousness and arrogance of the military command. Yet this scarifying book is consistently enthralling. Graves is a superb storyteller, and there's clearly something liberating about burning all your bridges at 34 (his age when Good-Bye to All That was first published in 1929). He conveys that feeling of exhilaration to his readers in a pell-mell rush of words that remains supremely lucid. Better known as a poet, historical novelist, and critic, Graves in this one work seems more like an English Hemingway, paring his prose to the minimum and eschewing all editorializing because it would bring him down to the level of the phrase- and war-mongers he despises. --Wendy Smith

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:43 -0400)

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Robert Graves's autobiography tells the story of his life at public school and as a young officer during the first world war.

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2 editions of this book were published by Audible.com.

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Penguin Australia

3 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141184590, 014104554X, 0241951410


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