Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That was frequently quoted in Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, and highly recommended by him as one of the finest pieces of WWI literature. It is presented as a memoir, but there is a good deal of exaggeration and fabrication for effect throughout the text; as such, I would call it more fiction than memoir. Even so, it is widely regarded to be a very accurate representation of an average soldier’s experience and Graves is spectacular at bringing the now almost impossible to imagine scenes of trench warfare to life in a natural, ironic and engaging voice that drew me in from the first page.
What makes this such a good memoir about the war is that it is not bogged down with ideologies or politics; Graves doesn’t use the book as an opportunity to blame, criticise, preach or regret. There’s no agenda, no anger; it’s not Testament of Youth, from whose pages the pain of Vera Brittain’s grief positively oozes. Graves does not write with a retrospective voice; he doesn’t analyse or question the point of the war, or the reasons why he and his fellow comrades in arms were fighting. Graves and most of his contemporaries don’t seem to have thought much at all about why they were going to war, and enlisted just because they thought it would be a bit of a lark and an opportunity to play the hero. Fussell’s comments about the naivite of Britons before the war is evidenced clearly here; none of these young boys and men had any idea of what they were getting themselves into, and seemed to think they were going off to join in with a slightly more dangerous and larger scale pheasant shoot that would last a few weeks. This unthinking quality marks Graves’ entire prose; he presents a largely dispassionate, clear eyed, fascinating view of what it was actually like to live day to day in the trenches. While there is obviously much fear, discomfort and horror, there is also a lot of comedy, camaraderie and boyish shenanigans, and I enjoyed this balanced view of events.
Goodbye to All That is not about reflection, glory or pity, but about reportage; Graves wants to show what WWI was really like, no holds-barred. He doesn’t want to sentimentalise it, or give it a meaning he feels it didn’t have; for him, it was a horrific, life changing experience that he had no real choice over being involved in, and that was all. This distance, this refusal to engage with the mythology and sentimentality that sprung up after the war in order to justify and give a deeper meaning to the deaths of so many could rub some readers up the wrong way, but I liked Graves’ almost brutal approach. His attitude is actually a reflection of what the war did to him; his inability to analyse his feelings was probably a survival technique to protect him from the horror of what he experienced for four long, terrible years.
Highlights of the book for me were mainly to do with Graves’ depictions of trench life, of the incompetence of the staff giving orders, and of the behaviour of soldiers when off active duty and billeted in French towns behind the front lines. It was so interesting to read about the differences between the companies, with some being classed as more honourable, or more lucky, or more disastrous than others due to the nature or provenance of the men drafted into them. The contrast between trench life in the morning and smoking and drinking in the requisitioned drawing room of a French chateau in the afternoon was also fascinating; for weeks soldiers could live in these grandiose surroundings, queuing up at brothels, buying trinkets from village shops to send home to their families and sleeping in luxurious feather beds, before receiving their marching orders and being thrust back into the muddy, stinking, corpse-strewn trenches in time for dinner. I was also intrigued by the attitudes the soldiers had; like Graves, many seemed to accept the fact that they probably wouldn’t make it home alive, and while for some the fear and horror was crippling, for most it just seemed to be a case of grit your teeth and get on with it. Graves’ matter-of-fact descriptions of his friends ‘going over the top’ only to be mown down with machine guns in front of his eyes demonstrates how horror became normality, and the sound of guns and screams nothing but the equivalent of the constant hum of traffic those of us who live in cities barely notice.
This really is an extraordinary volume; whether you want to call it a novel or a memoir, it doesn’t hugely matter. Either way this is a unique, honest and incredibly powerful depiction of the realities of life as a soldier, and of the true effects of fighting on those who experienced it. Graves never really recovered from his experiences; it took him years to stop seeing the dead faces of his friends in his dreams. However, he doesn’t taint his story with anger or grief, and because of that, he does his fallen comrades a greater service in my opinion, by depicting them not as mythical heroes but as living, breathing, fun loving, plucky ‘lads’ who were just bloody unlucky at being born when they were. If you want to truly understand what the war was like, you should read Goodbye to All That. Even though it spares its readers none of the horrors, Graves’ engaging and wry voice makes it complusive reading. I loved it. I’m now reading Graves’ friend Siegfried Sasoon’s trilogy of fictionalised memoirs and I can’t wait to see how their accounts compare. Reading WWI literature is absolutely fascinating alongside being utterly heartbreaking, and I can’t believe I’ve left it so long to explore all that is on offer.