Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

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.

23 comments

  1. I didn’t think i would be interested in wartime literature, but because war holds such history in the places I like to travel, I find myself looking for books such as this. And memoirs-turn-fiction (or memoirs masked as fiction) are my thing, I’m a hemingway fan🙂 thanks for the great review.

    1. I thought I would find it far less interesting than I have – the more I read, the more fascinated I have become, not only by the facts, but by the way people reacted and the coping mechanisms they used. It’s an insight into psychology as much as history. I hope you’ll manage to pick this up soon!

    1. Hi Ellen! I read that a few years ago and loved it – I must re-read it though now I have a little more context. If only I knew which box my copy was in!

  2. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be up to your ankles in mud, cold, hungry for a proper meal and thinking you could be killed at any moment. Apparently men in the air force were glad to escape the trenches but your chances of returning from those missions wasn’t any better. A difficult subject but thanks for wading through it, Rachel.

    1. I know…horrific. It really doesn’t bear thinking about. I can imagine that – at least if you were shot down in mid air you wouldn’t have long to suffer I suppose. Thanks Darlene – I am finding it less arduous than I thought, actually, and not as depressing as I thought, either.

  3. How frightening! I tend to shy away from wartime themes in literature and film…even though of course it is important to hold on to these memories and never forget what happened. You are very brave to tackle these books, Rachel!

    1. Yes it’s not always pleasant…but if you think about war from the perspective of its influence on culture afterwards, it’s important to know what went on to understand what came after, in my mind. I am really enjoying it despite the difficult subject matter!

  4. Have you read “All Quiet on the Western Front”? Similar theme, I think you might like it. It’s also very harrowing though, so you might want to wait a while until you’ve recovered from this one.

    1. No I haven’t…I will add it to my list, Liburuak, though I don’t know whether I’ll be able to read much more WW1 stuff back to back otherwise I will sink into depression!

  5. If you come across it Lyn MacDonald’s ‘The Roses of No Man’s Land’ is fascinating. It’s a collection of letters and diary extracts from the the women who went over to France as VAD’s and nurses. There’s a whole series all of which are excellent but that one particularly stuck with me.

  6. Hi Rachel

    I have recently started reading your blog, and thoroughly enjoy your reviews and recommendations.

    One question I’d like to ask, how do you find the time to read so many books?!

    I love reading, but find it hard to find the time to read as much as I’d like. I miss it!

    I gather you work, I work part time and have two young children.

    Reading enriches so much of my life, I’d really like to know how you manage to do it!

    Apologies if this seems a strange question, but I’m guessing you’ve been asked it before.

    1. Hi Candice! Thanks so much for reading and it’s great to have you comment for the first time – it’s always so lovely when that happens!🙂

      In answer to your question – I really don’t read that many! I normally read one a week if I’m lucky. I do work full time so I mainly read on public transport on my way to and from the office, though I do occasionally read in bed if I go to bed early enough. My secret is that I am an incredibly fast reader – I’ll read a page in a time it takes most people to read four. I learnt to do that during my English degree. I take it all in just fine and it means I can whip through books fairly quickly even if I only manage to get 45 minutes’ reading time in a day.

      Also, I carry a book with me wherever I go – so if I’m waiting for a friend, or waiting for a bus, or stuck somewhere for whatever reason, I always have something to do, even if it’s only five minutes of idle time. So I notch up extra reading that way too.

      I always say though it’s not the quantity of reading, it’s the quality. I’d rather spend a month slowly reading something fantastic than a month reading twenty indifferent, easy reading books back to back.

  7. I read Goodbye To All That over 30 years ago and remember to this day how moving and yet how harrowing I found it to read. Your review has brought so much of that back to me. It was the first “war” book I ever read and I’ve read several since then but none made more of an impact on me than that first reading of Robert Graves book. Your review was thought-provoking and I really enjoyed reading it. While reading “Goodbye To All That” has inspired you to read more WW1 literature, you’ve inspired me to go back to Robert Graves and read it again. Thank you!

    1. I’m glad I’ve prompted you to go back for a re-read! This really is an extraordinary piece of literature and it should be required reading as far as I am concerned!

  8. Excellent review, I’ve had this book on my shelf for ages without ever getting around to it but you’ve made me want to get to it sooner rather than later! I’m not sure ‘enjoy’ is quite the word I’m looking for, but I’m not sure what a better one is so I’ll say I really ‘enjoy’ literature about / reacting to the war. I’ve just discovered your blog and its fantastic, looking forward to reading more of your posts.🙂

    1. Hi Charlotte, lovely to meet you!🙂

      Yes it’s hard to say that books like this are enjoyable…they’re not really, in the sense of feeling uplifted or comforted, but they are enjoyable in the sense that they are rewarding and fascinating.

      I hope you read this soon, and I look forward to seeing more of you around!🙂

  9. Thanks for drawing my attention to this book…we recently visited Thiepval in Northern France to see the memorial which has, among tens of thousands of names, the name of my great, great uncle. It was so moving and we have been on a World War I book hunt ever since. The balance in this between the battlefield itself and behind the scenes I think will really float my boat.

    1. You are welcome, Lucy! How awfully sad. I can’t bear the thought of seeing all those names…there was a massive war memorial – and I mean MASSIVE – next to my uni halls of residence in Surrey and the sheer enormity of all those people mown down depressed me no end. I am just reading Siegfried Sassoon’s memoirs at the moment – they are very good as well. And he was friends with Robert Graves!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s