“This is a story of what I was, not what I am.”
– Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That
One Sentence Hook: English author Robert Graves says goodbye to England, family, friends, and a way of life after serving as a soldier in World War I.
I’ve read a few books trying to understand World War I. One of my favorites is “Goodbye to All That” by Robert Graves.
Robert von Ranke Graves was one of the most prolific poets of the twentieth century. Graves’ career spanned six decades. He was born in London, England, on July 24, 1895. He his mother’s family was German and his father’s family was Irish. His mother’s family, the von Rankes, was dominated by clergymen, while his father’s side were intellectuals. Graves’ father was an amateur poet and an inspector of schools.
Graves was raised in an atmosphere of thoughtfulness and civility. He attended private preparatory schools until he went to Oxford. His education was interrupted when he enlisted to fight in World War I soon after it began in 1914. The horror of trench warfare was a crucial experience in his life: he was severely wounded in 1916 and remained deeply troubled by his war experiences.
Graves’s mental conflicts during the 1920s were made worse by an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce. A new acceptance of his own nature, in which sexual love and dread seemed to exist in close proximity, appeared in his verse. In 1929, he moved to the island of Majorca, Spain. He died in 1985.
Graves produced more than 140 works during his lifetime and has never been out of print. His best known works are The White Goddess, Claudius the God and Count Belisarius. Graves’s sad love poems are regarded as the finest produced in the English language during the 20th century, along with those of W.B. Yeats.
“Goodbye to All That” begins with Graves telling of his earliest memories, followed by a brief summary of what he looked like at the time of the writing of the book. Graves talks about the background of his family on both his mother’s and father’s sides. He is from a privileged background of “lower upper-class” Britons.
Graves tells about his education at the Charterhouse prep school. The majority of his memoir is his service in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, one of the most respected regiments in the British army during World War I. Graves thrusts the reader directly into the brutal experiences of trench warfare on the Western Front. Graves writes a stirring account of boredom for long stretches interrupted by horrifying, and heroic moments. The battlefield of World War I was not a place for storybook heroism. The Western Front was a morass of death and mud where huge armies grappled seeming without purpose or hope of victory.
As a young lieutenant in battle, Graves’ life expectancy on the front lines was three months, he survives for two years. In 1916, he was severely wounded and reported as dead. For more than a week, his friends and family back in England believed that Graves died. His unexpected recovery, the delayed notification to his family and “resurrection” is one of the central passages of the book. The experience had a deep and lasting influence on Graves, both as a man and as a poet.
I’ve read a few powerful memoirs about the First World War, but Robert Graves’ “Goodbye to All That” is the most honest and insightful. The descriptions of battle are horrifying. Graves describes military bungling that is both darkly amusing and disturbing. Graves’ factual tone makes the remarkable seem like you are hearing a buddy in a bar tell you his story.
The book was published in 1929, more than ten years after the war’s end. That same year a number of powerful books came out from other writers, like Graves, who had survived the war. The most famous is “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I.
Graves was still suffering from the trauma of fighting. His book tells us about his anger over the war. Graves uses disjointed methods he by combining excerpts from letters, poems by himself and others, army commands and ramblings to create a sense of the disorder he had felt in battle.
As Graves recalls, he grew up in a household that stressed the time-honored virtues of Christianity, patriotism, and progress. Along with millions of other young Englishmen, he found these virtues severely shaken, if not totally destroyed, by World War I. Graves was a brilliant writer, and his classic autobiography is an account of both his own personal experiences and the end of innocence for an entire generation and nation.