The Great War, or World War I as it has come to be called, is a moment in history of many literal and symbolic endings and beginnings. It set the stage for the next conflict through the taxing Treatment of Versailles, brought about the existence of Soviet Russia, and with it planted the seeds of the Cold War. It spelt the end of old forms of warfare and the rise of the new weapons with the creation of tanks and the rendering of cavalry useless. It also gave off the sparks necessary to bring about the equality movement for women rights, empowered the United States economically, and changed the shape of Europe, with the disintegration of four different empires and the creation of several smaller nations and restructured governments. All these changes, extensive and far reaching as they may be, are hardly the total of the effects of this conflict on English, European and maybe even human society as a whole.
Having fought in the war, being a renowned figure in Literature with an extensive catalogue of poetry and prose both fiction and nonfiction of over 140 works, Robert von Ranke Graves (1895-1985), is a controversial figure that is perhaps best known for his autobiography Goodbye to All That (2000) first launched in 1929. The book was later revised in 1957, but nonetheless its first publication caused him to lose most of his friends, such as Siegfried Sassoon. The book is renowned for its portrayal of the war, with its futility and even a kind of grim, maybe even black, comedy that creates a disturbing comic effect. War, while dominating most of the narrative, is not, however, the sole subject of the book as it explores and illustrates a great deal of Graves’ life before and after his involvement in the conflict. It begs the question of what exactly he is saying ‘goodbye’ to. Is it, as he says in his original 1929 edition, a parting with all the people and happenings of his past and merely a means of earning money (Edwards, 2005, p. 27)? Is it merely a goodbye to his divorced wife and children and England as home, as he claims at the end of the revised 1957 edition? To answer these questions it is necessary to examine the text itself for what exactly it is that Graves depicts as he weaves the tale of his life.
The revised 1957 edition opens with an acknowledgement of the author’s intention of adhering to convention of the autobiographical memoir genre, which has a focus on facts supposed experienced by the author. It can already be seen as an attempt at deception by the writer since, even in the revised edition, false anecdotes abound, such as the heating of water for tea by shooting a machine gun (Fussell, 2000, pp.206-7). Factual errors, such as wrong dates, and misplaced or even fictionalized events can be found throughout the book, to the point that Fussell (p. 203) calls it the ‘stagiest’ significant First World War memoir and deems it satire (p. 207). Yet, Graves himself claims that falsity is a necessity if one is to engage with memories, especially ones as traumatic as those of the trench soldier in the Great War (p. 207). This suggests that, although this is a biography and thus based on facts, Graves makes use of artistic freedom in crafting his tale in order to achieve certain effects. It makes Goodbye to All That more and less than a conventional biography for where it sacrifices realism and factual accuracy it gains artistic depth. For example, it includes some simple symbolism, such as Graves’ abandoning his sword, an object that has long been the symbol of gentility and chivalric values. It also includes some dramatic irony, such as the episode involving Probert, the man who got bullied by his battalion for insisting on not going to the war, only for the same battalion to be later decimated throughout the war leaving him as sole survivor.
A closer look into such instances that colour Graves’ portrayal of his story and his world shall help elucidate just what is it exactly that the author intends to part himself with through his narrative. The first nine parts of the novel concern themselves with his early life prior to his joining of the Armed Forces. In the very first page, we are told of his ‘strong instinct against drawing-room activities’ (p. 9). His dislike of classical Victorianisms is from the very beginning presented to the reader. The constant portrayal of what represents Victorian society as ludicrous and insufficient is a great part of the book and Graves, as a character, comes to gradually shed them away as he progresses through the story. His religion is inherited from his family and environment, ‘I had never met an unbeliever’ (p. 19). His class prejudice is embedded in him by his society as well,
I had thought of ‘Master’ and ‘Miss’ as merely as merely vocatives prefixes used for addressing other people’s children; but now I found that the servants were the lower classes, and that we were ‘ourselves’.
I accepted this class separation as naturally as I had accepted religious dogma, (p. 19)
Graves goes to pains to show us the depth of such prejudice, ‘All this uncouthness made me think of the servants as somehow not quite human.’ (p. 20). He is also upfront about the effect religion had on him, ‘My religious training developed in me a great capacity for fear’ (p. 20), ‘a superstitious conscience and a sexual embarrassment from which I have found it very difficult to free myself’ (p. 20-1). Another influence showed in a dark light is that of the public school as forcing homosexuality on its pupils through its system (p. 23). Its spirit is described as ‘fundamental evil’ (p. 36), with its bullying and social caste system where the ‘bloods’ (p. 42) reign, reinforcing masculine stereotypes of sportsman over scholar. There is also a complete disconnection between the administration and the students (p. 39). The public school is shown as the rotten core of society, the prime model of its vicious and ugly nature.
That is not to say that Graves’ portrayal of pre-war society is completely negative; on the contrary, pre-war Germany for instance is represented in most idyllic terms, and his visits there referred to as the ‘best things of my early childhood’ (p. 25). However, even the big manor and perfect summers of his pre-war Germany, with its bushes of blueberries and animals scattered about, and the delicious Bavarian cuisine, are not without their dark side. We are made aware of its existence due to exploitation of the work force in a feudalistic manner (p. 28). Graves symbolically represents this duality by his description of the road,
Apple and pear trees lined every road (…) What we least liked in Bavaria were the wayside crucifixes with their realistic blood and wounds, and the ex-voto pictures, like sign-boards, of naked souls in purgatory grinning for anguish among high red and yellow flames. (p. 29)
While the spoils are richer, damnation is forever a constant; or rather, it is precisely because they use sin as warranty that such heights can be achieved through a trip through the underworld. This is no Eden but the Elysian (p. 29).
Munich, on the other hand, is the sinister reality of the male political Germany, the heart of darkness. North Wales, conversely, is a more rugged land with ruins and hills and wild berries and Graves describes it as a more spiritual place, independent of history or geography, where he first could write as himself. Interestingly, Graves does not describe any particular property in Wales as he does with Germany. In another symbolic note, Graves goes to some length to describe the nature of climbing, the social aspects of the activity, and how he used it to overcome his fears. The interesting metaphor comes in the form of the Crow that disturbs him by circling around while climbing, ‘because one climbs only up and down, or sideways, and the raven seemed to be suggesting diverse other possible dimensions of movement – tempting us to let go our hold and join him.’ Here Graves can very well be taken to be standing in for the mode of thinking of the time, so imbibed in its own nectar that cannot account for other possibilities. The expectation that cavalry would still play an important part in the First World War is the perfect example of how blinded by tradition Victorian society was. The crow is a bird often linked to death and disaster which here plays the awakening role of the war to come. It is a war that, like Graves mentions , ‘upsets’ his ‘calculations’ of the future (p. 54), and also heralds the end of the pre-military part of the novel.
Graves’ pre-war period is then no idyllic utopian time. On the contrary, it is a world of light and dark very much embroiled in itself and incapable of seeing the edge of the precipice. With its disappearance, there is a sense of both loss and freedom from old shackles. Even the fighting itself has a more ambivalent (Caesar, 1993, p. 215) sense, while the conflict itself is utterly atrocious and brutal – a waste of life and potential – there is also a certain sense of pride in fighting. Graves, for example, is proud of being part of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (p. 72), but this pride is made quasi-comical by both the death toll that the squad continually suffers even before Graves is sent to the front (p. 73), and the lack of understanding by part of the men on the reasons for the war (p. 78).
His first arrival at the trenches in France could very well be an episode of Black Adder, as the top officials are seen, a quarter mile behind the reach of enemy fire, in luxury in an ornamented dug out having ‘civilised cooking’ and whisky (p. 84) while the soldiers are forced to live and fight in the mud alongside rats and dead bodies constantly having bullets whizzing past their heads. The disconnection between the officials and the soldiers is absolute as can be seen by the case of the colonel reprimanding the troops in the trench for having unbuttoned shoulder-straps ‘while complaining that he had only two blankets and that it was a deucedly cold night’. Through the trauma of war the concepts of the previous era are constantly dashed, patriotism and religion found themselves completely alien to the trenches of war, with regimental pride being the main force of maintaining morale (p. 157). What made for inspiration in one’s regiment, were the accomplishments past and present despite the rotten chain of command. Morale depended on a ‘caste-system of honour’ (pg. 157) and on vilifying the German’s as patriotic monstrous others, the anti-thesis of themselves.
This process of shedding cultural restraints and supports and replacing them with newfound primal and ‘personal’ ideas and ideals evolves more and more throughout the development of this giant social trauma, to the point where Graves is shocked not by death of his fellow humans but that of animals (p. 173). The armed forces throw away any sense of gentility by focusing on brutal and primal physical and violent training in order to inspire hate on the enemy if not pride in one’s nation (p. 195-6). It is at this point where the world outside the trenches becomes so maniacal and absurd and out of touch with the realities of the war. In ‘The Little Mother’ letter (p. 188), Graves wishes to go back to the front because he is incapable of standing England any longer (p. 196). The Armistice comes, but Graves unlike his friend Sassoon, is not happy; all he can do is weep for the dead (p. 228). The trauma is too big, the loss too great, the soldiers are forever changed by it, the shell shock taking years to overcome, the habits of war are difficult to let go (p. 235).
Yet, not all was loss: positive changes came. Students, for example, became interested in studying as opposed to bullying (p. 238), traditions of old wane and disappear and yet their memories and the respect they incur remain. Throughout his memoir, Graves gives us a sort of human realism (Thorpe, 1966, p. 292). He charters the changes, both .personal and social, that happened due to the war (Hynes, 1990, pp. 427-31), and through this chart shows us the unreliability of historical ‘facts’ (Fussell, 2000, pp.216-7). He shows us the necessity of dramatization if one is to achieve some sort of emotional record and how even that is unreliable and ultimately pointless as the cycle of human foolishness and drama continues and ‘new characters appeared on stage’ (Graves, 2000: 279). With this work Graves attempts to clean himself of all that is insincere and insubstantial (Kernowski, 1989, p.ix). Goodby to All That is an exorcism of ghosts from the stage of humankind and its cumbersome past; a lift of weight before pressing on on his life journey.
- Caesar, A. (1993) Taking it Like a Man: Suffering, Sexuality and the War Poets. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- Edwards, P. (2005) British War Memoirs. In Sherry, V. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Fussell, P. (2000) The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Graves, R. (1960) Goodbye to All That. London: Penguin .
- Hynes, S. (1990) A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture. London: Bodley Head.
- Thorpe, M. (1966) Siegfried Sassoon A Critical Study. London: Oxford University Press.
- Kernowski, F. L. (1989) Introduction. In Kernowski, F. L. (Ed.) Conversations with Robert Graves. Jackson, UA: University Press of Mississippi.