on 6 September 2004
Goodbye to All That is as important to the canon of Great War literature as Schindler's List is to the Holocaust. Honest, stark and shocking at times, it is all pulled together with wonderful skill by Robert Graves who seemed to have such natural skill as a writer. My abiding memory of the book, which I have read several times, is the sheer sense of duty, so indicitative of the age, displayed by Graves and his fellow soldiers.
A briliant place to start reading about the Great War and one you will return to again and again.
It is worth reading alone for the narrative structure and the demonstration of writing craft which is of a quality not found anywhere today.
on 27 August 2006
This really is one of the best accounts of the Great War that I've read. Given all that I've heard about this book, that wasn't so much of a surprise - as someone with a great interest in the First World War it was why I bought the book, after all. What was a surprise, however, was that well before Graves joined the army about mid-way through his autobiography I was already solidly engrossed.
Robert Graves writes with a real charm and gentle humour, belying an often quite scathing satirical leaning, and his account of his early home life and upbringing is beautiful, a real evocation of a time now lost forever. The fact that he's half-German heartbreakingly foreshadows later events, as he spends childhood holidays playing in teutonic fairytale castles with German uncles and nephews, men he is destined one day to try to kill on the battlefields of France. It's a pertinent reminder of how close Britain and Germany were in the late 1800's, a fact which made the later War all the more tragic.
The account of his time in France during the conflict, the greater part of the book, is simply brilliant - and considering what he goes through, it's hard to keep in mind that he was only in his early twenties, as I suppose so many of the soldiers were. The other reviews have covered these 'war years' in more detail and it's admittedly hard to find something new to say on a war memoir that's been reviewed and analyzed so often since it was first published, so I'll skip on to the less-discussed later chapters - suffice to say it's hard to find a better account of the life of a young officer on the Western Front.
Once the war ends the book does arguably lose drive and focus, but I get a sense that by this point Graves was simply weary of England and life in general - it must have been hard to find much that matched the passion and drama of the battlefield, where a generation faced things we can hardly imagine today. It does all evoke an interesting picture of how a country tries to adjust to life after such a war, however, before it starts becoming simply a list of which famous writers Graves met.
All in all, this is probably one of the best first-hand accounts of World War One that we're lucky enough to have - and if you have any interest at all in the subject, you simply owe it to yourself to read it at least once.
One final thought - I strongly recommend reading this in conjunction with Seigfreid Sassoon's 'Memoirs of an Infantry Officer'. Each book gives a whole new spin on the other. Close friends and fellow author/poets, Graves and Sassoon's stories overlap and parallel each other several times, and it's fascinating to read differing accounts of the same crucial events in the lives of these two men.
I generally hate memoirs, and avoid the genre as much as possible -- so when my bookgroup picked this as the next selection, I was pretty crestfallen. But I held my nose and started reading it, and lo and behold, found myself drawn in right away. I certainly knew of the book's reputation as a classic account of World War I and kind of epitaph for a generation, but had no inkling that Graves would be able to write about his childhood and school years in such a compelling manner. Granted, it's only compelling to those who have an interest in how prewar English society operated, especially in the upper classes, but as a portrait of that particular time and place, it's certainly a fine example.
The book really picks up, however, when Graves enlists in the Army and heads off to war (interestingly, he enlists to postpone his higher education). I gather that what made his account so groundbreaking was his scathing honesty and apparent lack of embellishment in recounting the horrors and idiocy he witnessed (particularly memorable is his description of a bungled early attempt at using poison gas). Although the mind still reels at the carnage, it reels even further at the prospect that teenage academics such as Graves were suddenly thrust into positions where they commanded other men in a war zone. There's a lot of very interesting detail about daily life in the trenches, meals, equipment, and so forth. But plenty of drama too -- notably an episode in which Graves is left to die (and indeed his family is notified), only to eventually recover. I would assume that pretty much any contemporary reader of the book would be well aware of the catastrophic prosecution of WWI, but Graves's book provides a direct view into what that meant on a day-to-day basis.
The post-war years, on the other hand, feel very perfunctory and tacked on. They unspool as a series of episodes with very little connective tissue, and without the drama of youth or the larger import of the war, they largely fail to engage. As a series of name-dropping encounters with various eminent literary figures of the day, they work fine, but there's clearly much more drama to his failing marriage than he cares to disclose here. I gather from further reading that the memoir has been substantially revised since its initial publication, and that Graves may have embellished certain aspects in order to appeal to a broader readership. Whatever the case may be, it is a fairly interesting peek into a bygone era, with special appeal to those interested in World War I. I can't say I loved it, but I certainly enjoyed it much more than I expected to.
on 10 February 2002
Was Robert Graves' early life so remarkable that simply recording the facts was sufficient to create a classic? Or do his skills as a writer make the careful construction and delivery of this memoir seem effortless? Either way, the status of this work as a singularly powerful historical record is well deserved.
Graves' life, from middle class public school, to an officer in the trenches of WWI, and then an impoverished radical poet in post-war Oxford, seems like another world. Seemingly trivial details now seem bizarre, and life in the trenches under enemy fire (or gas attack) is hell on earth. Graves takes a factual, analytical, almost objective approach, recording public opinion and sentiment, and giving well-argued reasons for what now seems like military madness. This has the effect of hiding his own personal drama from the reader, so his anti-war feelings and eventual nervous collapse come as something of a surprise.
The book is not without its weaknesses. His time after the war seems to consist largely of name-dropping famous poets and encounters with Lawrence of Arabia, but seventy five years on there is limited interest in these figures, and instead we yearn for more characters such as Daisy, the daughter of a down-and-out who the Graveses temporarily adopted and gives us an insight unto life at the other end of the social spectrum, and regret that Graves did not record more of the social consequences of the radical socialism and feminism he and his wife adopted in what was still a conservative and socially claustrophobic society.
Graves toyed with turning his experiences into a novel. Ford Madox Ford did just that with the Parades End series. Some may find this allows a more considered approach of the same period, and where Graves gives us anecdote Ford leaves the reader with a deeper understanding. None of this, however, challenges the status of Goodbye to all That as an outstanding historical document of life in another age.
"Goodbye to all that" is simply one of the finest memoirs of the Great War. Odd that my other great favourite is "Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man" written by Graves great friend Siegfried Sassoon. We follow Graves through school at Charterhouse, which he hated, to him becoming an Officer in the war. His descriptions of the battlefield are some of the most vivid recollections of that conflict. His descriptions of the dead leave no doubt that he must have suffered many sleepless nights. He recalled seeing a dead infantrymen from the South Wales Borderers impaled simultaneously with bayonets to a fellow infantryman from the German Lehr Regiment. Both locked in a ghastly last embrace. He was also wounded so badly that he was put in a corner to die. Thankfully fate saw to it that he lived to provide a canon of outstanding literature including this wonderful book. Later in the memoir Graves talks candidly about his marriage break up which was quite groundbreaking for the period.
Like most autobiographical works the truth sometimes becomes misted over a little, and is only as good as the memory of the writer. Sometimes accurracy can be sacrificed for the flow of the narrative. Sassoon himself was very dismayed with some of the comments made about himself, and there were other grumbles. But overall this is an honest and frank work. Sometimes the name dropping can be a little irksome. He mentions speaking with luminaries of the time like TE Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. I am reminded of the way in which the travel writer Paul Theroux name drops. But these are minor blemishes to what is a priceless piece of war literature.
Once you have read this book particular scenes will always stay with you. It is that kind of book. It possesses immense power. It is the work of a talented poet and raconteur. It is the work of a disillusioned soldier who had stared into the abyss. It is a book of humanity and it is a book written by one of those Band of Brothers who fought in the war to end all wars. The dead souls move across the pages to remind us of the horror that we have been spared. It is a fitting tribute to those men. Essential reading.
on 20 June 2010
Other reviewers have praised this book no end and yet I still felt compelled to do the very same. Having just finished Storm of Steel (Penguin Modern Classics) I found Graves' account of his years in the trenches - the book also covers his time at Charterhouse too and a short period after WW I but the Great War makes up the bulk of the book - completely different. Whereas Jünger describes his experience virtually without any emotion, Graves' feelings are always made abundantly clear and described in detail, with absolute (not to say brutal) honesty.
The horrors these millions of men, on both sides of the conflict, must have endured is according to me quite beyond our grasp. As powerful an experience as reading about it may be, nothing can even remotely come close to how it actually must have been. What never ceases to baffle me, in any memoir or account of WW I, is how these countless ordinary persons somehow succeeded in 'carrying on' day after day after day, in constant fear of death or horrible injuries, come rain, hail wind or snow, fighting adversaries who were also ordinary persons and in fact wanted nothing more than getting home in one piece.
You'd think that anyone having had to fight in the trenches would have abhorred any kind of violence for ever after, but apparently Hitler felt differently. It's strange and somehow wrong to think so, but wouldn't it have been nice if Hitler had fallen in WW I instead of one of the thousands of unnamed casualties?
on 8 March 2001
With the increase of interest in the First World War recently it is to this book that many people should turn for a gripping, factual account of life before, during and after the Great War. Mr Graves documents the pastoral quiet of England in the early part of the twentieth century and abruptly descends to recounting, in cold detail, the dreadful slaughter of the trenches. Through some of the most famous battles in history he survives, physically more or less intact but from the dry words; modest, English, reserved, we glimpse the true weight of the burden that such memories impose on their carriers and understand better the terrible toll that the War levied on all the nations of Europe.
on 9 October 2013
Graves was just 33 when he published this autobiography, but was already a recognized poet acquainted with many literary figures of the age. His story features portraits of many of them, including Siegfried Sassoon, T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and Thomas Hardy.
Mostly, however, the autobiography covers his formative years in school, his experiences on the front line in World War I, which broke out weeks after he left school, and a marriage which broke down after about a decade. Being half Irish, half German, bright and poor at team sports, Graves had an unhappy school life: the initiation rites, bullying and lack of interest by most teachers made survival tough. The army was little better. During the war, Graves became dismayed at the incompetence and callousness of commanders who bungled assault after assault yet persisted in their murderous tactics. The inhumanity of the army is reflected in the inability of its leaders to show any feeling, tellingly illustrated by their reaction to one particularly deadly raid on enemy lines from which less than a handful of survivors returned; the soldiers reported back just as their commanders were about to tuck into a meat pie but were offered neither drink, nor food nor seat (let alone a word of condolence for their lost comrades), because officers don't share their meals with the troops.
Although maddened by this callousness, Graves is also a product of the system he despised and is unable to display much sentiment himself. Despite having an Irish father and a German mother, he says nothing of any feelings he might have had about fighting the Germans in northern France or helping to keep the peace in Ireland after the Easter Rising. At the same time, it takes great courage to disclose some very personal and painful experiences such as his love for `Dick', a younger boy at school who later turned out be an unpleasant character.
Graves' prose is often as sparse as the hills of northern Wales which he walks during his holidays. For example, the death of brother-in-law towards the end of the war is reported in five words: "Tony was killed in September." Nothing more is said, either about the manner of his death or how Graves' wife received the news of her brother's death. Graves participated in such momentous events of the early 20th century and was acquainted with so many of the period's outstanding people that one wishes he would be more expansive at times, although his dry, tight style certainly keeps the story tearing along. Overall, it is a very sensitive account of Graves' early years and of the experiences which explain why, when the autobiography was published in 1929, he decided to say `Goodbye to all that' and to turn his back on England.
on 8 September 2010
I first read this book 25 years ago, and since then have re-read it several times. It is quite simply, in my view, the best first hand memoir of this awful conflict ever written. The pictures it paints are so vivid I actually feel I served alongside Graves in the trenches at Loos and on the Somme. There is a great sense of the individual soldier being the tiniest pawn in some ghastly chess game, and the use of language to express this sense of impotency is truly masterful.
on 2 November 2010
This autobiography of Robert Graves covers his early life. He is a brilliant writer and the book is clear and easy to read. He approaches this work in a very objective, matter of fact way that makes it read as a documentary of the times and social conventions. He had a miserable time at Charterhouse school and then experienced the horrors of trench warfare during the Great War. He met many of the great literary figures of the time including Thomas Hardy, Lawrence of Arabia and Siegried Sassoon. The book is full of insights into the conventions and styles of the times. As an account of the war it is absolutely compelling. The dry style and lack of emotion make for an autobiography which is convincing and accurate but rather detached.