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.
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 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.
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 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 11 February 2015
Last year (2014), there were a lot of arguments about the suitability of using the last episode of "Blackadder" (Blackadder goes Forth) to illustrate WW1. Some wrote it was outrageous and over the top. Surely General Melchett (Stephen Fry) as a caricature and the whole thing was an insult to all the brave men that die for "our liberty".
Well, go and read this masterpiece from Robert Graves. Maybe we should not reduce WW1 to Blackadder and Baldrick's antics, but anyone reading this book writing without flourish in a wonderful style will realise that even Melchett pales compared to what happened really. The book is an excellent narrative of the chaos that prevails at every level of the war front. It is a lot more devastating than Blackadder. Yet it would be difficult to dismiss the book as a pure invention. Robert Graves did not cloth Stephen Fry into a Melchett. He met plenty of them.
This book is a must that should be read by our politicians along Ryszard Kapuscincki 's "Another day of Life" and "A woman in Berlin" to understand what war is about and how it ends. It is all the more important that none of the 40 something politicians of the West have a real experience of war, which explains why they are ready to bomb anyone with a different idea, provided they are safe and sound thousand of miles away.
on 1 January 2013
Reading 'Goodbye to all that' many decades after it was written I found a remarkably frank picture of life of the privileged class prior to, during, and following the 1st World War. The world was changing fast and Graves describes how his conservative parents never forgave him for (eventually) calling himself a socialist.
Graves hated Charterhouse ('from my first moment I suffered an oppression of spirit that I hesitate to recall in its full intensity') and describes how he learned to cope with the totally anti-intellectual values that prevailed. At Charterhouse success in games made the man: he considered cricket the most objectionable because it wasted the most time in the best part of the year. Fortunately boxing success gave Graves the necessary status to cope.
Graves did not suffer fools gladly, and he valued personal strengths - whether found in the so-called privileged or working classes. His honesty here is remarkable.
In his harrowing descriptions of life in the 1st World War trenches I found myself thinking rather along the lines of Black Adder - would I have gone readily 'over the top' (probably), or would I have shown the conspicuous bravery of Graves and many others? (probably not). Survival was a matter of luck, and Graves survived. 'We learned not to duck a rifle bullet because, once heard, it must have missed'. Graves explains that hardly one soldier in a hundred was inspired by religious feeling, even of the crudest kind; and they had little respect for Anglian regimental chaplains who were remarkably out of touch with their troops - they scuttled up to the front to do their job and quickly scuttled back again.
Graves pulled strings to get his own way, and his privileged background helped here. He knew a remarkable number of poets, painters and writers, and his descriptions of these people - for example Thomas Hardy, and Lawrence, is both fair and revealing.
Graves remained a virgin until he married. There was an easy availability of brothels for the WW1 troops, which, together with the knowledge that life in the trenches could be very short, would have tempted many. He came to women late. Graves explains that in English preparatory and public schools romance was necessarily homosexual. The opposite sex was despised and treated as something obscene.
When Graves married, his wife, Nancy, warned him she was a feminist and that he had to be careful about what he said about women. They were both shocked by The Treaty of Versailles which seemed destined to cause another war some day. 'Nancy and I took all this to heart and called ourselves socialists'. Later Nancy wanted somehow 'to be dis-married but not by divorce, ...so that she and I could live together without any legal or religious obligation to do so'.
There are touches of ironic humour such as when an error in a Morse code message sent his battalion to Cork instead of York!
I have my Kindle to thank for leading me to browse and then read this book. I am very glad I did.
"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 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 10 March 2016
Speaking of the prose works he wrote after settling near Oxford following the war, Graves says that they “are scrappy [and] not properly considered”. Despite its status as a classic, this work could be described likewise. Spanning the period from his earliest memories from childhood to his time teaching English literature in Cairo in the late 1920s, this book suffers from occasional scrappiness. But it is not for his time in Egypt that the book is known, nor for its account of his years as a boarder at Charterhouse; rather, it is known for the central chapters, taking up the bulk of the book, which recount Graves’s time as a junior officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, stationed on the Western Front during the First World War. I found Graves’s account somewhat matter of fact, and one is left largely to infer his thoughts and feelings about the events he describes. Interestingly, Graves reveals he began a novel about his wartime experiences, but later abandoned it, though he doesn’t say why. But perhaps he felt that prose was not the medium for his thoughts and feelings, and in fact his poetry from the war is more vivid and full of life (and death) and telling imagery than his autobiography, which, while narrated clearly and often engagingly, has a slightly detached air.