Goodbye to All That is among the finest books about war ever written

The revised ‘Goodbye’ emphasised its author’s Irish heritage, not his German roots

British soldiers go over the top in June 1916 to attack the German trenches somewhere in France. Photograph: Mirrorpix via Getty Images

British soldiers go over the top in June 1916 to attack the German trenches somewhere in France. Photograph: Mirrorpix via Getty Images

 

Paying homage to a great poet at the time of his death in 1985, aged 90, obituarists celebrated the author of the I, Claudius novels (written in the early Thirties and memorably televised in 1976) and The White Goddess (praised to Graves himself by an admiring Ted Hughes in 1967 as “the chief holy book of my poetic conscience”).

Back then, while the author was still alive, Goodbye to All That commanded respect, but significantly less awe than The White Goddess. Part of the immense output of an exceptionally prolific career (Graves published 55 collections of poems, 43 works of nonfiction, 10 translations, 15 novels and one play), his only major work of autobiography was perceived as an admirable contribution to a majestic career. It was an impressionistic and candid document of record about a war that Graves was not alone in believing should never have happened. Nevertheless, the sense conveyed by obituary writers at the time of its author’s death was not – as may be argued today – that Goodbye to All That had been his most significant prose achievement.

Back in July 1916, the month of his 21st birthday, the Times had published – no obituary was required for a young man whose mildly mischievous poems had been published only in school magazines – a brief announcement of the death of Robert Graves.

Graves’s narrow escape from a premature demise at Bois de Fourneaux or High Wood (where some 8,000 men lost their lives) stands at the heart of Goodbye to All That, the eloquent, angry book which the 33-year-old poet wrote – merely to raise funds, so he said at the time – on the verge of leaving England for a new life in Europe. Attracting a high degree both of censure and praise at the time of its first publication by Cape in 1929, Goodbye was republished by Cassell in 1957. Revising his youthful work at the height of his fame (he had recently delivered – in characteristically iconoclastic mode – the Clark lectures at Cambridge and was about to undertake his first major American lecture tour), Robert Graves had already turned down Harold Macmillan’s offer of a CBE. While demurely explaining that poets, as private persons, possess no need of public honours, Graves remained savvy enough to preserve from deletion his 1929 book’s apparently superfluous record of a visit to Egypt. Graves, accompanied both by Laura Riding and his wife, Nancy Nicholson, had spent five months teaching English literature in Cairo in 1926. In 1957, a year after the Crisis, Suez was still a hot topic. A marketing opportunity was not to be resisted.

Today, Goodbye has become a classic, a wartime memoir that is studied in schools, taught in colleges and read – as it has always been – for the sheer pleasure of hearing Graves’s voice. (Graves, who later told a young writer to employ a tape recorder because “The vox humana is a great help”, had himself dictated much of Goodbye to Jane Lye, a London neighbour whose husband designed the book’s first wrapper.)

In the troubled and unpredictable world of the 21st century, Graves’s autobiography feels more relevant either than the mythic questings of The White Goddess or the admirable but slightly dated Roman novels, best known now through the halting, meticulously created performance of Derek Jacobi as the Emperor Claudius and that of Siân Phillips as Livia, his shimmeringly unpleasant mother. (Mothers seldom emerge with credit in Graves’s work. Sassoon was furious about Goodbye’s tactless presentation of his own grief-stricken mamma as a seance-holding obsessive; Amy Graves’s response to the monstrous presence who presides over The White Goddess remains unguessable.)

Graves published Goodbye to All That at a time when several traumatised writers were feeling that the moment had come to take stock of the recent past. Ford Madox Ford had already published his great but flawed wartime tetralogy, Parade’s End (1924-8). In 1929, Erich Maria Remarque produced All Quiet on the Western Front, while RC Sherriff’s 1928 play Journey’s End continued to shock audiences around the world (it was translated into 17 languages in 1929). Like Graves himself, Ford, Remarque and Sherriff, all of whom had served at the front, viewed war as an essentially futile venture, in which exceptional acts of loyalty and courage became the norm.

Among all the works that emerged from a decade’s musing upon a war that its most clear-sighted recorders believed to have been catastrophically conceived, managed and concluded, Goodbye survives as the most approachable, the most powerful and – reading it with all the bitter hindsights of a century of shabby acts and betrayals – the most applicable to our own times. On the verge of Britain’s momentous break with Europe, we are uniquely placed to read a book replete with folly, written in a spirit of fierce regret.

Although undeniably autobiographical, Goodbye to All That was written with an agenda and with more concern for effect than precise detail. (“My imagination is not that of a natural liar . . . but I am Irishman enough to coax stories into a better shape than I found them”, Graves would acknowledge in 1956. Almost as if staging a school play, the author wanted light to fall most brightly wherever he chose to shine his torch. It troubled Graves far more in 1929 than it had in 1914 that England had taken up arms against a country to which he felt a powerful bond. Describing his early years in the opening chapters of Goodbye (the Graves family occupied homes in Wimbledon and in Wales, where his mother bought land and built a house near Harlech), Graves took care that his book should emphasise his personal connection to England’s wartime enemy.

Linked to the illustrious von Ranke family both through the German marriage of a paternal great-aunt, Clarissa Graves, back in 1840, and through his widowed father’s second marriage to the independently wealthy Amalia, or Amy von Ranke, Graves heightened the poignancy of those early exposures to Germany by his deliberate evocation in Goodbye of Laufzorn as a lost Eden, an earthly paradise in which everything had its place. It was against this bliss-filled idyll of reminiscence that he placed the deaths of his kindly, playful Uncle Siegfried von Aufsess, owner of an Alpine castle, killed while serving on the Imperial German Staff, and of his German cousin, Wilhelm, “later shot down in an air battle by a schoolfellow of mine”.

He wrote with tenderness about another cousin, Conrad, “a gentle, proud creature” who studied animals but hated to shoot them, with whom he went joyously sledging through the snowy streets of Zürich in January 1914. (“Soon after the war ended, a party of Bolsheviks killed him in a Baltic village, where he had been sent to make requisitions.”) Revising Goodbye for the 1957 edition, Graves decided to introduce another German uncle, a skilled marksman who recalled having shot down – under orders – a single French sniper who had concealed himself within a pinnacle high above Rheims cathedral. (“I felt proud to have limited the damage like that,” Graves quoted this uncle as having boasted in postwar years to Robert’s younger brother, John. “Really, you must take a look at it.”

Once again, a point was being made. An English Graves was being invited to admire the murder of a Frenchman, an ally, by a German. As a von Ranke descendant, Graves belonged to both sides in the war. Like Ford and, through his marriage to Frieda von Richthofen, DH Lawrence, Graves’s sympathies belonged to both sides. Describing his required supervision of an internment camp at Lancaster in late August 1914, Graves recalled his disgust at seeing 40 German waiters brought in “handcuffed and fettered” from a Manchester hotel: these were “family men who had lived at peace in England for many years. The one comfort that we could offer them was: ‘You are safer inside than out’.’’

Graves’s dual heritage and the knowledge that he was taking up arms against members of his own family – that he might even have killed one of them – would contribute to a persistent sense of guilt which was turned to good service in poetry that dealt with anguish and reconciliation. That abiding shame reinforced the savagely satirical spirit in which he wrote Goodbye.

Graves’s German blood had served him well during a ragged early progress through seven preparatory schools. At one of these, the headmaster of Rokeby proved to be an enthusiastic admirer of German culture. He went out of his way to praise a bright new boy for speaking the language. (In Goodbye, Graves wrote that German, while never so familiar to him as French, had played a crucial role in the formation of his sensibility.) In 1909, however, when the 14-year-old Graves was sent to an old-fashioned Surrey public school called Charterhouse, the setting down of von Ranke as part of his full name on the electoral list invited a cold reception.

Businessmen’s sons, at this time, used to discuss hotly the threat, and even the necessity, of a trade war with the Reich. “German” meant “dirty German”. It meant: “cheap, shoddy goods competing with our sterling industries”. It also meant military menace, Prussianism, useless philosophy, tedious scholarship, loving music and sabre-rattling.

Graves was a born survivor. For the first – but by no means the last – time in his life, he decided to play up his Irish descent and to boast, with perfect truth, that his father, an inspector of schools, had composed the celebrated Irish ballad, Father O’Flynn. By 1957, still grieving for a son, David, who had died in 1943 while fighting for his father’s own old regiment out in Burma, Graves’s feelings about Germany had hardened. Goodbye now declared that he merely “admired” (he had previously “preferred”) his von Ranke cousins. More emphasis was placed in the revised Goodbye upon its author’s Celtic heritage than on his German antecedents.

Photographs of Robert Graves as a schoolboy show a sulkily handsome youth, large-eyed and well-built, with his mother’s unusually full and sensitive mouth. An unexpected talent for boxing rescued him from becoming a school pariah. The arrival at Charterhouse of a friendly and well-read young assistant master, George Mallory, produced an introduction both to the thrills of mountaineering, at which Graves found that he excelled, and a valuable outlet for his poetry. Goodbye, while giving full credit to Mallory for introducing a talented pupil to Edward Marsh, a generous first patron of Graves’s work, was less gracious about the debt he owed to his own well-connected father. Writing his riposte, To Return to All That, in 1930, Alfred Graves reminded readers that he, as much as Marsh, had supported the publication of Graves’s three short wartime books of poems. But Graves, back in 1929, was feeling hostile towards the old-fashioned parents who had wanted him to become a schoolmaster or civil servant, and who, noting that their son was by now a married man with four small children, refused to condone his new life with Laura Riding.

Uncharacteristic of the memoirs of those hidebound times was Graves’s candour in 1929 about the important role that homosexuality had played in his early life, from schooldays until his marriage to the boyishly charming 18-year-old Nancy Nicholson, in January 1918. Still a virgin on his wedding night (as he was only ready to acknowledge in 1957), Graves had written his one wartime love poem for the youth whose identity is screened in both versions of Goodbye by a pseudonym which can’t have been carelessly chosen. (“Call him Dick.”) Graves had become enamoured of George Harcourt Johnstone, a boy who was four years his junior but far more sexually precocious, while he was still at Charterhouse. At school, the relationship was notorious enough for their names to be publicly linked in graffiti, and for Graves’s composition books to be mockingly annotated in blue crayon. Threatened with expulsion during his last term, after he revenged himself by pushing one vociferous young censor into a bath and knocking down another, Graves successfully defended himself to a mild headmaster against accusations of a more serious kind. A schoolmaster, accused by Graves of having kissed “Dick” (he hadn’t, but Dick backed up Graves’s assertion) was sacked. Graves and Dick escaped unscathed. Graves reported the incident in Goodbye with no sign of a bad conscience.

As a schoolboy, Graves had opposed war. On August 12th, 1914, having turned 19 in July just before leaving Charterhouse, he joined up to fight for his country with the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

Among the accusations of inaccuracy that were levelled at Graves in 1929 (most of the mistakes were corrected in But It Still Goes On, his unsatisfying 1930 follow-up for Cape to Goodbye), none challenged the sincerity of the author’s love for his regiment. In 1940, Graves wrote two novels about one Sergeant Lamb, in which he paid homage to the historic Royal Welch’s gallant participation in the American War of Independence. Until the end of his long life, he remained as devoted to the courage and loyalty of the Royal Welch Fusiliers as any romantic poet to his muse. It disappointed him, when he was finally sent out to France in May 1915, to find himself serving instead with the recently-recruited and largely under- or over-age Second Battalion of the almost equally venerable Welsh Regiment. In July, together with the surviving RWF officers who had been attached to the Welsh, Graves rejoined the Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Laventie.

Goodbye to All That is among the finest books about war that has ever been written. The cool but burning lucidity with which Graves describes the ironies – the boredom; the terror; the vertiginous swings between extreme happiness and jangling nervousness – of serving both on the front line, and behind it, are perhaps best experienced by reading the author’s own words from the trenches. The sense of dazed bewilderment is well conveyed in a letter written to his literary mentor Edward Marsh in London from Cambrin on May 22nd, 1915. Graves felt, he told Marsh, as if he had been flung from a sleepy cinema seat straight on to the screen “in the middle of scalp-hunting Sioux and runaway motor cars”, A second passage from the letter (on which Graves drew in Goodbye) described the shock experienced during his first weeks in France when, bending down to reprove a barefoot, sleeping soldier for his slovenliness he realised that a naked toe had managed to squeeze the trigger to a rifle barrel crammed into the corpse’s mouth. Such gunshot suicides, Graves bleakly informed the civilian Marsh, were said to be quite common at the front.

Graves’s wartime experience in France forms the central and most famous section of Goodbye to All That. Free of the sentiment that would mar many early accounts of the war, Graves’s descriptions succeed in combining black comedy with macabre horror. A riskily acquired weapon of mass destruction, retrieved from No Man’s Land at night, reveals itself as a jug of rain-diluted wine. A new officer finds two rats fighting on his bed over a severed hand. While off-duty, military etiquette sternly decrees that an officer and a sergeant-major may not simultaneously raid the same currant bush for berries. Graves, meanwhile, describes himself as serving 10 autumn days on just eight hours sleep and 10 bottles of whisky. (How did he acquire them? Graves doesn’t say.) Young Prince Edward, the future Duke of Windsor, yearns to go “into the line”, meanwhile grumbling about the “bloody cold” water in which soldierly routine requires him to wash the royal limbs.

And then comes another switch of mood, from the aspirations of a pampered prince into the daily horrors of war. Quoting from a letter he had written on June 9th, 1915, Graves reported how, while whistling his own way along a trench at Béthune, 30 yards from the German line, he noticed a man groaning (“a snoring noise mixed with animal groans”) at the bottom of the trench.

Robert Graves at his home in Deya, Majorca, January 1954. Photograph: Daniel Farson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Robert Graves at his home in Deya, Majorca, January 1954. Photograph: Daniel Farson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At my feet lay the cap he had worn, splashed with his brains. I had never seen human brains before; I somehow regarded them as a poetical figment. One can joke with a badly-wounded man and congratulate him on being out of it. One can disregard a dead man. But even a miner [the miners at the front were famously pragmatic] can’t make a joke that sounds like a joke over a man who takes three hours to die, after the top of his head has been taken off by a bullet fired at 20 yards’ range.

The most significant friendship that Graves formed during a service in the trenches that ended early in 1917, due to bronchitis and its likely effect on an already wounded lung, was with Siegfried Sassoon. Initially, both Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, who resented Graves’s reporting that he had opposed all future wars (unless against the French), were angry opponents of Goodbye. Their jointly annotated copy of the book survives in the New York Public Library, the pettiness of their comments doing as little justice to them as they felt had been done to them by their friend. Sassoon’s anger derived in part from Graves’s reference to his mother’s seance-keeping and in part from Graves’s highlighting of the role that he himself had played in rescuing Sassoon from being court-martialled for stating his opposition to the war. (Largely thanks to Graves’s interference, Sassoon was instead despatched to Craiglockhart, a Scottish hospital for war invalids, at which he met both Wilfred Owen and Dr William Rivers.) Sassoon was only a little appeased when Graves good-humouredly acknowledged the justice of the older man’s mocking portrait of himself as the shambolic and loose-tongued David Cromlech in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930).

It took time for old squabbles to be patched up. Writing The Long Week-End in 1940 with Alan Hodge, Graves sheepishly dismissed Goodbye as “a reckless autobiography in which the war figured, written with small consideration for anyone’s feelings”. In 1966, Graves recommended Edmund Blunden as his successor to the prestigious post of Oxford Professor of Poetry.

But the deeper friendship with Sassoon never resumed the degree of tender intimacy that had been achieved in 1916, the year in which, following Graves’s near-death experience in France at High Wood, the two men briefly shared a cottage on Mrs Graves’s Welsh estate. There, so Graves later alleged, the first six chapters of a novel about the war were written – and abandoned. Later, he would incorporate them into Goodbye.

Working intensely and at great speed in the hot London summer of 1929 – Graves completed his first draft of Goodbye in two months – the author did not always check his facts. Captain James Dunn, attached to the Second Battalion of the Royal Welch, in which Graves was serving both when he was hit and when he returned to action the following year, contributed corrections of his own to the 6,000 words of annotation provided by Blunden and Sassoon in their marked-up copy of Goodbye. A source of particular ire was Graves’s imputation of cowardice to the outstandingly brave Scots regiment whom he accused of having fled High Wood, while Graves himself was shot and carried off for dead. (“Old Gravy’s got it, all right!” he heard a soldier say.)

Such glaring inaccuracies were later corrected. But it is not as an historic record of facts that Goodbye has become a classic, a key work for anybody studying the impact and after-effects of war upon the human spirit. Where Graves excelled was not in an enumeration of statistics, but in the unsparing honesty with which he confronted his own emotions. “I was both more consistent and less heroic than Siegfried,” he wrote. Quoting Sassoon’s euphoric celebration of Armistice night (“Everybody suddenly burst out singing /And I was filled with such delight”), he admitted that his own reaction had been despair.

The news sent me out walking alone along the dyke above the marshes of Rhuddlan (an ancient battlefield, the Flodden of Wales), cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.

The locating of his anguish at “an ancient battlefield” was no accident. Graves may have dictated and revised at speed, but he had been brooding upon the futility of war for over 10 years. Goodbye was never intended to stand as a critique of one devastating war. Its purpose was – and it remains – to alert mankind to the horror and misery of all wars, for all time. It speaks to us now even more powerfully than it did to the warweary readers of the 1930s and 1940s.

War of the kind that Graves experienced has gone. Shire horses are no longer required to drag cannon into position. Soldiers do not equip themselves for battle with meat-knives mounted on broomsticks or with daggers modelled upon those used at Crécy. A private is unlikely to be kicked on the bottom in public for failing to make a smart salute. A butcher’s window will hopefully never again display (as Graves was told in 1914 by a soldier just back from the front) three naked women hanging by their feet. The technology of war has changed. The nature of war – the legacy of destroyed minds; the broken families; the lost lives; the ruined communities – has not. For as long as war is with us, Graves’s book has a purpose to serve, as a warning against impetuous leadership and a contempt for human life.

Less relevant, but always fascinating to anybody unfamiliar with Graves’s life story is the account that Goodbye offers of a turbulent postwar decade. Inaccurately reporting in the 1929 edition of Goodbye upon his marriage to young Nancy Nicholson in January 1918, Graves snobbishly banished his own inappropriately-dressed family from a smartly social ceremony while transforming a joyful bride (“This is fun!” Nancy had in fact exclaimed to her father, the artist William Nicholson, en route to be married at St James’s, Piccadilly in a floating blue-and-white check silk dress designed by Agnes Beerbohm) into a gauchely furious frump. Revisiting this “caricature scene” in the 1957 revision of Goodbye, when he had been married to Beryl Pritchard for seven years, Graves chose not to tone down or correct his earlier account. Neither did he properly credit the fiercely independent Nancy with her important role in leading a chauvinistic and rather conventional young husband to regard women as equal and even superior to men.

Writing Goodbye for the first time in 1929, when he was living entirely under the fierce spell cast by Laura Riding, Graves had been more generous to his wife. Riding, as it is easy to forget, had joined the careworn couple’s home – on the verge of their six-month sojourn in Egypt – at the suggestion of Nancy. The idea had been that this startlingly intelligent young American poet would provide intellectual company for Robert, while taking pressure off a young wife who, following the births of four children, was ill, run-down and depressed.

Life took another course. Following a disastrous attempt to set up a loosely domestic quartet with the husband of an understandably irritated fifth party (Norah McGuinness, the wife of Geoffrey Taylor), Riding had swallowed a bottle of household disinfectant and thrown herself out of a third-floor window. Graves, seemingly desperate to reach her, jumped from a lower window. He suffered minor injuries. Riding, having damaged her spine, broken her pelvis and crushed four lumbar vertebrae, was lucky to escape death.

The drama – one of those which have passed into literary history – took place in April 1929. Nancy immediately formed a relationship with Geoffrey Taylor, the man whose obdurate resistance to her own desires had caused Riding to take her suicidal leap. Graves, allying himself with the temporarily paralysed victim, wrote Goodbye in order both to raise money for his older children’s education (Amy Graves stepped in to help) and to subsidise a new life in Europe for himself and Riding, the demanding muse to whom he remained masochistically loyal until the eve of the second World War.

In 1929, Goodbye to All That ended with a ringing repudiation of all that Graves rejoiced to be leaving behind in an Englan that had failed to embrace Riding’s genius: “no more politics, religion, conversations, literature, arguments, dances, drunks, time, crowds, games, fun, unhappiness. I no longer repeat to myself: ‘He who shall endure to the end, shall be savèd.’ It is enough now to say that I have endured.”

Revising his bitter masterpiece in 1957, Graves disingenuously asserted that “little of outstanding autobiographical interest has happened since”. Riding’s role in his life was quietly diminished. A “bitter leave-taking of England where I had recently broken a good many conventions . . . and ceased to care what anyone thought of me” gave way to annoyance that his beloved island retreat in Majorca had become a major tourist destination (“I can’t pretend that I am pleased”). Robbed of none of its early ferocity by a series of light revisions and omissions, Graves’s extraordinary account of a war that had never ceased to haunt him survived triumphant and unscathed. With pardonable pride, he noted that his title had become a catch-word, “my sole contribution to Bartlett’s Dictionary of Familiar Quotations”.
This is an edited version of the introduction by Miranda Seymour to the Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classics edition of Goodbye to All That

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