That complete immersion in a book when you’re held fast by a writer’s voice, for hours, doesn’t happen for me as a reader as much as it did when I was younger. But it still happens. This week Robert Graves’s enduringly relevant memoir ‘Goodbye to All That’ transfixed me. It seems to contain everything that matters and makes it matter.
For a time, he lived and wrote close to our home, which was my motivation for reading the book (the timing of reading this book during the Week of Remembrance and Armistice events, though, is my second strange Graves coincidence since the summer).
The great majority of the text concerns his participation in The Great War, aged 19 to 21; a period in which he went to the front three times, receiving a terrible shrapnel wound in one lung the second time out. After this near fatal chest wound, received at The Somme, he was placed amongst the fatal cases at the side of the field hospital and left to die with others whose wounds were deemed fatal.
His family were even notified of his death by wounds by the war office and his commanding officer. An aunt was the first to realise he was alive after happening across his name on a rosta in a military hospital ward, as she visited someone else (when he then realises that his belongings were stolen when wounded, I could have wept). The narrative of his being on a stretcher in a crowded hospital train while having his lungs drained of blood, made me feel shaky. By then, he was 21 and what he’d seen and experienced in three years would defy what most artists could even imagine of an actual hell.
This is one of war poems that gripped me as an undergraduate when I first came across it (he somehow wrote and published three volumes of poems during the war, this one edited by his dear friend Siegfried Sassoon).
A DEAD BOCHE
To you who’d read my songs of War
And only hear of blood and fame,
I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)
”War’s Hell!” and if you doubt the same,
Today I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:
Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.
The experience inspiring this poem is explored at greater length in the memoir and takes on a supernormal quality, set in the most wretched landscape, as Graves tries to find blankets for his troops (who would “have followed him into hell”, and did). The prose in that section is a marvel, a pinnacle of horror.
And yet, despite his and Sassoon’s incredible bravery as officers and frontline soldiers, their loathing of the war and the patriotic public – particularly Sassoon who risked everything by taking a public stand and throwing his military cross into the sea – to me seems to reach the very height of personal courage. I was left feeling that if they were representative of their generation, what mankind lost at the front remains incalculable.
Graves lived an extraordinary life but even by 1929 he counted amongst his friends, T. E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia), Thomas Hardy, T. S Eliot, Walter de la Mare, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, George Mallory (with whom he climbed), Vaughan Williams, Lytton Strachey, Arnold Bennet, John Galsworthy, Edith Sitwell, Edmund Gosse, John Masefield – and had met H.G. Wells (who spoke but didn’t listen). They’re all in the book.
Incidentally, his experiences with ghosts are some of the best encounters that I’ve read. There are three in the memoir – he came to think of one haunting as an “event” caused by the instability of time – but his discourse on the supernatural is terrific.
Anyway, I’ll sign off with this quote about how he and Sassoon’s views about the war had changed: “We no longer saw the war as one between trade rivals: its continuance seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder”.
I love the phrase “self-protective alarm”, a quote surely ripe for re-use in our times.
Ultimately, for me, the poets won, because whenever the Great War is remembered, I tend to think of them and I imagine the war through their senses.