Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves (1929) 360 p.

In the preface to the 1957 edition of Goodbye To All That, the poet Robert Graves describes this memoir as his “bitter leave-taking of England,” a phrase which now pops up in pretty much any discussion about it. It follows his early life in an English public school, his time as an officer on the Western Front in World War I, and his life as a veteran studying at Oxford and later teaching at a university in Cairo.

The World War I section comprises the vast majority of the book, with his life’s other experiences bookending it as though they’re mere afterthoughts; although I suppose being a war veteran might be very much like that. Graves’ memoir is clear, unsentimental and quite reserved; he doesn’t openly analyse the politics behind it or discuss to any great extent the feelings and motives of himself or his fellow soldiers. It has a bit of a stiff upper lip feeling to it. You can nevertheless feel the resentment simmering below the surface, particularly when he deals with jingoism on the home front or his incompetent and arrogant superior officers (at one point, after reporting on a particularly bloody battle while his CO eats a beef dinner in his dugout, Graves is reprimanded for allowing his company’s uniform standards to slip).

The emotionally distant nature of the account means you have to do a lot of reading between the lines. Graves seems to possess strange, conflicting feelings of disgust with England and the home front and a bitter attitude to the war itself, and yet also a burning desire to return to the trenches. It’s exactly the same sort of feeling expressed by Siegfried Sassoon in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy of fictionalised historical novels, which is no coincidence, since Graves and Sassoon were close friends and Sassoon appears often in Goodbye To All That; in fact, the military tribunal convened to judge Sassoon for his open letter denouncing the war at the beginning of Regeneration is told here from the perspective of Graves, who was instrumental in influencing the panel to have Sassoon sent to a mental hospital rather than a prison. It’s quite odd reading about the same character in both fiction and non-fiction, but also very interesting. (Similarly, in his later time at Oxford he’s chums with Lawrence of Arabia.)

I thought I might be tired of stories about World War I in the same way that I’m tired of stories about World War II, but what I found so compelling about Graves’ dispassionate account was the close, first-hand account of day to day life in the trenches: the logistics, the geography, the little details and trivia, like how the soldiers would heat the water for their tea by firing off hundreds of rounds from the machine guns at nothing in particular, how generally despised the avaricious French locals were by the English troops, and some very shocking details about war crimes. (In particular, I have no doubt that most Australians would stubbornly and stupidly refuse to believe an account Graves gives of an Australian soldier who boasts of having murdered captured Germans; nationalism and othering is as strong today as it ever was.) There are details about the shoddiness of their gas masks, long accounts of stratagems during particular battles, descriptions of the experience of crawling across no man’s land at night – for a direct account of life in the trenches, this is really solid stuff.

And it’s also, as any honest account of World War I should be, a testament to the sheer revolting loss of it all. There’s a particularly sombre moment as Graves and his wife go bicycling through southern England a few years after the end of the war:

We rode across Salisbury Plain in the moonlight, passing Stonehenge, and several deserted army camps which had an even more ghostly look. They could provide accommodation for a million men; the number of men killed in the British and Overseas Forces during the war.

The total number of soldiers killed on all sides was 10 million; add civilians, and the death toll rises to 17 million. That’s a genocide, a holocaust. Imagine how many artists and inventors and entrepreneurs and leaders and thinkers and statesmen and writers the world was robbed of; how many minds, how many individual worlds, we lost to that pointless, useless, meaningless war.

For some time now – or perhaps since the war itself, judging from Graves’ account – we have sanctified the “fallen” soldiers of WWI. (I hate the euphemism “fallen.” They were gassed, shot, bayoneted in the stomach, buried alive in mud from collapsing trenches, had their throats cut by German patrols after being wounded in no man’s land, died of septicaemia, burned alive in airplane crashes, committed trauma-induced suicide, and on and on and on.) The war itself has become aestheticised – the poppy, in particular, is a pretty flower that has come to muffle grisly realities. The problem begins when we (the civilians) demand to consider Our Lads as heroes rather than victims. This feeds into the same glorification of violence and combat that led in the first place to the mass enlistment of young men who had no idea what they were getting themselves in for. It still leads to kids enlisting for our endless string of wars in the Middle East today. It’s the same base notion that leads to young, Western Muslim men absconding to join Islamic State.

After the war Graves is asked to speak at a commemoration ceremony, and this is one of those few passages in which we glimpse his inner anger:

[The rector] suggested that I should read war-poems. But instead of Rupert Brooke on the glorious dead, I read some of the more painful poems by Sassoon and Wilfred Owen about men dying from gas-poisoning, and about buttocks of corpses bulging from the mud. I also suggested that the men who died, destroyed as it were by the fall of the Tower of Siloam, were not particularly virtuous or particularly wicked, but just average soldiers, and that the survivors should thank God they were alive, and do their best to avoid wars in the future. Though the Church party, apart from the liberal-minded rector, professed to be scandalised, the ex-servicemen had not been too well-treated on their return, and liked to be told they stood on equal terms with the glorious dead.

In the 21st century, far more US soldiers commit suicide than die in combat, and very few Americans know that. It’s easier and neater and more reassuring for us to venerate the dead rather than to grapple with (and pay for) the mental health issues of the living – let alone question why we did this to them at all. In the centenary of World War I, Goodbye To All That remains an important and valuable book.