Goodbye to All That

French_trench_battle

Goodbye to All That has, for as long as I can remember, been billed to me as the World War I book. Sod Birdsong. If I really wanted to understand realities and horrors of life in the trenches, Robert Graves’ memoir was the place to start.

Having never read anything by the author previously I had grave (no pun intended!) doubts about reading a ‘war’ book in the middle of summer. Was this the right time? Did I really want to find myself knee-deep in mud and guts in the middle of August? Still suffering from a months-long reading slump I knew that drastic measures were needed and finally put my doubts aside to go down a more esoteric reading route this summer…

Goodbye to All That is a memoir that reaches beyond Graves’ war experiences, also providing a witty account of his childhood; from the terrors of Charterhouse School to accounts of visiting quirky family members out in Bavaria. He is, despite the subject matter, equally British and droll in his sharply realistic accounts of life as an officer of the Royal Welch Fusilliers during World War I. Anyone expecting romanticism from this famous war poet will be disappointed. Graves’ writing is permeated with descriptions of trench warfare so searingly clear and slaughter so commonplace that this could only come from the pen of a man who witnessed it first hand. A man who would suffer from shell shock for the rest of his life.


55428This will always be the World War I book to read; and a bloody good one at that. Far from being maudlin and depressing, this was just the piece of quality writing I needed to haul me out of my reading rut and I haven’t looked back. Graves betrays his genius with a memoir that is, bizarrely, really very uplifting. A portrait of courageous men, women and animals caught up in the most horrifying and inexplicable of circumstances and, for those who remain standing, dealing with it. There is some seriously black humour as Graves and his colleagues crawl over the bodies of their dead friends, some completely nerve-wracking descriptions of battles and no glorification, just realism. A real landscape with real mud and blood you can well imagine (god forbid) your own loved ones having to wade through in the name of what exactly? It didn’t seem many of the Tommies knew either…

The inclusion of Graves’ life both preceding and immediately following the war was both a pleasant surprise and gave much-needed context and contrast with the wartime chapters. Unsurprisingly, the military dramas that take over the majority of the book meant that even the appearance of the notorious T. E. Lawrence (aka. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’) in Graves’ post-war life could not transform the final chapters to anything approaching the interest and intrigue of the former, meaning that the book does fizzle out rather towards the end. You can’t have everything I suppose.

Although Graves obviously survived his ordeal to tell the tale, it is testament to his great skill as a storyteller that, despite knowing this, the reader can still retain a certain suspension of disbelief that leaves us fearing for his life throughout the entire memoir. The fact that I found myself even faintly intrigued by battle tactics (or lack thereof) and the idiosyncrasies of the various regiments Graves found himself shipped off to further highlights the absorbing nature of this wonderful book. Doubtlessly the must-read for anyone wanting to understand a fraction of the shambles that was the First World War. Wonderful.

Which is the ‘best’ World War I novel in your eyes? Do you think reading about war is depressing or that we should use reading to confront subjects that make us feel uncomfortable?

4 thoughts on “Goodbye to All That

  1. I’m not hugely familiar with WWI fiction. Besides Birdsong, I’ve read 1/3 of Pat Barker’s famous trilogy. Another recent work I can think of is Wake by Anna Hope. I keep meaning to pick up Parade’s End, but the length is daunting. Especially when it comes to WWII novels, war stories are so familiar that to get my attention a book has to do something new and different. I don’t really ‘like’ war fiction as such, but I think it can be important in that it teaches us about conflicts we might not know about (for instance, Girl at War or A Constellation of Vital Phenomena) and increases our compassion towards the people caught up in them.

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    1. There are classics like this one that will just never be beaten but I know what you mean about originality, particularly when it comes to WWI & WWII fiction. I’m dying to read HHhH for this very reason.

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  2. Good on you – even if it’s a classic, I’m not sure I could read this. I wish I was strong enough to learn more through reading more about wars, even fiction, but I’m reluctant to find out more about the bloody reality. Thanks for the post tho – it’s through encouragements llike yours that I could one day pick it up. It’s important to support the authors prepared to tackle these issues.

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