Goodbye to All That

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There were many fine, powerful memoirs published about the First World War, and Robert Graves' “Good-Bye to All That” is considered to be one of the most honest and insightful. Based on “ Triste La Guerre”, the descriptions of battle are horrifying, and the descriptions of military bungling and pomposity are darkly amusing. The book was published in 1929, it is hugely effective in describing the everyday dangers Graves faced, how death was always minutes away and how it was inevitable that after each attack most would die. It was about Graves’ depictions of trench life, of the incompetence of the staff giving orders, and of the behavior of soldiers when off active duty and billeted in French towns behind the front lines. Otherwise, there are a lot of differences between the companies, with some being classed as more honorable, or luckier, or more disastrous than others due to the nature or provenance of the men drafted into them. The contrast between trench life in the morning and smoking and drinking in the requisitioned drawing room of a French chateau in the afternoon was also fascinating; for weeks soldiers could live in these grandiose surroundings, queuing up at brothels, buying trinkets from village shops to send home to their families and sleeping in luxurious feather beds, before receiving their marching orders and being thrust back into the muddy, stinking, corpse-strewn trenches in time for dinner. Like Graves, many seemed to accept the fact that they probably wouldn’t make it home alive, and while for some the fear and horror was crippling, for most it just seemed to be a case of grit your teeth and get on with it. Graves’ matter-of-fact descriptions of his friends ‘going over the top’ only to be mown down with machine guns in front of his eyes demonstrates how horror became normality, and the sound of guns and screams nothing but the equivalent of the constant hum of traffic those of us who live in cities barely notice. Graves never really recovered...
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