A frank and enlightening account of Great War

Robert Graves
Robert Graves

by Dr Jack Binns

Of the many autobiographies written by Western Front veterans after the war, one of the most frank and enlightening was that of Robert Graves (1895-1985). In November 1929, he published Good-Bye to All That, a memoir of his early life which gave priority and prominence to his experiences in the front line. Later, he became deservedly recognised as a great poet and author of a number of historical novels, most notably I, Claudius. A revised version of Good-Bye, which corrected many factual and insulting inaccuracies, appeared in print in 1957, but it lacked the plain-speaking candour of the original, which was republished in 2014.

Soon after the war began, like so many others, Graves enlisted in the British army straight from school. His motives were far from patriotic: by joining up he delayed entry to Oxford the following October, which he dreaded; and he assumed that only regulars and reservists would be sent off to France and he would stay at home. Like almost everyone at the time, he also assumed that the war would be won in months. He was only eighteen years old.

It so happened that in August 1914, having just come down from Charterhouse boarding school, he was on holiday near Harlech in north Wales and the nearest regimental depot was at Wrexham. So there he joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers. However, as a public schoolboy with experience of Charterhouse’s Officers’ Training Corps, he was not allowed to go into the ranks: he was required to take a commission. In an elite line-battalion such as that of the Royal Welch, a candidate for a commission was expected to have distinguished himself at Sandhurst and possess an independent income sufficient to pay for his hunting and polo mounts and his officers’ mess bills; but in August 1914 some exceptions had to be made.

Graves finally arrived in France in May 1915. There he was assigned to a motley platoon of regulars and recruits both greatly over-age and under-age. The oldest was 63: he had last fired an obsolete rifle in 1882 and was unfamiliar with the safety catch on his Lee-Enfield. The youngest, who was 15, had the habit of going to sleep on his feet, so that the company commander had to order sentries not to lean on sandbags when they were standing guard.

Graves’s infantrymen made a clear distinction between regulars and “territorials”, who were despised by the former as “dog-shooters”. The young second lieutenant soon learned the crucial importance of regimental esprit de corps. Though it was only an accident that he had been commissioned into the Royal Welch, it soon became a matter of the utmost pride that he did not belong to “inferior” regiments, such as the Cheshires or the Black Watch, which did not have the same “impeccable” history. Every distinctive identification of the Royal Welch – their long list of battle honours, their even longer list of medals for gallantry, the unique black flash that they wore on the back of the tunic collar and, above all, the spelling of their name with a “c” not an “s” – associated the regiment with an older north Wales, not “of chapels, liberalism...Lloyd George and the tourist trade”. The Royal Welch even claimed that the original “Thomas Atkins” was one of theirs who had fought in the Peninsular war under Wellington. Regimental tradition was the glue that stuck officers and other ranks together when socially they were worlds apart.

The only expression of loyalty permitted in the trenches was, according to Graves, to each other. Patriotism and religion were for politicians and civilians back home, not for soldiers fighting for their lives at the front. Before going into the attack, the platoon pooled their cash and left it behind in the dug-out. If one of them was killed his money would be shared equally between the survivors and a proportion sent to his dependants. The proceeds went to buy booze and brothels: collective camaraderie was routine.

Graves’s men at the front had more respect for their German opponents than for their own senior officers and political leaders. In his view, not one in a hundred of them was “inspired by religious feeling”. Regimental chaplains, particularly Anglican clergymen, though not Roman Catholic padres, kept well clear of the battlefield.

At some time, nearly every front-line soldier tried to get himself a “blighty” or “cushy”. “Blighty” was derived from a Hindi word meaning “home” and “cushy” described a wound serious enough to carry a man permanently out of active service. Self-inflicted wounds were hard to disguise and severely punished and deliberate self-exposure to enemy fire might be fatal. Indeed, before steel helmets became standard issue, head wounds caused by sniper rifle fire were far more common than “cushy” ones to legs or arms. As Graves wrote later, after his first experience of trench warfare, he soon realised that “the best way of lasting...was to get wounded”; and to increase the chances of survival it was better to be wounded at night time on patrol in no-man’s land in a quiet sector. To be hit during a bombardment or in an assault meant that you were less likely to be rescued, treated or survive the journey to a dressing-station. How infantrymen conducted themselves in the front line depended greatly on regimental custom and morale. Graves observed many variations. Canadians had a reputation for not retrieving German casualties. Some battalions did not contest no-man’s land; others, like the Royal Welch, were determined to dominate it. In Graves’s own words, “trench feet was almost entirely a matter of morale”. Food at the front was plentiful if dull and monotonous, hard work in the open was healthy, but troops who were pessimistic and indisciplined neglected themselves, especially their feet in tight, wet boots and puttees. In his Royal Welch company trench feet were almost unknown.

In the early months of 1914 and 1915, much depended on the immediate pre-war experience of a regular battalion. One that had recently returned from a dozen or more years in India was markedly different from one that had not been abroad since the Boer War of 1899-1902. For instance, the Second Welch still wore shorts, treated French civilians as “n------” and kept their polo ponies behind the lines as though they were still in India not fighting a war in Europe.

But after two years, by July 1916, when Graves was severely wounded on the Somme battlefield, the British army on the Western Front was utterly changed. Time and time again, battalions had been annihilated and were replenished with new drafts. There were few regulars who had not been killed or disabled. Unlike their predecessors, the new volunteers had enlisted in the main “for patriotic reasons”. Significantly, “few of the new officers were now gentlemen” was a phrase omitted from the 1957 reprint of Good-Bye. The British army was becoming “the people’s army”.