Reading Goodbye To All That

In Goodbye To All That, Robert Graves describes very frankly both amorous male relationships in the English boarding schools he attended, the education he received, the torments he suffered in its peculiar (to me) social setting and the realities of trench warfare during World War One. The book was published in 1929.

It’s hard not to want to compare it to Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Set next to Goodbye, Arms reads like a fantasy. Of course it’s about a fantasy that is eventually crushed; the way the War crushed the Old Ways of seeing and experiencing the world.

Goodbye reads like, well, an unflinching look into a particular kind of childhood education and how it could not possibly prepare someone for “serving God and Country” in fighting that war. Not that anyone could ever really be properly (is it even “proper?”) prepared for the realities of war. There are plenty of well-trained young men and women who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan physically and internally damaged from their experiences.

Through the first part of the book there is a lot of Graves describing an individual he had known and then saying “and he was killed in the war.” If it sounds overly dark, it is not. Graves has an excellent style of wry understatement that captures the absurdity of bureaucracy and Britain’s class system.

On arrival at the Depot, we Special Reserve officers were reminded of our great good fortune: if the War lasted, we should have the privilege of serving with one or the other of the Line battalions. In peacetime, a candidate for a commission had not only to distinguish himself in the passing out examination at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and be strongly recommended by two officers of the Regiment, but to possess a guaranteed independent income that would enable him to play polo and hunt and keep up the social reputation of the Regiment. These requirements were waived in our case; but we were to understand that we did not belong to the ‘Regiment’ in the special sense. Permission to serve with it in time of war should satisfy our highest military aspirations.

So unfortunate that those without “independent income” were allowed to sully the social rep of the regiment, a necessary evil to fighting the war. By the end of the war, the polo “requirement” had been done away with out of practicality, along with the horse-riding lessons officers had to take. Goodbye to that.

The War killed large numbers of the upper classes (officers). Graves describes one battalion suffering over 700 casualties and another over 500. That’s just from one day in the war. Yet another failed attempt to leap out of their trenches to capture a German-controlled trench. Trench warfare was ugly, brutal, and stagnant.

Graves also shows the dislocation he and other soldiers (like his friend Siegfried Sassoon) felt when on leave back home. They could not adequately describe the monumental differences between the war they were experiencing in the trenches and the war as reported and cheered for with Patriotic fervor on the home front.

When the War finally came to an end, Graves married and he and his wife had a child. He had difficulty adjusting to civilian life. This was in the days before “debriefing” or “PTSD.”

But not only did I have no experience of independent civilian life, having gone straight from [boarding] school into the Army: I was still mentally and nervously organized for War. Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight, even though Nancy shared it with me; strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed. When strong enough to climb the hill behind Harlech and revisit my favourite country, I could not help seeing it as a prospective battlefield. I would find myself working out tactical problems, planing how best to hold the Upper Artro valley against an attack from the sea, or where to place a Lewis gun if I were trying to rush Dolwreiddiog Farm from the brow of the hill, and what would be the best cover for my rifle-grenade section. I still had the Army habit of commandeering anything of uncertain ownership that I found lying about; also a difficulty in telling the truth—it was always easier for me now, when charge with any fault, to lie my way out in Army style, I applied the technique of taking over billets or trenches to a review of my present situation. food, water supply, possible dangers, communication, sanitation, protection against the weather, fuel and light—I ticked off each item as satisfactory.

It brought to mind a friend of mine who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He can no longer enjoy fireworks. Which tends to mute the fun of the 4th of July for him.

Picking up Goodbye To All That on a whim at a used bookstore was a very good thing. It’s an example of why browsing through used book stores is always rewarding to me.

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