I read this book almost by accident. My son had been asking about books about the First World War for a University assignment and I bought him this which wasn’t suitable for his purposes ,so I inherited it.
Born in 1895 Robert Graves was a British poet and novelist and this book, written in 1929 just before he left the UK pretty much for good, is a memoir of his experiences as a soldier in the Royal Welch Fusiliers during WW1.
The book is in three sections . The first deals with his young childhood in Wimbledon and then at a series of boarding schools where he was desperately unhappy. The largest section deals with his experiences as a young officer who joined up within a few days of the declaration of war; in the final part he tells us about his difficult transition into peacetime life and marriage following his demobilisation.
What I found remarkable about the book as a whole is how contemporary his voice sounded.
When talking about his unhappy schooldays, he is frank about he sexual exploitation of boys by older pupils and masters that was rife within the system.
The war passages are extremely powerful.Graves saw active service in the trenches in France and was wounded twice. He returned to France following his second and most serious injury but in a training capacity behind the front line.
He is brutally honest abut the mood of the soldiers fighting : ‘Patriotism, in the trenches, was too remote a sentiment,and at once rejected as only fit for civilians, or prisoners. A new arrival who talked patriotism would soon be told to cut it out.’
In fact he felt alienated on his return to England on leave and found it difficult to adjust to family life : ‘We couldn’t understand the war-madness that ran wild everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language.I found serious conversation with my parents all but impossible.’
He shows us the reality of the war where men were shot for cowardice on the most flimsy of excuses despite government denials : ‘…but cowardice was punishable only with death and no medical excuses would be accepted……….Executions were frequent in France.I had my first direct experience of official lying when I arrived in Le Havre in May 1915 , and read the back files of army orders at the rest camp.They contained something like twenty reports of men shot for cowardice or desertion; yet a few days later the responsible minister in the House of Commons….denied that sentence of death for a military offence had been carried out in France on any member of his Majesty’s forces.’
He is scathing about the Staff Officers safe behind the frontline whose poorly organised attacks and bungled bombardments read more like a plot line from Black Adder Goes Forth than a modern military campaign.
It was during the war that Graves began to write poetry and to be published. He developed a close friendship with the poet Siegfried Sassoon and kept up a correspondence with Wilfred Owen. It was to Sassoon that he was closest and they often went walking when home on leave or sick leave to discuss their work ‘We defined the war in our poems by making contrasted definitions of peace’
By the time of the Armistice in November 1918, Graves had been invalided out of active service and was training prospective officers in North Wales. The announcement of peace brought him no joy however as at the same time he also received the news of a death of a dear friend killed in action as well as that of Wilfred Owen.
He quotes from Sassoon’s poem :
Everybody suddenly burst out singing,
And I was filled with such delight
As prison birds must find in freedom…..
And adds grimly ‘ But ‘everybody’ did not include me’
Graves had got married towards the end of the War to Nancy, an artist and committed feminist who, much to Graves’ family’s disgust refused to change her surname. He describes a visit to the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy who, on being told the above exclaimed ‘Why you are old-fashioned my dear!!” explaining that he had known a couple in his village sixty years before who had done the same thing.
Graves, however, struggled to cope with the return of normality and the start of married. Suffering from what we now know to be shell -shock or battle fatigue he found ‘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……..My disabilities were many: I could not use a telephone, I felt sick every time I travelled by train, and to see more than two new people in a single day prevented me from sleeping’
He found , like the other returning soldiers, that the promised ‘land fit for heroes’ had been forgotten. ‘The Herald spoiled our breakfast every morning.We read in it of unemployment all over the country due to the closing of munition factories; of ex-servicemen refused reinstatement in the jobs they left when the war broke out, of market-rigging,lockouts and abortive strikes’
In 1919 he finally took up the Oxford scholarship he had been offered in 1914 where he got to know T E Lawrence then engaged in writing The Severn Pillars of Wisdom.
He had resolved to live by his writing if he could but with a growing family and a failed attempt at shop keeping behind him, he found it increasingly difficult to make ends to meet. Eventually his mother came to his aid buying a cottage in Islip, a small village near Oxford , and letting it out to the couple at a low rent. He was still embittered by his wartime experiences….the local vicar asked him to speak at the church War Memorial service as the resident ‘war hero’ and suggested that perhaps he could read some 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 had 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.’
The First World War will, of course, be a very topical subject in the coming year with all sorts of centenary events planned. Graves’ stand at that Memorial Service seemed incredibly modern . This book came as a complete surprise to me and I definitely recommend it.