Thursday, May 02, 2013

Peter Hitchens on Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That

Goodbye to All That

And then he turned his mind to the War. I suspect that Graves was genuinely physically brave, though not very conscious of it, in a way that many more people used to be. His description of his own very severe wound is either conscious and deliberate understatement or an example of the old-fashioned Protestant stoicism which we were all once taught to observe, but which has largely disappeared in the modern world. I suspect it is the latter. He seems genuinely not to have minded going out on near-suicidal missions between the front lines, and, while he muses on the chances of him being reduced by the grind and fear of war to a shaking wreck with soiled trousers, it didn’t happen to him( as it did to many strong and upright men). Though if he had not been so badly wounded, who knows? So-called shell shock was a great destroyer of minds, and there were, in my childhood, many mental hospitals where its worst victims were still said to lie, trembling and staring, never to recover from the horror of the trenches.

Graves, brought up in the Edwardian English upper middle classes, just seems to have assumed that this is what he was supposed to be. The description he gives of warfare is all the better for being so detached. It is plain from what he says that the generals were largely clueless, the quality of troops very variable, the Germans in general very effective fighters, the waste of life appalling, the conditions verging on the unspeakable. It is also plain that his eventual weariness with the war (like Siegfried Sassoon’s) was not in any way motivated by pacifism or any other sot of left-wing dogma. There’s a wonderful account of a conversation with Bertrand Russell at Garsington, in which he shocks Russell quite badly by explaining the true attitudes of the men serving under him.

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