“There is one story, and one story only.” R. Graves
I seem to read a lot of biographies lately. Here’s another one of them, but this one is special – it’s an autobiography.
As I said in the post of RFK’s book, a good biography needs an interesting life, and a good story teller. Most of the time, at least one is lacking. And in case of autobiographies, things get even dicier – what are the chances that a human had a life worth telling and the literary talent to do so?
Well, Robert Graves does. He was an English poet, born in 1895, died in 1985. If you’re good at math, that will tell you that he was 19 years old when the First World War broke out. He enlisted immediately as an officer in the Royal Welch (no typo) fusiliers.
He was in France within months. He fought in the Battle of the Somme, was wounded, met fellow poets Siegfried Sassoon and Thomas Hardy.
So this man has things to tell.
And he does it beautifully.
It is a book that blows you away with the matter-of-factness of its tone. Rather than telling you how desperate he felt in the trenches, Graves tells you what living in the trenches was like – and the reader feels the desperation in their own bones.
It’s a marvel of a book.
I have read my fair share of books about the First World War, but this one stands out because it tells the story of how the war impacted this individual human being. It brings the suffering down from a scale that the human mind cannot comprehend – after all, as Stalin said, ‘one death is a tragedy, a hundred deaths is a statistic’. But here, you see how a life was thrown out of its pre-destined path by this conflict.
Goodbye to all that, indeed.
There is a certain sense of remorse lying over this book – it’s almost as if the writer said goodbye to the world he grew up in, the one that will never be again.
Robert Graves, like a lot of upper-class families in England, had close family ties to Germany. His aunt was married to a German nobleman of some sorts, and he recalls visiting his cousins in Bavaria during their school breaks.
Later, he meets his relatives in less favourable circumstances:
“Well I have three or four uncles sitting somewhere opposite, and a number of cousins, too. One of those uncles is a general. But that’s all right. Among these enemy relatives was my cousin Conrad, only son of the German Consul at Zurich. In January 1914, I had gone skiing with him between the trees in the woods above the city. Conrad served with a crack Bavarian regiment throughout the war, and won the ‘Pour le Merite’, an order even more rarely awarded than the British Victoria Cross. Soon after the war ended, a party of Bolsheviks killed him.”
And this is how a lot of Robert Grave’s stories and anecdotes end. With death. After a while, it seems like everyone he knew – school friends, family, fellow officers – died. And then it hits you. That’s exactly what it was. This is not an exaggeration or a cherry-picking of facts – a majority of the people Robert Graves knew growing up died within a couple of years, one after the other.
Excuse me for putting another long quote in here, but the calm way Robert Graves explains the maths is bone-chilling:
“At least one in three of my generation at school died; because they all took commissions as soon as they could, most of them in the infantry or in the Royal Flying Corps. The average life expectancy of an infantry subaltern on the Western Front was, at some stages of the war, only about three months; by with time he had been either killed or wounded. The proportions worked out to about four wounded to every one killed. Of these four, one got wounded seriously, and the remaining three more or less lightly. The three lightly wounded returned to the Front after a few weeks or months of absence, and again faced the same odds.”
Just put yourself in his shoes. Try to remember as many of your school friends as you can, and then imagine one third of them being dead. Not just dead, but killed in one of the most brutal wars ever fought.
A girl that I went to school with died last year – it was an accident, and she was the first one of my graduation class to die. I didn’t know her that well and hadn’t seen her in over ten years, but still, the news of her death was weird to hear. I think it’s because you consider yourself immortal until people in your age group start dying.
So I tried imagining what it would be like to lose one third of the people I knew growing up – it’s a chilling thought. Something was lost during this conflict. It’s almost as if the First World War changed the psyche of humanity.
Goodbye to All That.
But there’s also moments in this book that make you laugh. It’s often a bit dark, but how could your humour not be dark in these circumstances?
So here’s one example… Dunn, Grave’s superior officer, talks about the trenches and ends up making a valid political standpoint about the state of the entente cordiale between France and Great Britain:
“‘About trenches’, said Dunn. ‘Well, we don’t know as much about trenches as the French do, and not near as much as Fritz does. We can’t expect Fritz to help, but the French might do something. They are too greedy to let us have the benefit of their inventions. What wouldn’t we give for their parachute-lights and aerial torpedoes! But there’s never any connexion between the two armies, unless a battle is on, and then we generally let each other down.'”
And then there’s the example of the sweepstakes – ‘a sweepstake of the sorts that leaves no bitterness behind it,’ as Graves writes.
Before a battle or skirmish, the platoon would pool all its available money and the survivors divide it up afterwards. As Graves writes: ‘Those who are killed can’t complain, the wounded would have given far more than that to escape as they have, and the unwounded regard the money as a consolation prize for still being here.”
If that doesn’t get you to feel for those people, what will?
And one last thing – Graves died in 1985. Which blew my mind, because for me, the First World War (and, by association, the people who fought it) were far more distant in history than that. But he only died a couple of years before I was born!
Okay. I think we all need a bit of a breather after this, so next week, we’re going shepherding in the Lake District.