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From the NS archive: Back to all that

11 January 1958: Robert Graves and the writing of the two world wars.

By Michael Howard

In 1958, a reissue of Robert Graves’s fabled account of the First World War, “Goodbye to All That”, prompted the distinguished military historian Michael Howard to compare the writing of the First and Second World Wars. The 1939-45 conflict, he said, had produced nothing to compare with the work, in both poetry and prose, that emerged from 1914-18. The reason, thought Howard, was because the idealism that underlaid the First World War had been swept away. What Graves had caught in his book was the changing of attitudes. With the Battle of the Somme in 1916 “the whole nature of the war – and of war itself – changed… It became a huge, drab, anonymous organisation which sucked in the men of the nation, processed them like hogs, and swept them along with the shrill approval of the popular press to a meaningless slaughter in conditions of unnatural horror such as no human being should ever have been asked to endure.”

Goodbye to All That first appeared in 1929. So did All Quiet on the Western Front and Undertones of War, while Memoirs of an Infantry Officer followed a year later: all in time to mould the minds of a generation of young men growing to maturity under the shadow of another war. We read them at school in horrified fascination, and learned to regard any form of war as a senseless and futile shambles, precipitated by criminals and conducted by fools, which no argument of “national interest” could ever justify again. Uncritically we swallowed the arguments of Bertrand Russell and Beverley Nichols, Canon Sheppard and AA Milne, and it took Hitler six years of very hard work to persuade us that though death was a fearful thing, shamed life was still as hateful.

What impression does [Robert Graves’s then reissued] Goodbye to All That, pruned, polished and fortified, make on us now we have survived yet another world war? My own reaction was surprise. This is certainly not the diatribe, packed with horrors, that I seemed to remember. It is a dispassionate account of life seen with the clear eye and described by the penetrating voice of the enfant terrible – albeit an enfant with a most adult perception of the tragic and the absurd. Horrible things happen in war, but Mr Graves does not raise his voice in recounting them: he writes of his experiences in the trenches in the same cool, Attic tones as he does of the eccentricities of his family, the beastliness of life at Charterhouse, the absurdities of university teaching in Egypt or the waning delights of love in a cottage. At times we catch echoes almost of Candide.

It is hard not to sympathise with the professional soldiers who found this outspoken and unorthodox young man a member of their mess. “The blighter’s never satisfied unless he’s turning something upside down”, one of them complained to Siegfried Sassoon. “I actually heard him say that Homer was a woman!”; but his Commanding Officer, while declaring that he threw his tongue about a hell of a lot too much and that it was time he gave up reading Shakespeare and took to using soap and water, added “I’m agreeably surprised to find that he isn’t windy in the trenches”.

Graves certainly wasn’t windy in the trenches. Like Sassoon he was a man of great natural courage and outstanding gifts of leadership, and this is the second surprise on re-reading the book – one who liked army life and had an affection bordering on veneration for the regiment in which he served. He soaked himself in its traditions; he respected even the most bloody-minded of its senior officers, and he loved and understood its men. The security and comradeship which a good regiment provides made much of the war tolerable and even happy for him. Here was no whey-faced aesthete whining about discomfort, but a good soldier presenting a fair balance sheet of the splendours and miseries of military life.

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It is this that makes his ultimate judgment that the war was insane all the more worthy of respect. His cold, almost off-hand condemnation carries infinitely more weight than the hysteria of Remarque, the exaggerations of Barbusse or the odious jeerings of Céline.

It took nearly a dozen years for the great writers about that war to produce their books. That time has now passed since 1945, and what have we comparable? There are the novels of Mr Waugh, elaborate studies in social disintegration, but unlikely to shape the minds of a new generation in the way in which Graves and Sassoon shaped ours. There have been innumerable works of reporting and a few memorable if lurid novels: The Young Lions, Look Down in Mercy, The Cruel Sea. Whatever their merits, such books do not deserve mention in the same breath as Goodbye to All That or Undertones of War; for these latter were the work of poets, and it was the clearness of the poetic vision, the clinical precision of their use of words, which made their impact so telling.

Sidney Keyes and Alun Lewis might have rivalled Graves and Blunden had they lived, and Dylan Thomas, had he been caught up more closely in the war, might have written something to surpass them both. But no such books were written. The Second World War was as poor in war literature as it was in war songs.

The explanation of this lies far deeper than in the accident that the men who might have written the books were not there, or were too old, or died too young. There is about the literature of the First World War an unrepeatable quality of disenchantment, stemming from the high hopes and selflessness with which that war began and the squalid horror into which it degenerated. The generation which fought in 1939-45 went into their war with no illusions at all, and the surprises in store for it were often pleasant ones – the discovery that campaigning might at times be almost agreeable, that boredom was an enemy more omnipresent than fear.

Nor were any illusions about the war nurtured by civilians at home; and the anger of books about the First World War was directed not so much at the horrors of battle as at the nauseatingly false picture of the war which reigned in the civilian mind. “Civilians talked a foreign language”, writes Graves, “and it was newspaper language.” For a sensitive man, life-or-death at the front was preferable to an England dominated by Northcliffe [owner of the Daily Mail] and [Horatio] Bottomley. It was not the least of the mercies of the Second World War that civilians showed no trace of the hysterical romanticism which flourished so rankly in 1914-18 as over-compensation for not sharing the ardours of battle. This time they did share the ardours of battle, and went about their lives in the real spirit of the battlefield: not of high endeavour, but of genuine comradeship, surprising endurance, and frequent, profane complaint.

The main hardships, for soldiers and civilians alike, were those of deprivation – personal rather than material – and waiting. Danger and squalor when they came seldom lasted for more than a few weeks. The worst ordeals were suffered by those whose tasks were dangerous as well as boring: bomber-pilots, sailors, RE bomb-disposal squads; and even these experiences have been better interpreted to us through the film than through literature. Incidentally, has any war-book dissected the innate paradoxes of military obedience so subtly and mischievously as did The Bridge on the River Kwai?

Finally, the Second World War did not, as did the First, seem increasingly senseless and ill-conducted the longer it went on. One had doubts about bombing, grave doubts about unconditional surrender, but no doubts whatever that Nazism must be destroyed at virtually any cost. Fortunately the military techniques and resources were this time available to destroy it with comparatively little sacrifice of human life. Yet, no nation went into the war with an enthusiasm comparable to that of 1914, when the youth of Europe, ardently convinced of the justice of their respective national causes, echoed Rupert Brooke’s paean of thankfulness to the God who had matched them with the hour.

There was nothing squalid or senseless about the battles of 1914. At Ypres was fought one of the greatest battles of all time, when division after division of young German reservists marched singing to their deaths at the hands of a slender line of British riflemen whose heroic stubbornness placed them, on the roll of national honour, far above their forefathers of Crécy and Waterloo. The following spring the British volunteers were to fling themselves no less ardently and uselessly against the German machine-guns at Neuve-Chapelle and Festubert.

Conditions at the front were horrible, but as yet they were no more horrible than those which the British Army had suffered before in the Crimea, in the Peninsula, and in countless campaigns in Flanders itself. But the Battle of Loos was an unmitigated and almost unprecedented disaster. There were not enough shells; the assaulting troops choked in their own gas clouds; and the handling of the reserve divisions betrayed the full incompetence of the General Staff. The British High Command resolved that such terrible incompetence should never recur, and it never did. Henceforward the artillery barrage was to be overwhelming; the staff-work would be meticulous, and reserves were piped to the front in a smoothly-flowing and inexhaustible stream. If in spite of this the German line still held, the sacrifices would not be in vain, it was felt, so long as the Germans were suffering more.

A new General assumed command, one who possessed not only the ability to organise this new form of warfare but the granite self-confidence necessary if he was to accept the terrible responsibilities it involved; and in assessing Haig one must remember that in 1916 the Germans themselves could see no solution to the problem of trench-warfare except that of attrition. Falkenhayn was to throw his men against the defences of Verdun as heedlessly as Haig threw his against the heights of the Somme. The failure was not one of individuals, but of an entire era of military thought.

Military historians, using the grisly measuring-rod of comparative casualties, can argue indefinitely whether the four-month agony of the Somme was a “success”. The question seems irrelevant. By any standards itwas a catastrophe. In those months of 1916 the whole nature of the war – and of war itself – changed. The army ceased to be a group of fighting units led by skilful and well-loved commanders. It became a huge, drab, anonymous organisation which sucked in the men of the nation, processed them like hogs, and swept them along with the shrill approval of the popular press to a meaningless slaughter in conditions of unnatural horror such as no human being should ever have been asked to endure.

In 1917 the French Army could endure it no longer, and the British share became even heavier. In the autumn of that dreadful year even the confidence of the High Command began to waver; and though the troops went doggedly on, their dull fatalism had little in common with the ardour of earlier years. Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart – and in the work of Graves, of Blunden and Sassoon we can watch this petrification at work.

It took three years for the soldiers to solve the purely technical problems of trench warfare, and they failed largely because they could not see what is in retrospect so obvious – that the problem was not one of strategy, or of morale, but one of weapons and tactics. In 1918 the deadlock was at last resolved, and then it was almost too late. The price of this failure was enormous. It included not simply the disintegration of the empires of Central Europe and the exhaustion of the democracies of the West, but the cynicism and despair of an entire generation and the collapse of a social structure which had endured for five hundred years. For some it was the collapse of a prison house, but the winds of liberty were to blow strange and chill. Mr Graves chose his title better than he knew. In the First World War, Europe said goodbye to a very great deal. We have been trying ever since to make ourselves comfortable in the ruins.

[See also: EH Carr on Kiev’s new railway station]

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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