notes from PhD land - I remember him
Feb 9, 2013
One of the great pleasures of being asked to co-teach a First World War Poetry course to 2nd and 3rd year undergrads is the chance to read or reread beautiful and/or poignant writing. Currently I’m making my way through (again) Goodbye to All That (GBTAT) by Robert Graves who served as a junior officer with the Royal Welch Fussiliers as well as being attached to the Welsh Regiment at the Front.
I first came across GBTAT when a dear friend of mine, David, who served as an English PBI (Poor Bloody Infantryman) shooter in the Second World War, handed it to me and told me it was a good read. At the time I was not sure I could tackle another stodgy account of the Great War – and how wrong I was, as GBTAT is anything but stodgy!
Recently I had the great fortune to come across a re-issue of the original 1929 text – with comments and corrections by Sassoon and Blunden and annotations by Graves’ nephew R.P. Graves. Graves heavily edited the original 1929 text and republished GBTAT in 1957, including editing the wild American poet and author Laura Riding out of his account, and R.P.Graves has wisely returned her.
There is nothing more rewarding to a scholar when reading work from almost a century ago than finding the writing lively, readable, poignant and evocative as I have found GBTA. Last week in the archives I spent a few hours reading a poet’s published account of her Great War and it was drearily disappointing. Her material is fabulous, but one can’t help think, “what a waste”. She became a prominent social figure and I wonder if this inhibited her style and frankness or if she simply was a lousy writer. Graves, as no one will be surprised to hear of a writer of his stature, is brilliant, funny, and astonishingly fresh.
I am particularly enjoying Graves account of his war. Not for the truly terrible – for that is a given – but for his descriptions of the men in the ranks. And I am particularly keen because his remembrances bring back so many for me of people I met along the way. In particular, Graves remembers how young men and old men lied about their age to get into the fight, then once they got over there and experienced the real thing, they weren’t hesitant to tell the truth about their real ages.
And I remember a soldier I met at Suffield, or maybe Shilo. Tall, tall, tall. He was in his mid-50’s and had re-enlisted after 20 years away. He wanted to get into the fight I believe he told me, or rather, he wished to experience the war zone. He went into transport (“it’s where they send bad soldiers”, the transport boys joked when I spent some time with them. “We all know the date and time that got us pulled from our rifle companies and put into transport”, they told me. And whether or not this is true, who knows, but I saw them at work in the field, in A’stan, and they had, or rather have, balls, balls, balls (including the women) – to use the vernacular. But back to tall, older soldier. He was an interesting fellow, not dissimilar to Graves’ colliers and painters whom he encountered at the Front.
I remember when I lay so sick with the dreaded GI in my little leper’s tent at Suffield, my little leper’s tent across from the chapel tent, the RQM’s (bless them) and the elusive sniper’s patch, where I lived on bagel chips and water and visits from the RQM’s crew – because they’d already “expunged” the dreaded GI from their systems – I remember tall, grey soldier, calling my name from outside my tent and inviting me to the chapel service. I grabbed a sweater (I slept in my long underwear inside my stinky army issue sleeping bag) and put on my long pants and boots and staggered over to the service alongside him. He spoke with a gentle southern English accent. Had a lifetime behind him, knew his prayers and hymns. Knew horses well. He walked me back to my tent. And that was the last I saw of him.
And this is the intriguing thing about a war. It brings disparate folk together. People one would never meet in a hundred years or in a hundred different places. And you share little moments with them – often little memorable moments. And the moments are memorable because so much is memorable at those times as one is so conscious that this might be one’s last year of life, or that the person one is sharing a meal with, it might be their last year of life – and indeed it was the last year of life for 12 among us. Always, in that environment of a road to war, or in a war zone, there is that tick-tick-tick-knowledge – even though the chances were mighty slim it might happen. We paid attention. Because it was always a possibility.
Read the original Goodbye To All That. You won’t be sorry.