He devotes a large part of the book to his experiences of the First World War, where he gives a detailed description of trench warfare, including the tragic incompetence of the Battle of Loos. Many readers will be interested in his secondhand description of the killing of German prisoners of war by British, Canadian and Australian troops. Although he had not witnessed any incidents himself and knew of no large-scale massacres, he knew of a number of incidents where prisoners had been killed individually or in small groups, and he believed that a large proportion of Germans who surrendered never made it to prisoner-of-war camps.
Graves was severely traumatized by his war experience. After he was wounded, he endured a five day train journey amid squalor and unchanged bandages. The trench telephone scared him such that he never lived with the technology for the rest of his life (he received an electric shock because the line was struck by lightning). Upon his return home, he describes being haunted by ghosts and nightmares. Laura Riding, Graves' lover, is credited with being a "spiritual and intellectual midwife" to the work, which made him famous.
Graves heavily revised his book and re-published it in 1957 with many significant events and figures either excised or added.
Graves states that the objects of his autobiography, written at the age of thirty-three, are simple enough:
... an opportunity for a formal good-bye to you and to you and to you and to me and to all that; forgetfulness, because once all this has been settled in my mind and written down and published it need never be thought about again.
His mother's father's family were the von Ranke's - Leopold von Ranke, his great uncle, was the first modern historian. His mother was sent to England at the age of eighteen as companion to a lonely old woman and met his father was at that time a widower with five children. His father's family - the Graveses - were Irish, his grandfather being the Church of Ireland Bishop of Limerick. His father is both a poet and an inspector of schools for the Southwark district of London and his early childhood is spent growing up in the family home in Wimbledon. The family also holidayed at his mother's house at Harlech in North Wales where Graves first began to climb to overcome his fear of heights.
He goes to Charterhouse where he was bullied for appearing on the school list as R. von R. (Ranke) Graves. He joins the school Poetry Society, consisting of only seven members, and is advised by a friend to take up boxing to cope with the bullying. He also has a relationship with a boy three years younger, called Dick, which gets him into trouble with his housemaster but is only reprimanded. His life at Charterhouse is also made more bearable by George Mallory, an unconventional master at the school, who befriends Graves and they go climbing together in Wales.
Graves is at Harlech when war was declared. He says he decided to enlist as:
... I thought it might last just long enough to delay my going to Oxford in October which I dreaded ... I entirely believed that France and England had been drawn into the war which they had never contemplated ...I was outraged at the cynical violation of Belgian neutrality.
He enlists with the Royal Welch Fusiliers at its Wrexham regimental depot but the Harlech golf secretary arranges for him to get a commission. His first duty is to guard an internment camp with 50 Special Reservists at Lancaster before he is sent to France in 1915. As one of six officers, he is attached - much to his initial disgust - to the Welsh Regiment, most of whose recruits are either over-age or under-age boys. Graves gives a graphic description of his first few months of trench warfare at Cambrin where he tries to avoid incoming shells and rifle bullets. His life is made easier by having a very civilised commander, Captain Dunn, who takes his junior officers into his confidence, and strikes up a good relationship with the Welsh infantrymen.
As the summer advances, new types of bombs and trench-mortars are introduced, new improved gas masks are introduced and there is heavier shelling. Graves also describes the constant mining going on by both the British and Germans in the Cambrin-Cuinchy sector. At the end of July, he and a fellow officer get orders to proceed to the Laventie sector to join the Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. They are met with a frosty reception by the adjutant and learn that the special reservists are held in low esteem by the regular officers, and there is none of the informality experienced in the Second Welsh Regiment. Junior officers below the rank of Captain - new ones are referred to as 'warts' - are not allowed to speak in the mess or use the gramophone. However, Graves finds it highly professional in warfare and, as a new officer, has to go out on night patrol - a risky venture as a German patrol would cut the throat of a soldier who was wounded and caught, just as the British would cosh a German to strip him of his badges to help with intelligence. He mentions that the German officers let their N.C.O.'s do patrols: 'They did not, as one of our sergeant-majors put it, believe in keeping a dog and barking themselves.'
An offensive against La Bassée as a part of the Battle of Loos is planned, and Graves is given leave (officers received it every six or eight months). He is surprised by 'the general indifference to and ignorance about the war' in London, and decides to spend the rest of his leave walking in the hills around Harlech. The Royal Welch relieve the Middlesex at Cambrin and are given their objectives and the use of gas - referred to as accessory - is planned in the assault. The assault takes place, with the Royal Welch supporting the Middlesex (whom they liked as they were drawn together in their dislike for the Scots or 'Jocks' in the Argyll and Sutherland), but it ends up a disaster. The men do not receive their normal rum ration and the gas spreads back into their trenches owing to lack of wind. Most of the companies in the assault are machine-gunned caught on the wire - the Middlesex and the Royal Welch B and C Companies, as well as the Argyll and Sutherland - but the Germans behave generously in letting the wounded be recovered that night. The assault recommences at 4 p.m. the next day but at 9 p.m. the attack is called off. This was the only period when Graves' relations with his men are like those he had with the Welsh Regiment (for example he calls his adjutant Charley) but later discipline reasserted itself.
There is a reorganisation at Annezin and Graves describes the general dislike for the French - 'we found them a thoroughly unlikeable people, and it was difficult to sympathize with their misfortunes.' The village peasants are greedy, despite receiving billeting allowance money and benefitting from the soldiers' spending (they received 4 shillings every ten days), and even watering down the beer - Graves sees barrels of already thin beer being watered from the canal with a hose-pipe.
Graves' remaining trench service with the Second Battalion that autumn is uneventful. He had now been in the trenches for five months and confesses to being past his prime:
For the first three weeks an officer was not much good in the trenches; he did not know his way about, had not learned the rules of health and safety, and was not yet accustomed to recognising degrees of danger. Between three weeks and four months, he was at his best, unless he happened to have any particular bad shock or sequence of shocks. Then he began gradually to decline in usefulness as neurasthenia developed in him. As six months he was still more or less all right; but by nine or ten months, unless he had a few week's rest on a technical course or in hospital, he began to be a drag on the other members of the company. After a year or fifteen months he was often worse than useless.
In November, Graves joins the First Battalion reorganising after the Loos fighting which delights him as it is easier to live in than the Second being less old-fashioned in its militarism and more human. It is at this time that he meets Siegfried Sassoon as Graves is getting his first book of poems - Over the Brazier - ready for press, and his battalion also gets a much earned rest with divisional training at Montagne in the back areas. Here, there is much more informal discussion about the war and everyone agrees that arms-drill was one of the main contributing factors for good regimental morale.
Graves rejoins the First Battalion in the line on the Somme. It is here that his friend, David Thomas, is killed by a bullet through the throat. Graves returns to London on leave in April 1916 for a nose operation in a military hospital in order to be able to use the new gas masks that have been introduced (his nose was broken in boxing and he had recently displaced the septum). He also buys a cottage near Harlech to be part of his mother's property portfolio and writes three poems. He rejoins the Third Battalion and a raid is planned against German lines in revenge for a German mine that wiped out most of B Company, but his role is simply to write it up for the regiment's records. Four days after the raid, they find out that they are due for the Somme and Graves joins D Company which is ordered to attack High Wood, along with the Cameronians and The Public Schools Battalion, the latter a ramshackle affair of non-entities. During this attack, Graves is wounded by an eight-inch shell and is transported to hospital; his Colonel believes he is dead and writes to his parents but Graves meets an aunt visiting the hospital who informs his mother that he is very much alive.
Graves and Sassoon meet up at Harlech where Sassoon is at work on his Old Huntsman. In December Graves passes a medical board and returns to the Second Battalion in January 1917. One night he and a Sergeant Meredith have to go out in search of two highly prized horses, escaped from a bombed transport limber, and Graves catches bronchitis (the horses were eventually found in the act of being disguised by a machine gun company of Fourth Division). He is sent to Oxford to Somerville College Hospital and here is able to have tea with the pacifists, Philip and Lady Ottoline Morrell, at Garsington Manor where he is able to meet writers like Aldous Huxley, Lytton Strachey and the Hon. Bertrand Russell, as well as Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy. Graves is then moved to a convalescent home for officers at Osborne House and befriends the French Benedictine Fathers at their new abbey at Quarr, managing to forestall their attempts to convert him to Catholicism.
Sassoon is shot through the throat during heaving fighting in the Hindenburg Line and, during his convalescence in England, writes 'Finished with the War - A Soldier's Declaration (July 1917). Graves has himself passed fit for Home Service (even though he is not) in order to lend support to Sassoon and manages to get him in front of a medical board, at which Graves is able to give evidence as a friend of the patient, and persuades the three board members to send Sassoon to a convalescent home for neurasthenics at Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, run by W. H. R. Rivers, a neurologist, ethnologist and psychologist, and it is here that Graves also meets Wilfred Owen, 'He was a quiet, round-faced little man.'
Graves ends up being sent to Oswestry, and renews his ties with the Nicholson family. He began a correspondence with Nancy - the daughter - about some children's rhymes which she was going to illustrate and, on his next leave in October 1917, realized he was in love with her. He visited her at the farm where she was working as a land girl at Hilton in Huntingdonshire. At Rhyl, Graves is given his first independent command, following an invasion scare of the north-east coast, and sees Nancy again in December, when he went to London, and they decide to get married (she was eighteen and he twenty-two), and George Mallory was the best man. A job is found for Nancy at a market gardener's near the camp at Rhyl and she comes to live with Graves and soon becomes pregnant, so stops her land work and goes back to her drawing. Sassoon writes that 'hospitable life was nearly unbearable; the feeling of isolation was the worst' and requests that he be returned to France rather than held in a training battalion, and Graves comments:
The fact was that the direction of Siegfried's unconquerable idealism changed with his environment; he varied between happy warrior and bitter pacifist.
Graves continues 'mechanically' at his cadet -battalion work, his hopes of going out to Palestine thwarted, as well as working on his book of poems, Country Sentiment, until the Armistice came in November 1918 and he describes his reaction to it: 'The news sent me out walking alone along the dyke above the marshes of Rhuddlan (an ancient battle-field, the Flodden of Wales) cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.'
Graves joins the Third Battalion of the Royal Welch after the birth of his daughter, Jenny, but after a while decides to resign his commission. He, Nancy and the baby move to the house in Harlech, that Nicholson lends them, and in October 1919 he goes up to Oxford, renting a cottage from John Masefield at the bottom of his garden on Boar's Hill - any area where a number of poets live, including the Poet Laureate, Edmund Blunden (attending the same course as Graves), and Gilbert Murray. Graves also meets T. E. Lawrence at a guest-night at All Souls', after he had just been given a college fellowship and they become close friends, with Lawrence making some improvements to Graves' The Pier Glass. He and Nancy also meet up with Thomas Hardy at his house in Dorchester on their bicycle ride to Devonshire. Following Nancy's helping out at her old nurse's fancy-goods shop, they decide to set up a shop at Boar's Hill which at first is successful, but the pressures of their growing family lead to them appointing a manager and trade drops off until, after six months, they are forced to sell at a five hundred pound loss. Disillusioned, they decide to look for another cottage and eventually find one at Islip, which Graves' mother buys and they rent for 10s. a week. Graves' association with the local Labour Party severs his relations with the local village gentry and makes relations more difficult with his parents.
Graves fails to sit his Oxford finals after his tutor, Sir Walter Raleigh, dies and he confesses that his writing - a volume of poems published every year between 1920 and 1925 - was below standard given the fact that he was having to bring up four young children and the distractions entailed. However, it was during this time that he became interested in dream-psychology as a means of curing himself. By 1926, most of their friends are either abroad or dead (Rivers, Mallory, Sam Harries, a young Balliol scholar). With Nancy in poor health and their finances in a poor state, Graves completes his thesis, Poetic Unreason, and takes up a post as professor of English Literature at the newly-founded Egyptian University at Cairo (one of his recommendations is from Colonel John Buchan). Despite enjoying the country, the job is unappealing and they return to Islip at the end of the academic year. After finishing a book on T. E. Lawrence (published in 1927 as Lawrence and the Arabs and very successful commercially), Nancy and Graves part company on May 6, 1929, and he finished this autobiography in just over a month, having, in his own words, 'learned to tell the truth - nearly.'
The uneasy sense of prophecy that preceded the Great War bore only a small relation to its actual reality. When the Great War came, it proved more terrible, more dehumanizing than any dystopian fantasy, more damaging to the European political and social order than any prediction. The writers who were to record it, of which Robert Graves was one, found that they had to forgo all lyricism, sentimentality or romanticism. The war was a crisis not simply for the subject matter of fiction - heroism and bravery, the value of the individual life and social history - but for its very power of representation.
The Great War, with its mass slaughter without victory, also challenged every traditional idea of warfare, and overthrew the decorums within which all writing of war and death had previously been contained. A vivid comment was made by the German critic, Walter Benjamin, who notes:
A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath those clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.
The fiction of the Twenties was dominated by the war novel; by 1930 it's estimated that seven hundred books had been written on the war. By the end of the decade, when it had become clearer how little the war had achieved in creating European stability or worthwhile social change, the climate of historical dismay, impotent outrage and anxious pessimism amongst Graves and his war contemporaries had greatly increased. This was made plain in a whole sequence of war, or in fact anti-war books, such as Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War, Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, R. C. Sherriff's Journey's End, Henry Williamson's The Wet Flanders Plain and Robert Graves' Good-bye to All That. Most of these works indicated that all the war had done was to leave its survivors and successors in a shattered, unmanageable, directionless world. As Graves himself describes his own shattered state on his return to civilian life:
I was still mentally and nervously organized for war; shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight, even when Nancy was sharing it with me; strangers in day-time would assume the faces of friends who had been killed ... I was very thin, very nervous and had about four years' loss of sleep to make up ...if I saw more than two new people in a single day it prevented me from sleeping. I was ashamed of myself as a drag on Nancy ... I knew that it would be years before I was fit for anything besides a quiet country life.