Robert Graves became one of the foremost poets of World War One. Graves went on to achieve even greater fame not through his poetry but as a result of his book about his war times experiences “Goodbye To All That”. Along with Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brookes, Robert Graves is considered to have been one of the few poets who were capable of putting onto paper the sheer horror of trench warfare.
Robert Graves was born on July 28th 1895. His father, ‘A P’, was from Irish stock while his mother, Amalia (Amy), had a German family. Whereas his father was seen as being witty, light-hearted and amenable, his mother was very serious and viewed by those who knew her as lacking a sense of humour.
After a series of prep schools, Graves went to Charterhouse. While at this school, Graves became very influenced by a teacher there called George Mallory – the man who died in 1924 in his ascent of Mount Everest. Mallory imparted in Graves a love of literature, and poetry in particular. Graves wrote poetry for the school magazine, which he later co-edited.
Graves won a classical exhibition to St. John’s College, Oxford University. In his spare time he developed his poetry or, encouraged by Mallory, he developed a keen interest in climbing and mountaineering.
In 1914, when war was declared, Graves gained a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers – using his time in the Charterhouse OTC to justify this. His war experience started by looking after interned aliens at a camp in Lancaster. Though Graves wanted to go to France, his commanding officer believed that he was not yet of the right calibre to embark on such a journey having only recently come out of school. A boxing match against a hardened NCO convinced his c/o that Graves was, perhaps, now ready for war.
However, he was not sent until May 1915 and he served with the 2nd Welsh Regiment. Graves commanded a platoon of forty men. According to the stories told in ‘Goodbye To All That’, one of his men was a 63 years old survivor of the Boer War while several were boy soldiers aged 15. In July 1915, Graves was sent to join the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Laventie. While here, he recorded in his book that the officers in the RWF failed to take the war seriously and saw that to them it was far more important to keep up regimental traditions. These traditions Graves referred to as “childish”.
The first real war experience that Graves had was at the Battle of Loos. What Graves referred to as a “bloody balls-up” resulted in only five company officers from the RWF surviving. The poem ‘The Dead Fox Hunter, In Memory of Captain L. Samson’ was written about this battle.
In November 1915 Graves met Siegfried Sassoon at Locon, north of Cambrin. Sassoon was to write about Graves in ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Soldier’ where he appeared as David Cromlech – a man who believed everyone should know his opinion and whose appearance was ‘deplorably untidy’. Despite writing that Cromlech would grow up into a “bumptious young prig”, Sassoon greatly respected Graves. While at the front they tried to forget about the war by discussing literature, especially poetry.
After leave when he spent time in the hills around Harlech, Graves returned to France on June 27th 1916 with the rank of captain. He arrived too late to be involved in the first days of the Battle of the Somme. In the second week of July he moved in to the Somme battlefield – near to Mametz Wood where the 38th Welsh Division had suffered many casualties. He had to camp near to where many bodies still lay on the battlefield – “a certain cure for the lust of blood”.
On July 19th, Graves was severely injured at High Wood when a German shell exploded and fragments from it hit Graves in the chest. Graves was, in fact, given up for dead and he survived being buried as a war casualty when he was seen breathing while being carried to his burial. His parents even received a letter informing them of his death – one day after receiving a letter from Graves himself informing them that he was recovering from his wounds. The whole incident is recalled in the poem “Escape”.
The wounds Graves received at High Wood did a great deal to test his nerves. Graves was pronounced as being unfit for duty and was given time on leave. He was sent to Oxford University where he worked as an instructor in the University Officer Training Battalion. During this time he met up with Sassoon just as the latter was publishing his “Wilful Defiance”. Graves used his contacts in the RWF to ensure that Sassoon was treated as someone with what would now be referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder. Had Graves not done this, Sassoon could have been in very serious trouble and could have faced a court martial.
While Graves is best known for “Goodbye To All That”, he also wrote poetry that showed very clearly his close association to the men he led – and to those who died. In 1916, he had published “Over the Brazier” and in the following year “Fairies and Fusiliers”. After the war Graves effectively ignored these works.
Post-war, Graves found fame for his autobiography and for ‘I Claudius’ and ‘Claudius the God’.
Robert Graves died in 1985.