Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Good-Bye to All That
Reviewed by Michael Kihntopf

Good-Bye to All That

An Autobiography of Robert Graves

Published by  Anchor Books (Doubleday), 1957 and 1985 

Written while Graves was convalescing from wounds, Good-Bye to All That was first published in 1929. The author revised it in 1957, as he wrote in his new prologue, to correct errors and fill out areas earlier left vague because of wartime censors, because he didn't wish to hurt still living friends, and because he didn't originally know all the facts surrounding the incident he was writing about.

Good-Bye to All That is definitely an autobiography, and because it is self-written, some of it should be scrutinized using other sources as references. The first chapters delve deeply into the author's family, recounting numerous ancestors, relatives, acquaintances, and various other people who came into contact with the aforementioned people. The list of the people who crossed Graves's life before the Great War is quite dizzying and reads as a who's who of the British, German (his mother's contribution), and Irish literary and political world. But those chapters do more than name-drop. They paint a socio-scape of life before the Great War à la Downton Abbey and provide a very detailed exposé of the British public school life from the student's stand point. It is almost as if the author laments the passing of that world.

Order Now
The meat of the work is in Graves's description of his service with the Royal Welch Fusiliers from 1914 through 1919. The reader is provided with minute details about one of the most honored and oldest regiments in the British Army, details which include uniform accoutrements and how junior officers were to deport themselves at mess or when interacting with officers who had been with Kitchener in the Sudan and South Africa. Although Graves found the atmosphere stifling, he apparently highly respected it and used it as a benchmark when dealing with those who replaced the Old Guard when they became casualties.

He makes that quite clear when he assesses replacement officers he trains in 1917: Though the quality of the officers had deteriorated from the regimental point of view, their greater efficiency in action amply compensated for their deficiency in manners. Once again, there is a regret that things have changed. Graves's detailed accounts of the Battle of Loos in which he participated and trench life are masterpieces but bear the marks of an after-the-fact summation. Nevertheless, he provides both a strategic and tactical picture that clearly defines how ill prepared the pre-1914 army was for conducting war against a similarly armed and led European army.

A reader must be aware of just who Robert Graves was as he scans through these pages. The author was a poet of great renown whose work brought him acclaim during and after the war. His popularity was rewarded by being one of the sixteen Great War poets who are commemorated in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. Counted among his peers are Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. He was also the author of I, Claudius and Claudius the God. With his literary accomplishment in mind, the reader can be more appreciative of what is written in Good-Bye to All That. One can also assess just what the title was meant to convey: the Great War changed the world so much that those who lived before it would long lament the ways and people that made that world. This book has never gone out of print and for good reason.

Michael Kihntopf 


  1. It's a fascinating book.
    A few years ago I helped facilitate an online reading of the book, done in parallel with Vera Brittain's superb _Testament_. We arranged things so as to read events simultaneously.

  2. It gets reread at least once a year here.