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

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Eleven Great Quotes from Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That, 1929

Robert Graves, 1915

1.  The objects of this autobiography, written at the age of thirty-three, are simple enough: 

an opportunity for a formal good-by 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; 


2.  James Burford, collier and fitter, was the oldest soldier of all. When I first spoke to him in the trenches, he said: "Excuse me, sir, will you explain what this here arrangement is on the side of my rifle?" "That's the safety catch. Didn't you do a musketry-course at the depôt?" "No, sir, I was a re-enlisted man, and I spent only a fortnight there. The old Lee-Metford didn't have no safety-catch." I asked him when he had last fired a rifle. "In Egypt in 1882," he said. "Weren't you in the South African War?" "I tried to re-enlist, but they told me I was too old, sir... My real age is sixty-three."

3.  I protested: "But all this is childish. Is there a war on here, or isn't there?"  "The Royal Welch don't recognize it socially," he answered.

4Cuinchy bred rats. They came up from the canal, fed on the plentiful corpses, and multiplied exceedingly. While I stayed here with the Welsh, a new officer joined the company... When he turned in that night, he heard a scuffling, shone his torch on the bed, and found two rats on his blanket tussling for the possession of a severed hand. 

5.  Having now been in the trenches for five months, I had passed my prime. For the first three weeks, an officer was of little use in the front line... Between three weeks and four weeks he was at his best, unless he happened to have any particular bad shock or sequence of shocks. Then his usefulness gradually declined as neurasthenia developed. At six months he was still more or less all right; but by nine or ten months, unless he had been given a few weeks' rest on a technical course, or in hospital, he usually became a drag on the other company officers. After a year or fifteen months he was often worse than useless.

6.  Patriotism, in the trenches, was too remote a sentiment, and at once rejected as fit only for civilians, or prisoners. A new arrival who talked patriotism would soon be told to cut it out.

7.  Anglican chaplains were remarkably out of touch with their troops. The Second Battalion chaplain, just before the Loos fighting, had preached a violent sermon on the Battle against Sin, at which one old soldier behind me had grumbled: "Christ, as if one bloody push wasn't enough to worry about at a time!"

8.  Opposite our trenches a German salient protruded, and the brigadier wanted to "bite it off" in proof of the division's offensive spirit. Trench soldiers could never understand the Staff's desire to bite off an enemy salient. It was hardly desirable to be fired at from both flanks; if the Germans had got caught in a salient, our obvious duty was to keep them there as long as they could be persuaded to stay. We concluded that a passion for straight lines, for which headquarters were well known, had dictated this plan, which had no strategic or tactical excuse.

Robert Graves, 1929

9.  Nancy [Annie "Nancy" Mary Pryde Nicholson was Graves's long-suffering wife, 1918-1949] and I were married in January 1918 at St. James's Church, Piccadilly, she being just eighteen, and I twenty-two. George Mallory acted as the best man. Nancy had read the marriage-service for the first time that morning, and been so disgusted that she all but refused to go through with the wedding, though I had arranged for the ceremony to be modified and reduced to the shortest possible form. Another caricature scene to look back on: myself striding up the red carpet, wearing field-boots, spurs and sword; Nancy meeting me in a blue-check silk wedding-dress, utterly furious; packed benches on either side of the church, full of relatives; aunts using handkerchiefs; the choir boys out of tune; Nancy savagely muttering the responses, myself shouting them in a parade-ground voice.

10.  Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight, even though Nancy shared it with me; strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed... I could not use a telephone, I felt sick every time I travelled by train, and to see more than two new people in a single day prevented me from sleeping.

11.  In the middle of a lecture I would have a sudden very clear experience of men on the march up the Béthune–La Bassée road; the men would be singing... These daydreams persisted like an alternate life and did not leave me until well in 1928. The scenes were nearly always recollections of my first four months in France; the emotion-recording apparatus seems to have failed after Loos.


  1. Was that George Mallory the mountain climber? He's a fascinating figure on his own as well.

  2. Such a fine book.
    Thank you for the good extracts.

  3. Yes, George Mallory, the mountaineer. The book about his conquest of Everest, 'Into the Silence' by Wade Davis is excellent. The chapter of his and his experiences in the Great War is particularly fine.