Life in The Trenches: An Inconvenient War?

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In Robert Graves’ memoir of World War I (WWI), he recounts both his childhood and military experience (albeit for our purposes we are only focusing on his military experiences) of being entangled in trench warfare in the French theatre of war. As WWI progressed, many soon realized that it was going to be a war of attrition. Unfortunately, most people still held the notion that war was very romanticized and full of glory. The number of casualties and reports of the front lines do not serve justice in comparison to the first-hand accounts that Graves presents. While admitting that he did have that same sense of romanticism, he soon realized that the war was much more different. Therefore, in titling his memoir ‘good-bye to all that,’ he may have been referring to the romanticized vision of war and enthusiasm shared by young men such as himself that ended after the harsh reality of the trenches set it.

Early in the memoir, Graves repeatedly exemplified the notion of romanticism. For example, he noted that “we [Great Britain] made a boast at our voluntary system” (Graves 60). This implied that in the early years young men were eagerly going to the war. Moreover, Graves himself exclaimed that he joined the army “for the sake of the war and not for the sake of a career” (59). Historically, a war like WWI had never been fought before. The advanced technology and trench warfare amounted to not only a long war of attrition, but a tremendous loss of life. In fact, Graves and the men he encountered believed that “at no time in the war did any of us allow ourselves to believe that hostilities could possibly continue more than nine months or a year more (103). This suggests that the men believed in the notion of a short, romanticized war where the soldiers would charge and overtake the enemy in a glorious fashion. There is also further testimony to this when Graves described the conditions of the trenches.

In Graves’ description of the trenches, he showed surprise and was utterly appalled at the horrific conditions. Once visiting one area, he noted that “there were dead men, sleeping men, wounded men, gassed men, all lying anyhow” (125).  This suggests that the presence of corpses and injury was very prevalent. Furthermore, Graves gave numerous descriptions of how many men he knew either wound up dead by some horrible fashion or he read about them in the obituary while back home. But after a while, “there was no horror in the continual experience of death” (13o). There were also numerous examples where men would commit suicide by either killing themselves or acting in a reckless manner (95). Even the propaganda of German atrocities was disbelieved after a while. Therefore, trench warfare was not what the young men who had enlisted had expected in going overseas to France. 

Even when he went home, Graves realized that people who have not experienced the war did not fully understand that it was not romanticized. On his first trip home, Graves remarked that ignorance about the situation in France was remarkable (109). Graves’ friend, S. Sasson wrote A Soldier’s Declaration, which noted that “the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize (196). This presented a clear dichotomy of attitudes toward the war. Surely the mothers who had lost many of their sons realized that it was a mess in France, but the public did not realize that war in the 20th century did not have the same characteristics as those in earlier years. Never before were men subject to gas attacks where Britain could not even provide sufficient protection for the men. Therefore, the soldiers who embarked on the war had this different mentality.

Even after the war, Graves’ life and behavior was ultimately changed for the worse after his graphic experience. Graves lamented that “I was very thin, very nervous, and had about four years’ loss of sleep to make up” (217). Even while hearing shrieks and yells in a house he was residing in England, he remarked that “I’m leaving this place, It’s worse than France” because it reminded him of the same type of shrieking and background noise he heard while staying in the trenches (175).  In reading about more trouble arising internationally (even years after the war), the horror of his memories overcame him and he decided to seclude himself in search for a cure for his post war state of fear and horror (235). Clearly, we see that his war time experience was not only what he expected but had implications on his life even after the war.

By saying “good-bye to all that,” Graves may have suggested that since eager young men who enlisted expected a romanticized war of earlier years, the trench warfare proved to be much different. The outrageous conditions of the trenches and extreme exposure to death implied a new mentality to war and attrition despite expectations. Moreover, notion of a shortened war without machine guns, gas and trenches was not expected and was an atmosphere that many back home could not grasp. While people did see the number of casualties and mothers lamented over their dead sons, they still could not truly fathom the conditions that the men were exposed to. Finally, the implications he suffered after the war clearly exemplified that his experience was very traumatic. Therefore, Graves’ good-bye was to not only his notion of a romanticized war, but also to his normal attitude toward life as he was severely disconnected with society and tainted as a human being.

Work Cited

Graves, Robert. Good-bye to All That and Other Great War Writings. 1929. Reprint. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 2007. Print.