Book Review: Good-Bye to All That

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Initially published in 1929, Good- Bye to All That is the autobiography of author and poet, Robert Graves.[1]In his introduction to the book, author and World War II veteran Paul Fussell states that this is “the best memoir of the First World War.” He may be right. Graves, who was a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, writes of his life from being raised in a well-to-do family, his experiences at boarding school, his activities during World War I, and how the war impacted his future. Aside from being an indispensable tool for teaching about the Great War, this book is also an excellent resource for social history and literary criticism. Students, formal and otherwise, young and old, will discover for themselves to what Graves is saying good-bye.

Robert Graves said good-bye to many things; militarism, class distinction, mindless chatter, organized religion, and most especially, authority. At the root of all of these “good-byes” was his desire to be rid of political, religious, and societal pretenses. As a young boy, he was constantly exposed to the belief that one social and financial class was superior to another. Graves himself witnessed the class distinction himself as a child when he engaged in sports. Prior to exposure to a diverse group of youngsters playing cricket, Graves had been raised in a culturally homogenous setting. He gives an example of being hospitalized as a child when he contracted Scarlet Fever. In the hospital ward, the similarly afflicted boys were all dressed alike in hospital gowns and suffered in the same manner. There was no evident distinction between the boys as they were all in uniform dress and condition. When he learned to play cricket; however, he realized that the boys with whom he was playing were not of the same socio-economic class as himself. Their dress, deportment, and manners were all vastly different from what Graves had previously been exposed. Graves remembered this and later describes the soldiers in the trenches and the blurred lines of authority during battle.

Having endured the domination of Masters and upper classmen at his boarding school, Charterhouse, one might assume Graves to be a natural fit for the military. He was a commissioned officer at a young age yet found it difficult taking his first command over seasoned and experienced soldiers. Graves exposes his great humility when describing his feeling of inadequacy when standing before these men. This also highlights his difference from other officers in that he was keenly aware that rank, like social class, did not make him superior. This humble and logical notion was glaringly absent among his commanding officers. His gives the example of his first visit to the trenches and his exposure to the different classes of soldiers. The trench soldiers lived where they fought. They slept outside in the elements and ate the same limited food daily. Upon arriving at battalion headquarters, he noticed tablecloths, glassware, and other amenities reminiscent of home. The officers were relatively clean and living in a civilized manner while the men who were doing the actual fighting were denied even a clean pair of socks.
  1. Robert Graves, Good-Bye to All That (1929, repr., New York: Anchor Books, 1998).