In 1929, Robert Graves (1895-1985) published his powerful autobiography, Goodbye To All That, which was to become one of the most famous books ever written about life in the trenches on the Western Front. At the beginning of Chapter I he stated: 'The objects of this autobiography, written at the age of thirty-three, are simple enough: an opportunity for a formal good-bye 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; money.' The book gives details of his education at Charterhouse, his war service (including his relationship with Siegfried Sassoon, and his impression of Wilfred Owen), and the break-up of his first marriage.
Graves enlisted only a couple of days after War was declared although he states he only thought it would last 'two or three months at the very outside'. He joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers and after a few frustrating months at a training camp in Wrexham he found himself in the front-line at Cambrin. In Chapter XII of Good-bye To All That he details his first few months in the trenches. Below are some extracts from the book detailing Graves's initial impressions of trench life on the Western Front.
'In 1916, when on leave in England after being wounded on the Somme, I began an account of my first few months in France. Unfortunately, I wrote it as a novel and I have now to retranslate it into history. I will give one re-constituted chapter: On arrival in France we six Royal Welch Fusilier officers went to the Harfleur base-camp near Havre. Later it was to become an educational centre for trench-routine, use of bombs, trench-mortars, rifle-grenades, gas-helmets, and similar technicalities. But now we did a route-march or two through the French countryside and that was all, except for fatigues in Havre at the docks, helping the Army Service Corps unload stores from ships. The town was gay. As soon as we had arrived we were accosted by numerous little boys pimping for their sisters. 'I take you to my sister. 'She very nice. Very good jig-a-jig. Not much money. Very cheap. Very good. I take you now. Plenty champagne for me?' We were glad when we got orders to go up the line. But disgusted to find ourselves attached not to the Royal Welch Fusiliers, but to the Welsh Regiment.
The troop-train consisted of forty-seven coaches and took twenty-five hours to arrive at Bethune, the rail-head. We went via St. Omer. It was about nine o'clock in the evening and we were hungry, cold and dirty. We had expected a short journey and so allowed our baggage to be put in a locked van. We played nap to keep our minds off the discomfort and I lost sixty francs, which was over two pounds at the existing rate of exchange. On the platform at Bethune a little man in filthy khaki, wearing the Welsh cap-badge, came up with a friendly touch of the cap most unlike a salute. He was to be our guide to the battalion, which was in the Cambrin trenches about ten kilometres away. He asked us to collect the draft of forty men we had with us and follow him. We marched through the unlit suburbs of the town. We were all intensely excited at the noise and flashes of the guns in the distance. The men of the draft had none of them been out before, except the sergeant in charge. They began singing. Instead of the usual music-hall songs they sang Welsh hymns, each man taking a part. The Welsh always sang when they were a bit frightened and pretending that they were not; it kept them steady. They never sang out of tune. '
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'We marched towards the flashes and could soon see the flare-lights curving over the trenches in the distance. The noise of the guns grew louder and louder. Then we were among the batteries. From behind us on the left of the road a salvo of four shells came suddenly over our heads. The battery was only about two hundred-yards away. 'This broke up Aberystwyth in the middle of a verse and set us off our balance for a few seconds; the column of fours tangled up. The shells went hissing away eastward; we could see the red flash and hear the hollow bang where they landed in German territory. The men picked up their step again and began chaffing. A lance-corporal dictated a letter home: 'Dear auntie, this leaves me in the pink. We are at present wading in blood up to our necks. Send me fags and a life-belt. This war is a booger. Love and kisses.' The roadside cottages were now showing more and more signs of dilapidation. A German shell came over and then whoo - oo - ooooooOOO - bump - CRASH! twenty yards away from the party. We threw ourselves flat on our faces. Presently we heard a curious singing noise in the air, and then flop! flop! little pieces of shell-casing came buzzing down all around. 'They calls them the musical instruments,' said the sergeant. 'Damn them,' said Frank Jones-Bateman, who had a cut in his hand from a jagged little piece, 'the devils have started on me early.' 'Aye, they'll have a lot of fun with you before they're done, sir,' grinned the sergeant. Another shell came over. Every one threw himself down again, but it burst two hundred yards behind us. Only Sergeant Jones had remained on his feet and laughed at us. 'You're wasting yourselves, lads,' he said to the draft. 'Listen by the noise they make coming where they're going to burst.'
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'After a meal of bread, bacon, rum and bitter stewed tea sickly with sugar, we went up through the broken trees to the east of the village and up a long trench to battalion headquarters. The trench was cut through red clay. I had a torch with me which I kept flashed on the ground. Hundreds of field mice and frogs were in the trench. They had fallen in and had no way out. The light dazzled them and we could not help treading on them. So I put the torch back in my pocket. We had no picture of what the trenches would be like, and were not far off the state of mind in which one young soldier joined us a week or two later. He called out very excitedly to old Burford who was cooking up a bit of stew in a dixie, apart from the others: 'Hi, mate, where's the battle? I want to do my bit.'
The trench was wet and slippery. The guide was giving hoarse directions all the time. 'Hole right.' 'Wire high.' 'Wire low.' 'Deep place here, sir.' 'Wire low.' I had never been told about the field telephone wires. They were fastened by staples to the side of the trench, and when it rained the staples were always falling out and the wire falling down and tripping people up. If it sagged too much one stretched it across the top of the trench to the other side to correct the sag, and then it would catch one's head. The holes were the sump-pits used for draining the trenches. We were now under rifle-fire. I always found rifle-fire more trying than shell-fire. The gunner was usually, I knew, firing not at people but at map-references - cross-roads, likely artillery positions, houses that suggested billets for troops, and so on. Even when an observation officer in an aeroplane or captive balloon or on a church spire was directing the gun-fire it seemed unaimed, somehow. But a rifle bullet even when fired blindly always had the effect of seeming aimed. And we could hear a shell coming and take some sort of cover, but the rifle bullet gave no warning. So though we learned not to duck to a rifle bullet, because once it was heard it must have missed, it gave us a worse feeling of danger. Rifle bullets in the open went hissing into the grass without much noise, but when we were in a trench the bullets, going over the hollow, made a tremendous crack. Bullets often struck the barbed wire in front of the trenches, which turned them and sent them spinning ;n a head-over- heels motion - ping! rockety-ockety-ockety-ockety into the woods behind. '
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'Battalion headquarters was a dug-out in the reserve line about a quarter of a mile from the front companies. The colonel, a twice-wounded regular, shook hands with us and offered us the whisky bottle. He said that we were welcome, and hoped that we would soon grow to like the regiment as much as our own. It was a cosy dug-out for so early a stage of trench-warfare. This sector had only recently been taken over from the French, who knew how to make them- selves comfortable. It had been a territorial division of men in the forties who had a local armistice with the Germans opposite; there was no firing and apparently even civilian traffic through the lines.) There was an ornamental lamp, a clean cloth, and polished silver on the table. The colonel, adjutant, doctor, second-in-command, and signalling officer were at dinner. It was civilized cooking, with fresh meat and vegetables. Pictures were pasted on the walls, which were wall-papered; there were beds with spring mattresses, a gramophone, easy chairs. It was hard to reconcile this with accounts I had read of troops standing waist-deep in mud and gnawing a biscuit while shells burst all around. We were posted to our companies. I went to C Company. 'Captain Dunn is your company commander,' said the adjutant. 'The soundest officer in the battalion. By the way, remind him that 1 want that list of D.C.M. recommendations for the last show sent in at once, but not more than two names, or else they won't give us any. Four is about the ration for the battalion in a dud show.'
Our guide took us up to the front line. We passed a group of men huddled over a brazier. They were wearing water- proof capes for it had now started to rain, and cap- comforters, because the weather was cold. They were little men, daubed with mud, and they were talking quietly together in Welsh. Although they could see we were officers, they did not jump to their feet and salute. I thought that this was a convention of the trenches, and indeed I knew that it was laid down somewhere in the military textbooks that the courtesy of the salute was to be dispensed with in battle. But I was wrong; it was just slackness. We overtook a fatigue-party struggling up the trench loaded with timber lengths and bundles of sandbags, cursing plaintively as they slipped into sump- holes and entangled their burdens in the telephone wire. Fatigue-parties were always encumbered by their rifles and equipment which it was a crime ever to have out of reach. When we had squeezed past this party we had to stand aside to let a stretcher- case past. 'Who's the poor bastard, Dai?' the guide asked the leading stretcher-bearer. 'Sergeant Gallagher,' Dai answered. 'He thought he saw a Fritz in No Man's Land near our wire, so the silly b-r takes one of them new issue percussion bombs and shoots it at 'im. Silly b-r aims too low, it hits the top of the parapet and bursts back. Deoul! man, it breaks his silly f-ing jaw and blows a great lump from his silly f-ing face, whatever. Poor silly b-r! Not worth sweating to get him back! He's put paid to, whatever.' The wounded man had a sandbag over his face. He was dead when they got him back to the dressing station. I was tired out by the time I got to company headquarters. I was carrying a pack-valise like the men, and my belt was hung with all the usual furnishings - revolver, field-glasses, compass, whisky-flask, wire-cutters, periscope, and a lot more. A Christmas-tree that was called. (These were the days in which officers went out to France with swords and had them sharpened by the armourer before sailing. But I had been advised to leave my sword back in the billet where we had tea; (I never saw it again or bothered about it.) I was hot and sweaty; my hands were sticky with the clay from the side of the trench. C Company head- quarters was a two-roomed timber-built shelter in the side of a trench connecting the front and support lines. Here were tablecloth and lamp again, whisky-bottle and glasses, shelves with books and magazines, a framed picture of General Joffre a large mirror, and bunks in the next room. I reported to the company commander. '
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'I had expected him [Captain Dunn] to be a middle-aged man with a breastful of medals, with whom I would have to be formal; but Dunn was actually two months younger than myself. He was one of the fellowship of 'only survivors.' Captain Miller of the Black Watch in the same division was another. Miller had only escaped from the Rue du Bois massacre by swimming down a flooded trench. He has carried on his surviving trade ever since. Only survivors have great reputations. Miller used to be pointed at in the streets when the battalion was back in reserve billets. 'See that fellow. That's Jock Miller. Out from the start and hasn't got it yet.' Dunn had not let the war affect his morale at all. He greeted me very easily with: 'Well, what's the news from England? Oh sorry, first I must introduce you. This is Walker-clever chap, comes from Cambridge and fancies himself as an athlete. This is Jenkins, one of those patriotic chaps who chucked up his job to come here. This is Price, who only joined us yesterday, but we like him; he brought some damn good whisky with him. Well, how long is the war going to last and who's winning? We don't know a thin out here. And what's all this talk about war-babies? Price pretends he knows nothing about them.' I told them about the war and asked them about the trenches. 'About trenches,' said Dunn. 'Well, we don't know a much about trenches as the French do and not near as much as Fritz does. We can't expect Fritz to help, but the French might do something. They are greedy; they won't let u have the benefit of their inventions. What wouldn't w give for parachute-lights and their aerial torpedoes! But there's no connection between the two armies except when there's a battle on, and then we generally let each other down.
'When I was out here first, all that we did in the trenches was to paddle about in water and use our rifles. We didn't think of them as places to live in, they were just temporary inconveniences. Now we work all the time we are here not only for safety but for health. Night and day. First the fire-steps, then building traverses, improving the communication trenches, and so on; lastly, on our personal comfort shelters and dug-outs. There was a territorial battalion that used to relieve us. They were hopeless. They used to sit down in the trench and say: "Oh my God, this is the limit They'd pull out pencil and paper and write home about it. Did no work on the traverses or on fire positions. Consequence - they lost half their men from frost-bite and rheumatism, and one day the Germans broke in and scuppered a lot more of them. 'They allowed the work we'd done in the trench to go to ruin and left the whole place like a sewage farm for us to take over again. We were sick as muck. We never got any better. Slack officers, of course. Well, they got smashed, as I say, and were sent away to be lines- of- communication troops. Now we work with the First South Wales Borderers. They're all right. Awful chaps those territorial swine. Usen't to trouble about latrines at all; left food about and that encouraged rats; never filled a sandbag. I only once saw a job of work that they did. That was a steel loop-hole they put in. But they put it facing square to the front and quite unmasked, so they had two men killed at it-absolute death- trap. About our chaps. They're all right, but not as right as they ought to be. The survivors of the show ten days ago are feeling pretty low, and the big new draft doesn't know anything yet.'
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'Listen,' said Walker, 'there's too much firing going on. The men have got the wind up over something. Waste of ammunition, and if Fritz knows we're jumpy he'll give us an extra bad time. I'll go up and stop them.' Dunn went on. 'These Welshmen are peculiar. They don't stand being shouted at. They'll do anything if you explain the reason for it. They will do and die, but they have to know their reason why. The best way to make them behave is not to give them too much time to think. Work them off their feet. They are good workmen. Officers must work too, not only direct the work. Our time-table is like this. Breakfast at eight o'clock in the morning, clean trenches and inspect rifles, work all morning; lunch at twelve, work again from one till about six, when the men feed again. "Stand-to" at dusk for about an hour, work all night, "stand- to" for an hour before dawn. That's the general programme. Then there's sentry duty. The men do two-hour sentry spells, then work two hours, then sleep two hours. At night sentries are doubled, so our working parties are smaller. We officers are on duty all day and divide up the night in three-hourly watches.' He looked at his wrist watch. 'I say,' he said, 'that carrying-party must have got the R.E. stuff by now. Time we all got to work. Look here, Graves, you lie down and have a doss on that bunk. I want you to take the watch before "stand-to." I'll wake you up and show you round. Where the hell's my revolver? I don't like to go out without that. Hello, Walker, what was wrong?' Walker laughed. 'A chap from the new draft. He had never fired his musketry course at Cardiff, and to-night he fired ball for the first time. It seemed to go to his head . He'd had a brother killed up at Ypres and he said he was going to avenge him. So he blazed off all his own ammunition at nothing, and two bandoliers out of the ammunition-box besides. They call him the Human Maxim now. His sight's misty with heat. Corporal Parry should have stopped him; but he was just leaning up against the traverse an shrieking with laughter. I gave them both a good cursing . Some other new chaps started blazing away, too. Fritz retaliated with machine-guns and whizz-bangs. No casualties. I don't know why. lt's all quiet now. Everybody ready?'
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'They went out and I rolled up in my blanket and fell asleep. Dunn woke me about one o'clock. 'Your watch,' he said. I jumped out of the bunk with a rustle of straw; my feet were sore and clammy in my boots. I was cold, too . 'Here's the rocket-pistol and a few flares. Not a bad night . It's stopped raining. Put your equipment on over your raincoat or you won't be able to get at your revolver. Got a torch Good. About this flare business. Don't use the pistol too much. We haven't many flares, and if there's an attack we will want as many as we can get. But use it if you think that there is something doing. Fritz is always sending up flare lights, he's got as many as he wants.' He showed me round the line. The battalion frontage was about eight hundred yards. Each company held two hundred of these with two platoons in the front line and two platoons in the support line about a hundred yards back. Dunn introduced me to the platoon sergeants, more particularly to Sergeant Eastmond of the platoon to which I was posted. He asked Sergeant Eastmond to give me any information that I wanted, then went back to sleep, telling me to wake him up at once if anything was wrong. I was left in charge of the line. Sergeant Eastmond was busy with a working-party, so I went round by myself. The men of the working-party, who were building up the traverses with sandbags (a traverse, I learned, was a safety-buttress in the trench), looked curiously at me. They were filling sandbags with earth, piling them up bricklayer fashion, with headers and stretchers alternating, then patting them flat with spades. The sentries stood on the fire-step at the corners of the traverses, stamping their feet and blowing on their fingers. Every now and then they peered over the top for a few seconds. Two parties, each of an N.C.O. and two men, were out in the company listening-posts, connected with the front trench by a sap about fifty yards long. The German front line was about three hundred yards beyond them. From berths hollowed in the sides of the trench and curtained with sandbags came the grunt of sleeping men. I jumped up on the fire-step beside the sentry and cautiously raising my head stared over the parapet. I could see nothing except the wooden pickets supporting our protecting barbed-wire entanglement and a dark patch or two of bushes beyond. The darkness seemed to move and shake about as I looked at it; the bushes started travelling singly at first, then both together. The pickets were doing the same. I was glad of the sentry beside me; his name, h told me, was Beaumont. 'They're quiet to-night, sir,' h said, 'a relief going on; I think so, surely.' I said: 'It' funny how those bushes seem to move.' 'Aye, they do play queer tricks. Is this your first spell in trenches, sir?' German flare shot up, broke into bright flame, dropped slowly and went hissing into the grass just behind our trench, showing up the bushes and pickets. Instinctively I moved. 'It's bad to do that, sir,' he said, as a rifle bullet cracked and seemed to pass right between us. 'Keep still sir, and they can't spot you. Not but what a flare is a bad thing to have fall on you. I've seen them burn a hole in man.'
I spent the rest of my watch in acquainting myself with the geography of the trench- section, finding how easy it was to get lost among cul-de-sacs and disused alleys. Twice I overshot the company frontage and wandered among the Munsters on the left. Once I tripped and fell with a splash into deep mud. At last my watch was ended with the first signs of dawn. I passed the word along the line for the company to stand-to arms. The N.C.O's whispered hoarsely into the dug-outs: 'Stand-to, stand-to,' and out the men tumbled with their rifles in their hands. As I went towards company headquarters to wake the officers I saw a man lying on his face in a machine-gun shelter. I stopped and said: 'Stand-to, there.' I flashed my torch on him and saw that his foot was bare. The machine-gunner beside him said: 'No good talking to him, sir.' I asked: 'What's wrong? What's he taken his boot and sock off for?' I was ready for anything odd in the trenches. 'Look for yourself. sir,' he said. I shook the man by the arm and noticed suddenly that the back of his head was blown out. The first corpse that I saw in France was this suicide. He had taken off his boot and sock to pull the trigger of his rifle with his toe; the muzzle was in his mouth. 'Why did he do it?' I said. 'He was in the last push, sir, and that sent him a bit queer, and on top of that he got bad news from Limerick about his girl and another chap.' He was not a Welshman, but belonged to the Munsters; their machine-guns were at the extreme left of our company. The suicide had already been reported and two Irish officers came up. 'We've had two or three of these lately,' one of them told me. Then he said to the other: 'While I remember, Callaghan, don't forget to write to his next-of-kin. Usual sort of letter, cheer them up, tell them he died a soldier's death, anything you like. I'm not going to report it as suicide.'
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'At stand-to rum and tea were served out. I had a look at the German trenches through a periscope - a streak of sandbags four hundred yards away. Some of these were made of coloured stuff, whether for camouflage or from a shortage of plain canvas I do not know. There was no sign of the enemy, except for a wisp or two of wood-smoke where they, too, were boiling up a hot drink. Between us and them was a flat meadow with cornflowers, marguerites and poppies growing in the long grass, a few shell holes, the bushes I had seen the night before, the wreck of an aeroplane, our barbed wire and theirs. A thousand yards away was a big ruined house, behind that a red-brick village (Auchy), poplars and haystacks, a tall chimney, another village (Haisnes). Half- right was a pithead and smaller slag-heaps. La Bassee lay half-left; the sun caught the weathervane of the church and made it twinkle.
I went off for a sleep. The time between stand-to and breakfast was the easy part of the day. The men who were not getting in a bit of extra sleep sat about talking and smoking, writing letters home, cleaning their rifles, running their thumb-nails up the seams of their shirts to kill the lice, gambling. Lice were a standing joke. Young Bumford handed me one like this. 'We was just having an argument as to whether it was best to kill the old ones or the young ones, sir. Morgan here says that if you kill the old ones, the young ones will die of grief, but Parry here, sir, he says that the young ones are easier to kill and you can catch the old ones when they come to the funeral.' He appealed to me as an arbiter. 'You've been to college, sir, haven't you?' I said: 'Yes, I had, but so had Crawshay Bailey's brother Norwich.' This was held to be a wonderfully witty answer. Crawshay Bailey is one of the idiotic songs of Wales. (Crawshay Bailey himself 'had an engine and he couldn't make it go,' and all his relations in the song had similar shortcomings. Crawshay Bailey's brother Norwich, for instance, was fond of oatmeal porridge, and was sent to Cardiff College, for to get a bit of knowledge.) After that I had no trouble with the platoon at all. Breakfast at company headquarters was bacon, eggs, coffee, toast and marmalade. There were three chairs and two ammunition-boxes to sit on. Accustomed to company commanders in England not taking their junior officers into their confidence, I was struck by the way that questions of the day were settled at meal-times by a sort of board-meeting with Dunn as chairman. On this first morning there was a long debate as to the best way of keeping sentries awake. Dunn finally decided to issue a company order against sentries leaning up against the traverse; it made them sleepy. Besides, when they fired their rifles the flash would come always from the same place. The Germans might fix a rifle on the spot after a time. I told Dunn of the bullet that came between Beaumont and myself. 'Sounds like a fixed rifle,' he said, 'because not one aimed shot in a hundred comes as close as that at night. And we had a chap killed in that very traverse the night we came in.' The Bavarian Guards Reserve were opposite us at the time and their shooting was good. They had complete control of the sniping situation. '
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'Dunn began telling me the characters of the men in my platoon; also which N.C.O.'s were trustworthy and which had to be watched. He was going on to tell me just how much to expect from the men at my platoon inspection of rifles and equipment, when there was a sudden alarm. Dunn's servant came rushing in, his eyes blank with horror and excitement: 'Gas, sir gas! They're using gas.' 'My God!' said Price. We all looked at Dunn. He said imperturbably: 'Very well, Kingdom, bring me my respirator from the other room, and another pot of marmalade.' This was only one of many gas alarms. It originated with smoke from the German trenches where breakfast was also going on; we knew the German meal-times by a slackening down of rifle-fire. Gas was a nightmare. Nobody believed in the efficacy of the respirators, though we were told that they were proof against any gas the enemy could send over. Pink army forms marked 'Urgent' were constantly arriving from headquarters to explain how to use these contrivances. They were all contradictory. First the respirators were to be kept soaking wet, then they were to be kept dry, then they were to be worn in a satchel, then, again, the satchel was not to be used.
Frank Jones-Bateman came to visit me from the company on our right. He mentioned with a false ease that he had shot a man just before breakfast: 'Sights at four hundred,' he said. He was a quiet boy of nineteen. He had just left Rugby and had a scholarship waiting for him at Clare Cambridge. His nickname was 'Silent Night.'
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