(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Graves’s account of his experiences in World War I are horrifyingly memorable. Goodbye to All That is generally recognized as one of the most successful portrayals of the transience of life and the imminence of death to come out of World War I. Many of the battle incidents are overwhelming in their graphic detail, and of all the prose writings on the war, Graves’s work is probably the most accessible to the reader. One feels as if one is actually in the trenches of no-man’s-land. Some critics have even argued that the work is a totally authentic record of the author’s personal experiences and observations. That kind of claim to completely objective reporting cannot be substantiated, however, and Graves himself hinted as much. In his autobiography he reports conversations and comments supposedly made during the clash of battle in a book written more than ten years after the events described. Graves noted elsewhere that war memoirs are not of the same historical completeness and objectivity as some other types of military history, that the author often cannot in the heat of war keep an accurate account of all that befell him. Nevertheless, he still included extensive conversations and dialogues as if he were merely giving the words as originally uttered. Graves’s work was not merely objective history because he lacked the written record of such conversations or because he no longer remembered word-for-word what had been said in the trenches. More significantly, he intentionally changed facts and exaggerated and colored events in order to gain greater dramatic effect. Rather than every word being historically true, it might be more correct to say that Graves achieved a brilliant picture of men at war, a picture which is artistically satisfying and historically accurate in much the same way that Thucydides, by the use of philosophical speeches and dialogues, portrayed the war between Athens and Sparta. Graves was primarily a poet but he was also a successful historical novelist. Educated in the classics, he was perhaps closer to the ancient Greeks in his historical approach than he was to that of his German relative Leopold von Ranke, the so-called father of scientific history.

It has been argued that Graves and his fellow writers of World War I memoirs wrote as much to understand the experience of war personally as to inform their readers of its facts. Survival in the trenches was, to Graves and his contemporaries, simply a matter of luck. There was little which the individual could do to ensure good fortune. Graves discussed “only survivors,” those few in any company or regiment who had lived through the carnage of a particular battle. The casualty rates in the front lines were extremely high, even when formal battle was not taking place; the day-to-day trench existence made for head wounds, while going over the top in an assault exposed one...

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