Excerpts from Robert Graves, Goodbye To All That (1929)

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.

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.’

....

These were early days of trench-warfare, the days of the jam-tin bomb and the gas-pipe trench-mortar. It was before Lewis or Stokes guns, steel helmets, telescopic rifle-sights, gas-shells, pill-boxes, tanks, trench-raids, or any of the later improvements of trench-warfare.

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 in a head-over-heels motion -ping! rockety-ockety-ockety-ockety into the woods behind.'

....

I had expected him 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 thing 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 as 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 us have the benefit of their inventions. What wouldn’t we 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.

....

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 fore-sight’s misty with heat. Corporal Parry should have stopped him; but he was just leaning up against the traverse and 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. It’s all quiet now. Everybody ready?’

....

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 culs de sac 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.’

....

Propaganda reports of atrocities were, we agreed, ridiculous. Atrocities against civilians were surely few. We remembered that while the Germans were in a position to commit atrocities against enemy civilians, Germany itself, except for the early Russian cavalry raid, had never had the enemy on her soil. We no longer believed accounts of unjustified German atrocities in Belgium; knowing the Belgians now at first-hand. By atrocities we meant, specifically, rape, mutilation and torture, not summary shootings of suspected spies, harbourers of spies, francs- tireurs or disobedient local officials. If the atrocity list was to include the accidental-on-purpose bombing or machine-gunning of civilians from the air, the Allies were now committing as many atrocities as the Germans. French and Belgian civilians had often tried to win our sympathy and presents by exhibiting mutilations of children — stumps of hands and feet, for instance — representing them as deliberate, fiendish atrocities when they were merely the result of shell-fire, British or French shell-fire as likely as not. We did not believe that rape was any more common on the German side of the line than on the Allied side. It was unnecessary. Of course, a bully-beef diet, fear of death, and absence of wives made ample provision of women necessary in the occupied areas. No doubt the German army authorities provided brothels in the principal French towns behind the line, as did the French on the Allied side. But the voluntary system would suffice. We did not believe stories of forcible enlistment of women.

As for atrocities against soldiers. The difficulty was to say where to draw the line. For instance, the British soldier at first regarded as atrocious the use of bowie-knives by German patrols. After a time he learned to use them himself; they were cleaner killing weapons than revolvers or bombs. The Germans regarded as atrocious the British Mark VII rifle bullet, which was more apt to turn on striking
than the German bullet. For true atrocities, that is, personal rather than military violations of the code of war, there were few opportunities. The most obvious opportunity was in the interval between surrender of prisoners and their arrival (or non-arrival) at headquarters. And it was an opportunity of which advantage was only too often taken. Nearly every instructor in the mess knew of specific cases when prisoners had been murdered on the way back. The commonest motives were, it seems, revenge for the death of friends or relations, jealousy of the prisoner’s pleasant trip to a comfortable prison camp in England, military enthusiasm, fear of being suddenly overpowered by the prisoners or, more simply, not wanting to be bothered with the escorting job. In any of these cases the conductors would report on arrival at headquarters that a German shell had killed the prisoners; no questions would be asked. We had every reason to believe that the same thing happened on the
German side, where prisoners, as useless mouths to feed in a country already on short rations, were even less welcome. We had none of us heard of prisoners being more than threatened at headquarters to get military information from them; the sort of information that trench-prisoners could give was not of sufficient importance to make torture worthwhile; in any case it was found that when treated kindly prisoners were anxious, in gratitude, to tell as much as they knew.

....

The troops, while ready to believe in the Kaiser as a comic personal devil, were aware that the German soldier was, on the whole, more devout than himself in the worship of God. In the instructors’ mess we spoke freely of God and Gott as opposed tribal deities. For the regimental chaplains as a body we had no respect. If the regimental chaplains had shown one tenth the courage, endurance, and other human qualities that the regimental doctors showed, we agreed, the British Expeditionary Force might well have started a religious revival. But they had not. The fact is that they were under orders not to get mixed up with the fighting, to stay behind with the transport and not to risk their lives. No soldier could have any respect for a chaplain who obeyed these orders, and yet there was not in our experience one chaplain in fifty who was not glad to obey them. Occasionally on a quiet day in a quiet sector the chaplain would make a daring afternoon visit to the support line and distribute a few cigarettes, and that was all. But he was always in evidence back in rest-billets. Sometimes the colonel would summon him to come up with the rations and bury the day’s dead, and he would arrive, speak his lines, and hastily retire. The position was made difficult by the respect that most of the commanding officers had for the cloth, but it was a respect that they soon outwore. The colonel in one battalion I served with got rid of four new chaplains in as many months. Finally he applied for a Roman Catholic chaplain, alleging a change of faith in
men under his command. For, as I should have said before, the the Roman Catholics were not only permitted in posts of danger, but definitely enjoined to be wherever fighting was so that they could give extreme unction to the dying. And we had never heard of an R.C. chaplain who was unwilling to do all that was expected of him and more. It was recalled that Father Gleeson of the Munsters, when all the officers were put out of action at the first battle of Ypres, stripped off his black badges and, taking command of the survivors, held the line.

....

I was feeling a bit better after a few weeks at the base, though the knowledge that this was only temporary relief was with me all the time. One day I walked out of the mess to begin the afternoon’s work on the drill ground. I had to pass by the place where bombing instruction was given. A group of men was standing around the table where the various types of bombs were set out for demonstration.
There was a sudden crash. An instructor of the Royal Irish Rifles had been giving a little unofficial instruction before the proper instructor arrived. He had picked up a No. 1 percussion grenade and said: ‘Now, lads, you’ve got to be careful with this chap. Remember that if you touch anything while you’re swinging it, it will go off.’ To illustrate the point he rapped it against the edge of the table. It killed him and another man and wounded twelve others more or less severely.


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