GOOD-BYE TO ALL THAT
By Robert Graves.
(London : Jonathan Cape; 1929.)
When I was given leave in April 1916 I went to a military hospital
in London and had my nose operated on. It was a painful operation, but
performed by a first-class surgeon and cost me nothing. In peace-time
it would have cost me sixty guineas, and another twenty guineas in nursing-home
fees. After hospital I went up to Harlech to walk on the hills. I had
in mind the verse of the psalm: "I will lift up mine eyes unto
the hills, from whence cometh my help." That was another charm
against trouble. I bought a small two-roomed cottage from my mother,
who owned considerable cottage property in the neighborhood. I bought
it in defiance of the war, as something to look forward to when the
guns stopped ('when the guns stop' was how we always thought of the
end of the war). I whitewashed the cottage and put in a table, a chair,
a bed and a few dishes and cooking utensils. I had decided to live there
by myself on bread and butter, bacon and eggs, lettuce in season, cabbage
and coffee; and to write poetry. My war-bonus would keep me for a year
or two at least. The cottage was on the hillside away from the village.
I put in a big window to look out over the wood below and across the
Morfa to the sea. I wrote two or three poems here as a foretaste of
the good life coming after the war.
It was about this time, but whether before or after my operation I
cannot remember, that I was taken by my father to a dinner of the Honourable
Cymmrodorion Society -- a Welsh literary club -- where Lloyd George,
then Prime Minister, and W. M. Hughes, the Australian Prime Minister,
were to speak. Hughes was perky, dry and to the point; Lloyd George
was up in the air on one of his of the Welsh hills' speeches. The power
of his rhetoric was uncanny. I knew that the substance of what he was
saying was commonplace, idle and false, but I had to fight hard against
abandoning myself with the rest of the audience. The power I knew was
not his; he sucked it from his hearers and threw it back at them. Afterwards
I was introduced to him, and when I looked closely at his eyes they
were like those of a sleep-walker.
I rejoined the Third Battalion at Litherland, near Liverpool, where
it had been shifted from Wrexham as part of the Mersey defence force;
I liked the Third Battalion. The senior officers were generous in not
putting more work on me than I wished to undertake, and it was good
to meet again three of my Wrexham contemporaries who had been severely
wounded (all of them, by a coincidence, in the left thigh) and seemed
to be out of it for the rest of the war Frank Jones-Bateman and 'Father'
Watkin, who had been in the Welsh Regiment with me, and Aubrey Attwater,
the assistant adjutant, who had gone to the Second Battalion early in
1915 and had been hit when out on patrol. Attwater had come from Cambridge
at the outbreak of war and was known as 'Brains' in the battalion. The
militia majors, who were for the most part country gentlemen with estates
in Wales, and had no thoughts in peace-time beyond hunting, shooting,
fishing, and the control of their tenantry, were delighted with Attwater's
informative talk over the port at mess. Sergeant Malley, the mess-sergeant,
would go round with his "Light or vintage, sir?" and the old
majors would say to Attwater: "Now, Brains! Tell us about Shakespeare.
Is it true that Bacon wrote him?" Or, "Well, Brainsl What
do you think about this chap Hilaire Belloc? Does he really know when
the war's going to end?" And Attwater would humorously accept his
position as combined encyclopedia and almanac. Sergeant Malley was another
friend whom I was always pleased to meet again. He could pour more wine
into a glass than any other man in the world; it bulged up over the
top of a glass like a cap and he was never known to spill a drop.
Wednesdays were guest-nights in the mess, when the married officers
who usually dined at home were expected to attend. The band played Gilbert
and Sullivan music behind a curtain. In the intervals the regimental
harper gave solos -- Welsh melodies picked out rather uncertainly on
a hand-harp. When the program was over the bandmaster was invited to
the senior officers' table for his complimentary glass of light or vintage.
When he was gone, and the junior officers had retired, the port went
round and round, and the conversation, at first very formal, became
rambling and intimate. Once, I remember, a senior major laid it down
axiomatically that every so-called sportsman had at one time or another
committed a sin against sportsmanship. When challenged, he cross-examined
each of his neighbors in turn, putting them on their honor to tell the
truth. One of them, blushing, admitted that he had once shot grouse
two days before the Twelfth: "It was my last chance before I rejoined
the battalion in India." Another said that when a public-school
boy, and old enough to know better, he had killed a sitting pheasant
with a stone. The next one had gone out with a poacher -- in his Sandhurst
days -- and crumbled poison-berry into a trout-stream. An even more
scandalous admission came from a new-army major, a gentleman-farmer,
that his estate had been overrun with foxes one year and, the headquarters
of the nearest hunt being thirty miles away, he had given his bailiff
permission to protect the hen-roosts with a gun. Finally it was the
turn of the medical officer to be cross-examined. He said: "Well,
once when I was a student at St. Andrews a friend asked me to put ten
bob for him on a horse in the Lincolnshire. I couldn't find my bookmaker
in time. The horse lost and I never returned the ten bob." At this,
one of the guests, an officer in the King's Own Scottish Borderers,
became suddenly excited, jumped up and leant over the table, doubling
his fists. "And was not the name of the horse Strathspey? And will
you not pay me my ten shillings now immediately?"
The camp was only separated by the bombing-field from Brotherton's,
where a specially sensitive explosive for detonators was made. The munition
makers had permanently yellow faces and hands and drew appropriately
high wages. Attwater used to argue at mess sometimes what would happen
if Brotherton's blew up. Most of us held that the shock would immediately
kill all the three thousand men of the camp besides destroying Litherland
and a large part of Bootle. He maintained that the very closeness of
the camp would save it; that the vibrations would go over and strike
a big munition camp about a mile away and set that off. One Sunday afternoon
Attwater limped out of the mess and suddenly saw smoke rising from Brotherton's.
Part of the factory was on fire. The camp fire-brigade was immediately
bugled for and managed to put the fire out before it reached a vital
spot. So the argument was never decided. I was at Litherland only a
few weeks. On 1st July 1916 the Somme offensive started, and all available
trained men and officers were sent out to replace casualties. I was
disappointed to be sent back to the Second Battalion, not the First.
It was in trenches at Givenchy, just the other side of the canal from
the Cuinchy brick-stacks. I arrived at the battalion on July 5th to
find it in the middle of a raid. Prisoners were coming down the trench,
scared and chattering to each other. They were Saxons just returned
from a divisional rest and a week's leave to Germany. Their uniforms
were new and their packs full of good stuff to loot. One prisoner got
a good talking-to from C Company sergeant-major, a Birmingham man, who
was shocked at a packet of indecent photographs found in the man's haversack.
It had been a retaliatory raid. Only a few days before, the Germans
had sent up the biggest mine blown on the Western front so far. It caught
our B Company -- the B's were proverbially unlucky. The crater, which
was afterwards named Red Dragon Crater after the Royal Welch regimental
badge, must have been about thirty yards across. There were few survivors
of B Company. The Germans immediately came over in force to catch the
other companies in confusion. Stanway, who had been a company sergeant-major
on the retreat and was now an acting-major, rallied some men on the
flank and drove them back. Blair, B Company commander, was buried by
the mine up to his neck and for the rest of the day was constantly under
fire. Though an oldish man (he had the South African ribbon), he survived
this experience, recovered from his wounds, and was back in the battalion
a few months later.
This raid was Stanway's revenge. He organized it with the colonel;
the colonel was the Third Battalion adjutant who had originally sent
me out to France. The raid was elaborately planned, with bombardments
and smoke-screen diversions on the flanks. A barrage of shrapnel shifted
forward and back from the German front line to the supports. The intention
was that the Germans at the first bombardment should go down into the
shell-proof dug-outs, leaving only their sentries in the trench, and
reappear as soon as the barrage lifted. When it came down again they
would make another dash for the dug-outs. After this had happened two
or three times they would be slow in coming out at all. Then, under
cover of a smoke-screen, the raid would be made and the barrage put
down uninterruptedly on the support and reserve lines to prevent reinforcements.
My only part in the raid, which was successful, was to write out a detailed
record of it at the colonel's request. It was not the report for divisional
headquarters but a page of regimental history to be sent to the depot
to be filed in regimental records. In my account I noted that for the
first time for two hundred years the regiment had reverted to the pike.
Instead of rifle and bayonet some of the raiders had used butchers'
knives secured with medical plaster to the end of broomsticks. This
pike was a lighter weapon than rifle and bayonet and was useful in conjunction
with bombs and revolvers.
An official journalist at headquarters also wrote an account of the
raid. The battalion enjoyed the bit about how they had gone over shouting
"Remember Kitchenerl" and "Avenge the Lusitania! "
What a damn silly thing to shout,' said someone. "Old Kitchener
was all right, but nobody wants him back at the War Office, that I've
heard. And as for the Lusitania, the Germans gave her full warning,
and if it brings the States into the war, it's all to the good."
There were not many officers in the Second who had been with it when
I left it a month after Loos, but at any rate I expected to have a friendlier
welcome than the first time I had come to the battalion at Laventie.
But, as one of them recorded in his diary: "Graves had a chilly
reception, which surprised me." The reason was simple. One of the
officers who had joined the Third Battalion in August 1914, and had
been on the Square with me, had achieved his ambition of a regular commission
in the Second Battalion. He was one of those who had been sent out to
France before me as being more efficient and had been wounded before
I came out. But now he was only a second-lieutenant in the Second Battalion,
where promotion was slow, and I was a captain in the Third Battalion.
Line-battalion feeling against the Special Reserve was always strong,
and jealousy of my extra stars made him bitter. It amused him to revive
the suspicion raised at Wrexham by my German name that I was a German
spy. Whether he was serious or not I cannot say, probably he could not
have said either; but the result was that I found myself treated with
great reserve by all the officers who had not been with me in trenches
before. It was unlucky that the most notorious German spy caught in
England had assumed the name of Karl Graves. It was put about that he
was a brother of mine. My consolation was that there was obviously a
battle due and that would be the end either of me or of the suspicion.
I thought to myself. "So long as there isn't an N.C.O. told
off to watch me and shoot me on the slightest appearance of treachery."
Such things had been known. As a matter of fact, though I had myself
had no traffic with the enemy, there was a desultory correspondence
kept up between my mother and her sisters in Germany; it came through
her sister, Clara von Faber du Faur, mother of my cousin Conrad, whose
husband was German consul at Zurich. It was not treasonable on either
side, merely a register of the deaths of relations and discreet references
to the war service of the survivors. The German aunts wrote, as the
Government had ordered every German with relations or friends in enemy
or neutral countries to do, pointing out the righteousness of the German
cause and presenting Germany as the innocent party in a war engineered
by France and Russia. My mother, equally strong for the Allied cause,
wrote back that they were deluded. The officers I liked in the battalion
were the colonel and Captain Dunn, the battalion doctor. Doctor Dunn
was what they call a hard-bitten man; he had served as a trooper in
the South African War and won the D.C.M. He was far more than a doctor;
living at battalion headquarters he became the right-hand man of three
or four colonels in succession. When his advice was not taken this was
usually afterwards regretted. On one occasion, in the autumn fighting
of 1917, a shell burst among the headquarters staff, knocking out adjutant,
colonel, and signals officer. Dunn had no hesitation in pulling off
the red-cross armlets that he wore in a battle and becoming a temporary
combatant officer of the Royal Welch, resigning his duties to the stretcher-bearer
sergeant. He took command and kept things going. The men were rather
afraid of him, but had more respect for him than for anyone else in
Four days after the raid we heard that we were due for the Somme. We
marched through Béthune, which had been much knocked about and
was nearly deserted, to Fouquières, and there entrained for the
Somme. The Somme railhead was near Amiens and we marched by easy stages
through Cardonette, Daours, and Buire, until we came to the original
front line, close to the place where David Thomas had been killed. The
fighting had moved two miles on. This was on the afternoon of 14th July.
At 4 a.m. on the 15th July we moved up the Méaulte-Fricourt-Bazentin
road which wound through 'Happy Valley' and found ourselves in the more
recent battle area. Wounded men and prisoners came streaming past us.
What struck me most was the number of dead horses and mules lying about;
human corpses I was accustomed to, but it seemed wrong for animals to
be dragged into the war like this. We marched by platoons, at fifty
yards distance. Just beyond Fricourt we found a German shell-barrage
across the road. So we left it and moved over thickly shell-pitted ground
until 8 a.m., when we found ourselves on the fringe of Mametz Wood,
among the dead of our new-army battalions that had been attacking Mametz
Wood. We halted in thick mist. The Germans had been using lachrymatory
shell and the mist held the fumes; we coughed and swore. We tried to
smoke, but the gas had got into the cigarettes, so we threw them away.
Later we wished we had not, because it was not the cigarettes that had
been affected so much as our own throats. The colonel called up the
officers and we pulled out our maps. We were expecting orders for an
attack. When the mist cleared we saw a German gun with "First Battalion
Royal Welch Fusiliers" chalked on it. It was evidently a trophy.
I wondered what had happened to Siegfried(1)
and my friends of A Company. We found the battalion quite close in bivouacs;
Siegfried was still alive, as were Edmund Dadd and two other A Company
officers. The battalion had been in heavy fighting. In their first attack
at Fricourt they had overrun our opposite number in the German army,
the Twenty-third Infantry Regiment, who were undergoing a special disciplinary
spell in the trenches because an inspecting staff-officer, coming round,
had found that all the officers were back in Mametz village in a deep
dug-out instead of up in the trenches with their men. (It was said that
throughout that bad time in March in the German trenches opposite to
us there had been no officer of higher rank than corporal.) Their next
objective had been The Quadrangle, a small copse this side of Mametz
Wood. I was told that Siegfried had then distinguished
himself by taking single-handed a battalion frontage that the Royal
Irish Regiment had failed to take the day before. He had gone over with
bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and
scared the occupants out. It was a pointless feat; instead of reporting
or signaling for reinforcements he sat down in the German trench and
began dozing over a book of poems which he had brought with him. When
he finally went back he did not report. The colonel was furious. The
attack on Mametz Wood had been delayed for two hours because it was
reported that British patrols were still out. "British patrols"
were Siegfried and his book of poems. "It would have got you a
D.S.O. if you'd only had more sense," stormed the colonel. Siegfried
had been doing heroic things ever since I had left the battalion. His
nickname in the Seventh Division was "Mad Jack". He was given
a Military Cross for bringing in a wounded lance-corporal from a mine-crater
close to the German lines, under heavy fire. He was one of the rare
exceptions to the rule against the decoration of Third Battalion officers.
I did not see Siegfried this time; he was down with the transport having
a rest. So I sent him a rhymed letter, by one of our own transport men,
about the times that we were going to have together when the war ended;
how, after a rest at Harlech, we were going for a visit to the Caucasus
and Persia and China; and what good poetry we would write. It was in
answer to one he had written to me from the army school at Flixécourt
a few weeks previously (which appears in The Old Huntsman).
I went for a stroll with Edmund Dadd, who was now commanding A Company.
Edmund was cursing: "It's not fair, Robert. You remember A Company
under Richardson was always the best company. Well, it's kept up its
reputation, and the C.O. shoves us in as the leading company of every
show, and we get our objectives and hold them, and so we've got to do
the same again the next time. And he says that I'm indispensable in
the company, so he makes me go over every time instead of giving me
a rest and letting my second-in-command take his turn. I've had five
shows in just over a fortnight and I can't go on being lucky every time.
The colonel's about due for his C.B. Apparently A Company is making
sure of it for him."
For the next two days we were in bivouacs outside the wood. We were
in fighting kit and the nights were wet and cold. I went into the wood
to find German overcoats to use as blankets. Mametz Wood was full of
dead of the Prussian Guards Reserve, big men, and of Royal Welch and
South Wales Borderers of the new-army battalions, little men. There
was not a single tree in the wood unbroken. I got my greatcoats and
came away as quickly as I could, climbing over the wreckage of green
branches. Going and coming, by the only possible route, I had to pass
by the corpse of a German with his back propped against a tree. He had
a green face, spectacles, close shaven hair; black blood was dripping
from the nose and beard. He had been there for some days and was bloated
and stinking. There had been bayonet fighting in the wood. There was
a man of the South Wales Borderers and one of the Lehr regiment who
had succeeded in bayoneting each other simultaneously. A survivor of
the fighting told me later that he had seen a young soldier of the Fourteenth
Royal Welch bayoneting a German in parade-ground style, automatically
exclaiming as he had been taught: "In, out, on guard." He
said that it was the oddest thing he had heard in France.
I found myself still superstitious about looting or collecting souvenirs.
The greatcoats were only a loan, I told myself. Almost the only souvenir
I had allowed myself to keep was a trench periscope, a little rod-shaped
metal one sent me from home; when I poked it up above the parapet it
offered only an inch-square target to the German snipers. Yet a sniper
at Cuinchy, in May, drilled it through, exactly central, at four hundred
yards range. I sent it home, but had no time to write a note of explanation.
My mother, misunderstanding, and practical as usual, took it back to
the makers and made them change it for a new one.
Our brigade, the Nineteenth, was the reserve brigade of the Thirty-third
Division; the other brigades, the Ninety-ninth and Hundredth, had attacked
Martinpuich two days previously and had been stopped with heavy losses
as soon as they started. Since then we had had nothing to do but sit
about in shell-holes and watch the artillery duel going on. We had never
seen artillery so thick. On the 18th we moved up to a position just
to the north of Bazentin-le-Petit to relieve the Tyneside Irish. I was
with D Company. The guide who was taking us up was hysterical and had
forgotten the way; we put him under arrest and found it ourselves. As
we went up through the ruins of the village we were shelled. We were
accustomed to that, but they were gas shells. The standing order with
regard to gas shells was not to put on one's respirator but hurry on.
Up to that week there had been no gas shells except lachrymatory ones;
these were the first of the real kind, so we lost about half a dozen
men. When at last we arrived at the trenches, which were scooped at
a roadside and only about three feet deep, the company we were relieving
hurried out without any of the usual formalities; they had been badly
shaken. I asked their officer where the Germans were. He said he didn't
know, but pointed vaguely towards Martinpuich, a mile to our front.
Then I asked him where and what were the troops on our left. He didn't
know. I cursed him and he went off. We got into touch with C Company
behind us on the right and with the Fourth Suffolks not far off on the
left. We began deepening the trenches and locating the Germans; they
were in a trench-system about five hundred yards away but keeping fairly
The next day there was very heavy shelling at noon; shells were bracketing
along our trench about five yards short and five yards over, but never
quite getting it. We were having dinner and three times running my cup
of tea was spilt by the concussion and filled with dirt. I was in a
cheerful mood and only laughed. I had just had a parcel of kippers from
home; they were far more important than the bombardment -- I recalled
with appreciation one of my mother's sayings: "Children, remember
this when you eat your kippers; kippers cost little, yet if they cost
a hundred guineas a pair they would still find buyers among the millionaires."
Before the shelling had started a tame magpie had come into the trench;
it had apparently belonged to the Germans who had been driven out of
the village by the Gordon Highlanders a day or two before. It was looking
very draggled. "That's one for sorrow," I said. The men swore
that it spoke something in German as it came in, but I did not hear
it. I was feeling tired and was off duty, so without waiting for the
bombardment to stop I went to sleep in the trench. I decided that I
would just as soon be killed asleep as awake. There were no dug-outs,
of course. I always found it easy now to sleep through bombardments.
I was conscious of the noise in my sleep, but I let it go by. Yet if
anybody came to wake me for my watch or shouted "Stand-to!"
I was alert in a second. I had learned to go to sleep sitting down,
standing up, marching, lying on a stone floor, or in any other position,
at a moment's notice at any time of day or night. But now I had a dreadful
nightmare; it was as though somebody was handling me secretly, choosing
the place to drive a knife into me. Finally, he gripped me in the small
of the back. I woke up with a start, shouting, and punched the small
of my back where the hand was. I found that I had killed a mouse that
had been frightened by the bombardment and run down my neck.
That afternoon the company got an order through from the brigade to
build two cruciform strong-points at such-an-such a map reference. Moodie,
the company commander, and I looked at our map and laughed. Moodie sent
back a message that he would be glad to do so, but would require an
artillery bombardment and strong reinforcements because the points selected,
half way to Martinpuich, were occupied in force by the enemy. The colonel
came up and verified this. He said that we should build the strong-point
about three hundred yards forward and two hundred yards apart. So one
platoon stayed behind in the trench and the other went out and started
digging. A cruciform strong-point, consisted of two trenches, each some
thirty yards long, crossing at right angles to each other; it was wired
all round, so that it looked, in diagram, like a hot-cross bun. The
defenders could bring fire to bear against an attack from any direction.
We were to hold each of these points with a Lewis gun and a platoon
It was a bright moonlight night. My way to the strongpoint on the right
took me along the Bazentin-High Wood road. A German sergeant-major,
wearing a pack and full equipment, was lying on his back in the middle
of the road, his arms stretched out wide. He was a short, powerful man
with a full black beard. He looked sinister in the moonlight; I needed
a charm to get myself past him. The simplest way, I found, was to cross
myself. Evidently a brigade of the Seventh Division had captured the
road and the Germans had been shelling it heavily. It was a sunken road
and the defenders had begun to scrape fire-positions in the north bank,
facing the Germans. The work had apparently been interrupted by a counter-attack.
They had done no more than scrape hollows in the lower part of the bank.
To a number of these little hollows wounded men had crawled, put their
heads and shoulders inside and died there. They looked as if they had
tried to hide from the black beard. They were Gordon Highlanders.
I was visiting the strong-point on the right. The trench had now been
dug two or three feet down and a party of Engineers had arrived with
coils of barbed wire for the entanglement. I found that work had stopped.
The whisper went round: "Get your rifles ready. Here comes Fritz."
I lay down flat to see better, and about seventy yards away in the moonlight
I could make out massed figures. I immediately sent a man back to the
company to find Moodie and ask him for a Lewis gun and a flare-pistol.
I restrained the men, who were itching to fire, telling them to wait
until they came closer. I said: "They probably don't know we're
here and we'll get more of them if we let them come right up close.
They may even surrender." The Germans were wandering about irresolutely
and we wondered what the game was. There had been a number of German
surrenders at night recently, and this might be one on a big scale.
Then Moodie came running with a Lewis gun, the flare-pistol, and a few
more men with rifle-grenades. He decided to give the enemy a chance.
He sent up a flare and fired a Lewis gun over their heads. A tall officer
came running towards us with his hands up in surrender. He was surprised
to find that we were not Germans. He said that he belonged to the Public
Schools Battalion in our own brigade. Moodie asked him what the hell
he was doing. He said that he was in command of a patrol. He was sent
back for a few more of his men, to make sure it was not a trick. The
patrol was half a company of men wandering about aimlessly between the
lines, their rifles slung over their shoulders, and, it seemed, without
the faintest idea where they were or what information they were supposed
to bring back. This Public Schools Battalion was one of four or five
others which had been formed some time in 1914. Their training had been
continually interrupted by large numbers of men being withdrawn as officers
for other regiments. The only men left, in fact, seemed to be those
who were unfitted to hold commissions; yet unfitted by their education
to make good soldiers in the ranks. The other battalions had been left
behind in England as training battalions; only this one had been sent
out. It was a constant embarrassment to the brigade.
I picked up a souvenir that night. A German gun-team had been shelled
as it was galloping out of Bazentin towards Martinpuich. The horses
and the driver had been killed. At the back of the limber were the gunners'
treasures. Among them was a large lump of chalk wrapped up in a piece
of cloth; it had been carved and decorated in colors with military mottos,
the flags of the Central Powers, and the names of the various battles
in which the gunner had served. I sent it as a present to Dr. Dunn.
I am glad to say that both he and it survived the war; he is in practice
at Glasgow, and the lump of chalk is under a glass case in his consulting
room. The evening of the next day, July 19th, we were relieved. We were
told that we would be attacking High Wood, which we could see a thousand
yards away to the right at the top of a slope. High Wood was on the
main German battle-line, which ran along the ridge, with Delville Wood
not far off on the German left. Two British brigades had already attempted
it; in both cases the counter-attack had driven them out. Our battalion
had had a large number of casualties and was now only about four hundred
I have kept a battalion order issued at midnight:
"To O.C. B Co. 2nd R.W.F. 20.7.16."
S 14b 99 was a map reference for Bazentin churchyard. We lay here on
the reverse slope of a slight ridge about half a mile from the wood.
I attended the meeting of company commanders; the colonel told us the
plan. He said: "Look here, you fellows, we're in reserve for this
attack. The Cameronians are going up to the wood first, then the Fifth
Scottish Rifles; that's at five a.m. The Public Schools Battalion are
in support if anything goes wrong. I don't know if we shall be called
on; if we are, it will mean that the Jocks have legged it. As usual,"
he added. This was an appeal to prejudice. "The Public Schools
Battalion is, well, what we know, so if we are called for, that means
it will be the end of us." He said this with a laugh and we all
laughed. We were sitting on the ground protected by the road-bank; a
battery of French 75's was firing rapid over our heads about twenty
yards away. There was a very great concentration of guns in Happy Valley
now. We could hardly hear what he was saying. He told us that if we
did get orders to reinforce, we were to shake out in artillery formation;
once in the wood we were to hang on like death. Then he said good-bye
and good luck and we rejoined our companies.
At this juncture the usual inappropriate message came through from
Division. Division could always be trusted to send through a warning
about verdigris on vermorel-sprayers, or the keeping of pets in trenches,
or being polite to our allies, or some other triviality, when an attack
was in progress. This time it was an order for a private in C Company
to report immediately to the assistant provost-marshal back at Albert,
under escort of a lance-corporal. He was for a court-martial. A sergeant
of the company was also ordered to report as a witness in the case.
The private was charged with the murder of a French civilian in an estaminet
at Béthune about a month previously. Apparently there had
been a good deal of brandy going and the French civilian, who had a
grudge against the British (it was about his wife), started to tease
the private. He was reported, somewhat improbably, as having said: "English
no bon, Allmand très bon. War fineesh, napoo the English. Allmand
win." The private had immediately drawn his bayonet and run the
man through. At the court-martial the private was exculpated; the French
civil representative commended him for having "energetically repressed
local defeatism." So he and the two N.C.O.'s missed the battle.
What the battle that they missed was like I pieced together afterwards.
The Jocks did get into the wood and the Royal Welch were not called
on to reinforce until eleven o'clock in the morning. The Germans put
down a barrage along the ridge where we were lying, and we lost about
a third of the battalion before our show started. I was one of the casualties.
It was heavy stuff, six and eight inch. There was so much of it that
we decided to move back fifty yards; it was when I was running that
an eight-inch shell burst about three paces behind me. I was able
to work that out afterwards by the line of my wounds. I heard the explosion
and felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder-blades,
but had no sensation of pain. I thought that the punch was merely the
shock of the explosion; then blood started trickling into my eye and
I felt faint and called to Moodie: "I've been hit." Then I
fell down. A minute or two before I had had two very small wounds on
my left hand; they were in exactly the same position as the two, on
my right hand, that I had got during the preliminary bombardment at
Loos. This I had taken as a sign that I would come through all right.
For further security I had repeated to myself a line of Nietsche's,
whose poems, in French, I had with me:
Non, tu ne peux pas me tuer.
It was the poem about a man on the scaffold with the red-bearded executioner
standing over him. (This copy of Nietsche, by the way, had contributed
to the suspicions about me as a spy. Nietsche was execrated in the papers
as the philosopher of German militarism; he was more popularly interpreted
as a William le Queux mystery-man --the sinister figure behind the Kaiser.)
One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up near the groin;
I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to have escaped emasculation.
The wound over the eye was nothing; it was a little chip of marble,
possibly from one of the Bazentin cemetery headstones. This and a finger
wound, which split the bone, probably came from another shell that burst
in front of me. The main wound was made by a piece of shell that went
in two inches below the point of my right shoulder and came out through
my chest two inches above my right nipple, in a line between it and
the base of my neck.
My memory of what happened then is vague. Apparently Doctor Dunn came
up through the barrage with a stretcher-party, dressed my wound, and
got me down to the old German dressing-station at the north end of Mametz
Wood. I just remember being put on the stretcher and winking at the
stretcher-bearer sergeant who was looking at me and saying: "Old
Gravy's got it, all right." The dressing-station was overworked
that day; I was laid in a corner on a stretcher and remained unconscious
for more than twenty-four hours.
It was about ten o'clock on the 20th that I was hit. Late that night
the colonel came to the dressing-station; he saw me lying in the corner
and was told that I was done for. The next morning, the 21st, when they
were clearing away the dead, I was found to be still breathing; so they
put me on an ambulance for Heilly, the nearest field-hospital. The pain
of being jolted down the Happy Valley, with a shell-hole at every three
or four yards of the roads, woke me for awhile. I remember screaming.
But once back on the better roads I became unconscious again. That morning
the colonel wrote the usual formal letters of condolence to the next-of-kin
of the six or seven officers who had been killed. This was his letter
to my mother:
DEAR MRS. GRAVES,
I very much regret to have to write and tell you your son has died
of wounds. He was very gallant, and was doing so well and is a great
He was hit by a shell and very badly wounded, and died on the way
down to the base I believe. He was not in bad pain, and our doctor
managed to get across and attend him at once.
We have had a very hard time, and our casualties have been large.
Believe me you have all our sympathy in your loss, and we have lost
a very gallant soldier.
Please write to me if I can tell you or do anything.
* * *
Later he made out the official casualty list and reported me died of
wounds. It was a long casualty list, because only eighty men were left
in the battalion.
Heilly was on the railway; close to the station was the hospital --
marquee tents with the red cross painted prominently on the roofs to
discourage air-bombing. It was fine July weather and the tents were
insufferably hot. I was semi-conscious now, and realized my lung-wound
by the shortness of breath. I was amused to watch the little bubbles
of blood, like red soap-bubbles, that my breath made when it escaped
through the hole of the wound. The doctor came over to me. I felt sorry
for him; he looked as though he had not had any sleep for days. I asked
him for a drink. He said: "Would you like some tea?" I whispered:
"Not with condensed milk in it." He said: "I'm afraid
there's no fresh milk." Tears came to my eyes; I expected better
of a hospital behind the lines. He said: "Will you have some water?"
I said: "Not if it's boiled." He said: "It is boiled.
And I'm afraid I can't give you anything with alcohol in it in your
present condition." I said: "Give me some fruit then."
He said: "I have seen no fruit for days." But a few minutes
later he came back with two rather unripe greengages. I felt so grateful
that I promised him a whole orchard when I recovered.
The nights of the 22nd and 23rd were very bad. Early on the morning
of the 24th, when the doctor came to see how I was, I said: "You
must send me away from here. The heat will kill me." It was beating
through the canvas on my head. He said: "Stick it out. It's your
best chance to lie here and not to be moved. You'd not reach the base
alive." I said: "I'd like to risk the move. I'll be all right,
you'll see." Half an hour later he came back. "Well, you're
having it your way. I've just got orders to evacuate every case in the
hospital. Apparently the Guards have been in it up at Delville Wood
and we'll have them all coming in tonight." I had no fears now
about dying. I was content to be wounded and on the way home.
I had been given news of the battalion from a brigade-major, wounded
in the leg, who was in the next bed to me. He looked at my label and
said: "I see you're in the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers. Well,
I saw your High Wood show through field-glasses. The way your battalion
shook out into artillery formation, company by company -- with each
section of four or five men in file at fifty yards interval and distance
-- going down into the hollow and up the slope through the barrage,
was the most beautiful bit of parade-ground drill I've ever seen. Your
company officers must have been superb." I happened to know that
one company at least had started without a single officer. I asked him
whether they had held the wood. He said: "They hung on at the near
end. I believe what happened was that the Public Schools Battalion came
away as soon as it got dark; and so did the Scotsmen. Your chaps were
left there alone for some time. They steadied themselves by singing.
Later, the chaplain -- R.C. of course -- Father McCabe, brought the
Scotsmen back. They were Glasgow Catholics and would follow a priest
where they wouldn't follow an officer. The middle of the wood was impossible
for either the Germans or your fellows to hold. There was a terrific
concentration of artillery on it. The trees were splintered to matchwood.
Late that night the survivors were relieved by a brigade of the Seventh
Division; your First Battalion was in it."
That evening I was put in the hospital train. They could not lift me
from the stretcher to put me on a bunk, for fear of starting hemorrhage
in the lung; so they laid the stretcher on top of it, with the handles
resting on the head-rail and foot-rail. I had been on the same stretcher
since I was wounded. I remember the journey only as a nightmare.
My back was sagging, and I could not raise my knees to relieve the
cramp because the bunk above me was only a few inches away. A German
officer on the other side of the carriage groaned and wept unceasingly.
He had been in an aeroplane crash and had a compound fracture of the
leg. The other wounded men were cursing him and telling him to stow
it and be a man, but he went on, keeping every one awake. He was not
delirious, only frightened and in great pain. An orderly gave me a pencil
and paper and I wrote home to say that I was wounded but all right.
This was July 24th, my twenty-first birthday, and it was on this day,
when I arrived at Rouen, that my death officially occurred. My parents
got my letter two days after the letter from the colonel; mine was dated
July 23rd, because I had lost count of days when I was unconscious;
his was dated the 22nd.(1) They could not decide whether my letter had
been written just before I died and misdated, or whether I had died
just after writing it. 'Died of wounds' was, however, so much more circumstantial
than 'killed' that they gave me up. I was in No. 8 Hospital at Rouen;
an ex-chateau high above the town. The day after I arrived a Cooper
aunt of mine, who had married a Frenchman, came up to the hospital to
visit a nephew in the South Wales Borderers who had just had a leg amputated.
She happened to see my name in a list on the door of the ward, so she
wrote to my mother to reassure her. On the 30th I had a letter from
DEAR VON RUNICKE,
I cannot tell you how pleased I am you are alive. I was told your
number was up for certain, and a letter was supposed to have come
in from Field Ambulance saying you had gone under.
Well, it's good work. We had a rotten time, and after succeeding
in doing practically the impossible we collected that rotten crowd
and put them in their places, but directly dark came they legged it.
It was too sad.
We lost heavily. It is not fair putting brave men like ours alongside
that crowd. I also wish to thank you for your good work and bravery,
and only wish you could have been with them. I have read of bravery
but I have never seen such magnificent and wonderful disregard for
death as I saw that day. It was almost uncanny -- it was so great.
I once heard an old officer in the Royal Welch say the men would follow
you to Hell; but these chaps would bring you back and put you in a
dug-out in Heaven.
Good luck and a quick recovery. I shall drink your health to-night.
I had little pain all this time, but much discomfort; the chief pain
came from my finger, which had turned septic because nobody had taken
the trouble to dress it, and was throbbing. And from the thigh, where
the sticky medical plaster, used to hold down the dressing, pulled up
the hair painfully when it was taken off each time the wound was dressed.
My breath was very short still. I contrasted the pain and discomfort
favorably with that of the operation on my nose of two months back;
for this I had won no sympathy at all from anyone, because it was not
an injury contracted in war. I was weak and petulant and muddled. The
R.A.M.C. bugling outraged me. The 'Rob All My Comrades,' I complained,
had taken everything I had except a few papers in my tunic-pocket and
a ring which was too tight on my finger to be pulled off; and now they
mis-blew the Last Post flat and windily, and with the pauses in the
wrong places, just to annoy me. I remember that I told an orderly to
put the bugler under arrest and jump to it or I'd report him to the
senior medical officer.
Next to me was a Welsh boy, named O. M. Roberts, who had joined us
only a few days before he was hit. He told me about High Wood; he had
reached the edge of the wood when he was wounded in the groin. He had
fallen into a shell-hole. Some time in the afternoon he had recovered
consciousness and seen a German officer working round the edge of the
wood, killing off the wounded with an automatic pistol. Some of our
lightly-wounded were, apparently, not behaving as wounded men should;
they were sniping. The German worked nearer. He saw Roberts move and
came towards him, fired and hit him in the arm. Roberts was very weak
and tugged at his Webley. He had great difficulty in getting it out
of the holster. The German fired again and missed. Roberts rested the
Webley against the lip of the shell-hole and tried to pull the trigger;
he was not strong enough. The German was quite close now and was going
to make certain of him this time. Roberts said that he just managed
to pull the trigger with the fingers of both hands when the German was
only about five yards away. The shot took the top of his head off. Roberts
The doctors had been anxiously watching my lung, which was gradually
filling with blood and pressing my heart too far away to the left of
my body; the railway journey had restarted the hemorrhage. They marked
the gradual progress of my heart with an indelible pencil on my skin
and said that when it reached a certain point they would have to aspirate
me. This sounded a serious operation, but it only consisted of putting
a hollow needle into my lung through the back and drawing the blood
off into a vacuum flask through it. I had a local anesthetic; it hurt
no more than a vaccination, and I was reading the Gazette de Rouen
as the blood hissed into the flask. It did not look much, perhaps
half a pint. That evening I heard a sudden burst of lovely singing in
the courtyard where the ambulances pulled up. I recognized the quality
of the voices. I said to Roberts: "The First Battalion have been
in it again," and asked a nurse to verify it; I was right. It was
their Delville Wood show, I think, but I am uncertain now of the date.
A day or two later I was taken back to England by
(1) "Siegfried" :
Siegfried Sassoon. The account of Sassoon's action which Graves refers
to here is discussed at greater length in Sassoon's own Memoirs
of an Infantry Officer.
(2) [Graves' Footnote:]
I cannot explain the discrepancy between his dating of my death and
that of the published casualty list.
(3) For reaction to Graves'
injury from men of his own regiment, see J.C. Dunn's The
War the Infantry Knew.