Wednesday 20 June 2018

Robert Graves was so badly wounded during the Battle of the Somme that his family was told he was dead. In his autobiography, Goodbye to All That, he wrote one of the most enduring memoirs of the First World War and the Somme in particular. 

Graves was born in Wimbledon, South London in 1895. He was educated at Charterhouse and was about to start at St John's College, Oxford when the First World War broke out. Wanting to fight, he quickly obtained a commission in the Special Reserve of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in August 1914. He served in both the 2nd and 1st Battalions of the regiment in 1915 and fought at the Battle of Loos. He preferred the 1st Battalion, where he met and befriended a fellow soldier-poet, Siegfried Sassoon

Robert Graves by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1920. NPG Ax140911. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Robert Graves by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1920. NPG Ax140911. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

In March 1916, Graves was with the 1st Battalion on the Somme near Fricourt. After a period of home leave and an operation in London, he returned to the Somme in mid-July, this time with the 2nd Battalion. It went into reserve north of Mametz Wood. As the nights were cold, Graves collected greatcoats for his men from dead Germans. The sight of one corpse inspired his poem, A Dead Boche.

On 20 July, the men of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, were positioned on a ridge to the east of Bazentin-le-Petit Cemetery. They were acting as reserve to an attack by the 33rd Division on High Wood. The fusiliers soon came under heavy shell fire and fell back. A German shell burst close to Graves, who 'felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder blades'. He was badly wounded in multiple places, including by a piece of shrapnel which pierced his chest.

Graves was taken to a dressing station near Mametz Wood, where it was expected he would die. On the morning of 21 July, when he was found to be still alive, he was sent to No. 8 General Hospital in Rouen. A letter was sent to his family stating that he had died of his wounds and his death was announced in The Times. Graves was then sent to recover at Queen Alexandra's Hospital in London and another announcement was soon placed in the newspaper, retracting the first.

Graves published several volumes of poetry during the war, including Over the Brazier and Fairies and Fusiliers. In 1917 he suffered from shell shock, and was demobilized in 1919 with the rank of major, aged only 23.

Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves by Lady Ottoline Morrell, September 1920. NPG Ax140882. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves by Lady Ottoline Morrell, September 1920. NPG Ax140882. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

After the war, Graves emerged as one of the most original British poets of the twentieth century. His experiences were recounted in one of the most well-known First World War memoirs, Goodbye to All That, published in 1929. The war continued to exercise a powerful influence on him until his death, in Majorca, in 1985.

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