Robert Graves, upon reading a 1929 edition of his own memoir of the Great War, remarked "I wonder how my publishers escaped a libel action." Good-Bye to All That perhaps escaped libel action through its outrageous candor: Graves tells a soldier's story so brutally, comically honest and accidentally heroic that any attempt to legally discredit the author could only appear as aggrandizement of a war that left a bad taste in the mouth of survivors. Other literary accounts of the First World War, such as Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms or Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, strive for tragedy. Notably, both books are novels, not memoirs. Graves' account embraces dark and irreverent comedy. He spins ghost stories he does not believe, and as gladly relates gossip from the trenches as he does any factual account of the fighting. He strikes a dismissive tone of courage, tactics and strategy, and yet takes pride in his own stoicism and poetic observations. Friends and fellow soldiers enter the scene, deliver a line to Graves, and then walk into machine gun fire and die, or catch a mortar shell and die, or go mad (or catch venereal disease) and live.
The author assumes a knowing audience. He never bothers to explain technical military terms, or particular references to celebrated friends and acquaintances; as such, the book would make a difficult introduction to the subject and time period. Yet Graves' absolute, unfiltered humanity creates a startling and vital account of the First World War and the years immediately before and after. He never blushes to describe the erotic, Platonic boy-love of the English school system, nor his own struggle to walk the line between bodily courage and moral cowardice. Remarkably, he never highlights any one aspect of his early life as more important than another: his upbringing receives as equal treatment as his exploits as a soldier. I should not use the word "exploits," because Graves never uses it. The author typically refers to battles as "shows," and seems to smile when people he dislikes die in combat. He shrugs when good soldiers fall in pain and agony, and sighs (and gurgles) with relief when he receives a lung-wound dangerous enough to send him back to England for a few months of convalescence. He leaves England at the end of the book, just as his marriage falls apart and his friends seem to run out of patience with his heavy-hearted laughter. The reader should be glad to have read his book, and thankful not to be in it.