Robert Graves is probably best known for his novels about the Roman emperor Claudius, which were made into the wildly popular BBC television series I, Claudius.
Long before writing those books, in 1914 when World War I began, Graves enlisted and the following year was in the Battle of Loos. In 1916 he was badly wounded at the Battle of the Somme. Back in England, while still recovering from his physical problems, he experienced the effects of what used to be called shell shock. Of this time he wrote:
Since 1916 the fear of gas had been an obsession; in any unusual smell that I met I smelt gas – even a sudden strong scent of flowers in a garden was enough to set me trembling. And I knew that the noise of heavy shelling would be too much for me now. The noise of a motor-tyre exploding behind me would send me flat on my face or running for cover.
He could have opted to be stationed in England for the remainder of the war, but attempted to return to active duty in France. A military doctor recognized the extent of the damage and sent him back to England, where he married Nancy Nicholson and started a family, recognizing that it would be years before he was “fit for anything besides a quiet country life.”
These excerpts are from Graves’s autobiography Goodbye to All That, originally published in 1929 while the wartime memories were still relatively fresh. When he revised it for a new edition in 1957, he made changes which many people believe weakened the book.
Graves on Post-War PTSD
I was still mentally and nervously organized for war; shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight even when Nancy was sharing it with me; strangers in day-time would assume the faces of friends who had been killed.
I still had the army habit of commandeering anything of uncertain ownership that I found lying about; also a difficulty in telling the truth – it was always easier for me now when overtaken in any fault to lie my way out. I applied the technique of taking over billets or trenches to a review of my present situation. Food,water supply, possible dangers, communication, sanitation, protection against the weather, fuel and lighting – each item was ticked off as satisfactory.
And other loose habits of wartime survived, such as stopping passing motors for a life, talking without embarrassment to my fellow-travelers in railway carriages, and unbuttoning by the roadside without shame, whoever was about. And I retained the technique of endurance, a brutal persistence in seeing things through, somehow, anyhow, without finesse, satisfied with the main points of any situation. But I modified my language, which had suddenly become foul on the day of Loos and had been foul ever since.
I was very thin, very nervous, and had about four years’ loss of sleep to make up. I found that I was suffering from a large sort of intestinal worm which came from drinking bad water in France… My disabilities were many; I could not use a telephone, I was sick every time I traveled in a train, and if I saw more than two new people in a single day it prevented me from sleeping. I was ashamed of myself as a drag on Nancy.
While hospitalized he met fellow poet Edmund Blunden, of whom he wrote:
Edmund had war-shock as badly as myself, and we would talk each other into an almost hysterical state about the trenches. We agreed that we would not be right until we got all that talk on to paper. He was first with Undertones of War, published in 1928. Edmund and I found ourselves translating everything into trench-warfare terms. The war was not yet over for us.
Graves picked up where he had left off before the war and enrolled in university, where he had flashbacks of sights from the first four months of his time in France. Although those scenes were not violent, they were nevertheless disturbing.
In the middle of a lecture I would have a sudden very clear experience of men on the march up the Béthune-La Bassée road; the men would be singing and French children would be running along beside them, calling out: “Tommee, Tommee, give me bullee beef;” and I would smell the stench of the knacker’s yard just outside the town. These day-dreams persisted like an alternate life. Indeed they did not leave me until well on in 1928… My nerves were bad, though possibly still good enough for an emergency, and beyond improvement.
Several years after Graves’s return to England, he and Nancy ran a neighborhood shop, similar to what we would now think of as a convenience store. It was still difficult to adjust to civilian life and peacetime, especially when the international news was ominous.
War horror overcame me again. The political situation in Europe seemed to be going from bad to worse… I had bad nights. I thought that perhaps I owed it to Nancy to go to a psychiatrist to be cured; yet I was not sure. Somehow I thought that the power of writing poetry, which was more important to me than anything else I did, would disappear if I allowed myself to get cured;… It seemed to me less important to get well than to be a good poet.
With four children and little income, both parents were overworked and overstressed, and Nancy’s health began to fail. What Graves suffered from was at the time called neurasthenia, a catch-all term that included conditions later labeled as clinical depression, postpartum depression, anxiety, nervous exhaustion, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and of course Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (Sometimes it was called Soldier’s Heart.) Graves wrote:
Nancy begged me not to talk about the war in her hearing, and I was ready to forget about it. The villagers called me “The Captain,” otherwise I had few reminders except my yearly visit to the standing medical board. The board continued for some year to recommend me for a disability pension. The particular disability was neurasthenia; the train journey and the army railway-warrant filled out with my rank and regiment usually produced reminiscential neurasthenia by the time I reached the board. The award was at last made permanent at forty-two pounds a year.
I also made several attempts during these years to rid myself of the poison of war-memories by finishing my novel, but I had to abandon them. It was not only they they brought back neurasthenia, but that I was ashamed at having distorted my material with a plot, and yet not sure enough of myself to retranslate it into undisguised history.