Combat Motivation in Robert Graves’ Good-Bye to All That

One of the continually astounding aspects of any narrative account of fighting in the trenches of France during World War I is the fact that the men in the trenches made assault after assault against opposing forces knowing that they almost certainly would become casualties. Although those survivors who have written about the war invariably complain about the poor planning and worse execution of the ground assaults from the beginning to the end of the conflict, the great majority of men consistently did their soldierly duty in spite of the overwhelming odds against their survival. Robert Graves witnessed this aspect of war personally, over a period of nearly two years, as described in his post-war memoir, Goodbye to All That, originally published in 1929 and revised in 1957.

Although the tone of Graves’ memoir is one of gentle irony, as he describes all that he is bidding “goodbye,” his account of his war experiences and especially of the men with whom he fought, is not ironic. The essence of this attitude can be seen in a remark he makes in the opening chapter: “I do not now talk too much, except when I have been drinking, or when I meet someone who fought with me in France” (10). Some of the most moving pages are devoted to his accounts of trench life and the attacks he and his comrades witnessed, and of the motives that impelled them to fight even when they knew the attack plan was badly flawed. Although he often satirizes the methods and attitudes of the leadership of the army, Graves does not mock his fellow combatants. In fact, Graves devotes several pages to analyzing the kinds of motivational forces that enabled the men to fight when logic and past experience should have persuaded them not to.

Graves was involved in the war from the beginning to the end (See Table 1). He served in France for a total of sixteen months from May of 1915 until February of 1917. Of those sixteen months, he was in and out of the trenches for nearly ten months and was wounded severely. As he says in Goodbye, “it has taken some ten years for my blood to recover” from the effects of fighting (178). Strange as it might seem, Graves came to prefer life in the trenches to life out of the trenches; in the trenches he and the men were concerned only for basic needs: food, warmth, safety, survival. Behind the trenches, when they were placed in reserve, the petty actions of routine military life wore on him: “I used to look forward to our spells in trenches,” he says, because “billet life” (in the reserve billets) meant riding school, parades, formal changes of the guard, and correcting the non-military habits of junior officers like Graves. This was called “the general game of ‘chasing the warts,’ at which all conscientious senior officers played” in the effort to “make us better soldiers” (140-1).

Because he had seen so many of his friends killed and broken by the war, he was especially interested to consider the factors that enabled some to survive without undermining military efficiency. It is reasonable to assume that, as someone who saw the soldiers’ reactions from the beginning of the conflict to the end, Graves would spend a good deal of time thinking about the factors that led to positive morale and unit cohesion in the face of unfavorable odds. In fact, Graves and his fellow soldiers had estimated the “odds” of survival accurately, and they based many of their actions on those odds:

“Like everyone else, I had a carefully worked out formula for taking risks. In principle, we would all take any risk, even the certainty of death, to save life or to maintain an important position. To take life we would run, say, a one-in-five risk, particularly if there was some wider object than merely reducing the enemy’s manpower. . . .” (136).

The most important part of this combat version of what today might be called a “risk assessment system” was the general condition of the morale of the unit: “In battalions where morale was low, one-in-fifty risks were often taken in laziness or despair” (137). Clearly, estimating risks was important for survival, but fighting a war on the basis of risk management has limited value when the outcome will be determined by attrition of forces on one side or the other. Estimating risks is important, Graves points out, but risk management is not the key to survival; accurate risk assessment must be combined with appropriate motivation.

More than almost any other memoirist of the Great War, Graves devotes considerable emphasis to considering the aspects of what today is called combat motivation, for his account is filled with discussions of those aspects. But before looking at Graves’ catalogue of combat motivation factors, we should first review those factors as defined by modern students of war.

Scholars of military history generally agree that there are three different areas of motivation for individuals who find themselves in the position of engaging in armed conflict in defense of national interests (see the entries by Chacho, Kellett, Moskos, and Stouffer in Bibliography). American Revolutionary War historian John A. Lynn identified these three areas as motivation for enlistment, combat motivation, and sustaining motivation; these areas were recently incorporated by another American historian, James McPherson, in his book, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (1997). These areas are easily defined: enlistment motivation refers to the reasons individuals to join the army in the first place; that motivation usually is modified by subsequent experience. Combat motivation, the main topic of this presentation, pertains to those reasons that persuade a soldier to participate (more or less willingly) in military activities while under hostile fire. Sustaining motivation refers to the factors that enable an individual to return to the combat environment after having survived it previously. Although these categories and terms were not developed until well after WWI, Graves gives examples of all three as surely as if he had created them himself.

The enlistment impulse usually results from an individual’s emotional and perhaps intellectual response to the circumstances that brought about the conflict in the first place. This condition has been termed “rage militaire,” typified by patriotic fervor and an intense state of excitement. This response seems to describe Graves’ state of mind: “I was outraged to read of the Germans’ cynical violation of Belgian neutrality” (68), though he candidly admits that his act of enlistment also had the more immediate personal benefit of delaying the start of his schooling in Oxford. Although he says that he was suspicious of exaggerated claims of the Germans’ inhumanity, it is worth noting that he enlisted within days of the English declaration of war. And as he later admits, this motivational force was far from his mind when he reached the trenches of France.

The most prominent scholars of combat motivation, our main concern here, have identified the following as the most common motivational factors: ideological beliefs (also known as patriotism), religious beliefs, duty and honor, unit pride, training experiences, leadership, personal survival, and primary group allegiance. Not all scholars are in unanimous agreement on the terminology and precise meanings of these terms, but by and large, they are representative, especially as reflected in the writings of Anthony Kellett, Charles Moskos, and others. Most modern scholars agree that allegiance to the primary group is one of the most important of these; recently other scholars have argued that ideology is more important than has been previously held. These scholars have also agreed generally that each war is different, with different factors significant in each. With the rise of studies in human behavior, it stands to reason that the actions of humans in combat situations should become fair game for study.

Although Robert Graves did not know of these categories of combat motivation, he lists many of the same factors almost exactly, and refers to most of the others indirectly. Chapter 17 contains the most extended discussion of combat motivation in the book, although Graves discusses motivation directly or indirectly in many other places. Chapter 17 contains Graves’ description of his duties as a training officer in the Harfleur “Bull Ring,” in January and February of 1916, where he was temporarily assigned to give technical instruction to new arrivals before they were sent “up the line” (188). His tasks were to teach trench relief and trench discipline and to conduct “arms-drill,” or as we would call it today, close order drill. For someone who disliked the daily pettiness of army life out of the trenches, Graves’ fondness for arms-drill may seem surprising. Graves thought arms-drill was essential to the survival of the men in the unit: “We all agreed on the value of arms-drill as a factor in morale” (194). His explanation to those who complained about this aspect of training deserves full repetition here:

“I used to get big bunches of Canadians to drill: four or five hundred at a time. Spokesmen stepped forward once and asked what sense there was in sloping and ordering arms, and fixing and unfixing bayonets. They said they had come across to fight, and not to guard Buckingham Palace. I told them that in every division of the four in which I had served . . . there were three different kinds of troops. Those that had guts but were no good at drill; those that were good at drill but had no guts; and those that had guts and were good at drill. These last, for some reason or other, fought by far the best when it came to a show—I didn’t know why, and I didn’t care. I told them that when they were better at fighting than the Guards they could perhaps afford to neglect their arms-drill.” (195)

Having just said that he could give no reason why arms-drill was good for morale, he then presents a discussion between those who shared his viewpoint and those who had different theories: “I held that . . . there must be perfect respect between the man who gives the order and the men who carry it out” (195). Some instructors suggested that such practice could result in a “loss of initiative [in the field] in the men drilled.” But Graves clearly agrees with the voices of “others” who argue that “it acted just the other way around”: “under the stress of danger this section [of men] will have that all-one-body feeling of drill and obey an imaginary word of command” (195). In the explanation that follows, the merits of arms-drill are seen to include other terms more widely known today, such as leadership and primary group:

“Leadership is supposed to be the perfection for which drill has been instituted. That’s wrong. Leadership is only the first stage. Perfection of drill is communal action. Though drill may seem to be antiquated parade-ground stuff, it’s the foundation of tactics and musketry. Parade-ground musketry won all the battles in our regimental histories; this war, which is unlikely to open out, and must almost certainly end with the collapse, by “attrition,” of one side or the other, will be won by parade-ground tactics—by the simple drill tactics of small units fighting in limited spaces, and in noise and confusion so great that leadership is quite impossible.” (196)

Graves’ reference to “all the battles in our regimental histories” illustrates how strongly he had come to believe in the historical traditions of the unit he had joined, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His understanding of the history of the Welch Fusiliers, which was gained during the months after he joined, created a meaningful context against which he developed his sense of leadership and allegiance to the primary group, which he might more likely have termed “unit pride.” That the history of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was especially important to Graves can be seen in the detailed references he makes in Goodbye to his familiarization with unit history.

When he begins his training at Wrexham in August of 1914, Graves acknowledges his ignorance of any matter military: “I knew nothing of Army tradition,” adding that only one or two others had joined up for the same reasons he had, “for the sake of the war, and not for the sake of a career” (71). At Wrexham, he says,

“We second-lieutenants learned regimental history, drill, musketry, Boer War field tactics, military law and organization, how to recognize bugle calls, how to work a machine-gun, and how to conduct ourselves on formal occasions. We dug no trenches, handled no bombs, thought of the company, not of the platoon, still less of the section, as the smallest independent tactical unit.” (83)

Graves places regimental history at the head of the list of subjects learned at Wrexham, where he learns that the Royal Welch had won twenty nine battle honours, “a number equalled only by a couple of other two-battalion regiments,” of which the First Battalion had won twenty six and the Second Battalion three. They were all “good bloody battle honours,” he adds approvingly (84). There also he meets many old soldiers, some of whom had been in Burma in 1885, including a soldier named Jackie Barrett, “a Kipling character,” who had briefly deserted in India with a chum but returned to the unit (71). As he says, he “caught the sense of regimental tradition” immediately after his arrival at the depot, when he discovered a “big leather-bound ledger” in the cupboard at the mess: “It proved to be the Daily Order Book of the First Battalion in the trenches before Sevastopol, and I opened it at the page giving orders for an attack upon the Redan Redoubt” (85).

Following the orders to attack, he read of details of the arms and equipment, rations, and ammunition. Then he read of the outcome: “The attack failed, and among subsequent entries were orders for the burial of the dead, appreciation from headquarters of the gallantry vainly displayed, and a notice that the effects of Lieutenant So-and-So, who had led the storming party, would be sold at public auction in the trenches next day” (85). Graves also read of a citation for gallantry of a certain Sergeant Luke O’Connor, who had been awarded one of the first Victoria Crosses, and who was now the colonel of the regiment.

Graves learned also of the famed regimental flash, “a fan-like bunch of five black ribbons,” stitched to the back of the tunic collar, authorized to be worn only by the soldiers of the Royal Welch (86), and of the bursting grenade design, worn as a collar- and cap-badge, to signify their “early employment as storm troops armed with bombs” (89). Among the other traditions associated with the Royal Welch, Graves mentions the dinner on St. David’s night, when raw leeks are eaten to the roll of the drum, and the toasts to “Major Toby Purcell’s golden spurs, won at [the battle of] the Boyne and lost in a shipwreck off Newfoundland about 1840, and to Shenkin Ap Morgan, the “First Gentleman of Wales” (88-89). There is no doubt of Graves’ commitment to the unit: “I used to congratulate myself on having quite blindly chosen the Royal Welch Fusiliers, of all the regiments in the army” (83).

Before describing the confusion and the carnage of the war in the trenches, Graves provides some sobering information about the attrition suffered by the Royal Welch Fusiliers, perhaps better known at the time he wrote the book than now. “Our First Battalion . . . was practically annihilated within two months of joining the British Expeditionary Force.” “In the course of the war,” he adds, “at least fifteen or twenty thousand men must have passed through each of the two line battalions, whose fighting strength never stood at more than eight hundred.” A quick calculation using Graves’ figures shows that more than twenty men were required to fill each one of the battalions’ positions during the course of the war. In spite of these appalling losses, Graves says, “The regimental spirit persistently survived all catastrophes” (91-2). The sense of regimental history was so strong, according to Graves, that it survived intact: “In the First and Second Battalions, throughout the war, not merely the officers and NCOs knew their regimental history. The men had learned far more about Minden, Albuhera, and Waterloo, and the Battle of the Pyramids, than they had about the fighting on the other fronts, or the official causes of the war” (92).

References to the history of the Royal Welch Fusiliers continue throughout the narrative, and it seems evident that one of Graves’ main goals in writing about the war is not to write about his own personal exploits (and in fact he plays these down), but to add to the historical record of the Royal Welch. Of his own accomplishments, for instance, he says that “I myself never performed any feat for which I might conceivably have been decorated throughout my service in France” (91). But, according to his own account, his enthusiasm for going on patrol in “no man’s land,” the area between the German and the English lines, was unusually noteworthy, especially for someone as large physically as Graves.

Not only does Graves emphasize the essential aspects of leadership and primary group allegiance in his discussion of arms-drill, he describes with impressive accuracy the central importance of small unit integrity as a fighting force; the importance of the small unit has been demonstrated in every major conflict in the subsequent seventy years. Graves concludes this discussion by affirming that arms-drill can lead to “regimental pride” as the “strongest moral force that kept a battalion going as an effective fighting unit” (196). It should be noted in passing that Graves’ viewpoint has been restated by some recent American military experts (see Hooker).

Graves later reports on something like evidence of the validity of his view of the value of arms-drill when a brigade-major, wounded in the leg in the offensive that began shortly after Graves was critically wounded, tells him what he saw during the attack the following day:

‘I see you’re in the Second Royal Welch. I watched 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.’ (230)

Graves contrasts the value of arms-drill and its associated factors—leadership, primary group allegiance, and pride—with factors that were not useful in motivating the men to fight: in particular, patriotism and religion. “Patriotism,” Graves says, “is too remote a sentiment,” “at once rejected [by the men] as fit only for civilians, or prisoners” (196). Graves gives religion an equally low rating as a motivational factor: “hardly one soldier in a hundred was inspired by religious feeling of even the crudest kind” (197). Graves did not think highly of the chaplains, although he had some praise for Catholic chaplains, who “definitely enjoyed to be wherever fighting was” (198). Anglican chaplains, he thought, “were remarkably out of touch with their troops,” and he gave as an example the reaction of one soldier after he had listened to a chaplain preach a violent sermon on the Battle against Sin: “’Christ, as if one bloody push wasn’t enough to worry about at a time!’” (198).

That Graves knew about the aspect modern scholars call sustaining motivation is also clear, except that in his case he has no answer as to how it can be provided. What he knows on the subject is his own clearly recognized personal limitations. In October 1915, after he has been in the trenches for five months, he reflects on his condition: “Having now been in the trenches for five months, I had passed my prime.”

For the first three weeks, an officer was of little use in the front line; he did not know his way about, had not learned the rules of health and safety, or grown accustomed to recognizing degrees of danger. Between three weeks and four weeks he was at his best, unless he happened to have any particular bad shock or series of shocks. Then his usefulness gradually declined as neurasthenia developed. At six months he was still more or less all right; but by nine or ten months, . . . he usually became a drag on the other company officers. After a year or fifteen months he was often worse than useless. (178)

Six months later, after a number of his fellow officers have been killed, and just before he goes on leave, in April of 1916, Graves worries about his ability to continue to function:

“My breaking point was near now, unless something happened to stave it off. Not that I felt frightened. I had never yet lost my head and turned tail through fright, and knew that I never would. Nor would the breakdown come as insanity; I did not have it in me. It would be a general nervous collapse, with tears and twitchings and dirtied trousers; I had seen cases like that.” (206)

His worry about the lack of personal human dignity that he knew would attend any such collapse was undoubtedly one of the reasons he was so concerned to support Siegfried Sassoon, when Sassoon experienced his collapse. Graves knew that Sassoon had been courageous in combat (cf. p. 219) and was unwilling to stand by and do nothing, especially when he knew that he could just as easily have been in Sassoon’s situation.

Even at the end, when he and Sassoon agreed to express their dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war in poetic and non-poetic form, Graves was unable to find fault with the units to which he had been assigned, deciding to leave the regiment only after the war ended and he was threatened with duty in Ireland. The birth of a daughter, Jenny, confirmed this impulse, and he writes movingly of his decision to leave while some companies of the Third Battalion pass by on parade, the band playing one of the unit’s favorite marches, British Grenadiers, beneath his window. He asks himself a question—“Had I ceased to be a British Grenadier?”—that he leaves unanswered.

However, at least one indirect answer to this question can be found in the elegiac passage in Graves’ 1957 postscript in which he writes of the death of his son David fighting in Burma in 1943 with—who else??—the First Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

Table 1. A Summary of the Dates and Locations of Robert Graves’ Service During World War I.

August 1914: enlisted in Royal Welch Fusiliers (because they were the closest
military unit to Harlech, where he was living at the time).
August 11, 1914: begins training at Wrexham
September-October 1914: training interrupted, sent to command detachment at
internment camp near Lancaster
November 1914-April 1915: returns to Wrexham; training continues
May-July 1915: attached to Royal Welsh Regiment, Cambrin sector
July-August 1915: assigned to Second Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, Laventie
August-September 1915: Second Battalion in Bethune sector
September 9-19, 1915: on leave, London
September 25, 1915: failed attack from Cambrin-Cuinchy line; Graves briefly
placed in command of B Company
October 3, 1915: Battalion pulled out of line for reorganization
October 15, 1915: Graves gazetted a Special Reserve Captain; offensive activities
for 1915 cease; Graves worries about his ability to survive
November 1915: assigned to First Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers, Cambrin
sector; meets Siegfried Sassoon
December 1915-January 1916: Divisional training, Montagne
January-February 1916: temporarily assigned as training officer, Harfleur, France
March 1916: rejoins First Battalion, Somme sector
April 1916: on leave in England for operation on nose
July 1, 1916: Somme offensive begins; Graves recalled to France, joins Second
Battalion, arrives July 5th
July 19-20, 1916: in the evening before they are scheduled to attack, Graves is
severely wounded by bursting German shell; reported killed; returns to England a few days later
August-October 1916: recovers from wounds in England; is joined by Sassoon
November 1916: Sassoon and Graves rejoin battalion at Litherland
December 1916: meets and passes medical board
January 1917: rejoins Second Battalion, Somme sector
February 1917: diagnosed with severe bronchitis, sent back to England
March 1917: assigned as military instructor, Oxford; Sassoon returns to Second
Battalion but is soon back in England
April-July 1917: corresponds with Sassoon, works to have Sassoon given special
consideration by medical board
March 1917-November 1918: military instructor, Oxford
November 1918: resigns commission

Works Cited

Chacho, Tania M. “Why Did They Fight? American Airborne Units in the Second World
War.” Annual Meeting of American Political Science Association, 30 August

Graves, Robert. Goodbye to All That. Penguin Books, 1960. Originally published 1929;
revised, 1957.

Hooker, Richard D. “Building Unbreakable Units.” Presentation at JScope 98, United
States Air Force Academy, Colorado, 1998.

Kellett, Anthony. Combat Motivation: The Behavior of Soldiers in Battle. Kluwer-
Nijhoff, 1982.

Kellett, Anthony. “Combat Motivation.” In Contemporary Studies in Combat
Psychiatry. Ed. Gregory Belenky. Greenwood Press, 1987.

Moskos, Charles C., Jr., The American Enlisted Man. Russell Sage, 1970.

Stouffer, Samuel A., et al. The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath. Princeton
University Press, 1949.

Vaughan, David K., and William C. Schum. “Motivation in U. S. Narrative Accounts of
the Ground War in Vietnam.” Armed Forces and Society, 28 (1) (2001): 7-31.