Robert Graves: War follows its victims back home
From Good-Bye to All That (1929)
…I realized how bad my nerves were when one day, marching through the streets of Litherland on a Battalion route-march, I saw three workmen in gas-masks beside an open man-hole, bending over a corpse which they had just hauled up from a sewer. His clothes were sodden and stinking; his face and hands, yellow. Waste chemicals from the munitions factory had got into the sewage system and gassed him when he went down to inspect. My company did not pause in its march, so I only had a a glimpse of the group; but it reminded me so strongly of France that, but for the band-music, I should have fainted.
I decided to leave Litherland somehow, forewarned what the winter would be like, with the mist steaming up from the Mersey and hanging about the camp, full of T.N.T. fumes. During the previous winter I used to sit in my hut, and cough and cough until I was sick. The fumes tarnished buttons and cap-badges, and made our eyes smart. I thought of going back to France, but realized the absurdity of the notion. Since 1916, the fear of gas had obsessed me: any unusual smell, even a sudden strong scent of flowers in a garden, was enough to send me trembling. And I couldn’t face the sound of heavy shelling now; the noise of a car back-firing would send me flat on my face, or running for cover…
At the Peace Day celebrations in the Castle, I was asked, as the senior man at Harlech who had served overseas, to make a speech about the glorious dead. I spoke in commendation of the Welshman as a fighting man and earned loud cheers. But not only did I have no experience of independent civilian life, having gone straight from school into the Army: I was mentally and nervously organized for War. Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight, even though Nancy shared it with me; strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed. When strong enough to climb the hill behind Harlech and revisit my favourite country, I could not help seeing it as a prospective battlefield. I would find myself working out tactical problems, planning how best to hold the Upper Artro valley against an attack from the sea, or where to place a Lewis gun if I were trying to rush Dolwreiddiog Farm from the brow of the hill, and what would be the best cover for my rifle-grenade section. 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 charged with any fault, to lie my way out Army style…