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Robert Graves: The grim arithmetic of war


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

Robert Graves: Selections on war


Robert Graves
From Good-Bye to All That (1929)


…The average life expectancy of an infantry subaltern on the Western Front was, at some stages of the War, only about three months; by which time he had been either wounded or killed. The proportions worked out at about four wounded to every killed. Of these four, one got wounded seriously, and the remaining three more or less lightly. The three lightly wounded returned to the front after a few weeks or months of absence, and again faced the same odds. Flying casualties were even higher…

I spent the rest of the watch in acquainting myself with the geography of the trench-section, finding how easy is was to get lost among culs de sac and disused alleys. Twice I overshot the company frontage and wandered among the Munster Fusiliers on the left. Once I tripped and fell with a splash into deep mud. At last my watch ended with the first signs of dawn. I passed the word along the line for the company to stand to arms. The N.C.O.’s whispered hoarsely into the dug-outs: ‘Stand-to, stand-to,’ and out the men tumbled with their rifles in their hands. Going towards Company Headquarters to wake the officers I saw a man lying on his face in a machine-gun shelter. I stopped and said: ‘Stand-to, there!’ I flashed my torch on him and saw that one of his feet was bare.

The machine-gunner beside him said: ‘No good talking to him, Sir.’

I asked: ‘What’s wrong? Why has he taken his boot and sock off?’

‘Look for yourself, Sir!’

I took the sleeper by the arm and noticed suddenly the hole in the back of his head. He had taken off the boot and the sock to pull the trigger of his rifle with one toe; the muzzle was in his mouth. ‘Why did he do it?’ I asked.

‘He went through the last push, Sir, and that sent him a bit queer; on top of that he got bad news from Limerick about his girl and another chap.’

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