Robert Graves’s Supernatural War

War Poet’s Lucky Escapes, Superstitions and a Ghost Sighting

At the Front in 1915, Lieutenant Robert Graves, 3rd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, was counting his lucky escapes. On 28 May in the chaotic trenches among the brick stacks at Cuinchy in the sector between Ypres and the Somme, he had met a rifle-grenade at close range. Landing about six feet away, it should have exploded and done him some damage, but against the odds it had landed the wrong way round and stuck in the wet clay ‘looking at me’. Later in June, he was walking along a trench at Cambrin (near Cuinchy) when he suddenly threw himself flat on his face. ‘Two seconds later,’ he recalled, ‘a whizz-bang struck the back of the trench exactly where I had been.’ A sergeant who had been walking a few yards ahead came rushing back to ask ‘Are you killed, sir?’ Graves reasoned that as the shell was fired from a German battery only a thousand yards off it must have landed before the sound of it being fired could be heard. ‘How did I know that I should throw myself on my face?’ he wondered.

Graves had enlisted almost immediately war was declared in August 1914. He was commissioned into the 3rd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, as a Second Lieutenant on 12 August 1914 and promoted to Lieutenant on 5 May 1915. He proved to be an able officer and was promoted to captain on 26 October 1915. His war-time experiences, including those of the supernatural, are recounted in Good-Bye To All That (London: Jonathan Cape, 1929).

Summer 1915 saw Graves in and out of the Cambrin and Cuinchy trenches, with rest periods billeted in Béthune or one of the surrounding villages, such as Vermelles. Although this sector of the line does not have the infamy of Ypres or the Somme, despite the fact that the Royal Munster Fusiliers had lost 11,000 men the month before, Graves reported that casualties were high. Pessimism crept into the men’s bones along with the chill of the long night watches. Graves noted that ‘pessimism made everyone superstitious’. Graves became pessimistic and superstitious, too: ‘I found myself believing in signs of the most trivial nature’.

One evening in late June, Graves and the other officers were having a special dinner in the ‘C’ Company billet to celebrate having made it though another tour of duty at Cuinchy. Graves recounted their menu with relish, including the ‘three bottles of Pommard’. He looked up and saw Private Challoner, 1st Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, at the window. Challoner saluted and walked on. ‘There was no mistaking him,’ said Graves, ‘or the cap-badge he was wearing.’ Graves knew that there was no Royal Welch Battalion within miles of Béthune. He jumped up and looked out of the window. There was no one there ‘except a fag-end smoking on the pavement’. Graves also knew that Challoner had been killed at Festubert in May. Graves had known him from the regimental depot at Wrexham where they were in ‘F’ Company together and the Lancaster internment camp where both were sent on detachment duty. When he went out with a draft to join the 1st Battalion, he shook Graves’s hand and said ‘I’ll meet you again in France, sir.’ That was the last time he saw him alive. ‘Ghosts,’ he wrote, ‘were numerous in France at the time.’

his first book of poetry was published in 1916: Over the Brazier. It contained some pre-war pieces, but, of course, became more notable for those poems dealing with the war. Part II of the book is titled ‘Poems Written Before La Bassée — 1915’ concerning his time ‘In horror, mud and sleeplessness’, and includes the memorable, fatalistic, ‘The Shadow of Death’:

Here’s an end to my art!

I must die and I know it,
With battle murder at my heart —

Sad death for a poet!

And in ‘The Morning Before Battle’ confronts a ghost (‘wraith’) of himself:

I looked, and ah, my wraith before me stood,
His head all battered in by violent blows

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