CAPTAIN GRAVES IN THE ISLE OF WIGHT
At the end of May 1917, Captain Graves arrived at Osborne House, then being used as a Convalescent Home for wounded Officers. The Army no longer allowed Officers to convalesce at their own homes for fear of their not returning to duty.
Captain Graves had enlisted 2 days after War was declared. After a rather unhappy childhood and period at Charterhouse School, he was at the age of 19, due to go to Oxford in October 1914 to read Classics. He was a Pacifist by inclination but was outraged at the German invasion of Belgium. He was anxious to avoid going to Oxford and thought the War would last a few months only. He enlisted in the Special Reserve and because he had experience in the Officers’ Training Corps at Charterhouse, was gazetted a First Lieutenant.
He was placed in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and his first duties were to arrest and guard enemy aliens at Lancaster. This was ironic as Graves’ mother was German and he had as his middle name “Von Ranke”. He found it prudent to drop the “Von”. His mother was a member of minor nobility in Bavaria, and Graves’ Von Ranke uncles and cousins served in the German Army, one uncle being a General. Throughout the War, he was regarded with some suspicion because of his German family. Had he not enlisted when he did, his mother and younger siblings might have been treated as enemy aliens.
After a long period of Garrison duty at Liverpool, he arrived in France in April 1915 and was seconded to the Royal Welsh Regiment 2nd Battalion and on his first night he was ordered to lead a patrol into No Man’s Land, a duty he then did frequently. After 3 months he rejoined the Royal Welch Fusiliers 1st Battalion in July 1915. When he came home on leave in September 1915, there were only 4 other Officers left in his original Company.
Graves took part in the Battles of Loos and Festubert. From the 24th September to the 3rd October he had only 8 hours sleep and was drinking a bottle of whiskey every day to keep going. “I had been in the trenches for five months and was getting past my prime…” By April 1916, he was close to nervous collapse with shell shock and was sent home for a nasal operation.
He returned to the Front in July 1916 to take part in the Battle of the Somme. On the 20th July a shell landed 3 yards behind him. He had minor wounds in his hands, a more serious wound in his thigh and a shell splinter through his lungs. One third of his Battalion had been decimated before even going into battle.
Graves was immediately taken to military hospital. He was not expected to live. His Colonel sent a notice of death letter to his parents and the Times published an obituary. However, against the odds, he managed to survive and was taken to hospital in London. By now he had been promoted to Captain. He was between life and death on his 21st birthday.
Against all advice he returned to the Front in January 1917. His lungs were seriously affected and he succumbed to bronchitis within 6 weeks. He was invalided home to Oxford. His Regimental Medical Officer told him he would be court-martialled if he returned to France.
When Captain Graves arrived at Osborne he was given a bedroom which had once been the Royal Night Nursery “This was the strawberry season and fine weather: the patients were able to take all Queen Victoria’s favourite walks through the woods and along the quiet sea-shore, play billiards in the royal billiard-room, sing bawdy songs in the royal music-room, drink the Prince Consort’s favourite Rhine wines among the Winterhalters, play golf-croquet and go down to Cowes when in need of adventure. We were made honorary members of the Royal Yacht Squadron. This is another of the caricature scenes of my life…..sitting in a leather chair in the smoking-room, drinking gin and ginger and sweeping the Solent with a powerful telescope. “Graves often visited the then new Quarr Abbey. “Hearing the Fathers at their plainsong made us forget for the moment the war completely”. He liked the kindness and seriousness of the monks and the good food he ate there.
“Osborne was gloomy”. To lighten the atmosphere, Graves founded the Royal Albert Society with himself as President “with regalia of Scottish dirk, Hessian boots and side-whiskers”. Finding an old ship’s fender on the sea-shore one night with knotted ropes looking like strands of hair, he and a friend dressed it with trousers, coat socks and a boot and draped it with seaweed. They then reported a dead man on the beach. The Isle of Wight County Press reported a hoax “of certain convalescent officers at Osborne” played on the Coroner. Another amusement was changing the labels on the pictures in the Osborne Galleries.
He was desperate to leave Osborne and managed to return to garrison duties and a spell in Ireland before being demobilised in January 1919 at the same time as succumbing to Spanish flu.
Captain Graves’ health was shattered. “I was very thin, very nervous and had about 4 years’ sleep to make up.” He was suffering from an intestinal worm caused from drinking bad water in France. “I could not use a telephone, I was sick every time I travelled in a train and if I saw more than 2 new people in a single day it prevented me from sleeping…”
Who was Captain Graves really? He was Robert Graves, the famous poet and writer of “Goodbye to All That”, one of the most striking 1st World War books, and the novels “I Claudius” and “Claudius the God”
Ironically, during the 2nd World War, he was not allowed to serve as a special constable because of his German connections despite his Army service in the 1st World War.