Under Fire

Review: Under Fire, Henri Barbusse, trans. Robin Buss, 1916, 2003.Under Fire

Barbusse’s novel has more memorable images and incidents than Ernst Jűnger’s World War One memoir Storm of Steel which I looked at recently.

Barbusse wasn’t writing down memories in a whirling, quick voice with a sometimes cold tone like Jűnger. Barbusse was crafting a message, propagandistic in parts, not for fellow veterans but the home front. And the war was not settled history when this novel was published.

Writing a novel, Barbusse can linger on his horrors and details, invent incidents if necessary. Indeed, he insists on the horror because he is trying to tell the French public what life in the trenches is really like for the French soldier, the poilu. Are they dressed adequately? Do they have enough to eat? Is war glorious and honorable?

No, answers Barbusse, to all the questions except, maybe, that there is honor in the war’s purpose.

Barbusse was a French socialist and pacifist who volunteered for the French Army at age 41. He was not the only volunteer with such leanings. I’ve talked about a similar writer, Adrien Bertrand, before. Socialists in every belligerent country on the eve of the war had to decide whether they were going to follow through with their talk of an international brotherhood of workers or fight for their country. En masse, they did the latter.

Barbusse saw combat over a period of seventeen months before an ailment of the lungs, dysentery, and exhaustion took him out of front line service and into a desk job. He was cited twice for bravery and during his convalescence in 1915 he wrote Under Fire, Le Feu in French.

It was first published in serialized form in 1916 in L’Oeuvre, a monthly literary journal. Such journals were not heavily scrutinized by wartime censors. When the installments were bound together as a book and published in January 1917, Barbusse reasonably argued it was too late to censor his message now.

The novel sold quite well, and it’s a gripping story seeming to drag only at its endcaps.

It opens, like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain did eight years later, in a Swiss sanitarium. On the eve of the war, “rich and independent men” have a vision of strange creatures, mud covered “shipwrecked men” on a plain “vast, riven by long parallel canals and pitted with waterholes”.

From that vision, Barbusse glides down, with the opening of the second chapter, onto the battlefield and to his narrator. It’s the literary equivalent of a descending crane shot in a movie but before writers thought in those cinematic terms.

That muddy plain becomes “a maze of long trenches” where, echoing the novel’s concluding vision of a new order being forged in the furnace of war, where “borders are eaten away”, the narrator and his comrades crawl “like bears”, and Barbusse evokes all the senses in his account with the flash of shells, the smells of latrines, the sticky mud.

Many chapters are thematic where Barbusse explains the war to the home front. One fellow soldier, Cocon, is something of a stats freak and he digresses on the logistics of war, the vast material shipped by rail and the necessary timetables, and the layout of trenches.

In the “Kit” chapter, soldiers talk about the possessions of their packs: standard equipment and scavenged additions and the letters and photos of loved ones.

There is, as in Albert Robida’s extrapolation of the war, The Engineer von Satanas, and Arthur Machen’s “The Dazzling Light”, the notion that human society and human progress is regressing in the trenches to medieval levels when Barbusse talks about the animal skins they are dressed in. Sometimes the regression is even further back. One soldier has abandoned his regulation ax for a primitive bone-handled one he’s found. He brandishes it “like some Neanderthal decked in tatters, lurking in the bowels of our earth.”

Barbusse vividly describes being under artillery bombardment, first aid stations, the notion of the “good wound” which will not kill or maim a man but take him home. Most of this occurs in the novel’s centerpiece, the “Fire” chapter, which starts on page 204 page of this 319 page book and runs for 50 pages.

We hear of truces to bury the dead and the letters the poilu send home and the lethal confusion of battle in the “International Trench” so close to the chaotic front that it is occupied by both sides at once.

Barbusse creates his most vivid and memorable effects in three incidents.

A young war orphan, Eudoxie, wanders the front lines and follows the poilu when they rotate to the rear. The narrator knows she is fascinated by Fouillade, a fellow soldier, but another soldier, Lamuse thinks she is interested in him. But, like so much else here, the matter ends in horror when Lamuse discovers her decomposed body at the front and tells of the “ghastly kiss” she tries to bestow on him.

At another time, the light of dawn shows the tree trunks at the top of a trench are really the decomposing bodies of Lamuse and three other soldiers who disappeared in another action.

Most memorable is when the troops are finally rotated from the firing trench. Relief is in sight as they make their way through the muddy, crowded trenches to the rear while shells explode around them.

Suddenly a tremendous explosion hits us. I shudder from head to foot and a metallic resonance fills my ears, while a burning, suffocating smell of sulphur enters my nostrils. The ground has opened up in front of me. I feel myself lifted up and thrown to one side, bent, stifled and half blinded in this flash of lightning. And yet I remember clearly: in the second when, vaguely, instinctively, I searched for my comrade-in-arms I saw his body rising, upright, black, his two arms fully outstretched and a flame in place of his head!

The soldiers speak of their loved ones and leaves sabotaged by circumstances.

And they speak with deep resentment about those not at the front, the men they have met who claim to have wanted to share their misery but are working well-paid jobs in factories or that they can better serve in the rear. They are the

rich and well-connected those who shouted: “Save France! – and let’s start by saving ourselves!

The soldiers have vowed that they will not lie when they return to the rear on leave. They will tell of their hardships and poor provisions. They will not tell stories of bravery and honor to calm the conscience of the government and civilians.

Yet, when they return home they find themselves doing just that. I wonder if Edmond Hamilton, author of “What’s It Like Out There?” where the survivor of a doomed Mars mission finds himself unable to tell the truth of what he suffered, read this book and was inspired by that chapter.

Barbusse tries to show us the war and the life of the poilu and implicitly claims realism. One chapter, where his fellow soldiers, finding out he’s writing an account of their life, tell him that he will never be allowed to realistically portray their profanity-laced speech (and, indeed, there is little profanity) ironically bolsters that claim.

The novel feels true in its depiction of the French soldier’s in World War One. But is it?

Certainly Barbusse’s fellow soldiers thought it was. His novel was popular with them. One proclaimed it a book “for the dead … for those who do not go over the top with a ‘smile on their lips’.”

One French soldier did not.

Norton Cru was a French citizen who taught French literature in America. When war broke out, he joined the French Army and served in combat until the end of the war. After the war he made a catalogue of 300 some books on the war and wrote Witnesses: An Analytical and Critical Essay on War Memoirs Published in French from 1915 to 1928. He shared Barbusse’s disillusionment with the war, but he was particularly critical of Under Fire. He thought it mixture of truth, lies, and half-truths with Barbusse getting even basic details of French military life, like uniforms, wrong.

I can think of at least three incidents which seem improbable. A dugout is collapsed with a single blow from a rifle butt. Insects alight on the bodies of a snow covered battlefield. Artillerymen run out to examine unexploded German shells to look at their fuses and patterns of impact to deduce the location of German artillery. (It’s an interesting idea, but I’ve never seen another reference to it and seems improbable in its details.)

For his part, translator Robin Buss, in his introduction, says Barbusse is a moral witnesses to the horrors of the Great War and does tell a truth. However, he also throws Rigoberta Menchú in the same category of “moral witnesses” who have a “special kind of memory and make special claims on our attention”. If, in 2003, he is still defending the fraud Menchú, his opinion doesn’t carry much weight with me.

The book winds down with a flooding, drenched battlefield that reminds one of Passenchendaele, a battle that Barbusse never served in and lay in the future after this book was published.

The final chapter, “Dawn”, indicts priests, financiers, banks, tradtionalists, lawyers, historians in their support of the war and the old order.

A soldier’s glory is a lie like everything in war that seems to be beautiful. In reality the sacrifice of soldiers is a dark repression. … If this present war had advanced progress by a single step, its miseries and massacres will count for little.

Barbusse talks his comrades around to the notion that a new order will be born out of the war, and, for the remainder, they must be “executioners”, “honest killers” of the old order and “choke it to death.”

It’s a naïve vision, little more than a continuation of the international socialist dream that was rejected in the warring countries at the beginning of the war. But it’s an understandable dream from a citizen of the country with the first modern revolution and its talk of remaking man in the Year Zero.

It’s also an understandable dream for those in the trenches, for those who have to believe their exceptional suffering must lead to an exceptional outcome, and Barbusse was to pursue it after the war when he emigrated to the Soviet Union where he died in 1935. I do not know if he died disappointed or if he thought that a new and better order was being forged in the blood and starvation of Stalin’s regime.

Storm of Steel

Review: Storm of Steel, Ernst Jűnger, trans. Michael Hoffman, 1920, 1961, 2003.Storm of Steel

Ernst Jűnger’s World War One memoir is striking for what it doesn’t have.

Jűnger and his comrades don’t speak of why they fight.

There is no lingering while Jűnger talks of the many strange deaths, injuries, and maimings that war can bring. What little emotion there is is not horror.

There is no account of Jűnger before or after the war.

There is no description of basic training.

War is a test, a skill that Jűnger doesn’t just need to master to survive. He needs to master it to become the man he wishes to be.

Jűnger was not a common soldier who endured war to protect his nation and loved ones or to fulfill a duty. He was a born warrior.

When he steps off the train at the book’s opening, the test and rapture of battle await:

Full of awe and incredulity, we listened to the slow grinding pulse of the front, a rhythm we were to become mightily familiar with over the years. The white ball of a shrapnel shell melted far off, suffusing the grey December sky. The breath of battle blew across to us, and we shuddered. Did we sense that almost all of us – some sooner, some later – were to be consumed by it, on days when the dark grumbling yonder would crash over our heads like an incessant thunder?

… Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war. … Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted; the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience.

The German Army was not Jűnger’s first military experience. He so wanted to see war he had joined the French Foreign Legion in 1913 when he was 18. His father pulled strings to get him released.

Jűnger learned the science of war well. The war is still going on when the book ends with him winning Germany’s highest medal, the pour le Mérite, commonly called the Blue Max. He was the youngest soldier ever awarded it. But two bullet wounds suffered in August 1918 put him out of the war for good. They were the last of 14 wounds, not counting “trifles such as ricochets and grazes”:

five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand-grenade splinters and two bullet splinters.

But Jűnger had a long life in front of him. He died at age 102 having not only been a man of letters including several works of magical realism and a science fiction novel called The Glass Bees which got a foreword by Bruce Sterling when re-released in 2000. He was also a distinguished entomologist, and devotee of mind expanding drugs and dropped acid with its inventor Albert Hoffmann.

Storm of Steel was a project he returned to again and again. Originally published in a different version in 1920 and privately printed for his fellow veterans, its sparse style comes from Jűnger not needing to explain all the details to a civilian audience in the manner of Henri Barbusse’s 1917 war novel Under Fire which I’ll be looking at it a future post.

Its long German title translates as In Storms of Steel: from the Diary of a Shock Troop Commander, Ernst Jűnger, War Volunteer and subsequently Lieutenant in the Rifle Regiment of Prince Albrecht of Prussia (73rd Hanoverian Regiment). Those diaries, in fact, were published in 2005.

While the German soldiers in Jűnger’s book do not speak of why they fight, that may not have been true of the original version. Translator Hoffman notes the first version ended with

Though force without and barbarity within conglomerate in somber clouds, yet so long as the blade of a sword will strike a spark in the night may it be said: Germany lives and Germany shall never go under!

That tone no doubt appealed to a fellow veteran, Adolf Hitler. Jűnger, though possessing a lifelong contempt for democracy, didn’t have time for the Nazis or Hitler. Fortunately, Hitler did have time for Jűnger when the Gestapo wanted to execute him due to his personal affiliations with members of the Stauffenberg group who tried to assassinate Hitler.

There were, in fact, eight different versions of this memoir. The last was in 1961 which this version is a translation of. Hoffman spends a lot of his introduction complaining about Basil Creighton’s 1929 English translation of the 1924 version. A 1934 version, dubbed “the quiet version” by one critic, may have further reduced the nationalist flavor of the text.

Online research tells me that the first version, however poorly translated, had more details on the stormtroop tactics that Jűnger help develop. While the text gives some flavor of them, Jűnger in no way presents them in a systematic and detailed way.

Jűnger’s text is also largely free of dates though one can figure out the battles he’s talking about. He does assign a date for the chapter “The Great Battle”: March 21, 1918, the beginning of the St. Michael Offensive which pushed the Allied lines back 14 miles in places, the largest movement of the war.

This chapter is the heart of the book, the revelry, ecstasy, and chaos of battle – an offensive at last for the Germans:

As we advanced, we were in the grip of a berserk rage. The overwhelming desire to kill lent wings to my stride. Raged squeezed bitter tears from my eyes.

The immense desire to destroy that overhung the battlefield precipitated a red mist in our brains. We called out sobbing and stammering fragments of sentences to one another, and an impartial observer might have concluded that we were all ecstatically happy.

Jűnger’s account of that day is swirling, restless, hyperactive, brutal:

Here I saw that any defender who continued to empty his pistol into the bodies of the attackers four or five paces away could not expect any mercy when they were upon him. The fighter, who sees a bloody mist in front of his eyes as he attacks, doesn’t want prisoners; he wants to kill.

But the book has quieter moments.

There is the cycle of the German soldier’s day in the trenches, the endless constructing and maintaining of fortifications, the thoughts that go through Jűnger’s mind as he walks sentry duty at night in the “eerie desolation” and “curious … emotional cold”, and the trapping of rats.

Jűnger expresses fondness for the French families he stays with in his time in the rear area.

There are the observations of nature “pleasantly intact” with birds singing in no-man’s land. In the land immediately to the rear

the war had given it a suggestion of heroism and melancholy; its almost excessive blooming was even more radiant and narcotic than usual.

There is humor of a dark sort.

Jűnger talks of one soldier

festooned with weapons – apart from his rifle, from which he was inseparable, he wore numerous daggers, pistols, hand-grenades and a torch tucked into his belt. Encountering him in the trench was like suddenly coming upon an Armenian or somesuch. For a while he used to carry hand-grenades loose in his pockets as well, till that habit gave him a very nasty turn, which he related one evening. He had been digging around in his pocket, trying to pull out his pipe, when it got caught in the loop of a hand-grenade and accidentally pulled it off.

Jűnger says that cold and boredom are the soldier’s greatest enemies. One of his passing amusements, with another NCO, is to collect unexploded artillery shells, pile them up at a safe distance, and try to detonate as many as possible with rifle fire.

The book memorably evokes the closeness of the enemy trench works – at one point only 30 yards apart in a sector Jűnger was in.

Sometimes, men would become confused where they were:

At dusk, two members of a British ration party lost their way, and blundered up to the sector of the line that was held by the first platoon. They approached perfectly serenely; one of them was carrying a large round container of food, the other a longish tea kettle.  They were shot down at point-blank range; one of them landing with his upper body in the defile, while his legs remained on the slope. It was hardly possible to take prisoners in this inferno, and how could we have brought them back through the barrage in any case?

He memorably conveys the experience of a trench raid on June 20, 1916:

These moments of nocturnal prowling leave an indelible impression. Eyes and ears are tensed to the maximum, the rustling approach of strange feet in the tall grass is an unutterably menacing thing. Your breath comes in shallow bursts; you have to force yourself to stifle any panting or wheezing. There is a little mechanical click as the safety-catch of your pistol is taken off; the sound cuts straight through your nerves. Your teeth are grinding on the fuse-pin of the hand-grenade. The encounter will be short and murderous. You tremble with two contradictory impulses: the heightened awareness of the huntsman, and the terror of the quarry. You are a world to yourself, saturated with the appalling aura of the savage landscape.

Junger never denigrates his enemy be it Scots, Indian, New Zealander, or English:

The sergeant practically had both legs sheared off by hand-grenade splinters; even so, with stoical calm he kept his pipe clenched between his teeth to the end. This incident, like all our other encounters with the Britishers, left us pleasantly impressed with their bravery and manliness.

The next paragraph Jűnger talks with some pride of grabbing a sentry’s rifle and shooting a British soldier in the head at 600 hundred yards.

And, later on during a different battle, Jűnger ruminates on the morality of killing:

Outside it lay my British soldier, little more than a boy, who had been hit in the temple. He lay there, looking quite relaxed. I forced myself to look closely at him. It wasn’t a case of ‘you or me’ any more. I often thought back on him; and more with the passing of the years. The state, which relieves us of our responsibility, cannot take away our remorse; and we must exercise it.

Having recently read Dennis Showalter’s Instrument of War about the German Army during World War One, I picked up on short remarks that support his narrative.

Early in the book, he talks about the German trenches and foreshadows the effects they were to have on German morale and effectiveness:

It’s not a question of the scale of the earthworks, but of the courage and condition of the men behind them. The ever-deeper trenches might protect against the odd head wound, but it also made for a defensive and security-conscious type of thinking, which we were loath to abandon later.

For  Jűnger, the worth of a soldier is in his moral spirit. Better the puny but courageous man than a strong coward. He mentions how the war grinds down the experienced soldier whatever his other qualities. On his stormtrooper raids, he preferred men under 20 not for their physical fitness but aggressive spirit.

Jűnger recognized, at the time, that the Battle of the Somme brought in a new phase of the war:

What confronted us now was a war of matériel of the most gigantic proportions. This war in turn was replaced towards the end of 1917 by mechanized warfare, though that was not given time to fully develop.

Jűnger brings to life what history books refer to as “the German Army’s retreat to the Siegfried Line”:

The villages we passed through on our way had the look of vast lunatic asylums. Whole companies were set to knocking or pulling down the walls, or sitting on rooftops, uprooting the tiles. Trees were cut down, windows smashed; wherever you looked, clouds of smoke and dust rose from vast piles of debris. We saw men dashing about wearing suits and dresses left behind by the inhabitants, with top hats on their heads. With destructive cunning, they found the roof-trees of the houses, fixed ropes to them, and, with concerted shouts, pulled till they all came tumbling down. Others were swinging pile-driving hammers, and went around smashing everything that got in their way, from the flowerpots on the window-sills to whole ornate conservatories.

As far back as the Siegfried Line, every village was reduced to rubble, every tree chopped down, every road undermined, every well poisoned, every basement blown up or booby-trapped, every rail unscrewed, every telephone wire rolled up, everything burnable burned; in a word, we were turning the country that our advancing opponents would occupy into a wasteland.

As I say, these scenes were reminiscent of a madhouse, and the effect of them was similar: half funny, half repellent. They were also, we could see right away, bad for men’s morale and honour. Here, for the first time, I witnessed wanton destruction that I was later in life to see to excess; this is something that is unhealthily bound up with the economic thinking of our age, but it does more harm than good to the destroyer, and dishonours the soldier.

Jűnger’s apotheosis came in the St. Michael Offensive:

The Great Battle was a turning-point for me, and not merely because from then on I thought it possible that we might actually lose the war.

The incredible massing of forces in the hour of destiny, to fight for a distant future, and the violence it so surprisingly, stunningly unleashed, had taken me for the first time into the depths of something that was more than mere personal experience. That was what distinguished it from what I had been through before; it was an initiation that had not only opened the red-hot chambers of dread but had also led me through them.

Through it all, Jűnger’s concern with his men, the family of the army company, comes through. In the penultimate chapter, “My Final Assault” recounting events on July 30, 1918 he says :

There wasn’t much to say in the course of the last few days, and with a kind of sweepingness that is only to be explained by the fact that an army is not only men under arms, but also men fused with a sense of a common purpose, probably every one of them had come to understand that we were on our uppers. With every attack, the enemy came onward with more powerful means; his blows were swifter and more devastating. Everyone knew we could no longer win. But we would stand firm.

There’s mention of all you would expect in this memoir – gas attacks, the unburied dead of no-man’s land, grenade duels, the tactics of defending against British tanks, and the effects of influenza on the St. Michael Offensive – and its reputation as one of the great memoirs of the war is well-deserved.

More reviews related to the Great War are on the World War One page.