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