The Great War gave rise to a long line of raconteurs, first of who were soldier-poets and novelists. Henry Barbusse was one such novelist who was already an established writer when he joined the French Army at the age of forty-one. Serving as a common soldier, he lived in mud and filth under constant threat. “Only on a battlefield like this can one have a precise idea of the horror of these great massacres”, he wrote to his wife. A combination of exhaustion, dysentery and a lung condition resulted in him being reassigned to a desk job at the War Office. There, having had the time to reflect on what he had just experienced, he drew the outlines of Le Feu (translated into English as Under Fire in the following year).
Published in 1916 when the war was still going on, the novel is uniquely early and has one of the most authentic tones to evoke life in the trenches – descriptions of both moments of chaos and the monotony of waiting. Some of the events probably actually happened while some others were only imagined; the author offers no tags of fact and fiction. All he did was stay true to his soldier-author self – write about what he knew best.
The story is about men from all over France, “uprooted civilians”, ordinary soldiers in an extraordinary war. With bare-to-the-bones descriptions of wartime humanity, the author captures the essence of battlefields. An unnamed narrator takes us through the plot, although readers can’t help but imagine it to be Henry Barbusse himself sitting there, being a part of, yet an observer of war-time action - a foot-soldier in battle hoping for a respite, dreaming of food and drink and women.
These men, severely smitten, eaten away by an inner wound, stare at the confusion of the elements. They watch the thunder break over the mountain, lifting up the clouds on the horizon like a sea, each clap of the storm throwing out at once into the dusk a column of fire and a column of cloud…
‘Stop the war!’ they are saying. ‘Stop the storms!’
But the watchers on the threshold of the world, free of partisan passion, free of prejudices, blindness and the shackles of tradition, also have a vague sense of the simplicity of things and of gaping possibilities...
The one at the end of the row exclaims:
‘You can see things, down there, things rearing up!’
‘Yes… They’re like living things.’
‘Sort of plants…’
‘Sort of men.’
The novel opens in the quiet of the Alps in a sanatorium which appears to be almost removed from the world. A maid brings in newspapers to handout to the residents. “That’s it. War has been declared” says the first one to unfold his paper. Those who hear the words sense its pressing significance and, from this vantage point, discuss its effects on the land below.
In the early chapter “In the Ground” the narrator speaks of the ‘charnel-house’ atmosphere of the trenches and gives us a brief profile of the members of this “reserve unit” whose task was to dig on the forward line at night and by day they had nothing to do. First one to emerge from the trenches is the baby-faced, red-cheeked Paradis who was a carter before the war; Volpatte whose square face with a broken nose and slanting Chinese eyes are hard to miss; Lamuse, the human bull who used to be a farmhand; Biquet, the little Breton; Tirette who says he owns his own land; toothless Old Blaire, a tenant farmer in the Brie before the war who “could be Biquet’s father”; Barque, a Parisian delivery boy; then there’s the leader of the squad – the dignified Corporal Bertrand who used to be a foreman in a factory; Marthereau, who had the habit of simultaneously using two synonyms to describe one thing – “he’s mad and crazy”; Tirloir who used to splash paint on cartridges; Tulacque, a barman; Eudore with a soft, palish face who used to be a barman at a tavern not far from the present front; Pepin, who can be spotted from a distance more easily by his harlequin board then by his pale street-boy face and who probably held no job before the war; Mesnil Andre, one of the few distinguished and well-groomed men and his brother Joseph who used to sell newspapers at railway stations; Concon who worked in an ironmonger’s shop and is obsessed with figures, counting to the minute how long a task can take; Poterloo, the miner from Calonne pit; Fouillade, the forty year old boatman from Cette; then there were others, jacks of all trades who carried a dozen jobs in their knapsacks.
But despite the wide variance in origin, status, age and everything else that used to mean something, the story of the squad as a whole holds the spotlight over the stories of the individuals. The motif of a group of guys brought together by an idealised notion of a national war, the commonly heard tale of strong bonds forged among the troops, all rang true.
In classic vignettes, we see members of the squad go through their daily routine: trench-work drudgery by night and loafing by day; endless, exhausting marches leaving them constantly tired; going on leave and coming back; wading through knee-deep mud; hoping for a good wound (“the only thing a poor soldier can hope for that isn’t totally mad”) to get off the battlefield and go into convalescence; being thrown around from one sector into another; reading letters from back home. Through it all they talk, trying to make sense of all the craziness they have found themselves in.
You can see a maze of long ditches in which the last remnants of night linger. This is the trench. The bottom of it is carpeted with a vicious layer that clings noisily to the foot at every step and smells foul around each dugout because of the night’s urine. The holes themselves, if you lean over them as you pass, smell like a whiff of bad breath.
The prose reeks of authenticity because the author draws stark scenes with no sanitised images to make war seem thinkable, no romantic tone which usually gets attached to readings of the past and no phrases of hope which bring in tolerance.
This claim to portray reality is reinforced in a chapter titled “Swearwords”, in which Barque asks the narrator: “if you get your squaddies in your book to speak, will you make them speak like they really do, or will you tidy it up and make it proper?” To which the narrator replies “I’ll put the swearwords in because it’s the truth.” Much of the novel is written in dialogue, using the language of the poilus, the French Soldiers during the First World War. Swearwords form the rawest part of poilus chat, and by choosing to tell it as it is, Barbusse’s writing remains honest and littered with slang.
She half emerged over on our left from the green shade of the undergrowth. Steadying herself with one hand against a branch, she was leaning forward and showing her dark eyes and her pale face which, brightly lit on one side, seemed to be carrying a crescent moon. I saw, too, that she was smiling.
Eudoxie is a refugee, a fleeting vision of a woman who, having no much regard for danger, appears at several locations where the troops are stationed, sometimes wandering into no man’s land too. Having only seen her from a distance, the men are all the more fascinated and Lamuse is particularly drawn to her, even speaking of marrying her once he learns her full name. Sadly, this tale ends in a heartsick tragedy. Having volunteered to help out sappers, Lamuse returns to the squad shivering and covered in soil and mud. “I saw Eudoxie again,” he says. “She was rotting.” While working with the sappers, Lamuse comes across a corpse in an old trench that was half filled in and it doesn’t take much time for him to learn that it was Eudoxie “ ‘cos there’s not two heads of hair like that on earth; then the rest of the face…”
Despite all the war-time carnage the troops would have seen, the image of Lamuse holding up Eudoxie’s lifeless body, taking her in his arms while working to clear out the trench is especially devastating. He then falls asleep, “face buried in the earth, in his dream of love and decay.”
The story takes a bleak turn in the chapter titled “Fire” and only gets worse from there on.
All of a sudden, Eudoxie’s death isn’t the only intolerable casualty anymore; Bertrand’s squad gets significantly diminished as time goes by. First to fall are Lamuse, Barque, Biquet and little Eudore having come under severe machine-gun fire, then Poterloo, who gets killed in a relief and then there’s Tirloir and Tulacque who have been evacuated (one with dysentery and the other with pneumonia that’s turning bad). Lastly there were others who were missing and whose disappearance was made worse by the sight of their old corpses.
There are other disquieting changes too: the party which brings in their rations isn’t regular anymore, leave is cancelled and the letters have stopped arriving, a change has overcome the officers too, who now appear more serious and in the midst of it all, there’s talk of forthcoming attacks.
A suspicion, a painful idea had come into our minds. And then we heard some echoing words spoken very clearly”
‘Achtung! … Zweites Geschutz … Schuss …’
And from behind a canon shot replied to this telephone order.
At first amazement and horror nailed us to the spot.
‘Where are we? God Almighty! Where are we?
We about turned, slowly for all that, dragged down by more exhaustion and disappointment, and fled, shot through with tiredness as with a mass of wounds, drawn towards enemy land, but keeping just enough energy to drive away the sweet temptation of allowing ourselves to die.
Having taken the wrong turn at a fork in the road, the men find themselves trying to navigate through sewage channels amid a chorus of curses and cannon fire overhead.
They eventually find their way to a coal-black field. Despite the overwhelming sense of fatigue, they are forced to dig a trench while rainfall only gets heavier, turning solid ground into a slump. To make things worse, heavy bombardment ensues. In desperate attempts at seeking shelter, the men are left scattered, having lost all sense of direction. On further wandering, they realize that they’ve walked into enemy lines – at some points, the German and French positions were barely a few meters apart.
‘This war is about appalling, superhuman exhaustion, about water up to your belly and about mud, dung and repulsive filth. It is about moulding faces and shredded filth and corpses that do not even look like corpses anymore, floating on the greedy earth. It is this, this infinite monotony of miseries, interrupted by sharp, sudden dramas. This is what it is – not the bayonet glittering like silver or the bugle’s call in the sunlight!’