Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu
) is one of the classics of the literature of the Great War. Barbusse served with distinction in the War, being awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1915 and being invalided out of service in 1917. Under Fire is adapted from his war diary which he kept from October 1915 and was serialized (and therefore out of the reach of French military censors) in the left-wing journal L’Ouvre before being published in book format in December 1916.
The book was a huge success, winning the Prix Goncourt in 1917 and selling 250,000 copies in France, a remarkable achievement in a wartime nation. It was translated into English in 1917 and was both widely-reviewed (in the Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman) and read by serving soldiers. Wilfred Own read a copy in Scarborough in 1917, and there are echoes of Barbusse’s work in some of Owen’s famous war poems.
Barbusse’s book is dedicated “to the memory of the comrades who fell beside me at Croucy and on Hill 119”. Although “Under Fire” is a fictional account, is it a grimly realistic book and it is easy to imagine that while the characters portrayed may be literary creations, they represent all too real comrades who served alongside Barbusse.
Reading the book is not a pleasant experience. For a start, the chronology of the book is dislocated. There is a narrative, but it is not particularly clear. Even when the narrative is understood it makes very little difference to the story being told. Barbusse’s intention at times is to leave the reader feeling unsettled or lost in the narrative. By this, the reader experiences what the soldiers in the trenches face: the collapse of the familiar and the reassuring.
The discordant structure of the book is matched by the pace. The first half of the book is concerned mainly with the slow, deliberate development of personalities and specific individuals. The second half, and in particular the immensely harrowing chapter “Fire”, is concerned with the destruction of the individual in the face of war. Once the descriptions in the book shift from the individual soldiers in the trenches to the effect of war on those soldiers, the book moves to a different level.
What is described is, put simply, the horror of war. Those words are easy to write and say, but Barbusse’s imagery and descriptive power are extraordinarily vivid and at times horrifying (even to a reader in 2013). This is a viscerally sickening battlefield, with descriptions of near apocalyptic devastation:
“All the way along, as far as an earthwork barricade that blocks the way, German corpses are entangled and knotted as in a torrent of the damned, some of them emerging from muddy caves in the middle of a bewildering conglomerate of beams, ropes, creepers of iron, trench-rollers, hurdles, and bullet-screens. At the barrier itself, one corpse stands upright, fixed among the other dead, while another, planted in the same spot, stands obliquely in the dismal place, the whole arrangement looking like part of a big wheel embedded in the mud, or the shattered sail of a windmill. And over all this, this catastrophe of flesh and filthiness, religious images are broadcast, post-cards, pious pamphlets, leaflets on which prayers are written in Gothic lettering—they have scattered themselves in waves from gutted clothing. The words seem to make the pestilential shore, this valley of annihilation, flower with their lying sterile whiteness.” (page 248 of the Penguin edition)
The dead surround the living soldiers, turning the battlefield into a charnel house:
“By the side of heads black and waxen as Egyptian mummies, clotted with grubs and the wreckage of insects, where white teeth still gleam in some cavities, by the side of poor darkening stumps that abound like a field of old roots laid bare, one discovers naked yellow skulls wearing the red cloth fez, whose grey cover has crumbled like paper. Some thigh-bones protrude from the heaps of rags stuck together with reddish mud; and from the holes filled with clothes shredded and daubed with a sort of tar, a spinal fragment emerges. Some ribs are scattered on the soil like old cages broken; and close by, blackened leathers are afloat, with water-bottles and drinking-cups pierced and flattened. About a cloven knapsack, on the top of some bones and a cluster of bits of cloth and accoutrements, some white points are evenly scattered; by stooping one can see that they are the finger and toe constructions of what was once a corpse.” (page 244)
All this is grim reading, and goes on for many pages. Some of the descriptions are enough to turn a strong stomach. The descriptions of the conditions in the Regimental Aid Post are particularly harrowing.
Barbusse also focuses to the point of near obsession on the natural elements of the battlefield, and in particular mud, water and the changing state of the human body at war. Mud becomes the medium through which we view the world of the trenches, full of slime beds, puddles, mud masses and drenching, oozing, liquid putrescence. Men become shapes, shadows and silhouettes. Mud becomes a "cowl", a "covering", a "carapace" and, ultimately, a silent tomb. The physical regression of men into a primordial slime of the battlefield matches and complements the moral regression Barbusse experiences around him in the fighting.
Similarly, skin is discoloured, blotched, burnt and yellowed by the chemicals and noxious gases of the battlefield. The soldiers undergo a metamorphosis from being civilians to soldiers and then to someone, something, created by war itself.
“"I'm gangrened, I'm smashed, I'm all in bits inside," droned one who sat with his head in his hands and spoke through his fingers; "yet up to last week I was young and I was clean. They've changed me: now I have only this filthy old body to drag along." (page 259)
This is a terrifyingly long way from l’Attaque a Outrance and the white gloves of the 1914 class of St Cyr.
This is the entropic struggle of men with death and nature which Barbusse presents in an environment of isolation, solitude and abandonment. There is the endurance of the human spirit throughout, but it is enveloped totally by the darkness surrounding it.
“All these men of corpse-like faces who are before us and behind us, at the limit of their strength, void of speech as of will, all these earth-charged men who you would say were carrying their own winding-sheets, are as much alike as if they were naked. Out of the horror of the night apparitions are issuing from this side and that who are clad in exactly the same uniform of misery and mud. It is the end of all. For the moment it is the prodigious finish, the epic cessation of the war. I once used to think that the worst hell in war was the flame of shells; and then for long I thought it was the suffocation of the caverns which eternally confine us. But it is neither of these. Hell is water.”
You may be wondering at the end of this book review whether I enjoyed “Under Fire”, and whether I would recommend it. I found that the dislocated structure of the book makes it quite difficult to continue reading for the first 100 pages. However, I was very glad I persevered. It is hard to enjoy a book like this, but it was gripping. Once Barbusse commences the detailed description of the battlefield, I found it almost impossible to put “Under Fire” down. To do that seemed to me to be almost disrespectful.
Visually, "Under Fire" provides a wealth of images of the French army at war on the Western Front. Among the horror, there is also gallows humour, glimpses of the world of the reserve trenches and, unnervingly, descriptions of life away from the front line. The uniforms of the Poilu are described in a way which never makes the Osprey books - a rag-tag, polygot assortment of clothing and material tied and strapped to the soldiers' bodies so that they appear like tramps. There are interesting passages featuring Zoaves, Tirailleurs Sénégalais, pioneer battalions and the higher command of the French army. Journalists get a very bad press from Barbusse's pen. Some of the descriptions are bitter and jaundiced, but are perhaps all the more resonant for that. In short, there's a lot here for a wargamer wanting to create the unique feel of the French front line, and I found a lot of inspiration in the book for creating backgrounds and settings for wargames. Its certainly a description of the war which is very different in feel and tone from Junger's "Storm of Steel" or Graves' "Goodbye to All That".
In the end, I think it’s a book everyone should read. Grim and disturbing for at least half of the book, but deeply memorable. Five out of five star shells.