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Under Fire (Penguin Modern Classics) (original 1916; edition 2003)

by Henri Barbusse

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Title:Under Fire (Penguin Modern Classics)
Authors:Henri Barbusse
Info:Penguin Books, Limited (UK) (2003), Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
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Under Fire by Henri Barbusse (1916)

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Semi-autobiographical and written from the notes Barbusse took while he was fighting in World War I, Under Fire is a boots-on-the-ground view of the war. And as even a glancing knowledge of war, and this war in particular, will tell you: it's not pretty. That doesn't mean that the writing can't be pretty, however. Within the first few pages of this book I'd made a note that said, "It's like a novel of Wilfred Owen poetry." I consider that high praise. Just like Owen, Barbusse chooses and layers words that communicate with precision: "slime, oozing, sticky, found, ruined, grey, leaden, pallid." The reader is instantly transported and nearly suffocated in the environment being described.

Our narrator takes us through open fields full of random death, half-destroyed towns full of suspicious civilians who extort the soldiers for whatever they can get from them, completely destroyed towns eerie in their emptiness, and the claustrophobia of the trenches. Hours and days pass in confusion, in close quarters with the rest of his squad, none of whom know any more about what's going on than he does. People are lucky and live through another day; some are luckier still and get a wound that will send them home, away from all of this. The unlucky can hardly be thought about in the moment, but the bodies remain around them for entirely too long, enabling the soldiers to think about them more than they ever wanted. Life and death are jumbled together at all times, and when a short respite comes from the immediacy of one's own mortality, catching up on their sleep or having a decent meal and some wine is foremost in the soldiers' minds. Mostly it's better if they don't expend a lot of energy contemplating why they're where they are, when it will end, or even if it will end, but Barbusse does get around to this conversation near the end of the book. Reading their thoughts with the benefit of hindsight is poignant. It's often difficult to read books about World War I that depict the conditions these men fought in, and the number of casualties - it's no coincidence that some of the most vivid anti-war literature came from this time period. I had never heard of this book before; I think it is deserving of more attention.

Recommended for: people who enjoyed Johnny Got His Gun or similar books, anyone who wants to look unflinchingly at the Great War.

Quote: "His life is twofold in hope; he is happy, for the imminent happiness that does not yet exist is the only real happiness down here." ( )
  ursula | Apr 30, 2014 |
"...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 flesh and corpses that do not even look like corpses any more, floating on the greedy earth. It is this, this infinite monotony of miseries, interrupted by sharp, sudden drama. This is what it is--not the bayonet glittering like silver or the bugle's call in the sunlight!"

At age 41, writer Henri Barbusse enlisted as a common private in the French infantry. For the next seventeen months he served in some of the fiercest fighting and most miserable conditions on the Western Front. During one five-day period alone, half of the men in Barbusse's unit were killed. Barbusse himself was twice cited for bravery, but by the end of 1915 when he was reassigned to a desk job because of failing health, he had become completely disillusioned with war. His novel Under Fire is a fictionalized compilation of his personal experiences.

The novel gives us a comprehensive picture of the life of a poilu, a French infantryman, starting with the boredom of life "in the ground" in the reserve trenches. The narrator never names himself, and is rarely the focus of the story. Instead we see and hear through his eyes and ears as his unit goes from the trenches, to a rear area camp, and finally back on rotation to the front lines. Actual combat takes up a fairly small part of the novel, just as it occupies a small proportion of military life. "You are always waiting in wartime. We have become machines for waiting." The author further emphasizes the dehumanizing effect of war with such startling phrases as "...he wants to see the village where he used to live happily, in former times, when he was a man."

What distinguishes Under Fire from many other war novels and memoirs is the expressiveness of its language: "Night is falling over the trenches. All day long, invisible as fate, it has been approaching and now it encroaches on the embankments of the long ditches like the lips of an unending wound." The horrors of trench warfare are vividly depicted. The narrator and his companions live in a landscape which has become imbued with human remains, with body parts embedded in trench walls and carpeting the ground of No Man's Land. Fear and bravery are concepts equally and utterly without meaning in an alien existence beyond the comprehension of those who have not experienced it.

Barbusse became a communist after the war, and it is obvious that his sympathies were already tending in that direction. He sees the war as part of a broader conflict "between those who profit and those who toil," where the common soldiers of both nations are the pawns of the arms merchants and other capitalists who profit from the conflict. Speaking of the Germans he has helped to kill, he says "My poor fellow men, poor unknown brothers, it is your turn for sacrifice. Another time it will be ours."

Of his own fellow soldiers, Barbusse writes: "They are not careless of their own lives, like bandits, or blind with fury, like savages. Despite all the propaganda, they are not inflamed... Fully conscious of what they are doing, fully fit and in good health, they have massed there to throw themselves once more into the madman's role that is imposed on them by the folly of the human race.... They are not the sort of heroes that people think they are, but their sacrifice has greater value than those who have not seen them will ever be able to understand."

The "sacrifice" he speaks of in the last two quotations comes from the idea that The Great War was the "War to End All Wars," as many others hoped and believed. He felt it would lead to a revolution of the common people of all nations, modeled on the French Revolution, against wealth, church, and privilege. He would see the Russian Revolution, two years later, as the beginnings of just such a revolt. For all the miseries and horrors it depicts, Under Fire ends on a hopeful note which, unfortunately, history has not sustained.

The weakest parts of the novel are when the author has common soldiers deliver sustained, eloquent, and well-structured ideological arguments in the midst of appalling conditions. There aren't very many of these episodes, but when they occur they detract from the realism of the work. Ironically, they are also completely superfluous, for Barbusse's depiction of war has already made his case far more convincingly than any amount of rhetoric could do. And perhaps the most poignant part of the novel is completely unintentional--the closing dateline: "December 1915." Could he have imagined at the time that the nightmare would continue for three more years? ( )
7 vote StevenTX | Mar 18, 2014 |
In Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, the central character, having been wounded on the Italian Front, escapes from the army and takes refuge in a hotel in the Alps. While there he meets an old acquaintance who interrogates him on the subject of war literature:

‘What have you been reading?’
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘I'm afraid I am very dull.’
‘No. But you should read.’
‘What is there written in war-time?’
‘There is
Le Feu by a Frenchman, Barbusse.’
[…] ‘Those books were at the hospital.’
‘Then you have been reading?’
‘Yes, but nothing any good.’


I don't know if A Farewell to Arms can really be considered a war novel proper, but to the extent that it is one, it's a less successful one than Le Feu – and Hemingway, who drove ambulances in Italy, has got a goddamn nerve criticising the experiences of Henri Barbusse, who was a front-line footsoldier in the trenches.

This book, pace Papa, is good. It is really good, and not just in a documentary sense – which I had expected – but also in a literary sense, which I had not. The First World War was of course the first major conflict to field hordes of men that had benefited from a systematic education – hence the wealth of poetry and journals – and Barbusse is a case in point. Before being a poilu he'd been a literature graduate; at university, his tutor had been Mallarmé. Le Feu, which won the Prix Goncourt, shows a steady literary intelligence every step of the way.

The reason I had expected it to be of primarily documentary interest is, I suppose, because of its uniquely early appearance. Barbusse wrote the novel while on convalescent leave in 1915, and somehow managed to publish it (albeit in heavily censored form) the following year, when the war was still at its height. So these are dispatches from the very heart of the maelstrom, however fictionalised they may be.

You wouldn't call it enjoyable. It is oppressive and I found it often a slow read – but I've never before been given such a visceral idea of daily life in the trenches. The dreadful monotony of forced marches, the constant tiredness, the misery of trying to find your way through knee-high mud in the dark, of trying to sleep on wet mud while dressed in sodden clothes, negotiating the ever-changing labyrinth of trenches and boyaux, the exhaustion of heaving yourself up over the muddy parapet to charge at banks of barbed wire with mortar shells landing all around you – it's just so undramatically, so realistically described.

Some of the details are truly extraordinary. I hope never to gain a comparable understanding of the changes undergone by a friend's face after they drown in mud, or the exact pressure needed to pull the boot off an old corpse without also pulling off the foot. At one point the narrator's company, lost in the trenches in the middle of the night, is led through a sewage channel to try and find the front lines, so that they are literally marching ankle-deep in shit (‘dont on sent, parmi la bourbe terreuse, les fléchissements mous’). On another occasion, lost in the driving rain, he is about to lower himself into a trench when he hears German voices walk past and realises he's inadvertently wandered up to the enemy lines – an incredible reminder that the French and German positions were barely forty metres apart at some points.

Barbusse's most interesting tool though is dialogue: the earthy patois of the poilus, a rich mix of slang and regionalisms, is central here, and must make translating this novel an unusually challenging prospect. I certainly learnt a lot of vocab reading it. With the proviso that I am not a native speaker, to me it all had a deep ring of truth to it, and the many long conversational scenes are as close as you'll ever get to eavesdropping on the trenches of 1915. Here, for example, the men are bitching about all those officers that dress up in flash uniforms but stay well behind the lines:

— On les connaît, ceux-là ! I's diront, en f'sant l' gracieux dans leur monde : « J' m'ai engagé pour la guerre. — Ah ! comme c'est beau, c' que vouz avez fait ; vous avez, de votre propre volonté, affronté la mitraille ! — Mais oui, madame la marquise, j' suis comme ça. » Eh, va donc, fumiste !

[“We know all about their sort! They'll talk it up in company, putting on airs: ‘I signed up for the war.’ — ‘Oh! How noble you are! Facing the bullets, of your own free will!’ — ‘Well, you know, my lady – that's just the kind of guy I am.’ Well go on then, arsehole!”]

These are the kind of people back in society whose attitude is neatly summed up by Barbusse as ‘Sauvons la France! – et commençons par nous sauver!’ But talking about them is just comic relief, for us and for the men involved. More often they struggle with what the war is for, how it has turned normal people into brute machines that sleep on their feet and kill strangers, and how it could ever hope to be justified by some brighter potential future.

—L'avenir ! L'avenir ! L'œuvre de l'avenir sera d'effacer ce présent-ci, et de l'effacer plus encore qu'on ne pense, de l'effacer comme quelque chose d'abominable et d'honteux. Et pourtant, ce présent, il le fallait, il le fallait !

[“The future, the future! The work of the future will be to erase this present, and to erase it even more than we realise – to erase it as something abominable and shameful. And yet, this present – we needed it, we needed it!”]

He is trying to convince himself, of course. The gritty details in this book are the more powerful for being set alongside equally representative scenes of inactivity and soul-destroying monotony – monotony for the soldiers, I hasten to add, not for the readers. The readers are in for something altogether different.

Barbusse is the real deal and I feel changed for reading this remarkable document. I'll leave the final analysis on the mess we're presented with to one of his mud-encrusted colleagues: Deux armées qui se battent, c'est comme une grande armée qui se suicide! Two armies fighting each other is just one big army committing suicide. ( )
  Widsith | Feb 16, 2014 |
This is a very unusual First World War novel, in that it was written while the war was still going on, by a participant in it, the French novelist Henri Barbusse. Published in 1916 in his native France, it was translated into English and published here the following year. The translation (and no doubt the original) is very powerful, with utterly bleak depictions of the blasted landscape, the daily horrors of mud and shelling and a strong emphasis on the dehumanising effects of war, with the soldiers depicted as reduced almost to the lives of beasts. There is a sense of the complete dislocation of the Front from civilian life, which is particularly evident in chapter 22 when the setting suddenly and temporarily moves to Paris and the soldiers show their reactions to the lives and everyday grumbles of the civilians there. There are many graphic descriptions of bodily horror and dismembered corpses, which is inevitable, though perhaps a little repetitive. Clearly these experiences were based on the author's own during the fighting (he was apparently invalided out of the army three times before being moved out into an administrative job at the end of 1915).

While this narrative style is powerful and evocative, the dehumanisation of the characters paradoxically made it harder to feel sympathy for them as individuals or to care especially for the fate of specific characters, who seemed largely interchangeable. There was no clear plot, rather a succession of different scenarios in each chapter. This made it quite hard to read. The author's views come out strongly - his experiences turned him into a pacifist, and the majority of the characters who express an opinion talk of the waste of young lives in war, the futility of destruction that seemed like the end of the world and the distorted sense of patriotism that led to it, the importance of remembrance and the need to abolish all war if humanity is to have a second chance; though some characters express other views. There is also a strong sense of resentment from the soldiers about those perceived to have "cushy" jobs in the rear; one wonders whether Barbusse himself altered his perspective after he was invalided out into such a job.

Finally, one curiosity that surprised me was that there was an "international trench" with French and German ends and a not particularly well patrolled no man's land zone in the middle - a bizarre phenomenon.

3.5/5 ( )
  john257hopper | Nov 10, 2013 |
This novel is based on the author’s own experience of World War I and is a detailed and often mundane account of the ordinary men in the French Sixth Battalion. These men have been thrown together from all over France and just want to survive the war in order to make it back home. Highlights to their day are the delivery of eatable rations, leave spent sheltered in a shed, or a glimpse of a pretty girl. Under Fire paints a stark picture of life in the trenches, the mud, the stench, and monotony of waiting while constantly fearing for one’s life in an infernal and seemingly eternal battlefield.

Most of this book was about the daily grind of troops involved in a war, mainly just wandering around or waiting for direction. The language carries the book in these scenes.

“In the houses alongside this rural way—a main road, garbed for a few paces like a main street—the rooms whose pallid windows no longer fed them with the limpidity of space found their own light from lamps and candles, so that the evening left them and went outside, and one saw light and darkness gradually changing places.”

The book is also peppered with these rather profound observations about war, the existence of God, civilian’s perceptions about soldiers, and humanity.

“Yes, we are truly and deeply different from each other. But we are alike all the same. In spite of this diversity of age, of country, of education, of position, of everything possible, in spite of the former gulfs that kept us apart, we are in the main alike. Under the same uncouth outlines we conceal and reveal the same ways and habits, the same simple nature of men who have reverted to the state primeval.”

And then you get to the battle scenes and things pick up to a devastating pace. War is horrible and men are fighting for survival against one another in horrific conditions where if the enemy doesn’t get you the cold, flood, and mudslide probably will. I think Barbusse is not afraid to show you how awful it all is in an attempt to have people really question the necessity of war. ( )
1 vote aliciamay | Feb 21, 2013 |
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To the memory of the comrades who fell by my side at Crouÿ and on Hill 119 January, May, and September 1915
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Mont Blanc, the Dent du Midi, and the Aiguille Verte look across the bloodless faces that show above the blankets along the gallery of the sanatorium.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0143039040, Paperback)

Based on his own experience of the Great War, Henri Barbusse?s novel is a powerful account of one of the greatest horrors mankind has inflicted on itself. For the group of ordinary men in the French Sixth Battalion, thrown together from all over France and longing for home, war is simply a matter of survival, lightened only by the arrival of their rations or a glimpse of a pretty girl or a brief reprieve in the hospital. Reminiscent of classics like Hemingway?s A Farewell to Arms and Remarque?s All Quiet on the Western Front, Under Fire (originally published in French as La Feu) vividly evokes life in the trenches?the mud, stench, and monotony of waiting while constantly fearing for one?s life in an infernal and seemingly eternal battlefield.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:05:51 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Based on his own experience of the Great War, Henri Barbusse's novel is a powerful account of one of the greatest horrors mankind has inflicted on itself. For the group of ordinary men in the French Sixth Battalion, thrown together from all over France and longing for home, war is simply a matter of survival, lightened only by the arrival of their rations or a glimpse of a pretty girl or a brief reprieve in the hospital. Reminiscent of classics like Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" and Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Under Fire" (originally published in French as "La Feu") vividly evokes life in the trenches -- the mud, stench, and monotony of waiting while constantly fearing for one's life in an infernal and seemingly eternal battlefield.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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