UNDER FIRE BY HENRI BARBUSSE

Make no mistake, in the event of war I would be a deserter. Although logically speaking you can’t desert something that you refuse to participate in; you have to engage, in even the most basic, superficial fashion before you can disengage. Whenever I attempt to explain my pacifism, and my attitude towards the military in general, I almost always receive the same, slightly sneering, response: what about the two world wars? It is the last card, the Ace up the sleeve, of the proud patriot. The suggestion is that it would be somehow monstrous not to have fought in these just wars. It is an aggressive form of emotional blackmail or manipulation, as though my objection to killing people, and being killed myself, is a mouthful of green phlegm aimed in the face of the millions who died. The millions who died for me, as I am repeatedly reminded. And my response? Well, I wouldn’t have willingly fought in those circumstances either. My resistance, or cowardice, is absolute.

With the state of the world being what it is, there increasingly seems to be a suspect, dangerous aura around the military and military action, at least in the UK, an aura of unquestionable heroism, and an atmosphere of celebration. It strikes me that to be a soldier automatically confers upon you a kind of superiority and moral infallibility. There are, the fist-pumping, flag-waving general public would have us believe, no scared soldiers, no stupid soldiers, etc. Yet, ironically, if the literature associated with WW1 and WW2 – those aforementioned just wars that any right-thinking individual would be eager to fight in – has taught us anything it is that those who were involved in them were ordinary people, and that many of the men who died for me would, for example, and quite understandably, rather have been anywhere else than in a foxhole in a field, awaiting the bullet that bore their name.

“These are not soldiers, these are men. They are not adventurers or warriors, designed for human butchery – as butchers or cattle. They are the ploughmen or workers that one recognizes even in their uniforms. They are uprooted civilians. They are ready, waiting for the signal for death or murder, but when you examine their faces between the vertical ranks of bayonets, they are nothing but men.”

One of the first, and most acclaimed, novels dealing with the lives of ordinary soldiers is Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu [which means The Fire, but which was given the more evocative title of Under Fire in the English translation by Robin Buss]. Originally published in 1916, it is said to be a fictionalised account of the author’s own experiences as a French soldier on the western front during WW1, and was actually subject to some controversy because of its unflinching realism and refusal to romanticise. However, the book begins in a sanatorium, one that is hanging over, and looking down upon, the world. From this safe and comfortable vantage point the residents, including the narrator, discuss the war that has just been declared and share a vision, a vision of carnage and bloodshed in the fields, on the beaches, and across the land that lies below. It is a beautiful and moving piece of writing, because you know, of course, that this isn’t idle melodrama, that these events will, and did, come to pass.

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Once the opening few pages are out of the way Under Fire becomes the novel that one was likely expecting, as it climbs down from the mountain, so to speak, and crawls into the trenches. These pits, which eerily resemble graves, are, we are left in no doubt, hellish places: carpeted with sticky mud, smelling strongly of urine, and overrun with lice. Yet it is of course the men who inhabit them, men ‘buried in the depths of an eternal battlefield’, that are the real focus. Indeed, much of Under Fire is given over to their conversations, which naturally gives you a sense of what they are thinking and feeling; and what one finds is that their concerns are basic, that they want to eat, drink wine, have sex, and stay alive. Moreover, through their interactions with one another, and through the anecdotes that they tell each other, Barbusse not only reveals their more admirable qualities, but those that are less so too; they are, for example, opportunistic, scavengers almost, looking to pick up helmets and boots, often from the dead. They are, in short, simple men; they are human beings, not superheroes.

“They are men, ordinary men, who have suddenly been snatched away from life. Like Ordinary men as a whole they are ignorant, not too keen, narrow-minded and full of good old-fashioned common sense, which sometimes goes astray; they are liable to let themselves be led and to do as they are told, inured to hardship and able to suffer long.”

There is a chapter in the book titled Swearwords, in which Barque asks Barbusse, or the narrator who is standing in for him: “if you get your squaddies in your book to speak, will you make them speak like they do, or will you tidy it up and make it proper?” In other words, will he tell the truth or will he, under pressure from a publisher, keep it clean? His answer is immediate: he will tell the truth. To do otherwise would be to misrepresent these people. Therefore, their speech is, as you would expect of a group drawn from the lower classes, littered with slang and profanity. However, this does cause something of a problem for the reader, certainly a reader of the English translation. The men are French, of course, but, names aside, one would not think so, because they speak in a wooden, old-timey kind of British dialect, full of words and phrases such as “I’ve caught me death” and “by buggery”. This is not necessarily a criticism of the translator, for I understand the difficulties there must be in striking the right tone, or balance, where foreign slang is concerned, but sympathy and understanding does not prevent these parts from sounding odd [and occasionally laughable] to one’s ear [“a whizzbang fell in his bangers” was my favourite].

While it is usually the case that writers are eager to individualise those caught up in tragic events, to give distinct [and likeable] personalities to the victims, in an effort to make them, and their experiences, more relatable, Barbusse appears keen to do the opposite. He repeatedly makes reference to a ‘mass’ of men, at one point likening them to a ‘cloud.’ This emphasis on the men as an indistinct, uniform mass works in two ways, or from two perspectives; there is, first of all, the way that the soldiers see themselves and their comrades, which is as undervalued and expendable. There is the sense that they have given up, or had taken away, their individuality by being a part of the war machine. Secondly, and by extension, is the way that the soldiers are viewed by those in power, which is to say that one man is very much like another, he is a means to an end. It is interesting, therefore, and perhaps appropriate, that Barbusse’s characters are not well-developed. After spending many hours with these poilus I honestly could not distinguish, except by name, between a Volpatte or a Paradis.

“A soldier, or even lots of them, are nothing, or less than nothing in this mass and so we are quite lost, drowned, like the few drops of blood we are in this deluge of men and things.”

There is, of course, much in the novel that confirms the horror and brutality of war, but I am not going to linger over that. It is hardly news. What I find more interesting is the psychology of those who find themselves in war situations, specifically the mentality of living in such close proximity with death. How do you cope with seeing a man blown into the air, his head a ball of fire? How do you cope knowing that from one moment to the next it could be you? It changes you, of that there is no doubt. Some become blasé, such as the man who pulls off a dead German officer’s boots, taking the legs with them, and recounts this gruesome story without a trace of emotion. Yet there is another story, a story Barbusse doesn’t tell but which was always on my mind as I read his book, which is that of those who return, who survive and go home, but have to deal with what they have done and what they have witnessed. I don’t know how you do that either. And I hope to never find out.

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2 comments

  1. What a criticism: refusal to romanticise. That’s just terrible, propaganda at its finest. When you described the smell of urine and the lice everywhere, I mean…wow. Bullets aside, I would go insane from something smaller like that. Just the sheer realization of how unhygienic it is in war trenches. Sounds silly, perhaps, but that is how different my life is today from people who go to war.

    1. I think a certain type of person feeds off propaganda, especially where this subject is concerned. I really try and avoid it day-to-day because people become hysterical if you criticise the military. All aspects of war are grotesque, but yeah the trenches were particularly grim.

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