Under Fire by Henri Barbusse is a masterpiece that belongs equally to literature and history. An unforgettable and immortal document of the era remains the best book of all written about the war of 1914-1918. The book received a profound response not only in France but also in almost all countries worldwide. Faced with the terrible reality of the front, Barbusse depicts the war as it is in fact, without embellishment. The situation at the front is deplorable, after sixteen months of fighting, the front seems to freeze, and those who survived in this mud and blood were doomed to nightmarish conditions of trench life. Official propaganda carefully conceals this from the population; the press filled its pages with false reports, turning failed offensives into victories. The horrors of war are described in the novel with a colossal amount of detail; Barbusse’s work punched through the censored picture of the war. At the front, soldiers face many trials, and not everyone manages to survive; war is not a parade, it is terrible fatigue, waist-deep water, and mud.
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At the very beginning, the author notes that the work was written in the memory of the comrades who fell by the author’s side at Crouy and on Hill 119. As Barbusse, they were all reservists, not young, with already established biographies, people who had families, work, and peaceful professions. They “include hardly any intellectuals, or men of the arts or of wealth, who during this war will have risked their faces only at the loopholes, unless in passing by, or under gold-laced caps.” (Barbusse 27) The author, identifying himself with fellow soldiers, convinced of the correctness of the choice made, is intolerant in his denial of venality, especially if the intelligentsia serves it. Done at the very beginning, this observation develops on the pages of the novel Under Fire in the theme of two Frances. The one that earned good money in the war, consoling itself with ideas of war that were far from life. The other, under a hail of whistling bullets, in mud and water, defended the fatherland, but she was dying for the interests of those in power that were alien to the people.
Frontline life of those and others is fundamentally different, if the first relatively calmly experienced it, others were forced to adapt and survive. Officers occupied free dwelling houses, ordinary soldiers rented housing from the civilian population, these were mainly outbuildings. Usually, such barns were “almost uninhabitable… a collapsing refuge, gloomy and leaky, confined as a well”. (Barbusse 206) On the front lines, soldiers spent the night either in pits dug in the sidewalls of the trench and at its edge or in dugouts. During the positional period, a considerable number of people accumulated in a narrow space, which gave rise to unsanitary conditions. “Carpeted at the bottom with a layer of slime that liberates the foot at each step with a sticky sound; and by each dug-out, it smells of the night’s excretions.” (Barbusse 10) Unsanitary conditions gave rise to the threat of epidemics and the reproduction of rats and lice: “Lamuse scratches himself like a gorilla, and Eudore like a marmoset.” (Barbusse 23) “The monotonous calm is disturbed here and there by the outbreaks of ferocious resentment provoked by the presence of parasites — endemic, chronic, and contagious.” (Barbusse 24)
Everyday life at the front presents the most challenging problem for ordinary soldiers, narrated in a series of episodes. For Barbusse, the whole war in the ordinary sense revolves around the theme of dirt, cold, dampness, and corpse decomposition. After reading the work, it can be concluded that there was no necessary supply of uniforms, linen, shoes, and equipment for the army. The clothes were not adapted to the rainy climate, they existed. Solders were not “surprised anymore, the garb they have devised against the rain that comes from above, against the mud that comes from beneath, and against the cold — that sort of infinity that is everywhere.” (Barbusse 19) Ordinary soldiers who could not hide from the rain in the trenches were forced to use materials at hand to protect them from water and cold. “The skins of animals, bundles of blankets, Balaklava helmets, woolen caps, furs, bulging mufflers, paddings and quiltings, knittings and double-knittings, coverings and roofings and cowls” helped soldiers not to die of the cold. (Barbusse 19)
Shoes are also essential for describing the hardships faced by ordinary soldiers. It deteriorated very quickly, and conditions of cold and dampness led to a high level of colds among soldiers and massive frostbite. According to Barbusse, the clothing supplier to the soldiers was minimal; most of the soldiers did not receive new uniform parts to replace worn-out ones. Shoes were considered the main trophy obtained during the battle – they were removed from defeated opponents, and the evacuated soldiers left boots to their comrades who remained on the front line or in reserve troops. “Poterloo has been walking about for a month in the boots of a German soldier, nearly new, and with horseshoes on the heels. Caron entrusted them to Poterloo when he was sent back.” (Barbusse 21) To save their feet from the damp and cold, the front-line soldiers used various materials: “gaiters, in leather, in tawny cloth, in any sort of waterproof stuff; puttees.” “There are legs wrapped up in rags, too, and even in newspapers, which are kept in place with spirals of thread or — much more practical — telephone wire.” (Barbusse 21)
What is more, throughout the novel, the characters are tormented by hunger and lack of drink. There is a separate chapter in which the starving and tired main character gets one raw egg after long wanderings, and it is considered by him almost as a Gift of God. This picture once again confirms the unbearable conditions of existence for ordinary soldiers, to which the author counts himself.
The moral side of the dilemma is no less critical, the enlightenment of the soldiers’ masses – the main idea of the novel – is realized using the memorable symbols of “dawn,” and “fire.” (Palmer 162) There is no specific strategy through which it is possible to cope with all this physical and mental pressure. The soldiers find the strength to survive day after day, they understand that their enemy is not the Germans, but the war and it must be killed, they understand the “material” of war is themselves.
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To conclude, French soldiers during the First World War were provided with a minimum of necessities, which complicated the already difficult fate of ordinary soldiers at the front. The living conditions of the front-line soldiers were harsh due to unsanitary conditions, the multiplication of parasites, the spread of various diseases, and weather events. Thus, everyday problems at the front were not only of independent importance – sanitary losses reduced the combat effectiveness of the troops – but also developed into a psychological problem, undermining the morale and fighting spirit of the French army. Barbusse confirms with numerous scenes of detailed descriptions of the horror and chaos that the soldiers are forced to endure that the war is not an impressive battle, it is weariness and numerous casualties.
Barbusse, Henri. Under Fire. Dover Publications, 2019.
Palmer, Jerry. “Reading Barbusse, Le Feu (Under Fire), in 1916–1917.” Memories from the Frontline. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 153–172.