Under Fire

by I.A. Isherwood

This week we discussed Henri Barbusse’s novel Under Fire. It was my first time teaching this novel and the class had some very interesting things to say about it. As context, they read an essay written by Annette Becker from John Horne’s Companion to World War I on “Faith, Ideologies, and the ‘Cultures of War'”. I chose this reading because I wanted us to talk a little bit about the war as having moral value to many as it was being waged. Religious feelings about sacrifice, redemption, and suffering were felt by many as a means of understanding and justifying the war effort.

The historical line of approach is this: for some, the war’s suffering was thought to be justified if its outcomes were transformational. Hence the notion of a ‘war to end all wars’ as a reason to fight so that peace could dominate the world order after it was over. As idealistic as these hopes seem in light of the Second World War, at the time they were an important factor for civic morale, to keep going. (For more reading on this subject, see William Mulligan’s excellent The Great War for Peace.)

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French soldiers in a trench during World War I, 1917. London Illustrated London News and Sketch.

So what does this have to do with war books? Well, I wanted to give my students a cultural framework for understanding Barbusse’s novel.  Under Fire was written as the war was ongoing and was released and read before the war ended.  Its author, Henri Barbusse, was already something of an old man (at 41) when he served on the western front before being discharged for poor health. The book sold hundreds of thousands of copies during the war.

The novel itself is riveting because of its grimy details. It portrays French common soldiers struggling to survive through the conditions of the trenches and then trying to negotiate with money-grubbing civilians behind the lines. It is not an account of disillusionment – there is no idealism in it to contrast with the relentless negativity – but instead a book that can best be described by the concept of attrition: physical and psychological attrition. It details the narrow ability of soldiers to simply exist and survive the trenches.

So how did the class discussion go? The class seemed to really like the book. Several interesting points were highlighted:

  • Many students believe that the book demonstrates ‘what it was really like’ to fight in WWI. I found this interesting because the notion of an ‘authentic’ war experience is something often disputed, in particular, by veterans who share similar memories. Barbusse’s experiences were all fictionalized and recreated to show readers something. Surely, he was interested in the realism of the front. What I think the class was leaning towards is that this ‘realistic’ war novel was something closer to how 21st century eyes see warfare: de-romanticized, gritty, and all-around terrible. (Barbusse is in the same tradition as the film Fury, only sans the super-hero ending.) They seemed to like the book because it is edgy, a reason undoubtedly, that some at the time did not like the book.
  • Our conversation then turned on the way we should read war books. One student made an excellent observation that it is historically a bit dangerous to see soldiers in the past in the same light that we see soldiers now. This led to a conversation about the way the French army in 1914 was raised, how officers were trained, and how different their forms of training and leadership were compared to the US Army in the present day. This added a layer of historical nuance: we discussed the idea of mass conscript armies and the importance of civilian morale. Barbusse’s citizen soldiers are more citizens than soldiers, their misery in many ways reflecting the notion that service was a civic obligation, a social necessity, rather than a chosen profession. I found this angle enlightening.
  • We discussed, ever so briefly, some of the major themes of the work and what they might reveal to us about French society during the war. The theme of alienation reigned supreme in our conversation: soldiers who felt a distinct disconnect with their generals/politicians, civilians, and with the press. One soldier compared the work to Remarque’s All Quiet – both books share the same front/home front anger. We then discussed how the book was received at the time. It’s high sales undoubtedly are an indicator of popularity, but we should be cautious if we think that these sales indicate a strong anti-war streak in French society. Books are read differently at different times (a super obvious but super important point) and one student said that we shouldn’t ‘see 1929 in 1917’. What she meant was that we shouldn’t interpret the popularity of the book during the war as an indicator of widespread pacifism, but instead, may have been read in solidarity with the suffering of the poilus.  

As usual, we ran out of time just as the conversation started to get good. One thing I like to encourage is respectful but honest debate. Students were doing this as they warmed up to the idea that they weren’t going to get ‘shot down’ for their opinions – by me or by each other – and it is a good sign for the rest of the semester that they were willing to engage each other respectfully and talk about a good book in such a smart way.

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