12. Under Fire – The Real Face of War
Paradis says to me, “That’s war.”
“Yes, that’s it,” he repeats in a far-away voice, “that’s war. It’s not anything else.”
“It is that, that endless monotony of misery, broken, by poignant tragedies.”
“Beautiful? Oh, hell! It’s just as if an ox were to say, ‘What a fine sight it must be, all those droves of cattle driven forward to the slaughter-house!’ He spat out mud from his besmeared mouth, and his unburied face was like a beast’s.
“Let them say, ‘It must be,’” he sputtered in a strange jerky voice, grating and ragged; “that’s all right. But beautiful! Oh, hell!”
Under Fire: The Story of a Squad (French: Le Feu: journal d’une escouade) by Henri Barbusse was written in December 1916. It was one of the first novels about the First World War to be published and was based on Barbusse’s personal experiences as a soldier in the French Army on the Western Front. Le Feu made an immediate impact, winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt the same year it was published. It remains one of the great novels about the ‘war to end all wars’.
In stark contrast to the heroic visions of the official propaganda, the authentic experience of trench life is here depicted with brutal reality. We follow their progress through the gigantic mincing machine that is war. Some will live. Most will die. One by one, they disappear into the infernal meat grinders: some killed in battle, others lost in no man’s land, others wounded.
Barbusse’s depiction of the lives of the ordinary French soldiers or ‘poilus’ is rendered even more graphic and poignant because, from the beginning, we are introduced to the members of the squad as individuals, men with names and families, real individuals with families, lives, good points and bad, hopes and fears.
But the first sight we have of these characters is of a kind of amorphous mass slowly emerging out of the trenches like primeval sub-human creatures from the depths of the earth:
I see shadows coming from these sidelong pits and moving about, huge and misshapen lumps, bear-like, that flounder and growl. They are ‘us’.
Who are ‘us’!? The soldiers who are sent to the front are all poor farmers, workers and employees:
“Our ages? We are of all ages.” […]
“Our races? We are of all races; we come from everywhere.” […]
Our callings? A little of all – in the lump. In those departed days when we had a social status, before we came to immure our destiny in the molehills that we must always build up again as fast as rain and scrap-iron beat them down, what were we? Sons of the soil and artisans mostly. Lamuse was a farm-servant, Paradis a carter. Cadilhac, whose helmet rides loosely on his pointed head, though it is a juvenile size – like a dome on a steeple, says Tirette – owns land. Papa Blaire was a small farmer in La Brie.
The men are dressed in all kinds of rags, using old tyres and anything they can find to try to keep off the rain that penetrates their uniforms and soaks them to the skin. The trenches themselves resemble filthy bogs where men live in animal-like conditions amidst rubbish, rats and excrement, sometimes dead bodies. From the beginning, Barbusse creates a strong sense of class:
We are fighting men, we others, and we 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.
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 ways and habits, the same simple nature of men who have reverted to the state primeval.
The same language, compounded of dialect and the slang of workshop and barracks, seasoned with the latest inventions, blends us in the sauce of speech with the massed multitudes of men who (for seasons now) have emptied France and crowded together in the North-East.
Here, too, linked by a fate from which there is no escape, swept willy-nilly by the vast adventure into one rank, we have no choice but to go as the weeks and months go – alike. The terrible narrowness of the common life binds us close, adapts us, merges us one in the other. It is a sort of fatal contagion.
The title of the novel is somewhat ironical, since for most of the time there is no fighting at all. Only in chapter twenty do we finally get a terrifying picture of what war meant for these men. Until then, the men are shown in a state of hopeless tedium, hunting for lice that infest their clothes while waiting, always waiting, for some thing or another, mainly for the food that always arrives late, waiting for the order to dig trenches or to move on, but always waiting. This is a truthful depiction of the realities of war, when battles are punctuated by long periods of mind-numbing inactivity:
We are waiting. Weary of sitting, we get up, our joints creaking like warping wood or old hinges. Damp rusts men as it rusts rifles; more slowly, but deeper. And we begin again, but not in the same way, to wait. In a state of war, one is always waiting. We have become waiting-machines.
The monotony is broken by the arrival of food that momentarily acts as a soporific drug to deaden the pain. They wait and curse the slowness of the orderlies that are always late. When they finally arrive, even this small pleasure is spoiled by the fact that the wine ration is short – according to those who carried it to the trenches, “it got spilled on the way” – a story that is received with grim scepticism by the men in the trenches.
The little things that we take for granted in everyday life suddenly assume an enormous importance: a box of matches or an egg are luxuries that must be pursued with determination and when found are regarded as trophies far more valuable than medals. The misery of the soldiers is somehow reflected in the utter desolation of a blasted landscape:
There are trees here; a row of excoriated willow trunks, some of wide countenance, and others hollowed and yawning, like coffins on end. The scene through which we are struggling is rent and convulsed, with hills and chasms, and with such sombre swellings as if all the clouds of storm had rolled down here. Above the tortured earth, this stampeded file of trunks stands forth against a striped brown sky, milky in places and obscurely sparking – a sky of agate.
And the rain that falls ceaselessly, drenching the poor wretches who are crowded, trembling with the cold, into a draughty barn full of holes that they try to plug with leaves and twigs – a futile exercise. The men sleep on soaking straw that stinks of liquid manure.
Barbusse presents us with some moving little cameos that sum up the condition of the men. A soldier who does not have enough money to obtain wine he desperately needs to deaden his senses returns empty handed to the barn where he must sleep. He looks into the mournful eyes of a dog that has been adopted by the squad and sees himself in the reflection of a dumb beast that has also given up all hope and pays no attention even to the food that is on the plate before him. Man and beast are reduced to the same level of utter hopelessness.
They are not soldiers, they are men. They are not adventures, or warriors, or made for human slaughter, neither butchers nor cattle. They are labourers and artisans whom one recognises in their uniforms. They are civilians uprooted, and they are ready. They await the signal for death or murder; but you may see, looking at their faces between the vertical gleams of their bayonets, that they are simply men.
Even on those rare occasions when the men get leave, there is not much relief. They are obliged to go from house to house in a village, pleading to be given shelter (which they obtain – at a price). They are shamelessly fleeced by greedy peasants, who are growing rich and wish the war would go on forever. They consider themselves lucky to find a dirty old shed where they achieve their dream – to be able to eat “on a table”, or to be more accurate, an old door supported on heaps of bricks.
These are the slaves and drudges at the bottom of the social pile. In times of peace they are what the Bible calls the “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. In wartime they are merely cannon fodder for the generals. They watch as other slaves in uniform return from the front line, some wounded, some grim-faced, some smiling because they are still alive, all exhausted. They have been brought back from the jaws of hell to be rested, patched up, and then sent back to the slaughter house.
There is little or no hatred for the Germans, who, they imagine, are slaves and cannon-fodder just like themselves. But there is a burning hatred of the rich, the parasites, the speculators and those who avoid being drafted through money and connections. Above all there is a hatred of the scroungers in the rear:
Besides, there are too many rich and influential people who have shouted, “Let us save France! – and begin by saving ourselves!” On the declaration of war, there was a big rush to get out of it, that’s what there was, and the strongest succeeded. I noticed myself, in my little corner, it was especially those that jawed most about patriotism previously. Anyway, as the others were saying just now, if they get into a funk-hole, the worst filthiness they can do is to make people believe they’ve run risks. ‘Cos those that have really run risks, they deserve the same respect as the dead.
Finally, the fatal hour arrives when the squad has to move into action. Barbusse’s description of the horrors of war read like the Inferno of Dante Alighieri: descent into hell in which each circle is more frightful than the last.
The battle commences in the dead of night, when the sky is lit up by dazzling lights that resemble a devilish firework display. In spite of themselves, the men of the squad are dazzled by this display of pyrotechnics that strikes them as having a strange sort of beauty. But this initial sense of wonder soon gives way to very different sensations:
Abruptly, across all the width of the opposite slope, lurid flames burst forth that strike the air with terrible detonations. In line from left to right fires emerge from the sky and explosions from the ground. It is a frightful curtain which divides us from the world, which divides us from the past and from the future.
Eventually the order comes down the line: the sergeant blows a whistle and the soldiers, like blind automata, clamber up the ladders that the sappers have placed against the slippery walls of the trenches. Now they are outside the relative safety of the trench, advancing into no man’s land, a barren, blasted terrain of mud, criss-crossed with barbed wire entanglements, churned up by exploding shells and raked with deadly machine gun fire. Men stumble and sink into the mud, fall into shell-holes and are cut in half by machine gun bullets or hurled into the air by explosions. It is hell on earth.
There is no possibility of escape: to halt or to retreat is to die. The only possibility is to advance, to keep advancing while your comrades are falling all around you. There is only one idea in your head: to keep going until you reach the objective: the enemy trench – to keep on going with bayonets at the ready with which to rend and pierce the entrails of other men, who like you are staring death in the face. The final slaughter is carried out without thinking, a senseless mechanical act that is as automatic and inevitable as every other action in this terrible shambles.
In the heat of battle men sometimes forget to be afraid. Other emotions take over. The unconscious mind develops strategies for blotting out the horror, for objectifying a terrible reality and reducing it to a kind of tranquillising banality. The men become experts in distinguishing the sounds of different high explosive shells, taking a peculiar pleasure in their respective powers of observation. This kind of mental activity provides a necessary antidote to the realisation that sooner or later one of these flying missiles of death will find its target, landing on a trench and blowing all its occupants to pieces.
The enemy trench is taken. It is filled with the dead bodies of men in both blue and grey uniforms, each corpse caught in the same grotesque attitudes with which it left the world of the living. The squad has realised its objective. It is time for the exhausted men to rest. But there is no rest – for after this trench there is another, and another and yet another trench to conquer. There is no end to the slaughter. It is as infinite as the fields that stretch before one’s gaze, as infinite and as barren as the landscape of the moon.
The stretcher teams are struggling to rescue the wounded and carry away the dead, but this task is too much for human beings to perform. The vast numbers of shattered bodies, dead or living, overwhelms the efforts of the rescuers. The central figure of the novel (one cannot speak of heroes in such a context) is ordered to assist a wounded comrade to a place where he can receive some medical attention (nor can one speak of a hospital).
Crossing the field of battle in the cold light of day, they witness countless horrors that had been mercifully hidden by the darkness of the night. An old man they both knew, grievously wounded, begs them not to leave him, but they have to press on, promising to return. When they look back, he is already dead.
What passes for a field hospital is like the final circle of the Inferno: a dark, foul-smelling cave full to bursting with broken minds and bodies that are clinging to life as a drowning man clings to a straw. The darkness is broken only by the faint glimmering of candles; the silence is broken by the groans of the dying and the howls of pain. Even this intolerable suffering is not complete. The hospital receives a direct hit from an enemy shell.
The torrential rain has turned the battlefield into a sea of mud into which men fall and drown. “The rain is raging and the sound of its streaming dominates everything – a horror of desolation. We feel the water on our flesh as if the deluge had washed our clothes away.” Crossing this nightmarish landscape, the horrified members of the squad are unable to see whether the bodies they discover are French or German, alive or dead:
Quite near, we notice that some mounds of earth aligned along the ruined ramparts of this deep-drowned ditch are human.
Are they dead – or asleep? We do not know; in any case, they rest.
Are they German or French? We do not know.
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.
The last chapter bears the title of the novel entitled Dawn, a word pregnant with symbolism. One normally associates it with the hope and joy that springs from the dawning of a new day. But dawn over the trenches is never a moment of hope or happiness but merely the commencement of another day of misery, suffering and death.
Here, however, dawn has a different significance: it is the dawn of consciousness, the first tentative steps of men’s minds towards the idea that things can be different, that another world is possible. Between one offensive and another, the men begin to reflect on what they have seen and done. “What is it all for?” Gradually, ideas begin to crystallise, ideas that point the way to revolution against an intolerable state of affairs:
I listened, leaning on a stick and towards him, drinking in the voice that came in the twilight silence from the lips that so rarely spoke. He cried with a clear voice – “Liebknecht!”
He stood up with his arms still crossed. His face, as profoundly serious as a statue’s, drooped upon his chest. But he emerged once again from his marble muteness to repeat, “The future, the future! The work of the future will be to wipe out the present, to wipe it out more than we can imagine, to wipe it out like something abominable and shameful. And yet – this present – it had to be, it had to be! Shame on military glory, shame on armies, shame on the soldier’s calling, that changes men by turns into stupid victims or ignoble brutes. Yes, shame. That’s the true word, but it’s too true; it’s true in eternity, but it’s not yet true for us. It will be true when there is a Bible that is entirely true, when it is found written among the other truths that a purified mind will at the same time let us understand. We are still lost, still exiled far from that time. In our time of today, in these moments, this truth is hardly more than a fallacy, this sacred saying is only blasphemy!”
A kind of laugh came from him, full of echoing dreams – “To think I once told them I believed in prophecies, just to kid them!”
I sat down by Bertrand’s side. This soldier, who had always done more than was required of him and survived notwithstanding, stood at that moment in my eyes for those who incarnate a lofty moral conception, who have the strength to detach themselves from the hustle of circumstances, and who are destined, however little their path may run through a splendour of events, to dominate their time.
“I have always thought all those things,” I murmured.
“Ah!” said Bertrand. We looked at each other without a word, with a little surprised self-communion. After this full silence he spoke again. “It’s time to start duty; take your rifle and come.”
After the battle
After the battle, the few surviving members of the squad wander aimlessly through the streets of a town that seems a million miles removed from the nightmare through which they have lived:
The commercial people are shutting up their shops with complacent content and a smile for both the day ended and for the morrow, elated by the lively and constant thrills of profits increased, by the growing jingle of the cash-box. They have stayed behind in the heart of their own firesides; they have only to stoop to caress their children. We see them beaming in the first starlights of the street, all these rich folk who are becoming richer, all these tranquil people whose tranquillity increases every day, people who are full, you feel, and in spite of all, of an unconfessable prayer.
The conclusion becomes inescapable: here are two worlds inhabited by two classes of people: those who fight wars and those who profit by them; those who work and those who enjoy the fruits of the labour of others; those who create and those who exploit:
The sight of this world has revealed a great truth to us at last, nor could we avoid it: a Difference which becomes evident between human beings, a Difference far deeper than that of nations and with defensive trenches more impregnable; the clean-cut and truly unpardonable division that there is in a country’s inhabitants between those who gain and those who grieve, those who are required to sacrifice all, all, to give their numbers and strength and suffering to the last limit, those upon whom the others walk and advance, smile and succeed.
One of the survivors, the indomitable Volpatte draws his own conclusions:
“It isn’t one single country, that’s not possible,” suddenly says Volpatte with singular precision, “there are two. We’re divided into two foreign countries. The Front, over there, where there are too many unhappy, and the Rear, here, where there are too many happy.”
“We’re made to live, not to be done in like this!”
“Men are made to be husbands, fathers – men, what the devil! – not beasts that hunt each other and cut each other’s throats and make themselves stink like all that.”
“Two armies fighting each other – that’s like one great army committing suicide!”
For understandable reasons, the central message is a fiercely anti-war sentiment. But this is not the usual sentimental pacifism, but a message where the struggle against war is inseparably linked to the class war. The discussion among the men already begins to take on a revolutionary content:
When it had passed, and we saw the volley take flight across the plain, seizing and shaking its muddy plunder and furrowing the water in the long gaping trenches – long as the grave of an army – we began again.
“After all, what is it that makes the mass and the horror of war?”
“It’s the mass of the people.”
“But the people – that’s us!”
He who had said it looked at me inquiringly.
“Yes,” I said to him, “yes, old boy, that’s true! It’s with us only that they make battles. It is we who are the material of war. War is made up of the flesh and the souls of common soldiers only. It is we who make the plains of dead and the rivers of blood, all of us, and each of us is invisible and silent because of the immensity of our numbers. The emptied towns and the villages destroyed, they are a wilderness of our making. Yes, war is all of us, and all of us together.”
“Yes, that’s true. It’s the people who are war; without them, there would be nothing, nothing but some wrangling, a long way off. But it isn’t they who decide on it; it’s the masters who steer them.”
“The people are struggling to-day to have no more masters that steer them. This war, it’s like the French Revolution continuing.”
“Then we’ll have to go on fighting after the war?”
“Yes, p’raps –”
“You want more of it, do you?”
“Yes, because I want no more of it,” the voice grunted. “And p’raps it’ll not be foreigners that we’ve got to fight?”
“P’raps, yes –”
Barbusse and Communism
Henri Barbusse became a Communist, like many others, inspired by the Russian Revolution. He described the birth of Soviet Russia as “the greatest and most beautiful phenomenon in world history.” He left France in January 1918, and moved to Moscow, where he married a Russian woman and joined the Bolshevik Party.
Later on, Barbusse became a Stalinist. Before Stalin’s rise to power, he had dedicated a book to Leon Trotsky, but he later wrote a book eulogising Stalin, for which Trotsky castigated him. Barbusse’s former comrade, Victor Serge, called him a hypocrite, who wanted to be on the winning side. This was a harsh verdict but not an unjust one.
Henri Barbusse died of pneumonia in Moscow on 30 August, 1935. Despite his sharp criticism of Barbusse for his capitulation to Stalinism, Trotsky had a high opinion of Le Feu, which remains perhaps the greatest novel of the First World War. It should be read by all who wish to have a real understanding of what the Great Slaughter really meant for those who fought and died in it.
We will leave the final word to one of the characters of Le Feu, in reality, Barbusse himself:
The peoples of the world ought to come to an understanding, through the hides and on the bodies of those who exploit them one way or another. All the masses ought to agree together.
All men ought to be equal.
The word seems to come to us like a rescue.
After all, why do we make war? We don’t know at all why, but we can say who we make it for […] whole nations go to slaughter marshalled in armies in order that the gold-striped caste may write their princely names in history, so that other gilded people of the same rank can contrive more business, and expand in that way of employees and shops.
Ah, you are right, poor countless workmen of the battles, you who have made with your bands all of the Great War, you whose omnipotence is not yet used for well-doing, you human host whose every face is a world of sorrows, you who dream bowed under the yoke of a thought beneath that sky where long black clouds rend themselves and expand in dishevelled lengths like evil angels – yes, you are right. There are all those things against you. Against you and your great common interests which as you dimly saw are the same thing in effect as justice, there are not only the sword-wavers, the profiteers, and the intriguers.
There is not only the prodigious opposition of interested parties – financiers, speculators great and small, armour-plated in their banks and houses, who live on war and live in peace during war, with their brows stubbornly set upon a secret doctrine and their faces shut up like safes.
There are those who admire the exchange of flashing blows, who hail like women the bright colours of uniforms; those whom military music and the martial ballads poured upon the public intoxicate as with brandy; the dizzy-brained, the feeble-minded, the superstitious, the savages.
There are those who bury themselves in the past, on whose lips are the sayings only of bygone days, the traditionalists for whom an injustice has legal force because it is perpetuated, who aspire to be guided by the dead, who strive to subordinate progress and the future and all their palpitating passion to the realm of ghosts and nursery-tales.
With them are all the parsons, who seek to excite you and to lull you to sleep with the morphine of their Paradise, so that nothing may change. There are the lawyers, the economists, the historians – and how many more? – who befog you with the rigmarole of theory, who declare the inter-antagonism of nationalities at a time when the only unity possessed by each nation of today is in the arbitrary map-made lines of her frontiers, while she is inhabited by an artificial amalgam of races; there are the worm-eaten genealogists, who forge for the ambitious of conquest and plunder false certificates of philosophy and imaginary titles of nobility. The infirmity of human intelligence is short sight. In too many cases, the wiseacres are dunces of a sort, who lose sight of the simplicity of things, and stifle and obscure it with formulae and trivialities. It is the small things that one learns from books, not the great ones.
How many are the crimes of which they have made virtues merely by dowering them with the word ‘national’? They distort even truth itself. For the truth which is eternally the same they substitute each their national truth. So many nations, so many truths; and thus, they falsify and twist the truth.
Those are your enemies… all those who for one reason or another cling to the ancient state of things and find or invent excuses for it – they are your enemies!