A classic novel of French fighting men during the First World War
Every great event inspires the writers of its time. Among the works they create are novels, some of which have become widely recognised as classics and which are known by almost everyone whether they have read the book or not. Tolstoy's War and Peace is one such, remarkable for its depiction of Russia in the early nineteenth century and the age of Napoleon. Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front is another, widely admired for its portrayal of the First World War from the perspective of the German Army. Irrespective of the deserved status of these works, translation to the movie screen assists the phenomenon. Inevitably, there are works less well known to many but which those 'in the know' recognise as literary achievements of equal worth and stature. This book, Under Fire (Le Feu) is such a book. It is a classic novel of the experience of the Great War from the perspective of French soldiers who fought in the trenches. Whilst it is a novel, it derives its remarkable authenticity of atmosphere, detail, characterisation and events from the actual wartime experiences of its author, Henri Barbusse, who served as a soldier on the front line. Indeed, his book, a stark anti-war portrayal of the ordeals of ordinary poilou under fire is dedicated to his fallen comrades from the battles at Crouy and on Hill 119 which took place in 1915. Readers should be prepared for both a portrayal of men at war in the raw and experiences of tragic intensity. This is, of course, an essential work of twentieth century literature and is highly recommended. Available in softcover and hardcover with dustjacket.
As I begin to pick out a way with a view to leaving the cavern, there is a great noise down yonder of a fall and a chorus of exclamations. It is the hospital sergeant who has fallen. Through the breach that he was clearing of its soft and bloody relics, a bullet has taken him in the throat, and he is spread out full length on the ground. His great bewildered eyes are rolling and his breath comes foaming. His mouth and the lower part of his face are quickly covered with a cloud of rosy bubbles. They place his head on a bag of bandages, and the bag is instantly soaked with blood. An attendant cries that the packets of lint will be spoiled, and they are needed. Something else is sought on which to put the head that ceaselessly makes a light and discoloured froth. Only a loaf can be found, and it is slid under the spongy hair.<br>
While they hold the sergeant’s hand and question him, he only slavers new heaps of bubbles, and we see his great black-bearded head across this rosy cloud. Laid out like that, he might be a deep-breathing marine monster, and the transparent red foam gathers and creeps up to his great hazy eyes, no longer spectacled. <br>
Then his throat rattles. It is a childish rattle, and he dies moving his head to right and to left as though he were trying very gently to say “No.”<br>
Looking on the enormous inert mass, I reflect that he was a good man. He had an innocent and impressionable heart. How I reproach myself that I sometimes abused him for the ingenuous narrowness of his views, and for a certain clerical impertinence that he always had! And how glad I am in this distressing scene—yes, happy enough to tremble with joy—that I restrained myself from an angry protest when I found him stealthily reading a letter I was writing, a protest that would unjustly have wounded him! I remember the time when he exasperated me so much by his dissertation on France and the Virgin Mary. It seemed impossible to me that he could utter those thoughts sincerely. Why should he not have been sincere? Has he not been really killed today? I remember, too, certain deeds of devotion, the kindly patience of the great man, exiled in war as in life—and the rest does not matter. His ideas themselves are only trivial details compared with his heart—which is there on the ground in ruins in this corner of Hell. With what intensity I lamented this man who was so far asunder from me in everything!<br>
Then fell the thunder on us! We were thrown violently on each other by the frightful shaking of the ground and the walls. It was as if the overhanging earth had burst and hurled itself down. Part of the armour-plate of beams collapsed, enlarging the hole that already pierced the cavern. Another shock—another pulverized span fell in roaring destruction. The corpse of the great Red Cross sergeant went rolling against the wall like the trunk of a tree. All the timber in the long frame-work of the cave, those heavy black vertebrae, cracked with an ear-splitting noise, and all the prisoners in the dungeon shouted together in horror.<br>
Blow after blow, the explosions resound and drive us in all directions as the bombardment mangles and devours the sanctuary of pierced and diminished refuge. As the hissing flight of shells hammers and crushes the gaping end of the cave with its thunderbolts, daylight streams in through the clefts. More sharply now, and more unnaturally, one sees the flushed faces and those pallid with death, the eyes which fade in agony or burn with fever, the patched-up white-bound bodies, the monstrous bandages. All that was hidden rises again into daylight. Haggard, blinking and distorted, in face of the flood of iron and embers that the hurricanes of light bring with them, the wounded arise and scatter and try to take flight. All the terror-struck inhabitants roll about in compact masses across the miserable tunnel, as if in the pitching hold of a great ship that strikes the rocks.<br>
The aviator, as upright as he can get and with his neck on the ceiling, waves his arms and appeals to God, asks Him what He is called, what is His real name. Overthrown by the blast and cast upon the others, I see him who, bare of breast and his clothes gaping like a wound, reveals the heart of a Christ. The greatcoat of the man who still monotonously repeats, “What’s the use of worrying?” now shows itself all green, bright green, the effect of the picric acid no doubt released by the explosion that has staggered his brain. Others—the rest, indeed—helpless and maimed, move and creep and cringe, worm themselves into the corners. They are like moles, poor, defenceless beasts, hunted by the hellish hounds of the guns.<br>
The bombardment slackens, and ends in a cloud of smoke that still echoes the crashes, in a quivering and burning after-damp. I pass out through the breach; and still surrounded and entwined in the clamour of despair, I arrive under the free sky, in the soft earth where mingled planks and legs are sunk. I catch myself on some wreckage; it is the embankment of the trench. At the moment when I plunge into the communication trenches they are visible a long way; they are still gloomily stirring, still filled by the crowd that overflows from the trenches and flows without end towards the refuges. For whole days, for whole nights, you will see the long rolling streams of men plucked from the fields of battle, from the plain over there that also has feelings of its own, though it bleeds and rots without end.