In Under Fire: The Story of a Squad, Henri Barbusse describes the most pervasive means of disillusionment: the reality of war itself. Under Fire follows the fate of the French Sixth Battalion during the Great War. Barbusse focuses his novel around a group of average soldiers and emphasizes their lamentable sufferings and disillusionment. These men, as Barbusse depicts, all of which consider war to be a matter of simply surviving rather than a heroic act, have nothing more to hope for than their daily rations or a side trip to a hospital.
Written in 1916, and based on Barbusse’s own experiences, this novel offers a vivid description of one of the worst wars waged in history. Barbusse, an early memoirist, openly criticizes the French rationale and takes a staunch anti-war stance. In this essay I will show how Barbusse has an ideal of progress and moves towards equality and seeks out an understanding among democracies when there will be no more war. Barbusse depicts the horrors of trench and the bestialities of men by illustrating the realities of modern war.
He describes such tings as the vermin and filth, the cold and hunger, the fields of grimacing corpses, the moldy underground, the moneymakers, the traditionalists, and the lovers of supremacy by force. Barbusse asserts, that all of these things in their grimness, that the spirit of war may be defeated and that all men may learn to hate war the way the common soldiers do. According to Barbusse, soldiers were the material, flesh, and soul of war and they hated it. The inglorious image of war is central to Henri Barbusse’s depiction of disillusioned soldiers in Under Fire: The Story of a Squad.
Barbusse published the book in 1917 and dedicated it to the memory of his fallen comrades at Crouy. 1 The book is, as Madame Mary Duclaux accurately describes it, a “series of episodes rather than a novel. “2 Each of the episodes deals with themes that frequently appear in both post-war literature and the trench magazines: the image of soldiers not as heroes, but cannon fodder and the loss of friends and ever-present death and the horrible conditions of the trenches.
Barbusse thus described the most common source of disillusionment in World War I: the harsh reality of war, which slowly eroded the glorious and noble illusion in which young men had firmly believed. Barbusse, as noted before, depicted this reality as a painful, terrifying experience that was more about survival than heroism. He makes the point that soldiers are replaceable by having one of his characters ask: “[w]hat’s a soldier, or even several soldiers? – Nothing, and even less than nothing, in the whole crowd; and so we see ourselves lost, drowned, like the few drops of blood that we are among all this blood of men and things.
These soldiers realized that as individuals they were easily spent and used up; it was the whole army that was valued, not the individual man. Part of the soldiers’ perception of themselves as cannon-fodder stems from the loss of individualism in war. J. G. Fuller points out that upon becoming a soldier, “all external marks of civilian identity and individuality vanished. The soldier became a number, identically dressed with his fellows, stripped of status and reduced to common subjection to another’s will, deprived of the right to shape his own actions.
The shift from being an individual in a world to being one of many bodies was difficult enough, but when this realization was coupled with the nature of their duty, to kill or die, the loss of identity was overwhelming. The feeling that soldiers were no more than mere ammunition rather than the heroes of folklore and history was painfully disillusioning; Barbusse’s novel illuminates this fact. Interestingly, there is a distinct progression in the novel. The war drags on, becomes more intolerable, atrocities mount, comrades die. Juxtaposed with the dull roar of senseless slaughter the soldiers’ minds are in constant motion.
Every death causes a question; these questions mount up and gain in force. At Dawn, the final chapter, the silence finally breaks. Covered in the suffocating mud of no-man’s-land, the surviving soldiers begin to debate one another. One proclaims, “War, you’ve got to kill war. War, that’s what! ” Another replies with, “that’s a load of claptrap, we’ve got to win, that’s all. ‘ The others started to search. They wanted to know and see beyond the present time. They were trembling as they tried to give birth to a light of will beyond themselves.
Scattered convictions sailed around in their heads and vague fragments of beliefs emerged from their lips. “5 From these deliberations the soldiers conclude, almost as one man, that winning the war is meaningless. In this last chapter, The Dawn, Barbusse implies that progress is just around the corner, and that people must merely come together and united, create a peaceful world. This feeling is reinforced by the ever-present death of other soldiers, both friend and foe. Barbusse uses the imagery of death frequently throughout his novel to make this point.
The protagonist, whose name we are never given, describes the death of his closest comrade who dies horribly in an explosion while he watches. 6 Later, when he goes on guard duty at night, he leans in the darkness against a stack of logs that, he discovers, are the piled up corpses of his comrades Lamuse, Barque, Biquet and Eudore. 7 Even Corporal Bertrand, the man the protagonist describes as the incarnation of “a lofty moral conception” was found dead among nameless other dead men. 8 Of his Corporal, the protagonist says, “by virtue of always doing his duty, he has at last got killed.
So pervasive and violent is death that when one comrade calls gas “unfair” Barque retorts that when “one has seen the destruction that shells, guns and bayonets have done, what does it matter if something is fair or unfair. “10 Dead or dying soldiers were always present. They were not limited to the battlefield or “No Man’s Land,” but were in the trenches themselves, sometimes to be used as support for guns or as markers in the trenches. Death was common, everywhere, and inglorious. For many soldiers, it was nothing like the literature had portrayed it to be; it was not always quick, nor was it clean and graceful.
One’s comrades in war often died painfully, gruesomely and ignobly. 11 In addition, as the war dragged traditional rites of death were forgotten. The reality was that death in war was painful and degrading. The degradation of soldiers in war was underscored by the conditions in which they had to survive to make it onto the battlefield. Fuller notes that: Time in the trenches was… the hardest part of the infantryman’s service, and the lot of infantrymen of all nations was here in many ways comparable. The same enemies recur in British and French troop journals: the mud, the rain, the cold, the shells, the lice and the rats.
This was the common environment. 12 Barbusse compared the dangers of mud and rain with that of enemy fire. Soldiers on a fatigue party trying to dig a trench suddenly find themselves in the middle of a bombardment and a rainstorm. Lost and searching for a trench in which to take cover, the party is told that the mud and rain are pouring into the trenches. 13 By morning, the party finds themselves in a swamp; the trenches were filled with water and the bodies of men who could not escape the mud and who “died clinging to the yielding support of the earth.
Of the completely devastating situation, the protagonist tells us: “I used to think that the worst hell of war was the shells; and then for a long [time] I thought it was the suffocation of the caverns which eternally confine us. However, it is neither of these. Hell is water. “15 Nevertheless, bad weather was not the only enemy in the trenches, soldiers also had to battle with rats and lice. All of these conditions threatened soldiers’ morale and lives. If dying in a painful, horrible way seemed inglorious, death due to disease or the loss of a limb from trench foot would have seemed humiliating.
Thus, for many soldiers the reality of war sharply contrasted with their expectations of ardent glory. It was not a glorious adventure in which men went off to protect their nation and defend against potential tyranny, rather, war was a series of inglorious, humiliating and self-defeating experiences. As the war dragged on, the reasons for continuing the war seemed to sink into mud filled with so many dead soldiers. In conclusion, Barbusse’s novel critique’s the French rationale and takes an anti-war stance, thereby allowing Barbusse’s ideal of progress to move forward towards equality, while waiting under fire in a battlefield.