Under Fire: A call for peace from the trenches

Issue: 151

Leonard Marcel Ares

In the 1916 novel Under Fire: The Story of a Squad, Henri Barbusse vividly describes the experience of the First World War.1 By means of this book, which won the Prix Goncourt the same year, Barbusse, a French writer and a soldier who took notes during the war, created a literary instrument to be used for the betterment of humanity. The reader is not spared the horrific details of life on the Western Front, and the stark descriptions of war reflect the author’s sincere desire to replace military conflict between nations with worldwide fraternity. Barbusse refused to portray war in a glorified manner and the novel portrays soldiers without recourse to the vocabulary of the heroic warrior. This allows the author to avoid even the slightest semblance of condoning or supporting war. The French author Jean Relinger describes Under Fire as “the first sincere novel based on the war”.2

Many on both sides of the conflict initially joined out of a sense of duty or patriotism. However, war’s carnage and horrendous conditions caused many of them to re-evaluate and regret their decisions. Barbusse’s own personal disenchantment was an impetus to his writing Under Fire: “Like most, he became rapidly disillusioned with war; early patriotism was replaced by cynicism and anger”.3 Soldiers in the First World War varied in age, with some enlistees actually being legally too young to fight. Personal information given by those who chose to volunteer for military service was not always verified. Barbusse writes in Under Fire: “Nos âges? Nous avons tous les âges. Nos races? Nous sommes toutes les races” (“Our ages? We are of all ages. Our races? We are all the races”).4 While this use of the word “race” might not be considered politically correct today, the term was still utilised in France during its time as a colonising power, an era that saw people of various ethnic origins and occupations filling the ranks of the country’s army. The soldiers who fought in the war held various professions in civilian life: “Nos métiers? Un peu de tout, dans le tas” (“Our jobs? A little bit of everything, all in all”).5

The main characters of this historic novel are portrayed as ordinary people fighting as soldiers in the “war to end all wars”. In stressing that working class people are usually the unfortunate ones thrust into wars, Barbusse advances a sense of international fraternity; he longed to see harmony among the peoples of the world. In a 1995 article John Horne underscores that Barbusse describes soldiers without adornment and in an “everyman” fashion, stating that throughout the novel Barbusse gives public expression to the suffering and sacrifice of the ordinary soldier.6 Emphasising tolerance and equality, Barbusse writes:

Oui, c’est vrai, on diffère profondément. Mais pourtant on se ressemble. Malgré les diversités d’âge, d’origine, de culture, de situation, et de tout ce qui fut, malgré les abîmes qui nous séparaient jadis, nous sommes en grandes lignes les mêmes.

(Yes, it’s true, we differ profoundly. However, we resemble each other. Despite the diversity of age, origin, culture, situations and of all that was, despite the abysses that previously separated us, we are basically the same).7

Although Barbusse’s empathy with his fellow soldiers’ misery in the trenches led him to embrace pacifism during the war, he eventually gravitated towards Communism. During the early post-war years and after spending time in Moscow, Barbusse joined the Bolshevik Party. He would later join the French Communist Party and remain a dedicated Communist until his death in 1935. For Barbusse, Communist ideas held the pathways to peace and the alternatives to the horrors of wars that were often spurred on by nationalism. Although the ultimate goal for Barbusse’s novel was an end to wars between nations, his desire to supplant war and bloodshed with peace and equality through international brotherhood was consistent with Communist aspirations. As Vladimir Brett writes, “Barbusse, since he is a consistent internationalist, demands that the principle of equality be applied not only to the citizens of a nation, but to all people of the world”.8

Because of the author’s faithfulness to detail and the expressive manner in which the work is written, Under Fire is considered a realist novel. In a very descriptive and shocking battle scene, the death of a fellow soldier is not regarded as the courageous sacrifice of a patriot for his country, but rather as the unfortunate premature departure of another human being as a result of the war: “Je regarde cette énorme masse immobilisée…cet homme était bon. Il avait un cœur pur et sensible” (“I look at this enormous immobilised mass…this was a good man. He had a pure and sensitive heart”).9 Barbusse also compels the reader to see the vulnerable side of the soldiers in the novel by recounting their lives before the war, as with, for example, the description of the childhood of the character Fouillade: “C’est là qu’il est né, qu’il a grandi, heureux, libre. Il jouait, sur la terre dorée et rousse, et même il jouait au soldat” (“That’s where he was raised, where he grew up, happy and free. He used to play on the golden-red ground, he used to even play soldier”).10 In Under Fire, although Barbusse allows himself the liberty of making personal judgments of his characters, he does so in a respectful manner.

Barbusse makes it perfectly clear that civilian indifference to the absurdity of war between nations can result in complicity in the conflict by presenting soldiers on leave in a small French town far from the war. In this scene Barbusse shows his contempt for the bourgeoisie and their lack of interest in the war with a dialogue between a civilian woman and a soldier on leave that takes place at an outdoor café:

La vie des tranchées, c’est dur, n’est-ce pas?
Euh… Oui… Ah! Dame, c’est pas rigolo toujours…
Quelle admirable résistance physique et morale vous avez!
Vous arrivez à vous faire à cette vie, n’est-ce pas?
Mais oui, dame, on s’y fait, on s’y fait très bien
C’est tout de même une existence terrible et des souffrances,
murmure la Dame en feuilletant un journal illustre.

Life in the trenches, it’s tough, isn’t it?
Eh, yes, ah! Ma’am, it’s not always much fun…
What admirable physical and moral resistance you have!
You manage to get used to this lifestyle, right?
But yes, Ma’am, we get used to it, we get used to it very well.
It’s still none the less a terrible existence full of suffering, murmurs the lady while flipping through the pages of an illustrated newspaper.11

This discourse effectively portrays the writer’s aversion to apathy. For Barbusse, a lack of concern for war only allows it to continue. As Chris Hedges argues in his 2002 book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, “We in the industrialised world bear responsibility for the world’s genocides—because we had the power to intervene and did not”.12 History shows that nations often enter wars with the consent of a majority of their citizens.

Some of the characters in Under Fire were at least partially based on people Barbusse encountered and interacted with during the war, and the first person narrative adds to the sense of realism that enthralls and captivates the reader. Passages of obvious subjectivity on the part of the author—the assumed unnamed narrator—echo Barbusse’s own personal opinions. The narrator makes a broad, sweeping observation of his fellows with “Ils sont chacun comme les autres” (“They are each one like the others”).13 A statement of this sort, however, is not meant to be taken in a negative way. Rather, it demonstrates the author’s respect and empathy for all with whom he shares the experience of war, including those he is fighting against. In line with the author’s egalitarian and internationalist point of view, he describes German soldiers in the novel without animosity as “de pauvres dupes odieusement trompées et abruties” (“poor dupes obnoxiously tricked and stupefied”).14 He writes, “Mais qu’on ne me parle pas de la vertu militaire parce que j’ai tué des Allemands” (“But don’t talk to me of military virtue because I killed some Germans”).15 With his novel, the author ardently repudiates war while promoting international fraternity as a solution to armed conflict.

In the last section of the novel, entitled “L’Aube” (“Dawn”), the author changes the tone of the text with a concluding summation that places the blame for the outbreak of war on unnamed powers, who “ne peuvent pas ou ne veulent pas faire la paix sur la terre; tous ces gens-là, qui se cramponnent, pour une cause ou pour une autre” (cannot or do not want to make peace on earth; they are all those who cling to one cause or another”).16 In L’Aube, Barbusse posits that the common man or woman of any nationality is not an “enemy” and that peace can be attained only through seeking alternatives to blindly fighting wars for others.

Barbusse’s commitment to portraying the First World War in a frank manner without recourse to euphemism underscores his sincere desire to improve humankind. As Mary Robinson writes, the novel “impresses an image lastingly on the reader’s brain”. Barbusse “feels other men’s grievances and wrongs more keenly than his own”.17 The dialogue in Under Fire is sometimes crude, but after this initial shock, the reader is irretrievably drawn into the novel. While the soldiers are portrayed at times in an unflattering manner, this too adds to the work’s overall intrigue. Throughout the book the author emphasises the common humanity of soldiers and reminds his readers that war thrusts ordinary people into the midst of horrific destruction and carnage. With Under Fire, Barbusse has left an enduring legacy in the struggle for a more peaceful, tolerant and just world.

Leonard Marcel Ares is an American of Québécois heritage. He worked for many years in New England as a machinist and quality control person and has taught French at the secondary and post-secondary levels for the past 20 years.


1 The original French title of Under Fire is Le Feu: Journal d’une Escouade.

2 Relinger, 1994, p85.

3 Brosman, 1988, p17.

4 Barbusse, 1965, p19. All translations from the French are my own.

5 Barbusse, 1965, p19.

6 Horne, 1995, p243.

7 Barbusse, 1965, p20.

8 Brett, 1963, p199.

9 Barbusse, 1965, p319.

10 Barbusse, 1965, p152.

11 Barbusse, 1965, p326.

12 Hedges, 2002, p16.

13 Barbusse, 1965, p44.

14 Barbusse, 1965, p376.

15 Barbusse, 1965, p377.

16 Barbusse, 1965, p376.

17 Robinson, 1966, p163.


Barbusse, Henri, 1965 [1916], Le Feu: Journal d’une Escouade (Flammarion).

Brett, Vladimír, 1963, Henri Barbusse: Sa marche vers la clarté, son mouvement eClartée (Editions de L’Académie tchěcoslovaque des sciences).

Brosman, Catharine Savage, 1988, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 65, French Novelists 1900-1930 (Gale Research).

Hedges, Chris, 2002, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (PublicAffairs).

Horne, John, 1995, “Soldiers, Civilians and the Warfare of Attrition: Representations of Combat in France, 1914-1918”, in Frans Coetzee and Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee (eds), Authority, Identity and the Social History of the Great War (Berghahn Books).

Relinger, Jean, 1994, Henri Barbusse: Écrivain Combattant (Presses universitaires de France).

Robinson, A Mary F, 1966, Twentieth Century French Writers: Reviews and Reminiscences (Books for Libraries Press).