This war is about appalling, superhuman exhaustion, about water up to your belly and about mud, dung and repulsive filth. It is about moulding faces and shredded flesh and corpses that do not even look like corpses any more...
A searing evocation of the squalid conditions and the physical and psychological horrors endured by soldiers fighting on the Western Front, Under Fire is the French novel of the First World War. Astonishingly, it was published in 1916, at the very height of the conflict.
Henri Barbusse started Under Fire in hospital after being invalided out from the front-line, drawing on the journal he kept in the trenches. In a series of meticulously observed episodes, we follow a fictionalised squad – a diverse group of men of all ages, and from all over France – as they come out of the front-line and rest, return to combat, endure a nightmarish bombardment, participate in a chaotic assault on a German trench and then face up to its appalling aftermath. Much of Under Fire is written in the present tense, making us virtual eyewitnesses, and its graphic descriptions of forced marches through excrement, horrific injuries and putrefying corpses established Barbusse as ‘the Zola of the trenches’.
Appearing initially in installments in the literary magazine L’Œuvre to avoid censorship, Under Fire was devoured by readers on the battlefield and at home, desperate for an ‘authentic’ account of the war. Within a year it had sold almost a quarter of a million copies, and was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, before it had even been published in book-form. Ironically, its potential to demoralise was only recognised in Austria and Germany, where it was banned.
If you get the squaddies in your book to speak, will you make them speak like they really do, or will you tidy it up and make it proper? … I’ll put the swearwords in, because it’s the truth.
Barbusse was determined that Under Fire would present an unvarnished portrait of the rank-and-file French soldier – the poilu – from his ragged appearance to his coarse language. Controversially, he also described the anger that soldiers felt towards those living comfortably at home, and the shame produced by their own nightmarish experiences. Under Fire is dedicated to the memory of his fallen comrades – between 9 and 13 January 1915 half of his unit was killed – and Barbusse used his royalties to found the Association Républicaine des Anciens Combattants, an organisation devoted to defending the rights, and the testimony, of war veterans.
Robin Buss’s translation captures perfectly Barbusse’s extraordinary combination of the crude, the poetic and the apocalyptic. This stunning edition enhances his vivid text with haunting documentary photographs of ordinary French soldiers taken on the battlefield itself and an introduction by pre-eminent military historian, Hew Strachan, exploring Under Fire’s groundbreaking and controversial combination of fact and fiction.