Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Fear: A Novel of World War I
reviewed by David F. Beer


Fear: A Novel of World War I
by Gabriel Chevallier
Paris, 1930; English Translation 2011

Removing the Dead from the Battlefield

Although we're all familiar with classic WWI autobiographical novels such as Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, J√ľnger's Storm of Steel, or Barbusse's La Feu (Under Fire), we're not as likely to have heard of another work which rightfully belongs in the same class: Gabriel Chevallier's Fear (La Peur). Written in 1930, this book wasn't translated into English until 2011, and even the French version was unavailable for several years since it was considered seditious.

It's also interesting that the 2014 paperback edition of this extremely powerful book is entitled Fear: A Novel of World War I. No earlier editions include this subtitle. I suspect it was added to define the book in the reader's mind as a novel even though in some ways it could be seen as a memoir, reminiscent of Blunden's Undertones of War, Graves's Goodbye to All That, or Frederic Manning's Her Privates We.


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Fear, like every work mentioned above, is written by an author who saw the Great War firsthand. Narrated by an educated and sardonic young man named Jean Dartemont who is called up in 1915, the book presents his experiences and opinions as he goes through the war. There is little doubt that Dartemont is Chevallier's alter ego. Like Chevallier, he sees action in the trenches, at the Chemin des Dames, in Champagne, and almost everywhere else except Verdun. He comes to know the horror of battle. Throughout the novel the author is unsparing in his description of this horror. Dartemont stumbles upon his first corpse early on in his soldiering and is horrified by its expression. But as they advance it turns out that

...this deadman was like the watchman for a whole kingdom of the dead. This first French corpse preceded hundreds of other French corpses. The trench was full of them…Corpses contorted into every possible position, corpses which had suffered every possible mutilation, every gaping wound, every agony (p. 62).

Almost a whole page follows with terribly graphic descriptions of these bodies. Other horrors follow. A field of wounded poilus are slowly burned alive by retreating Germans who set fire to the grass as they flee. Individual casualties are hideous, and corpses are always profuse after contact with the enemy:

The plain was covered with our comrades, cut down by machine guns, their faces in the mud, arses in the air, indecent, grotesque like puppets, but pitiable like men, alas! Fields of heroes, cargo for the nocturnal carts. . . (p. 62)

At one point Dartemont and his comrades, advancing toward the front lines, run into these carts piled high with what at first seems debris but which turns out to be fellow soldiers. In response Dartemont observes:

So they were withdrawing our predecessors from the morning, the first waves of the unstoppable offensive that had come to a standstill ahead of us. They were cleaning the battlefield. 'A fine turn-out by the hearse section,' said one wag. Each cart carried grief to a score of families (p. 56).

Collecting the Corpses

As the title indicates, this book examines fear engendered by horror in the countless ways it could be experienced by a soldier during the Great War. No aspect of fear is ignored; it runs deep and is agonizingly constant in the bodies and minds of the poilus. Men returning from Verdun are characteristic in this respect:

The survivors, men who have already endured dangers and torment beyond normal human comprehension, speak of Verdun with great horror. They say that when they got out they couldn't eat properly for several days because their stomachs had been so knotted with fear, because everything filled them with disgust. They have remembered nothing from Verdun except terror and madness (p. 155).

There is rarely any relief. Even in the quiet zones, "shells always find a few victims." Dartemont's only reprieve from fear is when he is wounded and spends several weeks in hospital. An awkward interview with the hospital chaplain leaves them both angry and Dartemont realizing that "the war has killed God." Extended conversations with nurses and fellow patients give him a chance to express at length his feelings for war, the chain of command, politics, profiteers, and civilians safely at home. It's in the hospital that he is really able to voice his thoughts on the situation — ideas that certainly could be considered seditious. And while on convalescent leave he admits:

It's true that I'm a malcontent hero. If I am asked about the events of the war, I have the bad and unsociable habit of describing them as I found them. This liking for truth is incompatible with civilized behavior (p. 138).

Later he admits that if his officers knew what he thought, he would be shot. Just as he shocks his comfortable listeners at home, Jean Dartemont does not hesitate to denounce thuggish NCOs, incompetent officers, and a higher command snugly ensconced in chateaux while gathering honors and promotions because of their "bravery":

. . . it is accepted, by some strange aberration, that a great loss of men proves the courage of those who command them — by virtue of that axiom of the military hierarchy which states that the valour of soldiers is created by the valour of their leaders, an axiom which does not have a converse form (p. 154).

Burial

This novel gives deep and indelible insights into the horrors of war and the nature of fear as only someone who has experienced them can. As I mentioned earlier, Gabriel Chevallier's Fear well deserves to stand beside other classics written in the decade or so after the Armistice. Not only is it a compelling read, but its vision of the war through a blend of piercing description and cynically intelligent questioning gives us some surprises and insights that we might greatly appreciate.

David F. Beer

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for your review, David. A very sobering account of the effects of that war, if not all wars.

    Ivor

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  2. A very powerful novel.
    Thank you for the thoughtful assessment, David.

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  3. Based on your review, I just ordered the book. Cheers

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  4. This is clearly a novel I need to read. Thank you so much, David. Isn't it wonderful that we can continue to read older novels and gain fresh inspiration?

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