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

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Under Fire (Le Feu) — Reviewed by Michael Kihntopf

Under Fire (Le Feu)
by Henri Barbusse
Published in Many Editions Since 1916

Under Fire is a story of a French soldier's (or poilu's, meaning "hairy one") involvement in the first two years of the Great War. Although it is a novel, the author spoke from a position of having been there, hearing about, and living life among the ranks. Barbusse volunteered for service in 1914 at the advanced age of 41. He saw combat with the 231st Infantry Regiment as a soldier and a stretcher bearer at Soissons and Artois before being invalided out in late 1915 because of a lung condition, dysentery, and exhaustion. During that service he was cited for bravery twice.

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But a reader should not expect to read here about the heroic military feats that poilus rendered in the face of the enemy. Au contraire. Barbusse noticed upon his return to the rear areas in 1916 that accounts of the war had taken on a romantic, fictional guise to encourage the ranks and incite the people to greater things. Barbusse saw that the real poilu and the conditions under which he fought were being lost in favor of a sanitized approach. Even the language that the poilu used was being ignored for more formal speech. As a consequence he decided to write a book that would lay the truth out as succinctly as possible in the vernacular of the trenches. Naturally, 1916 censorship would not let him publish such an account in a book, but the author found a way around the censors by serializing the book in L'Oeuvre, a monthly literary review magazine. The serials were finally brought together in 1917, the year when war-weariness was reached and people were looking for the truth, and then published as a book. Its reception was phenomenal—even being read by the poilus at the front.

There was criticism also. The purists saw Under Fire as fiction at its best without any relation to reality. They noted that many of the vignettes that the author talked about were in fact rumors that circulated freely along the front; in other words, old war stories that had been circulating since time immemorial. One such story is about the beautiful Eudoxie who appears from time to time "like a silhouette at the edge of the forest." She is slim, has blonde unbound hair, and huge dark eyes. Rumors have it that she is not quite right in the head but in love with one of the men in Barbusse's regiment. As a consequence of this love, she follows the regiment wherever it goes, even into the front lines darting about as if borne by the wind. Eudoxie appears numerous times in the narrative under different circumstances. There are many who lust after her but never catch her.

A French Trench About the Time of Barbusse's Narrative

Throughout the book Barbusse writes in the first person and present tense, which adds realism to the writing. The soldiers he marches, eats, and sleeps with come and go and the reader listens to them talk of families, wives, sheep, and cows as if sitting by the fire or in the cold, louse-infested barn that serves as quarters. The author also minutely describes artillery bombardments and the grotesque state of the corpses left behind. I was reminded of the accounts Ernst Jünger laid out in his Storm of Steel written almost ten years later. And there are philosophical discussions among the soldiers about the meaning of the war, the existence of a supreme being, and how many pockets a poilu's uniform has. These discussions lay out the author's pacifist leanings that came as a result of his experiences in the trenches. A real standout on almost every page is Barbusse's descriptions of his surroundings. Such as his depiction of the battlefield:

The great pale sky is filled with claps of thunder. Each explosion reveals at once, falling out of a reddish flash, a column of fire in what is left of the night and a column of smoke in the already dawning day. . . Up there, on high, far away, a flight of fearsome birds, panting powerfully and with broken breath, which can be heard but not seen. . .

I was enthralled by the work and have read it numerous times. Each time, new information is found, new emotions are experienced, and one comes away with a greater appreciation of the Great War's conditions for the soldier. Under Fire has been in print since 1916 with the most recent coming just last year in English and this year in French. (We can take exception to the cover of the English version, which depicts an English soldier in the trenches instead of a poilu. Don't be misled if you run across that cover. This book is about the French experience.)

Michael Kihntopf


  1. Michael, can you recommend one of the English language translations?

    1. Mine is dated 2003 and I've never compared versions. Alas my French goes no further then two years at high school so I am not able to comment on the original. Cheers

  2. There's a free version on Kindle.

  3. It's also available for free at