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Remembered Today:

Under Fire: Story of a Squad


Joe Walsh

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Some one coughs, and then the Vision is swallowed up in the huge sunlit peace of the lush meadows. In the rich colors of the glowing kine, the black forests, the green fields and the blue distance, dies the reflection of the fire where the old world burns and breaks. Infinite silence engulfs the uproar of hate and pain from the dark swarmings of mankind. They who have spoken retire one by one within themselves, absorbed once more in their own mysterious malady.

The above is an extract from Henri Barbusse's Under Fire: Story of a Squad, or Le Feu as it origionally was published in French.

Im sure some of you must have read it, but it is a beautiful book, or well, beautifully written. I suppose the most important aspect of it, for us Great War buffs is that this book was written while in the trenches and remarkably first published in 1917, even though it was very anti-war and pacifist in its views. How it got past the censor, I dont know.

Anyways, for those interested, you can read it online:

Barbusse, H. 1917 'Under Fire: Story of a Squad,'

Joe

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Have tried this book twice ... as a teen it went right over my head, in my late 20s it was a tough slog and I gave up ... now I can read it online, I'll give it another shot.

Thanks.

Des

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Des,

It is well worth persevering - the book is a classic. I guess, however, that it is also one of those books that clicks sometimes and not others. I can think of several that haven't worked for me at the first attempt, only to find that at a subsequent attempt I just don't want to put it down.

There is so little french literature of the war available to us in english so every volume should be cherished. If you want to look at another volume try "Lice" by Blaise Cendrars, originally published as "La Main Coupee" in French. It is broadly autobiographical and you should not be put off by the english title which does it's qualities no favours. You can often see it as a garish paperback.

Martin

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Le Feu was written while Barbusse recovered in hospital, 1916. That and Les Croix de Bois by Roland Dorgeles both won literary awards and there was some criticism when Marcel Proust won a literary award at around the time as he had not been a serving soldier. In fairness, I should say that Proust had attempted to do his national service pre- war but his health meant he was unable to do so. The flavour of Dorgeles' book is displayed in the title. The Poilus said that officers got Croix des Guerres while they got Croix de Bois.

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Le Feu was written while Barbusse recovered in hospital, 1916. That and Les Croix de Bois by Roland Dorgeles both won literary awards and there was some criticism when Marcel Proust won a literary award at around the time as he had not been a serving soldier. In fairness, I should say that Proust had attempted to do his national service pre- war but his health meant he was unable to do so. The flavour of Dorgeles' book is displayed in the title. The Poilus said that officers got Croix des Guerres while they got Croix de Bois.

Le Feu is compiled from Barbusse's own diaries written in the frontlines.

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I found 'Under Fire' to be a superb book but at the same time as painful read. That's because Barbusse really introduces readers to the Squad and you get to know them as 'ordinary' men with their feelings, likes, dislikes, ups and downs. Brilliant and terrible and terrifying all at the same time.

Christina

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  • 2 months later...

It is a marvellous book, I felt that some of the descriptions could only have been written by someone who had been there. Very well worth reading.

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  • 2 weeks later...
It is a marvellous book, I felt that some of the descriptions could only have been written by someone who had been there. Very well worth reading.

Yes, I'm agree. It's really good... In certain moments, Barbusse's Feu reminds me Roger Vercel's Capitaine Conan. His criticism, his bitter irony. Both are excellent.

Regards,

L. Pozières

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It was certainly banned in Germany, however I found an account of a German author - I think , almost certainly, Otto Braun reading it in the line, so copies got around. I also recall it being read by a British writer, and don't think it was banned in Britain (even if it remained untranslated). He much admired the book. Interestingly the book was banned by the Nazis - and Barbusse was one of only two authors who I have found had their books banned in Germany by the Imperial Government and by the Nazis. It remains one of the best books about the Great War and indicates just how poorly represented WWI French kiterature is in English translation.

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Yes, I'm agree. It's really good... In certain moments, Barbusse's Feu reminds me Roger Vercel's Capitaine Conan. His criticism, his bitter irony. Both are excellent.

Regards,

L. Pozières

It must be so much better to have read it in French rather than English.

Joe

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  • 1 year later...

From what I am to understand, this book was very seminal and was, arguably, the first in a long line of books and films which could be classified as being of the "War is Hell" school. Interesting guy, Barbusse. He went to the Soviet Union after the war and became a good friend and biographer of Stalin

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  • 1 year later...

I've just started this and have found the first thirty pages very heavy going indeed. Nevertheless I this is an important piece of literature and so I'm determined to get through it.

Having just finished Storm of Steel and purchased Goodbye To All That I think it will be fascinating to compare the varying accounts.

M

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Interesting guy, Barbusse. He went to the Soviet Union after the war and became a good friend and biographer of Stalin

Hmmm. With friends like that...?!

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  • 3 months later...

He was 41 years old when he enlisted, and had been a pacifist working in journalism until then. He was influenced by the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as by his Great War experience- as were millions throughout the world, and he became a communist, an anti-imperialist and an advocate of the Stalin school of socialism as opposed to the internationalism of Trotsky.

His communism was very similar to George Orwell's take on communism - again anti-imperial and pro working class socialism.

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Strange that this thread should come back to life at the moment. I am just reading a brand new translation of a french Great War classic - never available in English before and have started my review. I tink it is terrific and thought you might like a h\eads-up a a few of my early thoughts forr a Stand To! review.

to see

The number of French novels and personal accounts translated into English is sadly surprisingly, perhaps criminally, small. Unlike the volumes trotted out as representing British “forgotten voices” those of French combatant seem truly forgotten in Britain. Although there others, name - if you can - a personal account in English other than Le Feu (The Fire) written by Henri Barbusse in 1916. That book was published in English in 1917, read in the trenches by British soldiers; banned, in French, or possibly samizdat versions, simultaneously by Germans soldiers of a literary bent. Yet, Le Feur is frequently considered a relatively unimportant work of war writing, one described as Jean Norton Crue, the most important commentator on French memoirs of the Great Wr, as "a concoction of truth, half-truth, and total falsehood."

Consequently Serpent Tails’ publication of a new translation of Gabrielle Chevallier’s 1930 work, Le Peur (in hardback at virtually paperback prices) is a a particularly valuable addition to any collection of Great War novels/memoirs. As well as the author’s own introduction to the Fernch 1951 edition, it also contains a thoughtful new one by the highly regarded John Berger.

Chevallier was born in Lyon in 1895 and earned huge international success with his hugely successful novel Clochemerle. The highly satirical tale about the proposal to site a urinal in a village square was was translated into 26 languages and filmed in 1947. That Simpson and Galton scripted a version filmed in by the BBC in 1972 speaks volumes of its quality.

Without doubt the author was no Junger - hungry for war and believing its results good for the soul of man. Rather he was strong minded and individualistic, frequent malcontented, and keen to ‘dodge the column’ Having failed an amateurish officer selection procesas and perhaps wisely Chevallier vowed to remain in the ranks. Yet throughout his complaints, hiskicks against the pricks, are both seasoned and reasoned, Above Fear is a highly literate, and extremely well written account of the author’s long war.

Chevallier was called to the colours in 1914, wounded twice, he served until 1918. Amongst his honours were the Crois de Guerre and was Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur. His war novel Le Peur was first published in 1930.

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I read Le Feu this summer in preparation for a trip to Arras and found it a valuable contribution. It contains all the elements of the memoir style that I'm sure we're all so familiar with. R&R, the build-up, horror, even greater horror, disassociation w/civilians.

I found the later chapter about the visit to the city (Paris?) riveting.

Seems to me that the first page - undefined visitors in a sanatorium representing various nationalities with their comments:

"Austria's act is a crime," says the Austrian.

"France must win," says the Englishman.

"I hope Germany will be beaten," says the German.

Is evocative of the final chapter of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain which isn't published until 1924. I mean the scene where there is the vision of our hero charging into battle and the reactions to the same. Does anyone else? I wonder if Mann found inspiration in Barbusse's work. Seems likely he read it.

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When I first read Barbusse I felt that his account was very different to the hundreds of other soldier memoires relating trench life at first hand. It lifts his experiences way beyond mere recap, and set's it on a humanistic plain representing the common man. Junger's Storm of Steel doesen't do that- his account is militaristic literature whereas Barbusse expounds a version of humanity which only a Frenchman can perceive. (Given the French experiences of various revolutions and Prussian aggresion which directly influenced1880s France.) I've not read Thomas Mann (apart for Steppenwolf) and I can't comment. The memoires of both Graves and Sassoon tend to take on the officer class values which pertained to them. But had Orwell fought in the Great War, he would have written Under Fire.

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So not trying to be pedantic, Steppenwolf is Herman Hesse. An excellent book as well.

I like your thought about Orwell but I can't help but suspect he'd have insinuated much more politics and economics into the read. Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and the Making of Modern Memory that all memoirs are fiction in a way. So then what makes individual memoirs appealing, to me at least, is their 'literariness.' La Feu certainly succeeds on that level. Much of the writing is lyrical even in translation.

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Hesse! Yes! I'm recalling my reading lists from the late 60s early seventies Ken. You are right regarding authorship. It just confirms my limited reading of both Hesse and Mann. Orwell's another matter though. I've read all his work, including his collected essays. In my late teens, early 20s, he was a hero...

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Surely Homage to Catalonia is one of the greatest war books? Also, didn't Orwell start his literary career with a jingoistic poem about the Great War written when he was a schoolboy?

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Hi.

I read Le Feu - Journal d'une escouade two times. It is hard reading, because of its content but also because of the style used for the writing.

there are two comments that have to be made, from the French point of view. In his anthology of French litterature on the Great War, Témoins , published in 1929, Jean Norton Cru condemns Barbusses work for not being truthfull enough and emphasizing too much on the horror of war as his own criticism on war in general:

Barbusse, plus que personne, a usé et abusé de l’horreur anatomique. Il a mis à la mode cette façon de peindre la guerre, trop peu psychologue et trop peu renseigné sur le poilu pour comprendre que l’enfer des soldats est avant tout un enfer des idées : l’appréhension de l’attaque, le calcul des probabilités de mort, l’angoisse morale [… ] (Témoins, P. 161)

and indeed, I find some passages dwell too long on horror and some actions depicted far from the truth that can de deduced from other sources.

Another view, opposite to that of Cru, is that of Edmond Rostant, who writes in a letter to Barbusse:

J’admire le Feu parce que c’est un poème. Un grand poème tumultueux et admirablement ordonné. Il y a là ce que j’aime le plus au monde : le détail innombrable, et qui ne papillote pas. La minutie n’est possible qu’avec le souffle et le mouvement épique. Visionnaire et inspiré – vous êtes les deux (cited in: Christophe Prochasson « Les mots pour le dire : Jean-Norton Cru, du témoignage à l'histoire », Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 4/2001 (no48-4), p. 160-189)

Regards,

Marilyne

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Thank you, Marilyne. It is interesting to read these different views. I agree with your comments about the style of the writing. It was even more difficult for someone who is not fluent in French :blush: . In this case, however, it was a fault of the reader and not the writer :unsure:

Robert

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I can understand that "Au Feu" can come over as unduly "horrific" in many ways, and yes, it is not the easiest of volumes to read. I have formed a different impression each time I have tackled it. I suspect it depends upon your temperament at the time of reading. I know I have put it aside because I have not felt in the right mood to press forward with it. I guess another factor is almost certainly reading it in translation and not always grasping the specific French nuances.

I also feel that with such a novel which draws on the author's experiences it is in many ways "autobiographical" - whether intentionally or not. Building on this view we find ourselves drawn into the debate over the validity of "oral history" influences in writing. In effect we read a impression generated by the author which may draw upon his (or her) own experiences and reactions to those experiences. His (or her) own view is based upon experiences, mood, interpretation and "how the author recalls the experience". Something that is recounted or descriobed in a horrific manner may well appear and be described in a very different way by someone else.

Barbusse's volume should, however, be essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in the Great War and it's literature.

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Nicely put Martin. Though I would describe oral recollections based on actual experience to be as valuable as the objective, greater- picture account of the same battle. A synthesis of both would be ideal - which is why the better Voices of... books can enthrall a reader with hands on descriptions set in its historic background.

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