Study Guide

Under Fire

by Henri Barbusse

Under Fire Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

High up in the mountains, the rich old men have every type of medical care at their sanatorium. When an obsequious servant softly tells them that war has begun, they take the news in various ways. One says that France must win; another thinks it will be the last war. Far down on the plain, they can see specks, like ants, hurrying to and fro. Those thirty million men, in their common misery, hold great power in their hands. When they become miserable enough, they will stop wars.

The soldiers come out of the dugouts in the morning to the sound of rifle fire and cannonading. They wear fantastic dress against the cold, the damp, and the mud, and all are incredibly dirty. As they stumble out into the trenches, they reach inside their clothes to scratch their bare skins. As they walk along the trench, the oozy mud releases each foot with a sticky sigh. Bertrand’s squad, holding a secondary trench in the reserve line, is getting ready for another day. Lamuse, the ox man, is puffy around the eyes; he had been on fatigue duty during the night.

Three breathless fatigue men bring up the breakfast. One of the squad, Paradis, asks what is in the cans. When the mess man merely shrugs, Paradis looks in the cans and sees that they hold kidney beans in oil, bully beef, pudding, and coffee.

One man explains to his neighbor the arrangement of the trenches, for he has seen a military map and has made calculations. There are more than six thousand miles of trenches on the French side and as many more on the German side. The French front is only an eighth of the total world front. Just to think about it makes one feel more insignificant, and it is terrible to imagine so much mud. The only possible way to look at the whole matter is to concentrate on dislodging the Germans in the opposite lines.

One man, a private, once saw a captured Prussian colonel who was being led along the communication trench. When the private kicked him, the officer nearly had a seizure to think that a subordinate had touched him. The squad agrees that the German officers are the real evil.

There is a disturbance just ahead; several important people are coming to visit. From their oaths and grunts, it is clear that they are civilians. One of the visitors is so bold as to ask whether the coffee is good. The squad remembers the saying that a war can be won if the civilians can hold out.

When the mail comes, rumors fly fast. Many are sure that their squad is soon to be sent to the Riviera for a long rest; one man has heard that they are going to Egypt. The troops stop gossiping when a company of African soldiers moves by; they conclude that an attack has been planned, for the Africans are notoriously ferocious fighters.

During a sharp attack, both of Volpatte’s ears are almost severed. At the dressing station, the doctors bandage his head. Volpatte is happy to be going to the rear, where at last he will be able to rest. After a long while, he returns to the trenches...

(The entire section is 1226 words.)