Under Fire Summary
by Henri Barbusse

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Under Fire Summary

Under Fire takes a look at World War I in a thematic way. Initially, it brings out a picture of elderly men observing the war beginning from on high, without a true care in the world as they are tended to in a sanatorium. They discuss whether it will be the last war and who will win while observing the battles going on below.

Down on the front, men are on watch and guarding their trenches. They eat putrid meals and drink terrible coffee while covered in dirt and grime. They discuss the scale of the war and the evil of their enemies while waiting for more battles to occur. Civilians bring mail and ask them about their situation.

The men get their mail and gossip about what the future holds for them, whether they will be sent to another front soon, perhaps in Egypt, or if they will be sent to the French Riviera for a rest.

Voltpatte, one of the soldiers, is severely injured during a battle, nearly losing his ears. He is sent to the rear to receive medical care and is pleased to get a chance at rest for a while. When he returns, however, he expresses outrage at the laziness of the men who prefer to stay in the hospital and shirk their responsibility, but he is told to allow them their rest.

Another man, Eudore, gets a fortnight of leave to spend with his family, and his wife applies for a permit to go to his village and meet him there, but she is denied, and Eudore spends half his time waiting for her to arrive. After traveling to meet her and coming across other soldiers along the way, he ends up with only one night at home, during which they shelter the other soldiers. Ultimately, he has to leave without truly spending time with his family.

A third soldier Poterloo, breaks rank and surreptitiously spends time with German soldiers in German towns. However, he comes across a house where his wife is spending time with German soldiers as well, and he returns to the front distraught and burdened.

Four of a group of brothers are killed during the war, and the others are unfazed by it. They decide that they must kill the spirit of war, but it is too tough a task as everyone is only focused on killing the enemy. The book ends philosophically, debating whether war is something that can ever truly end.


(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...

(The entire section is 1,639 words.)