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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 413

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...

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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.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1226

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 with his ears nicely sewed. When his comrades ask him about the hospital, he becomes so angry he can scarcely speak. Then it all comes out: The hospital is swarming with malcontents, malingerers, and general shirkers. The worst are those assigned to the hospital for duty; they seem to think they run the whole war. The squad soothes Volpatte, saying, let those who can, get by easily.

When the squad retires for a brief rest, they are billeted in a village where, for an outrageous sum, they rent a cowshed without walls. They use a door set up on boxes as a table and a plank as a bench, but they find it a wonderful experience to be aboveground once more. The woman who runs the house sells them wine for twenty-two sous, although the established price is fifteen sous a bottle. Everywhere they go they hear the same story: The civilians are enduring all the hardships.

Eudore gets a fourteen-day leave. His wife, a practical person, has applied well in advance for a permit to go to the village of her husband’s people. She runs a tiny inn with only one room, where she would have no privacy to entertain her man, whereas Eudore’s people have a big house. Eudore arrives in his village after much delay with only seven days left of his furlough, but his wife is not there; her permit has not arrived. Fearing that he will miss her, he stays with his parents and waits. Then she writes to say that no permits are allowed for civilian travel. Eudore goes to the mayor and gets permission to go to his wife. It is raining very hard when he gets off the train to walk the several additional miles to his home. On the way, he falls in with four other soldiers returning from leave. They tramp along together in the rain until they come to the inn. Eudore and his wife cannot turn the four soldiers out in the rain, and so all six of them spend the night sitting in chairs in the tiny room. Early in the morning Eudore must leave, as his furlough is over.

Fraternization with the enemy is strictly forbidden. While out looking for bodies, Poterloo takes a chance and falls in with some German privates, jolly fellows who offer to go with Poterloo to a nearby Alsatian village so that he can see his wife. Poterloo puts on some great boots and a German coat and follows his new friends behind the German lines. They reach the village safely, and that night, Poterloo walks twice past the house where his wife is staying with relatives. Through the lighted window, he can see his wife and her sister at dinner with a group of German noncommissioned officers. They are eating well and enjoying themselves. Poterloo carries back to the trenches a disheartening image in his mind: his wife laughing up into the face of a German sergeant.

Of the six Mesnil brothers, four have been killed by 1915, and the survivors, Joseph and André, have been pessimistic about their own chances. On reconnaissance, one of Bertrand’s squad discovers André, dead, propped upright in a shell crater. At first they are afraid to tell Joseph, but when they tell him he does not seem much affected by the news. Bertrand is killed, and Joseph is wounded in the leg. He is taken to the dismal dressing station, a large dugout. There are many men in the dugout, most of them resigned to death, all of them given to spiritless discussion. They agree that to stop war, one has to kill the spirit of war, and that appears to be a difficult job. It comes as a new thought to some of them that they are the masses, and the masses have the power to stop war, but it is too big a job. Many men think only in terms of killing the enemy. It hardly matters anyway, as nearly all of them will be dead soon. The war goes on.

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