World War I was the first conflict to produce a major body of literature written by men who had actually been involved in the fighting. Among the poets, novelists, and memoirists who recorded their experiences in the trenches of the western front, many strove to voice protests equal to the enormities that they had suffered and witnessed. Henri Barbusse was one of the first of these, and Under Fire was one of the few World War I novels that was written and published before the war ended. It furnished a model for later writers. Barbusse composed the book in the hospital from diaries he had written at the front in 1914-1915, and he published it in both serial and novel forms late in 1916. Under Fire proved an immediate success. In France, it won the prestigious Goncourt Prize, and by the end of the war it was a worldwide best seller, having sold almost a quarter of a million copies.
The novel’s critical reception was mixed. Early reviewers tended to judge it according to whether they believed that life at the front was as wretched as Barbusse depicted it to be. Some were outraged by what they felt to be seditious political views expressed in the work, but many critics greeted its graphic descriptions almost with relief: Here at last, they felt, was the truth about the war. At the time Under Fire reached the public, a time when the cost in human life continued to mount without any visible impact on the stalemate in France and Belgium, attitudes toward the war had begun to shift away from the enthusiasm and idealism of the war’s first year. Those critical of the war considered the raw immediacy of Under Fire to be its chief virtue; if the characters seemed less carefully drawn and the story line less tightly constructed than in more polished literary works, this only lent it greater plausibility as a documentary.
Under Fire came to be less widely read after the late 1920’s, when it was supplanted by a deluge of war writing. By the late twentieth century, however, many critics considered the novel an important milestone and a work exemplifying some of the difficulties of the protest novel, among them that of reconciling realism and prophetic vision. Although the most gripping chapters in Under Fire (“Of Burdens,” “The Portal,” “Under Fire,” and “The Fatigue-Party”) present a convincing picture of day-to-day survival in the trenches and of the chaos of battle, these sections are mixed with the kind of earnest political invective and...
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