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 dogma that can become tedious, as it does in the last chapter, “The Dawn.” Barbusse had joined the army with mixed impulses; as a committed socialist and pacifist, he supported the war because he believed he would be serving the socialist cause and fighting German militarism in pursuit of a new and peaceful Europe. Yet in Under Fire he argued that the war must be abandoned after all, for the enemy was not Germany but the profiteers and “sword-wavers” in the rear on both sides. The collapse of the trenches into mud and water during the final bombardment described in the book effects a kind of cosmic cataclysm, a dissolution of earth, water, fire, and air into a single muddy element that apocalyptically heralds the “new heaven and new earth” glimpsed by the soldiers in the last chapter. Here, however, the sudden transformation of Barbusse’s simple and unaffected comrades into unanimous spokesmen for socialist dogma strains the reader’s credulity.
Barbusse’s chief interest was not in his work’s qualities as fiction but in its power as protest—its ability to communicate the almost unspeakable facts about the experience of his fellow soldiers as a corrective to the heart-cheering, idealistic accounts in the newspapers. As fiction, it could be published without interference from the official censors. Whatever its shortcomings as literature, Under Fire filled an urgent need, the thirst of both civilians and soldiers for an unrestrained firsthand depiction of the front lines.
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