Under Fire Analysis
by Henri Barbusse

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Under Fire Analysis

Under Fire: The Story of a Squad (French: Le Feu: journal d'une escouade) is a 1916 war novel written by French novelist Henri Barbusse. Even though the story is purely fictional, it is in fact based on Barbusse’s personal experiences as a soldier on the Western front in the First World War. Because of its militaristic and socialistic themes, the novel is considered the first book to be written about World War I.

Under Fire was originally published in French, and it received mixed reviews; some critics described it as a war masterpiece while others called it Barbusse’s unnecessary attempt to fictionalize the First World War. Perhaps the novel's controversial narrative was what attracted readers, and its popularity lead to the book's first English translation and publication in 1917. The novel was also praised by many readers for its extremely realistic depictions of war, battle, survival, death, and camaraderie.

Barbusse claimed that he wrote the novel while on active duty in the French Sixth Battalion. He took notes while serving and later reviewed and compiled them after he was injured on the front. Thus, the story is written in the form of a journal or a personal diary. Barbusse presents several episodic anecdotes which (for the most part) constitute the novel’s chapters. Arguably, the most famous chapter is titled "The Fire," which describes a battle between the Allied forces and the German soldiers in No-Man’s land when the French attacked the German trench.

In his novel, Barbusse tends to give special meaning to small moments and scenes—such as a young woman passing by or a soldier drawing his weapon—describing them in great detail. Thus, Under Fire has often been compared to similar literary classics that depict war-time conditions (e.g., A Farewell to Arms (1929) by Ernest Hemingway and All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque).

Essentially, with Under Fire, Barbusse manages to capture many of the Allied experiences in the First World War, and unintentionally provides some theoretical explanations on how World War I may have lead into World War II. Thus, his last chapter foreshadows the totalitarian and cruel regime that will come several years later.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Western Front

*Western Front. The novel is set somewhere along the scar of World War I trenches that stretched across northern France, southeast to the Vosges, and south to the Swiss border—a 550-mile-long fortified line with barbed wire, machine guns, and heavy artillery. In his dedication, Barbusse places the action in the valley of the Ourcq, in the department of Seine-et-Marne. However, he realizes that precision of location along a battlefront is not as important as the precision of experience of those who actually do the fighting—as he himself had done during the war.

The men of Barbusse’s squad live not on the earth but in the earth, in the midst of a vast and “water-logged desert” on which convoys of troops have traced deep ruts that glisten in the weak morning light “like steel rails.” The soldiers dig trenches into these desolate fields, defenses that are carpeted with slime that makes sticky sounds with each step and reeks of the night’s human excretions. In this part of the world the men are “buried deep” in an everlasting battlefield.

The real home of Barbusse and his fellow soldiers is the home of the trenches whose tranquility is constantly broken by sounds of the methodical destruction of human life.

Barbusse never lets readers forget his main theme: that those who fight for the liberation of the country also must fight for their own liberation. That the fundamental difference between human beings is the unpardonable division between those who profit and those who sacrifice. Location in battle cannot be divorced from location in society, and all the blood spilled on the soil of the country counts for naught unless it leads to an uplifting of the people of the world.

Behind-the lines

Behind-the lines. Barbusse’s soldiers are...

(The entire section is 1,119 words.)