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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...

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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

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

*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 occasionally granted leaves that permit them to go to such towns as Cauchin-l-abbé, Villers-l’abbaye, Vanveldes, Argoval—all invented names—to rest and recuperate and regain their sense of life as they once lived it. In such places, the men may again find themselves in the company of women, relate to domestic animals, and worry about such mundane things as having enough money to pay for wine. There, they try to recapture their humanity, sort out details about one another’s lives, share photographs and letters, and arrange their collections of small personal items which they have accumulated and lug around with their standard military equipment.


*Paris. Some soldiers are lucky enough to enjoy their leave in France’s capital city, where they can walk down the boulevard de la République, the nails in their boots ringing on the pavement. They can see a great city rich in femininity, beautiful cafés, and beautiful clothes. At the same time, however, common soldiers can find shame in the misery from which they come, and to which they must return. Paris is the supreme reminder of a world thrilled by commercial profit and money. There, rich people become richer, and tranquil people live in perfect homes and enjoy being served in cafés. Paris is the most egregious example of the nation’s inequities.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 231

Cruickshank, John. Variations on Catastrophe: Some French Responses to the Great War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. An informative study, chiefly concerned with the problems that the protest novel entails for authors and critics. Attempts to account for the uneasy combination of realism and political prophecy in Under Fire.

Field, Frank. Three French Writers and the Great War: Studies in the Rise of Communism and Fascism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Pays scant attention to Under Fire’s literary qualities but provides extensive discussion of its place in the development of Barbusse’s political commitments.

Harris, Frank. “Henri Barbusse.” In Latest Contemporary Portraits. 1927. Reprint. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1968. An early appreciation of Barbusse, which focuses on Under Fire.

Jones, Tobin H. “Mythic Vision and Ironic Allusion: Barbusse’s Le Feu and Zola’s Germinal.” Modern Fiction Studies 28, no. 2 (Summer, 1982): 215-228. Although occasionally overburdened with literary theory, Jones’s comparison of the use of mythic patterns and social vision in the two works is illuminating.

King, Jonathan. “Henri Barbusse: Le Feu and the Crisis of Social Realism.” In The First World War in Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Holger Klein. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1977. The most helpful study of Under Fire available in English. Places the novel in historical context, demonstrating how the literary and political movements of its time explain many of its problems and peculiarities.

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Critical Essays