These are not soldiers, these are men. They are not adventurers or warriors, designed for human butchery – as butchers or cattle. They are the ploughmen or workers that one recognizes even in their uniforms. They are uprooted civilians. They are ready, waiting for the signal for death or murder, but when you examine their faces between the vertical ranks of bayonets, they are nothing but men. (p 223)
In his field notes, an unnamed narrator describes the other poilus in his French army squad and their exploits in the trenches. They are thrown together from all walks of life and forced to survive.
Le Feu: journal d’une escouade, Henri Barbusse’s fictionalized account of the war was published in 1916, while France was still at war. The English translation, Under Fire: The Story of a Squad was published the following year. It is staunchly anti-war – one of the first works to turn a mirror on the war and become a moral witness to its horrors and impact. It won France’s Prix Goncourt.
The first part of the book looks at the comradery of the men in what has become their grim day-to-day lives – their woes, their complaints, their bavardage. Trench duty brings dangers, time at ease behind the lines brings its own challenges. They scoff at trench tourists (aka journalists). They share touching moments – sneaking back to a home village to discover it ruined, arranging treasures in their kits, receiving the gift of an egg.
The last part envelops us in a relentless battle.
Bookending the field notes, the opening and closing chapters philosophize about the state of the world. At the beginning, old men in a palatial convalescence sanatorium learn that war has been declared, but literally hang in isolation over the people gathering for it. There is an omen of the masses rising from the mud of war and taking power. In the final chapter, mud and circumstance bring men from both sides together – to share a vision of a future where all individuals are equal.
Men are made to be husbands, fathers – men in short! Not animals that hunt one another down, tear out each other’s throats and stink in their own filth. (p 306)
Barbusse’s war experiences changed him from anti-war to pacifist to Communist. Under Fire starts to draw the line from the conditions of war to the manifestations of labour unrest and popular uprising after the war.
Under Fire is written largely in the dialogue of working class men from different parts of France. Translating the dialects and slang to another language would be no small feat. I read the modern translation (2003, Robin Buss) and had quick looks at the original French text and the first English translation (1917, Fitzwater Wray). Old and new translations are an interesting contrast.
The earlier translation uses a more formal tone – necessary for publication at the time, I guess, but not always true to the character of the poilus. The more recent translation tries to capture the rougher manner and tone.
Take, for example, the chapter called Les gros mots in the original, The Big Words in 1917 and Swearwords in 2003. A member of the squad asks the writer how he will portray his comrades. The conversation starts like this in the original text: “si tu fais parler les troufions dans ton livre, est-ce que tu les f’ras parler comme ils parlent, ou bien est-ce que tu arrangerais ça, en lousdoc ? C’est rapport aux gros mots qu’on dit.” (p 219)
In the 2003 translation: “will you make them speak like they really do, or will you tidy it up and make it proper? I’m talking about swearwords.” (p 155) In 1917: “are you going to make them talk like they do talk, or shall you put it all straight—into pretty talk? It’s about the big words that we use.” A literal translation of “gros mots” – a euphemism for swear words in some Latin languages. But did “big words” ever mean swear words in English? Certainly not now.
Ah, August. The month where work and other obligations seem to take over my life more than usual. Alas, it means less time for leisure reading and writing. Back on track soon.