We are pinned down under a systematic bombardment. Once again our lives are at stake and we are powerless to protect ourselves. We are lying in the ditch, flat as corpses, squeezed together to make ourselves smaller, welded into a single strange reptile of three hundred shuddering bodies and pounding chests. The experience of shelling is always the same: a crushing, relentless savagery, hunting us down. You feel individually targeted, singled out from those around you. You are alone, eyes shut, struggling in your own darkness in a coma of fear. You feel exposed, feel that the shells are looking for you, and you hide among the jumble of legs and stomachs, try to cover yourself and also to protect yourself from the other bodies that are writhing like tortured animals. All we can see are hallucinations of the horrible images that we have come to know through years of war. (p 288)
Jean Dartemont. Alter ego of author Gabriel Chevallier. Poilu in the French army. Signed up for adventure early in the war. Lived to tell the tale. Not a tale of bravery or heroism. The prime feeling is fear.
Gabriel Chevallier’s novel Fear (La peur) is a good companion piece to Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire (Le feu). Both are autobiographical anti-war novels written by poilus in the French army. Both are told by an educated man in the trenches. Both document the horrors of war on the front line and how they cling to survival. Both disparage incompetent leaders, war profiteers and uncomprehending civilian bystanders.
In contrast …
Under Fire is built on the bonds that grew amongst the men in the squad. In Fear, we learn little of Dartemont’s comrades, let alone their names or fates. He plots to leave the squad for safer jobs. Could it be that connections are lost in the chaos?
The squad in Under Fire is enveloped in a relentless battle. Massive numbers of bodies and body parts pile up. In Fear, we also encounter corpses as individuals – the first fresh corpse … the profile seeming to laugh, his head revealed to be split in half, his finger seeming to point in jest to his brain beside him … a soldier not daring to look closely, fearing the dead man is his brother … catching not the sight but the smell of bodily gases.
Barbusse wears his politics on his sleeve. His observations conclude in rants about why workers should rule. Chevallier is more measured in tone. His observations are just as anti-war, but he leaves space for readers to draw their own conclusions. So powerful was the message that author and publisher agreed to suspend sales during WW2. As Chevallier points out in his preface to the 1951 edition, “Once war has come, the time has passed for warning that it is a disastrous venture with unforeseeable consequences.”
Allies and Germans are caught together near the end of Under Fire – there they toss about the ideals of no more war. Chevallier’s conclusion that soldiers on both sides have more in common with each other than their leaders is revealed in deeds rather than an exchange of words:
Everyone is on the parapets, working. … The Germans are working on their side, and this whole part of the front is just one big building site. … With no trenches separating them, these enemies, who could surprise their adversaries with a couple of leaps, respect the truce. Is this from a sense of fair play? Isn’t it rather the wish, equal in both camps, to stop fighting? (p 171)
Le feu was written and published while the war still raged (1916). La peur has the benefit of cogitation (1930).
Under Fire first appeared in English translation in 1917 (a second translation was published in 2003). English readers could read Fear only in 2011.
Both are worth the read.