Henri Barbusse (1873-1935) was the author of Le Feu (Under Fire), a classic memoir of wartime service in the French Army during the First World War. Born on 17 May 1873 in Asnières, Barbusse's early career saw him steer a course first as a neo-Symbolist poet, publishing Pleureuses (Mourners) in 1895, and then as a neo-Naturalist novelist, publishing L'Enfer (The Inferno) in 1908. However Barbusse gained fame - and notoriety - with the publication of Le Feu in 1916 (published as Under Fire in English), in what was one of the earliest memoirs to critique the French rationale for war and to establish a firmly anti-war stance. For all that he had voluntarily enlisted for wartime service in 1914 his memoir emphasized the lamentable suffering and disillusion of the average French soldier. A widespread international success, his book went on to win the Prix Goncourt.
Wounded in action and by now a committed pacifist, Barbusse was formally discharged from the army in 1917. His subsequent work similarly focused on moral and political aspects, including Clarté (Light), published in 1919. He established a post-war movement as a means of stirring other writers worldwide to address social and political affairs.
Eventually settling in the Soviet Union as a communist, Barbusse died in Moscow while working on Staline (Stalin) on 30 August 1935 aged 62. He is buried in Paris, France.
The pacifist poet Siegfried Sassoon apparently read Under Fire when he was fighting in the same war and declared it the first book he'd ever read to bring the experience of war home to civilians. This inspired him to produce his own famous literature on the war. The best parts of Under Fire still have that stirring effect today.
This is a graphic account of a Europe at war with the dead looking down on terrible scenes of crawling things dwarfed to the size of insects and worms. (It is likely that Owen would have seen a similar scene on 3rd April 1917 as he crossed the battlefield near Savy village on his way to join the 2nd Manchesters in the front line at Francilly-Selency. The field was strewn with the bodies of the Lancashire Fusiliers (200 casualties) as the wounded soldiers had made their way to the doubtful shelter provided by the hundreds of shell-holes where they had died and in doing so had left a trail of their discarded equipment.
Le Feu (Under Fire), by Henri Barbusse
We are waiting for daylight in the place where we sank to the ground. Sinister and slow it comes, chilling and dismal, and expands upon the livid landscape.
The rain has ceased to fall - there is none left in the sky. The leaden plain and its mirrors of sullied water seem to issue not only from the night but from the sea.
Drowsy or half asleep, sometimes opening our eyes only to close them again, we attend the incredible renewal of light, paralyzed with cold and broken with fatigue.
Where are the trenches?
We see lakes, and between the lakes there are lines of milky and motionless water. There is more water even than we had thought. It has taken everything and spread everywhere, and the prophecy of the men in the night has come true. There are no more trenches; those canals are the trenches enshrouded. It is a universal flood. The battlefield is not sleeping; it is dead.
Swaying painfully, like a sick man, in the terrible encumbering clasp of my greatcoat, I half raise myself to look at it all. There are three monstrously shapeless forms beside me. One of them - it is Paradis, in an amazing armor of mud, with a swelling at the waist that stands for his cartridge pouches - gets up also. The others are asleep, and make no movement.
And what is this silence, too, this prodigious silence? There is no sound, except when from time to time a lump of earth slips into the water, in the middle of this fantastic paralysis of the world. No one is firing. There are no shells, for they would not burst. There are no bullets, either, for the men.
Ah, the men! Where are the men?
We see them gradually. Not far from us there are some stranded and sleeping hulks so molded in mud from head to foot that they are almost transformed into inanimate objects.
Some distance away I can make out others, curled up and clinging like snails all along a rounded embankment, from which they have partly slipped back into the water. It is a motionless rank of clumsy lumps, of bundles placed side by side, dripping water and mud, and of the same color as the soil with which they are blended.
I make an effort to break the silence. To Paradis, also looking that way, I say, "Are they dead?"
"We'll go and see presently," he says in a low voice; "stop here a bit yet. We shall have the heart to go there by and by."
We look at each other, and our eyes fall also on the others who came and fell down here. Their faces spell such weariness that they are no longer faces so much as something dirty, disfigured and bruised, with blood-shot eyes. Since the beginning we have seen each other in all manner of shapes and appearances, and yet - we do not know each other.
Paradis turns his head and looks elsewhere.
Suddenly I see him seized with trembling. He extends an arm enormously caked in mud. "There there -" he says.
On the water which overflows from a stretch particularly cross-seamed and gullied, some lumps are floating, some round-backed reefs.
We drag ourselves to the spot. They are drowned men. Their arms and heads are submerged. On the surface of the plastery liquid appear their backs and the straps of their accoutrements. Their blue cloth trousers are inflated, with the feet attached askew upon the ballooning legs, like the black wooden feet on the shapeless legs of marionettes. From one sunken head the hair stands straight up like water-weeds. Here is a face which the water only lightly touches; the head is beached on the margins, and the body disappears in its turbid tomb. The face is lifted skyward. The eyes are two white holes; the mouth is a black hole. The mask's yellow and puffed-up skin appears soft and creased, like dough gone cold.
They are the men who were watching there, and could not extricate themselves from the mud. All their efforts to escape over the sticky escarpment of the trench that was slowly and fatally filling with water only dragged them still more into the depth. They died clinging to the yielding support of the earth.
There, our first lines are; and there, the first German lines, equally silent and flooded. On our way to these flaccid ruins we pass through the middle of what yesterday was the zone of terror, the awful space on whose threshold the fierce rush of our last attack was forced to stop, the No Man's Land which bullets and shells had not ceased to furrow for a year and a half, where their crossed fire during these latter days had furiously swept the ground from one horizon to the other.
Now, it is a field of rest. The ground is everywhere dotted with beings who sleep or who are on the way to die, slowly moving, lifting an arm, lifting the head.
The enemy trench is completing the process of foundering into itself, among great marshy undulations and funnel-holes, shaggy with mud: it forms among them a line of pools and wells. Here and there we can see the still overhanging banks begin to move, crumble, and fall down. In one place we can lean against it.
In this bewildering circle of filth there are no bodies. But there, worse than a body, a solitary arm protrudes, bare and white as a stone, from a hole which dimly shows on the other side of the water. The man has been buried in his dug-out and has had only the time to thrust out his arm.
Quite near, we notice that some mounds of earth aligned along the ruined ramparts of this deep-drowned ditch are human. Are they dead - or asleep? We do not know; in any case, they rest.
Are they German or French? We do not know. One of them has opened his eyes, and looks at us with swaying head. We say to him, "French?" - and then, "Deutsch?" He makes no reply, but shuts his eyes again and relapses into oblivion. We never knew what he was.
We cannot decide the identity of these beings, either by their clothes, thickly covered with filth, or by their head-dress, for they are bareheaded or swathed in woollens under their liquid and offensive cowls; or by their weapons, for they either have no rifles or their hands rest lightly on something they have dragged along, a shapeless and sticky mass, like a sort of fish.
All these men of corpse-like faces who are before us and behind us, at the limit of their strength, void of speech as of will, all these earth-charged men who you would say were carrying their own winding-sheets, are as much alike as if they were naked.
It is the end of all. For the moment it is the prodigious finish, the epic cessation of the war.
I once used to think that the worst hell in war was the flame of shells; and then for a long time I thought it was the suffocation of the caverns which eternally confine us. But it is neither of these. Hell is water.
Extracted from Under Fire: The Story of a Squad, by Henri Barbusse. Translated by Fitzwater Wray (EP Dutton & Co, 1917).