22 Wednesday Oct 2014
Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier, 1930 is such a powerful indictment of war that in 1939 as the Nazi menace became unmistakable the author and publisher withdrew it from bookstores. In his preface to the 1951 edition he says “Once war has come, the time has passed for warning…”
Reissued, the warning remains:
“When I was young we were taught– when we were at the front–that war was edifying, purifying and redemptive. We have all seen the repercussions of such twaddle: profiteers, arms dealers, the black market, denunciations, betrayals, firing squads, torture; not to mention famine, tuberculosis, typhus, terror, sadism.”
Its structure, like so many of the novels from World War I, moves sequentially through days and events, as diaries do. Written in the first person, for the most part in the narrative present, Chevallier records scenes from the trenches, describes the wounded, reports conversations, often with an “I remember,” or “I am watching.” As with most such books there is no plot to follow, no build in character, no suspense crafted in. The many scenes of battle or rest or digging in sodden mud could be interchanged with no effect on the sense of what we are reading. Chevallier’s literary gifts mark this, however, as one of the best of the genre. Even the felt terror of incoming shells or the appalling sights after a battle can seem repetitious and lose force if too plainly told. He knows how to freshen an image, give us a new light in which to see the impossible. More than most he bares and examines his own reactions and reasons, making this not only a story of a war but a valuable contribution to understanding why men do this.
The opening pages, titled “The Proclamation,” have some of the most interesting writing of any of the war novels I have read.
The fire was already smouldering somewhere down in the depths of Europe, but carefree France donned its summer costumes, straw hats and flannel trousers, and packed its bags for the holidays. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky — such an optimistic, bright blue sky.
They told the Germans: ‘Forward to a bright and joyous war! On to Paris! God is with us, for a greater Germany!’ And the good, peaceful Germans, who take everything seriously, set forth to conquer, transforming themselves into savage beasts.
They told the French: ‘The nation is under attack. We will fight for Justice and Retribution. On to Berlin! And the pacifist French, the French who take nothing at all seriously, interrupted their little modest rentier reveries to go and fight,
So it was with the Austrians, the Belgians, the English, the Russians, the Turks, and then the Italians. In a single week, twenty million men, busy with their lives and loves, with making money and planning a future, received the order to stop everything to go and kill other men. And those twenty million individuals obeyed the order because they had been convinced that this was their duty.
After a few pages of such evocative retrospect, the narrator, Dartemont, appears, walking with a friend on the day of the declaration of war. They come across a band playing the Marseillaise and a man who refuses to stand and doff his hat. When the crowd begins to abuse him he responds, “I am a free man and I won’t celebrate war.” He is beaten for his sentiment. A passing woman says, “It is folly to go against public opinion.” Dartemont tells his companion, “There we see the war’s first casualty.”
But it’s not only a question of duty. Dartemont tells us he had always been anti-military, anti-obedience.
I had not yet come to believe that there was anything great or noble in sticking a bayonet into a man’s stomach, in rejoicing in his death.
But I went all the same.
Because it would have been hard for me to do anything else? No, that is not the real reason and I should not make myself out to be better than I am. I went against all my convictions, but still of my own free will — not to fight but out of curiosity: to see.
By December, 1914, he hurries to the physical, anxious: “The war was a few months old and I was beginning to fear that it might end before I got there.” It was a feeling he shared with millions of young men that fall from every country declaring war.
Ordinary workers were the most eager: instead of their fortnight’s annual holiday, they were going to get several months, visiting new places, and all at the expense of the Germans.
Everywhere had the atmosphere of a funfair, a riot, a disaster and a triumph; a vast intoxicating upheaval. The daily round had come to a halt. Men stopped being factory workers or civil servants, clerks or common laborers, in order to become explorers and conquerors. Or so at least they believed.
And families and friends, who might be worried for their young men, are not. When he passes his physical and tells his parents, “…they immediately and proudly circulated the news, thus gaining public esteem…”
He joins the men filling the barracks, “those storage batteries of national energy.” Using the bright red trousers the French soldiers initially wore — making very fine targets of themselves– he creates a striking image of the French nation:
The train stations are the hearts through which the nation’s blood is flowing, pumped out along the arteries, the tracks, to the North and the East, where men in their madder-dyed breeches multiply like red corpuscles.
He quickly passes over his weeks of training, absorbing the first signs of command incompetence and continuing the irony of his observations. After a stirring send off from the town people his ‘class’ of recruits finds itself closer to, but still in the reserve areas of, the front. Marching and make-work are the order of the day.
Digging latrines, sweeping out the camp, stuffing straw mattresses … to these tasks we brought a cheerful nonchalance and unfailing incompetence. Our good humor was sustained by the thought that there was nothing else to do here in the countryside and so we might as well pass the time together, straining to botch a job or make it last forever…
Throughout are soldierly observations:
‘Atten-shun!’ — the army’s entire strength rests on that command, on silent obedience which destroys the capacity for rational thought.
He writes of how men’s boredom can turn into quick anger against each other; how that anger sometimes gives them courage. Belief that luck and luck alone determines survival or death. Anger turns against the civilians who have no idea what the men are going through and continue to live as before. He tells of encountering his first lice, of trying to sleep in sweltering tents, of struggling to maintain a watch at 30 below, of marching in the rain, coats and packs sodden and heavy. The trenches, packed with men, take on “a powerful smell of human bodies, a mixture of fermentation and excrement, and food that has gone bad.” Men shoot themselves to get away from the front, or hold up their hands to the firing slit hoping a German will do it for them; men go mad.
In one scene of black comedy he is overcome with digestive pain so severe he is doubled into a fetal position. He must get out of the trench to a slatted-board latrine but incoming shells are exploding every minute. He is caught between the terror of soiling himself, and infuriating his mates or risking his life. Finally, the firing tempo slows and he rushes out, accomplishes his task and with pants around his ankles dives for cover just escaping the shrapnel of another shell.
It is an instinctive reaction, joyful savagery born out of extreme stress. Fear has made us cruel. We need to kill to comfort ourselves and take revenge.
The thematic core of the book, however, is as the title suggests: fear. Near the middle of the book, in a field hospital, after suffering severe shrapnel wounds, he engages some of the nurses who, for all their experience with the wounded, are still credulous and accepting of war’s myths. He tells one of them that a soldier’s chief occupation is fear. They shriek and run off, as though he had uttered an obscenity. One returns:
So, you are afraid, Dartemont?
A very unpleasant word to have thrown at you, in public, by a young woman, and quite an attractive one at that…. But it isn’t a matter of making these girls happy by trumpeting out a few appealing lies like a war correspondent narrating daring deeds. It’s a matter of telling the truth, not just mine but ours, theirs, those who are still there, the poor bastards. I took a moment to let the word, with all its obsolete shame, sink in, and accepted it. I answered her slowly, looking her in the face:
Indeed mademoiselle, I am afraid. And I am in good company.
Are you claiming that others are also afraid?
Unlike almost any other memoir-novel of the war, Chevallier describes and thinks about these deepest emotions of the men, beginning most usefully and with great honesty, about himself. In a passage about the terror of living in deep trenches during hours, sometimes days of heavy shelling, he says:
I know of nothing more demoralising than this stealthy pounding, which hunts you down underground, which buries you in a stinking tunnel which may become your tomb. Going back to the surface requires an effort so great that you cannot force yourself to do it unless you overcome your terror at the start. You have to struggle with fear as soon as you have the first symptoms otherwise it will possess you and then you are lost, dragged down into a breakdown that your imagination precipitates with its own, terrifying inventions. Your nerve centres, once they’ve been shattered, send out the wrong messages; even your instinctual self-preservation can be undermined by their absurd decisions. The greatest horror, aggravating the breakdown, is that fear leaves men with the capacity to judge themselves. So you see yourself in the depths of ignominy and cannot regain your self-esteem, cannot justify yourself in your own eyes.
How does he overcome this, in himself? By a severe act of imagination, conjuring grievous wounds on his own body, and volunteering to die. Hoping that nothing will happen to me is ridiculous, he says.
We are approaching the company sector. I am still unscathed but I hang on to my idea: to die. I push away the hope that tries to insinuate itself. With the hope of escaping reappears the wish to flee.
And an interesting extension of his idea follows:
I know I am incapable of courage unless I have decide to give my life.. Without that choice there is nothing but flight. But you take such a decision on the spur of the moment and you cannot make it last for weeks and months. The mental effort is too great. Hence the rarity of true courage.
The book ends with the Armistice and a fellow soldier telling him to hide as deep as he can during the hours until it takes place — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Knowing peace has been agreed, the guns go on. But eleven o’clock comes
Total silence. Total astonishment. Then a murmur rose up from the valley, echoed by another from the front. A great outburst of shouting, echoing through the forests….
And so it ends. There is no grand finale, now return home to a loved one’s embrace. A few acerbic comments summing what he has seen, as had so many others, of many nations. War and the world had changed completely, from that of individual men in small scale engagements to great machines of industrial power.
At twenty we were on the bleak battlefields of modern warfare, a factory for the mass production of corpses, where all that is asked of the combatant is that he is a unit of the immense and obscure number who do their duty and take the shells and bullets, a single unit in the multitude that they destroyed patiently and pointlessly at the rate of one ton of steel per pound of young flesh.
Like Sigfried Sassoon and other WW I writers, Chevallier is not making a pure-pacifist argument, for all his anti-war language and feeling. He voluntarily withdrew the book as WW II approached, and supported Allied efforts against the Germans. What he is arguing is that war is a terrible, murderous enterprise. No one should be lied to about its glories nor go to fight believing that. Perhaps war will come but it should always be the last choice, entered into knowing the terrors it will bring, not only on the battlefield.
For his service Chevallier was awarded the Croix de Guerre and was entered into the Legion d’Honneur. He went on to write more books, but nothing to compare with Fear. Perhaps writing it served a kind of talk-therapy and the nightmares ceased. He wrote some 20 books, many of them comedies of French provincial manners set in the Beaujolais region, most famously, Clochemerle, which sold several million copies.