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Although All Quiet on the Western Front is the best known, and possibly the best written, novel of soldiers at the front in WW I, there are others, anti-war to some degree, written by other soldiers of other countries — and recently a marvelous short novel, The Absolutist, which is a re-creation of a time and place by John Boyne, an author not then alive and not now a soldier.  Generals Die in Bed is a short, terrific novel by a Canadian who was in the trenches at  the Battle of Amiens, in 1918. Paths of Glory, by fellow Canadian Humphrey Cobb, is well-known to most from Kubrick’s film of the same name.  John Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers isn’t as well-remembered or thought of as fellow American Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which is mostly remembered as a love-story.  It has short punchy anti-war grousing by several of the characters and a few terrific battle scenes, which perhaps because of their sharp interruption of an adventurer’s life, stand out more in memory than in the novel itself.

Two French novels are important members of the same war-is-hell (and stupid) club, Wooden Crosses by Roland Dorgeles (which was made into a powerful film of the same name) and Under Fire by Henri Barbusse, the first of all the war novels, appearing in 1917 and wining the Prix Goncourt.  Barbusse was an experienced writer and journalist when the war came.  He had several volumes of poetry, one of short-stories and a Zola-esque novel of dark naturalism titled L’enfer (The Inferno) in publication.  He was to continue writing for the rest of his life.  He was a socialist and somewhat of a pacifist, above all an idealist, as his later life showed.  And, he was old — 41 when he enlisted in the French army in 1914.

After being evacuated in the early months for lung problems, he tried to return as a stretcher-bearer and then as a member of the staff.  Sent to the rear again, he tried once more to get near the front.  Under Fire is the result of those experiences.  I’ve been reading two translations, the earlier one, 1926 by W. Fitzwater Wray and a later 2003 version by Robin Buss.  The excerpts here are from Wray which, surprisingly, I thought was stronger, though not by much.

Following Barbusse’s naturalist inclinations, we have a full platoon of Frenchmen, with vivid descriptions of their faces, mustaches, eyes, ears, hair — and their language:

 “Our races?  We are of all races; we come from everywhere…(15)  “…the same language, compounded of dialect and the slang of workshop and barracks, seasoned with the latest inventions, blends us in the sauce of speech with the massed multitudes of men who (for seasons now) have emptied France and crowded together in the North-East.  (17)

We hear about the journalists brought to the front by the brass, “trench-tourists,” as the soldiers refer to them; the ravaging hunger,

 “…they throw themselves on the food, and eat it standing, squatting, kneeling, sitting on tins, or haversacks pulled out of the holes where they sleep..

the filth,

 “The uniforms of the survivors are all earth-yellowed alike, so they look like khaki.  The cloth is stiff with the ocherous mud that has dried underneath.  The skirts of their greatcoats are like lumps of wood, jumping about on the yellow crust that reaches to their knees.” 

and the way in which, in the midst of war, soldiers will throw themselves on each other for petty or imagined insults.

 They grind their teeth and approach each other in a foaming rage.  Tulacque grasps his prehistoric ax, and his squinting eyes are flashing.  The other is pale and his eyes have a greenish tint; you can see in his blackguard face that his thoughts are with his knife.” (23)

One of the soldiers, Cocon, is the smart-guy of the platoon.  Barbusse uses him to give us details of the French Army organization, which otherwise would be stuck in somewhere, didactically.  Here, we get a sense of the man:

 “There are four Divisions, at present, in an Army Corps,” replies Cocon; “the number changes, sometimes it is three, sometimes five.  Just now, it’s four.  And each of our Divisions,” continues the mathematical one, whom our squad glories in owning, ” includes…..

Territorials appear, soldiers from the French colonies, some of whom are renowned among the nationals for their ferocity:

 “The Africans seem jolly and in high spirits.  They are going, of course, to the first line.  That is their place and their passing is the sign of an imminent attack.  They are made for the offensive.”  ..the Moroccan Division.   “…their ferocity in the attack, the devouring passion to be in with the bayonet, their predilection for no quarter.”

Under Fire, devotes substantial pages to the odd way –for modern ideas of war– in which soldiers billeted themselves, when not actually in the trenches, with locals, renting or begging barn space, or if an officer, a bedroom.  One small child confides to the soldiers that his papa hopes the war goes on forever –they are getting rich. What is striking is that the homes and barns are not requisitioned by the army and the soldiers assigned, but that squads go and figure it out themselves.  In Sebastian Junger’s Storm of Steel,  Germans, in occupied France, did the same.  Supply trains with food, tents, blankets, for all that it was a stationary front, didn’t have the same level of importance and resources that armies since WW I are expected to have. The ancient code of pillage and forage, by now tamed somewhat, was still part of the ethos of battle.

One scene in particular sticks in memory   One of the soldiers in the squad is going home for a weekend to his new wife, who lives close to the lines.  His comrades, also on leave, can’t find anywhere to stay and the rain is driving down, nonstop and cold.  Finally they are invited into the couple’s one-room house, “playing gooseberry in the most damnable way”(being a third wheel,) as the narrator says.   As they leave in the morning, uncomfortable for their intrusion, Marie, who sells coffee from her window to make a living, won’t take any money from them because “you are my guests.”  (105)

Added to this self-billeting is something else that is odd, to my eye:  the lack of military hierarchy among the men.   The squad of soldiers, on a leave or in battle itself, seems to be on its own: no officers, or even senior enlisted men.  In one scene, Cocon, the math-man, is described:

 He is tormented by lice, but weakened by cold and wet he has not the pluck to change his linen; and he sits there sullen, unmoving—and devoured.” 

No one, apparently, has authority to make him stand, or change.  The others, his friends, are likely as sullen and exhausted as he. Novels from more recent time, say Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, about Vietnam or The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, about the Iraq invasion, depend a good deal on the tensions between the ranks, both designated and innate, to get at the essential matters, not the fighting or the misery itself but how human beings behave under those conditions.  Not that there isn’t plenty of contempt for the brass in Under Fire; that was a sine qua non for novels of WW I, and apparently well deserved.  But it is contained in grousing among the men, not in orders given, resistance taken.

As in all the novels and memoirs of WW I I have read, rain, endless rain, is almost a worse enemy than the weapons of the other side.

Torrential rain was falling.  We were muddled and drenched and hustled by the flood, and we ate standing in single file, without shelter…The rain rattled and bounced and streamed on our limp, woven armor, and worked with open brutality or sly secrecy into ourselves and our food.  Our feet were sinking farther and farther, taking deep root along the clayey bottom of the trench.

Barbusse’ sense of class and trench soldiers is often on display.  Volpatte, perhaps his alter-ego, has just come back from a trip behind the lines:

 I saw duds, and duds galore, and they began to get on my nerves. All sorts of departments and sub-departments and managements and centres and offices and committees – you’re no sooner there than you meet a swarm of fools, swarms of different services that are only different in name—enough to turn your brain … all those individuals fiddle-faddling and making believe down there, all spruced up with their fine caps and officer’s coats and shameful boots, that gulp dainties and can put a dram of best brandy down their gullets whenever they want and wash themselves oftener twice than once, and go to church and never stop smoking, and pack themselves up in feathers at night to read the newspaper – and then they say afterwards, ‘I’ve been in the war!’ 109

French Soldiers, Dead and Legless in a Trench

Because Barbusse allows himself the time, and has the inclination, we hear of the shooting of shirkers by their own squad mates, rats swimming in flooded parts of the barn used as sleeping quarters, a man seeing that his family home has been blown to bits.  There is time to show the men reminiscing about where they have come from and talking about what they will do, in extensive pages of dialog — which as other parts of the novel, suffers in translation.  I could not shake the ‘wrongness’ of hearing French soldiers calling each other “old chap.”  The conversations do give us a rich image of the men and the times, but at the expense of tension and build to the story being told.  Although interesting in many of its parts it reminded me a great deal of the journal/memoir, Storm of Steel by the German, Ernst Junger.  Each has the beads of days on the string of war, but they have not been selected, culled and edited to create an emotional narrative to catch the hearts of those who stand outside of the events themselves.

One sub story that will stick with me is that of a Frenchman from Alsace who hears French being spoken on the German side.  A conversation is struck up and the German Alsatian offers to smuggle the French Alsatian into his town,  occupied by the Germans, to see his home.  He cannot visit; he can only look.  The dangerous favor is carried out and the Frenchman sees his wife talking happily to two German soldiers, at his own table, and the widow of his best friend, who had died beside him, letting another German play with her child.  He is nearly beside himself, but contains it until he is back at his own lines, where he tries to rationalize what he has seen, and what he dreads.  What a marvelous outline for a stand-alone story!

Another, much more gruesome memory I’ll have of a story in Under Fire, because it is duplicated in the Canadian authored Generals Die in Bed, is that of the overwhelming importance of boots.  The poverty, at least of the Allies, was so great, that to find boots on a dead man was a gift from heaven.  Both novels have soldiers tell dark stories of finding boots, better than their own, still on the legs of dead officers, and twisting and ripping them off, cleaning the dead limb from the leather so they can be worn.  That both novels have the story may be unusual.  I have no idea how often such deeds took place, or if perhaps it was an apocryphal story, useful for all to impress those who hadn’t been there with the horror of it all.

“…he was in there, his arse in a hole, doubled up, gaping at the sky with his legs in the air, and his pumps offered themselves to me with an air that meant they were worth my while.  ‘A tight fit’ says I.  But you talk about a job to bring those beetle crushers of his away!  I worked for half an hour and no lie about it.  With his feet gone quite stiff, the patient didn’t help me a bit.  Then at last the legs of it  — they’d been pulled about so–came unstuck at the knees, and his breeks tore away, and all the lot came flop!  There was me, all of a sudden, with a full boot in each fist.  The legs and feet had to be emptied out.”  13 in Wray

As you can see, the translation, is awkward; it offers a constant temptation to put the book down and move on to something else.  There are however, from time to time,  marvelous images shining through:

A chicken watches a rooster “with the little blue enamel dials of her eyes.” 8

  “Then we looked around us. We were lost in a sort of a town. Interminable strings of trucks, trains of forty to sixty carriages, were taking shape like rows of dark-fronted houses, low built, all alike, and divided by alleys. Before us, alongside the collection of moving houses, was the main line, the limitless street where the white rails disappeared at both ends, swallowed up in the distance. 90

But there is plenty to disrupt the reader:

“We march like machines, our limbs invaded by a sort of petrified torpor; our joints cry aloud, and force us to make echo.” 61

 Is this an awkward translation or does it reflect something awkward beneath it, or both?

“We vamoosed from there, and sharp.” 133

I was curious that I found the earlier Wray translation better to my ear than the more recent Robin Buss.  Perhaps it is the British in both, with too many subjunctives and doubt appearing in the language of soldiers … both seemed weak,  Wray, translating in 1926   is of course dated, so I expected to have an easier time of it with Buss.  Not so.  Let this paragraph be an example:

From the chapter titled “The Portal,” by Wray  “Around the dead flutter letters that have escaped from the pockets or cartridge pouches while they were being placed on the ground.  Over one of these bits of white paper, whose wings still beat though the mud ensnares them, I stoop slightly and read a sentence–“My dear Henry, what a fine day it is for your birthday!” The man is on his belly; his loins are rent from hip to hip by a deep furrow; his head is half-turned round; we see a sunken eye; and on temples, cheek and neck a kind of green moss is growing.”  147 

And here, from “The Doorway”  Robin Buss  “Around the dead, letters that fell out of their pockets or ammunition belts when they were being placed here are fluttering around.  On one of these plain white scraps of paper, flapping in the breeze but held down by the mud, I can read, if I bend over a little, the sentence: ‘Dear Henri, what fine weather for your birthday!’ The man is lying on his belly, his back is split from from one side to the other, his head is turned. You can see his hollow eye and a kind of moss that has grown on the temple, the cheek and the neck.  137

I don’t have the French so I don’t know if “wings” is in it, or is imaged up by Wray.  It does makes a stronger image of life being trapped than Buss’ “flapping” which, in any case, if these are “bits of paper” they wouldn’t be doing.

I don’t know if the original French has “I can read the sentence” interrupted by ‘if I bend…” as Buss has it, ‘ but Wray’s direct ‘I stoop…and read’ is more direct, less narrativus interruptus...

My attempt: Letters flutter around the dead, escaped from pockets or cartridge belts that fell on the ground. I can read, by bending a little, one of the small white papers, caught in the mud and twitching in the wind, the sentence — Dear ….

Translation is an endless trial, the results of which never satisfy everyone. That said, it is too bad, to my mind, that the first novel of WW I, which came out early enough to be read, and presumably have an effect on soldiers and civilians alike, is not a stronger, more persuasive read.

Not perhaps the first novel one should read about WW I and the trauma of war but certainly one for any, even casual, student of human strife and folly.