Places: Under Fire

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Le Feu: Journal d’une escouade, 1916 (English translation, 1917)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Political

Time of work: 1914-1915

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Western Front

*Western Under FireFront. The novel is set somewhere along the scar of World War I trenches that stretched across northern France, southeast to the Vosges, and south to the Swiss border–a 550-mile-long fortified line with barbed wire, machine guns, and heavy artillery. In his dedication, Barbusse places the action in the valley of the Ourcq, in the department of Seine-et-Marne. However, he realizes that precision of location along a battlefront is not as important as the precision of experience of those who actually do the fighting–as he himself had done during the war.

The men of Barbusse’s squad live not on the earth but in the earth, in the midst of a vast and “water-logged desert” on which convoys of troops have traced deep ruts that glisten in the weak morning light “like steel rails.” The soldiers dig trenches into these desolate fields, defenses that are carpeted with slime that makes sticky sounds with each step and reeks of the night’s human excretions. In this part of the world the men are “buried deep” in an everlasting battlefield.

The real home of Barbusse and his fellow soldiers is the home of the trenches whose tranquility is constantly broken by sounds of the methodical destruction of human life.

Barbusse never lets readers forget his main theme: that those who fight for the liberation of the country also must fight for their own liberation. That the fundamental difference between human beings is the unpardonable division between those who profit and those who sacrifice. Location in battle cannot be divorced from location in society, and all the blood spilled on the soil of the country counts for naught unless it leads to an uplifting of the people of the world.

Behind-the lines

Behind-the lines. Barbusse’s soldiers are occasionally granted leaves that permit them to go to such towns as Cauchin-l-abbé, Villers-l’abbaye, Vanveldes, Argoval–all invented names–to rest and recuperate and regain their sense of life as they once lived it. In such places, the men may again find themselves in the company of women, relate to domestic animals, and worry about such mundane things as having enough money to pay for wine. There, they try to recapture their humanity, sort out details about one another’s lives, share photographs and letters, and arrange their collections of small personal items which they have accumulated and lug around with their standard military equipment.


*Paris. Some soldiers are lucky enough to enjoy their leave in France’s capital city, where they can walk down the boulevard de la République, the nails in their boots ringing on the pavement. They can see a great city rich in femininity, beautiful cafés, and beautiful clothes. At the same time, however, common soldiers can find shame in the misery from which they come, and to which they must return. Paris is the supreme reminder of a world thrilled by commercial profit and money. There, rich people become richer, and tranquil people live in perfect homes and enjoy being served in cafés. Paris is the most egregious example of the nation’s inequities.

BibliographyCruickshank, John. Variations on Catastrophe: Some French Responses to the Great War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. An informative study, chiefly concerned with the problems that the protest novel entails for authors and critics. Attempts to account for the uneasy combination of realism and political prophecy in Under Fire.Field, Frank. Three French Writers and the Great War: Studies in the Rise of Communism and Fascism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Pays scant attention to Under Fire’s literary qualities but provides extensive discussion of its place in the development of Barbusse’s political commitments.Harris, Frank. “Henri Barbusse.” In Latest Contemporary Portraits. 1927. Reprint. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1968. An early appreciation of Barbusse, which focuses on Under Fire.Jones, Tobin H. “Mythic Vision and Ironic Allusion: Barbusse’s Le Feu and Zola’s Germinal.” Modern Fiction Studies 28, no. 2 (Summer, 1982): 215-228. Although occasionally overburdened with literary theory, Jones’s comparison of the use of mythic patterns and social vision in the two works is illuminating.King, Jonathan. “Henri Barbusse: Le Feu and the Crisis of Social Realism.” In The First World War in Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Holger Klein. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1977. The most helpful study of Under Fire available in English. Places the novel in historical context, demonstrating how the literary and political movements of its time explain many of its problems and peculiarities.
Categories: Places