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Henri Barbusse: Le Feu (Under Fire)

Le Feu is the first of the great World War I novels. Written and published in 1916, winning the Prix Goncourt that year and translated into English in 1917, it caused a scandal in France because of its gritty realism, its use of blunt slang and its sympathy with the common soldier, whose enemy was as much the officers, the system and the army as the Germans. Many critics have focused on the horrifying scenes of trench warfare, which are rightly commended for giving a first-hand account of the brutalities of trench warfare, but, for me, the strength of Barbusse’s novel is his sympathetic portrayal of the common soldier. The very short Chapter XIII (called Les Gros Mots in French and Big Words in English) or the description in Chapter 20 of Joseph Mesnil looking for his last remaining brother, the other four having already been killed, (the decaying corpse of the brother is later found just outside the trench) make the war far more personal than all the description of blood and guts spilling out. World War I produced many fine novels. This is still one of the best.

Publishing history

First published 1916 by Flammarion
First published in English 1917 by Dent (England), E. P. Dutton (USA)
Translated by Robin Buss (Dutton; Fitzwater Wray (Dent)