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Maurice Genevoix: Ceux de 14 [Those of 1914]

Though only the first of these four books has been published in English, the remaining three are very similar to the first and carry on where the first left off. There are various ways of writing war books. Genevoix’ compatriot, Henri Barbusse published Le Feu (Under Fire) around the same time as the first of these books appeared. Barbusse’s approach was very different from Genevoix’. He portrayed the horrors of war in all their bloody reality. Other writers have portrayed the enemy as just as human as our side, as a ferocious monster or as a tough foe that has to be defeated. Still others have painted war as all good fun or merely a crushing bore. Genevoix’ approach has been to show a group of men who suffer the horrors and tribulations of war but, essentially, are friends and comrades and stick together against a virtually remote foe. Early in the re-edition of the first book, Barbusse mentions an incident where he was actually close to the German soldier – I felt the presence and life of the men at whom I was firing is the phrase he uses. He adds this only ever happened once more. In short, the Germans are foreign, remote, objects.

Genevoix does not minimise the horrors of war. We see plenty of examples of bloods and guts and intestines hanging out. But he does not dwell on them either. They happen. He sees and notes them and moves on. Much of the book is about the various soldiers and how they work together and play together. They forage for food but also hunt down and/or shelter from the Germans. They dig trenches and get wet and sick. Above all, they laugh and joke, mock (though not too severely) the higher-ups (Genevoix is a lieutenant) and help each other out at all times. It’s all well told and well written and makes for a good read though, by the end of the fourth book, it’s all starting to look a bit too familiar. The one book available in English is probably enough.

Publishing history

Sous Verdun (Neath Verdun, August-October, 1914)
First published in French 1916 by Hachette
First English translation by Hutchinson in 1916
Nuits de guerre
First published in French 1917 by Ernest Flammarion
No English translation
La boue
First published in French 1921 by Ernest Flammarion
No English translation
Les éparges
First published in French 1923 by Ernest Flammarion
No English translation