The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 22, 1939
Barbusse Portrays War Horror
By W. J. CASH
If the boys who have arrogated to themselves the right to be called the "peace party" in this country were serious about keeping us out of war, I think that, instead of wasting time trying to persuade us that Poland was the aggressor in the present conflict and that selling arms is different from selling the things that make arms, they'd concentrate on circulating the war picture book Laurence Stallings got out some years ago and, above [all], Henri Barbusse's "Under Fire."
The last is the great horror book of the last war. Not even "All Quiet on the Western Front," can compare with it in that respect.
FIRST HAND KNOWLEDGE
Barbusse, like Remarque, wrote from first hand knowledge. But his book was written while the conflict was still going on, and from notes taken in the trenches, rather than from the perspective of one who looked back upon it. And that makes a great difference. For as he makes one of his characters say, "man is a creature who thinks a little and mainly forgets." Moreover, Barbusse entered the conflict as a doctrinaire Socialist, and to prove that common men had been sold into it merely through the wickedness of their exploiting masters. Hence, he is concerned almost entirely with the horror aspects of the case.
The book has many faults. The speeches are often wooden and unconvincing, particularly when he sets his characters to drawing Socialist conclusions. Yet even in the middle of this he pauses, plainly unsure of his ground and at last certain of only one thing, that war is insanity, and that the war in progress must be, the last one. How futile that sounds now!
But for all its faults, the book succeeds nevertheless in being a gripping and powerful tale.
In brief, it tells the story of a French squad stationed in the neighborhood of Hill 119 on the Bethune Road from the opening of the war through 1915. A French squad is larger than the American, running at present to about twelve men, to even larger numbers in the World War.
There is sometimes grotesque comedy in the thing, as the bragging of the huge and ox-like Lamuse over the notion that Eudoxie, the half-cracked but lovely refugee who wanders among the lines, is smitten with his charms--only in the end to have her refuse his advances with wild distaste before the eyes of his comrades.
Oftener there is tragedy, as opposed to mere horror. I think, indeed, that I have never read a more tragic tale than that of the soldier, Eudore, and his leave. Or of the other member of the squad who went up with some kind-hearted Boche to have a look at his wife through a window in a village behind the German lines.
But always the principal vein is that of terrible animal and mental suffering. The lice, the everlasting rain and mud, the stinks, the filth, inadequate and putrid food, the everlasting dread. The men who come out of the front lines shouting and dancing though half of their squad has been slain and nearly all are wounded, because for the moment "we are all still here". The quarters in the rain-soaked barn in "rest station." The scramble through a latrine to escape the rain of bullets. The night when Lamuse tumbles into a shellhole and embraces his Eudoxy at last, a putrid corpse lying where a stray bullet had stopped her. The corpse of Mesnil Andre lying for days in a hidden hole just outside the wall of the trench, while his brother, half-demented, risks his life in a vain search for him. The piling up of corpses in the dreadful charge across a plain swept by machine guns which cut three or four holes in each of their victims as they pass. The living with their faces blown away. The corpses decaying in the trenches beside the living. The morning after the trenches have flooded and all the country is a lake floating with corpses. Corpses with maggots and ants in their faces, corpses that are mere torsos or thighs, corpses merging slowly back into the earth and turning into skeletons, because there are not streacher-bearers enough to bury them.
You had better not read it if your stomach is not strong. But if you want to find out what modern war is like, it will tell you.
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