Subverting Misconceptions about the Great War: Henri Barbusse’s “Under Fire” and Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”

May 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

Writing towards the end of the twentieth century, German literary scholar Hans Wagener reflects on the deep resonance of war literature, stating: “When we think about certain periods of history, epoch-making books come to mind that capture the spirit of those times most vividly”. Indeed, literary expressions of the Great War have performed a crucial role in shaping our perceptions of modern warfare, as evidenced by the wide acclaim of Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire (1917) and Erich Maria Remarque’s retrospective novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), two episodic accounts that claim to present the reality of combat from either side of the conflict of 1914-18. Both writers seamlessly interweave fiction and autobiography in order to dismantle romanticised ideals of patriotic glory and adventure, with their narratives veering from the grindingly monotonous to the gruesomely horrific aspects of trench life. Moreover, their position as spokesmen – for soldiers either unwilling or unable to speak for themselves – has led to both writers additionally gaining the status of “moral witness”, suggesting that their work may have been driven by an unrelenting sense of loyalty and duty towards the soldiers besides whom they fought. However, it has been argued that the writers’ use of fictitious accounts alongside authentic ones undermines their critique of romanticised misconceptions about the war, and certain aestheticised elements of their texts may even contribute to the mythologizing of the war that they appear to so vehemently oppose. Therefore, while these texts have undoubtedly influenced modern conceptions of military conflict, they also raise pertinent questions relating to the function and integrity of the literature of the Great War. The late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century was an age of growing nationalism across Europe, with every man in France and Germany undergoing varying degrees of military training. As such, the notion that making war was a noble enterprise was commonly held, and, by 1914, both the mass media and teachers had fostered a firm sentiment of patriotism in the young by telling militaristic tales of honour, bravery, and conquest. The enthusiastic mindset of youth at the outbreak of war is reflected in Rupert Brooke’s 1914 sonnet, “Peace”, which berates those that do not believe in war as “sick hearts that honour could not move”, and invokes the powerful imagery of baptism by presenting a vision of young men embarking on a restorative mission of cleansing, “as swimmers into cleanness leaping”. Interestingly, Barbusse begins Under Fire with a similar allusion to a pre-war sickness, setting his opening chapter in a sanatorium in the Alps. He uses the dialogue between patients to explore popular beliefs about the conflict, namely that the prospect of war offers an opportunity for renovation: “Perhaps it is the war to end wars” [5]. Foreshadowing the devastation of France during and after the conflict, Barbusse therefore adopts the motif of an inward wound as a platform to detail the common hopes and expectations surrounding the onset of the Great War.However, the text swiftly deconstructs these fallacies of hope and renewal, as Barbusse recounts the French soldiers’ experiences in impassioned, violent prose. Written in serial form in 1916, a year that saw French troops slain in unprecedented numbers at the Somme and Verdun, Under Fire exposes the madness of public misconceptions of the war by detailing the grotesque horrors of combat: “I saw his body rising, upright, black, his two arms fully outstretched and a flame in place of his head!” [154]. Far from affirming the romantic ideal of patriotic glory in battle, the text paints a hellish vision of terror and butchery, with Barbusse’s narrative continually lingering on the mutilated bodies of his fallen comrades (“his head was completely flattened, like a pancake”) [46] and the senselessness of the death and destruction brought about by the war. These vivid scenes of bloodshed and carnage are interspersed with periods of crushing monotony, striking a stark, but hardly desirable, contrast to the relentless terror of artillery barrage. Passages detailing seemingly endless episodes of inactivity skilfully subvert the idealised representations of the French soldier excitedly embarking on bold, militaristic escapades:“We are waiting. We get tired of sitting down, so we get up. Our joints stretch with creaking sounds, like warped wood or old hinges: damp rusts a man as it does a rifle, more slowly, but more profoundly” [18]. Rather than lauding the soldiers as representatives of youthful vitality, Barbusse describes how the men have become old before their time; their “creaking” joints signifying that they have been reduced to mere “machines for waiting”. This bleak sense of purposelessness is augmented by the confusion and lack of direction that permeates the narrative, starkly illustrated by an instance when the soldiers mistakenly enter the German trenches (“Where are we? God Almighty! Where are we?”) [275]. Over the course of the novel, therefore, the myths of honour and glory that prompted many to become recruits are rendered meaninglessness, and are subsequently replaced by Barbusse’s harrowing narratives of soul-destroying terror. Influenced by Barbusse’s wartime account, and doubtlessly alarmed by the efforts of some to sanitise the Great War over the course of the 1920s, Erich Maria Remarque published his retrospective narrative on the experience of the common German soldier, All Quiet on the Western Front, in order to shock the wider reading public out of indifference. Indeed, Remarque’s manuscript was initially rejected by the publishing house S. Fischer Verlag, who believed that the German public were no longer interested in reading about the war. Using a third-person narrative to imbue the text with degree of detachment, Remarque deftly subverts the myth of the “noble” soldierly experience through the harrowing impressions of a young German recruit, Paul Bäumer. The incongruity between the romantic ideals of patriotism and bravery and the stark reality of life in the trenches is made especially apparent through Bäumer’s experiences of witnessing the aftermath of deadly gas attacks: “I know the terrible sights from the field hospital, soldiers who have been gassed, choking for days on end as they spew up their burned-out lungs, bit by bit” [48]. Ruthlessly dismantling the belief that the German soldiers were stoic and fearless, Remarque describes the young men being routinely stripped of dignity, recounting an occasion in which a young soldier soils himself (“I understand at once: the barrage scared the shit out of him”) [44] out of sheer terror during a bombardment. Furthermore, the episodes recounted in Remarque’s text are contextless; he does not disclose the names, dates or locations of the battles, thus echoing the pervasive sense of futility prevalent in Under Fire. . Driven by desperation to steal the boots of their dead comrades, the wretched actions of the young soldiers poignantly demonstrate how the war turned men from either side of the conflict into “human animals”, forever alienated from civilian life. Rather than engaging with the dominant discourse of hostility and fear of the “other”, Barbusse and Remarque’s ire is almost exclusively reserved for the “home front”, comprised of civilians who remained in France and Germany throughout the war. The inanity of authority figures from back home in All Quiet on the Western Front is embodied in the form of Paul’s schoolmaster, Kantorek, who inculcates his students with bellicose illusions of honour and patriotic duty: “I can still see him, his eyes shining at us through his spectacles and his voice trembling with emotion as he asked, “You’ll all go, won’t you lads?”” [8]. Kantorek’s ardent rhetoric and pompous belief in the infallibility of the young soldiers – at one point he refers to them as “young men of iron” [13] – appears preposterous and deceitful, consequently forcing the reader to reassess their own assumptions of the nature of modern warfare. Likewise, Barbusse’s text is scathing of those who speak with authority about the war without experiencing it, particularly the “trench-tourists”, who exacerbate romanticised notions of war being an exciting and honourable endeavour. In a darkly humorous passage, the author describes a group of journalists visiting the French soldiers in the trenches:““Oh! Oh!” says the first gent. “Here are some poilus… And real ones, too.”He comes a little closer to our group, rather cautiously, as in the zoo at the Jardin d’Acclimation, and holds out his hand to the one nearest to him, with a certain awkwardness, like offering a bit of bread to the elephant.“Aha! They’re drinking coffee,” he observes.“They call it “juice”,” says the magpie man”. [33]Carrying umbrellas and binoculars, the journalists’ appearance in this hellish wasteland appears farcical and inappropriate, and the condescending manner in which they address the soldiers (“Is it good, my friends?”) mark them clearly as figures of contempt. Barbusse’s text therefore functions as an attack on the ill-informed preconceptions of the somnolent “home front”, with his account repeatedly demonstrating how actual experience fighting in the trenches is a requisite to truly understanding the realities of warfare. This exposes an additional dimension to the intentions behind these novels, explicitly set out by Remarque in the epigraph to All Quiet on the Western Front, where he claims to “give an account of a generation that was destroyed by war – even those of it who survived the shelling”. As a spokesman for soldiers who were either physically or mentally destroyed by the war, Remarque feels an acute sense of duty towards his fallen comrades, which largely manifests itself in his determination to prevent the perpetuation of myths surrounding warfare. His narrative is preoccupied with the challenges faced by young soldiers when attempting to return to civilian life, with Paul anxiously reflecting that, “Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what can possibly become of us?” [186]. Paul and his young comrades feel robbed of the experience of growing up in peaceful times, and Remarque underlines the tragedy of their stolen youth through the reiteration of the word “young” throughout the text. Consequently, Remarque’s novel speaks for those forever silenced by the conflict, and, on their behalf, exposes the war as a wasteful and retrogressive enterprise. Similarly, Barbusse’s Under Fire sees the author take on the mantle of “moral witness”, with the narrative voice of the text resounding with the sobering authority of direct experience. Barbusse incorporates military slang and coarse colloquialisms into the dialogue of the novel in order to additionally explore the motif of unsayability, illustrating how many aspects of trench experience defy description in conventional novelistic terms. For example, the soldiers’ frustration at the ineptitude of the “catering corps types” is expressed in their own vernacular, rather than flowing prose: “They do bugger all, and with them it is: “I don’t give a bugger.” Buggery-muggery, that’s them!” [20]. By both capturing his comrades’ distinctive style of speech and using it to testify on their behalf, the author is undertaking an act of comradeship best epitomised by the words of a fellow soldier who wrote to Barbusse after reading Under Fire: “You have cried out with the voice of truth… we thank you for avenging us”. In this way, both Barbusse and Remarque could be said to romanticise the hostile brutality of war, imbuing into the carnage typically “heroic” values of loyalty and duty. For example, when Paul puts his own life at risk in a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to a save his friend, Kat (“I take him on my back and carry him to the rear, to the dressing station”) [202], it is not difficult to identify a novelistic sentimentality that may have led to Remarque’s text being swiftly adapted to a film in the year following its publication. Indeed, literary scholars have identified certain embellished elements of the novels that suggest that even Barbusse and Remarque are not immune to an aesthetic appreciation of war. In addition, the two writers’ use of “documentary fiction” – a seemingly paradoxical term – has proved a point of contention, with Frank Field suggesting that Barbusse’s combination of authentic detail and undisguised rhetoric only serves to diminish the impact of the author’s message. Consequently, while Barbusse and Remarque certainly shock their readership into reconsidering their perceptions of trench warfare, questions relating to the integrity of their accounts threaten to undermine the authors’ critique of the mythologizing of the Great War. However, it could be argued that the skilful fusion of authentic and fictionalised accounts serve as both texts’ greatest strength. Rather than limiting their narratives to their own experiences, or attempting to take an overly broad and detached approach to life in the trenches, Barbusse and Remarque poignantly detail the collective fate of those involved in trench life by focussing on an ever-diminishing group of comrades, all united by a shared knowledge of the horror of war. As a result, they achieve an effective synthesis of documentary and fiction, the harmonizing effect of which is articulated by the literary theorist Victor Brombert: “Fragmentation and continuity, innocence and experience, time lived and time retrieved are here locked in a contrapuntal relationship”. By combining authentic accounts with fictitious episodes, Barbusse and Remarque simultaneously give their personal experiences perspective and objectivity and enabling readers to identify with the characters of the novels, thereby firmly establishing their accounts as quintessential representations of trench life during the Great War.In conclusion, Barbusse’s Under Fire and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front are strikingly powerful in conveying both the moments of hellish terror and the periods of extreme monotony experienced by both French and German soldiers during the Great War. Their purpose in writing these accounts are twofold; they desire to expose the horrific reality of trench warfare, and, additionally, give a voice to those who have been silenced by the conflict, either by psychological trauma or by death. Although some have questioned the integrity of the writers’ use of fabricated accounts alongside authentic ones, both novels effectively expose the overarching truths of life in the trenches, with the writers’ harrowing deconstructions of the misconceptions of war reverberating in the reader’s consciousness decades after the conflict.

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