English III Honors
13 December 2017
Henri Barbusse’s impact on literature during WWI
Authors often use events that happened in their life and put them into their writing. Look at any major event in the past one hundred years and you can find some type of writing about it. Primo Levi and his book about surviving Auschwitz in WWII. Or even Tim O’Brien’s experiences in the Vietnam War. Also Martin Russ with the Korean War as seen through his eyes. When World War One started, many literary pieces came out involving the true brutality surrounding the war. Although some were fictional, they were often based on real events from the war, and this gave the people at home a different perspective. One of the first and most prominent was Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire, written by a soldier experiencing the truly rugged conditions of World War I.
World War I was sparked June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo, Europe. This was a result of a Serbian nationalist assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Countries began to pick sides and this is where the central and allied powers became formed. The Central Powers included Germany, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary while the Allied Powers were France, Great Britain, Japan, Italy, Romania, and eventually the United States. Eventually is used there because the United States didn’t join the war until 1917, almost three years after it started. This is due to President Woodrow Wilson attempting to keep the U.S. in a state of isolationism and not be involved on either side. This worked until a series of things that had happened due to the central powers, more specifically Germany, threw the United States over the edge. These included multiple sinking’s of U.S. submarines and trade ships, most famous was the Lusitania. The Lusitania was a British ship carrying multiple passengers including hundreds of American lives. Also, the U.S. was involved very heavily in trade with Britain which meant the American economy depended very heavily on the allies winning the war. Lastly was the famous Zimmermann Telegram which was a message sent from Germany to Mexico saying that if Mexico joined the central powers, they would help gain back some of the land taken from them by the Americans (“Henri Barbusse”). As a result of all of these things, in 1917 Congress passed a quarter of a billion dollars to get ready for war and in April the United States declared war. The Allies won the war but not without a price. Once the war was ended in 1918, there was an absurd number of casualties and wounded. Over 15 million dead and over 25 million went home with some form of injuries. A huge unintended consequence of World War I was how the war guilt clause absolutely crushed Germany’s economy and Germany as a country. The war guilt clause was a result of the Treaty of Versailles and the clause said Germany had to pay for all of the war destruction. The unintended consequence is that this left Germany and its people susceptible to a ruler such as Adolph Hitler, which is exactly what happened (Trought).
Henri Barbusse was born in France and lived there all the way up until the war. He enlisted in the French military to serve his country although he was a strong pacifist and wasn’t a big fan of the war. Although he was exempted from having to be in the military due to the fact he had tuberculosis, he believed he had to fight for his countries democracy. He fought in multiple military engagements, mainly versus Germany. The biggest was the Battle of the Frontiers, which was a combination of battles versus the Germans. There was no clear winner but thousands of casualties were a result of these battles (Quinn). When he joined he was forty-one years old and he was injured multiple times in combat. Because of this, he was only in the war for about a year and a half before being forced to leave at the end of 1915. Barbusse still had to experience the horrible conditions of the front trenches which included food shortages, diseases, and the dead. This strengthened Barbusse’s pacifist view and helped lead to the creation of Under Fire. He started to write this book while he was in the hospital due to one of his war injuries. Barbusse moved to the Soviet Union and became a Stalinist following the war because he believed that Joseph Stalin could bring peace (Parit).
Under Fire was written in 1916, in the heat of the Great War. Henri Barbusse was one of the first to write a book with front-line experiences, so the book was a big reality check for the public. The majority of the public were pro-war until they truly realized the gruesome and animal-like conditions of World War I (Sollars). The book is focused on one group of French soldiers that are stationed at the Western Front. They are in the front trenches and are constantly being shot at, and having to watch friends and fellow soldiers die in combat. On top of this, because they are in the front trenches, constantly have very limited supplies such as food, water, and sometimes even ammunition. The tone of this story is very negative toward the war because of all of the bad conditions of the war (Barbusse). The reader never sees a true positive in the story unless you count the author staying alive one more day as a positive. A very big theme in this story is that anyone who fights for the freedom of their country also needs to make sure they maintain their personal freedom. This is extremely powerful in the sense that you should make sure you don’t give up all of your freedom. This is to make sure the government isn’t complete control of you.
Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire was one of the first and most prominent books during World War I. It was written by a soldier experiencing the truly rugged conditions of the war. In conclusion, the reader can see how multiple literary works come out of an author’s personal experiences. History will continue to see this pattern of authors and their personal events in books until the end of time.