Under Fire by Henri Barbusse (1917)

Le Feu – or Under Fire in its English translation – Henri Barbusse’s novel about life in the French trenches during the Great War, has the distinction of being the earliest published Great War novel, finished in December 1916, and published in Spring 1917.

It mostly consists of dialogue between a ragbag bunch of squaddies and must pose real problems for any translator trying to convert 1916 French army slang and banter into another language. Robin Buss does his best but there are infelicities on every page. ‘Innit’ and ‘old bean’ occur in the same sentences in a way unlikely to be spoken by any actual English speakers.

The first 200 pages consist of anecdotes and short scenes depicting a company at rest behind the lines, scenes of varying interest and acuity. But the last 100 pages contain by far the most searing description of an infantry attack and its aftermath through a landscape from hell which I’ve ever read and are not only horrifying but terrifying, drawing the reader into a dizzying abyss of terror and despair.

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