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Only 4 centuries of the whole “recorded” history, the humanity lived in piece. All the other time peoples were engaged in war actions for different purposes and aims. The development battle leading techniques and technologies of some nations prevailed and overwhelmed even the agricultural technologies. But almost nobody cares about the life of an ordinary soldier, who stayed on a battlefield, or survived, but stayed disabled.
World War One happened to be the first war in the history, which changed the world almost completely. It changed the world structure and the public moods allover the world, as the people were greatly expressed by the magnitude of the battles, and the scales of the sufferings and casualties. The wave of pacifism captured the world after the end of the World War One, and everyone supposed that humanity will never lead wars again.
The aim of the present work is to view the life of an ordinary soldier of the First World War (or the Great War, as it was called), how it is viewed in the literature of the beginning of the 20th century. Henry Barbusse and his novel “Under fire” is one of the most well known literary work devoted to the description of the ways of life of ordinary French soldiers, who survived the war, and than had to get used to all the lies, which were told about the war in the interests of those, who wanted to earn on the sufferings of the others.
One of the most impressive moments of the book is the description of the Verdun battle, which acquired the tints of terrific colors under the pen of talented novelist, who had survived the war himself. But Henry Barbusse sheds a lot probably in order to prevent the readers from all the horrors of the battles. Thus, he sheds some terrific moments about Verdun Battle – the most horrorfull battles in the history of the World War One, which is also called a Verdun Slaughter. A French soldier describes the horrors of a bombardment:…When you hear the whistling in the distance your entire body preventively crunches together to prepare for the enormous explosions. Every new explosion is a new attack, a new fatigue, a new affliction. Even nerves of the hardest of steel, are not capable of dealing with this kind of pressure. The moment comes when the blood rushes to your head, the fever burns inside your body and the nerves, numbed with tiredness, are not capable of reacting to anything anymore. It is as if you are tied to a pole and threatened by a man with a hammer. First the hammer is swung backwards in order to hit hard, then it is swung forwards, only missing your scull by an inch, into the splintering pole. In the end you just surrender. Even the strength to guard yourself from splinters now fails you. There is even hardly enough strength left to pray to God. 1
A witness tells:…We all carried the smell of dead bodies with us. The bread we ate, the stagnant water we drank… Everything we touched smelled of decomposition due to the fact that the earth surrounding us was packed with dead bodies….
…a network of elongated pits in which the nightly excreta are piling up. The bottom is covered with a swampy layer from which the feet have to extricate themselves with every step. It smells dreadfully of urine all over….
A French stretcher-bearer describes the consequences of a flame-thrower attack:…Some grenadiers returned with ghastly wounds: hair and eyebrows singed, almost not human anymore, black creatures with bewildered eyes….2
The life in the trenches is described not only in fiction, but the also in the specific journals. The description of the trench itself may help to imagine the reality of the soldiers’ life. Better trenches would be about seven feet in depth and four till six feet wide. Sometimes sand bags lined the sides of the trench otherwise a kind trelliswork wall of hazel subdivisions was used (a bit like barrier fences). Boarding would be laid in the base. On the edge of the trench were sand bags and gibed rope. Repeatedly, allied and enemy trenches could be at a distance of at least 50 feet.
Here and there trenches were correctly dug into the earth to supply protection when the battle wasn’t too extreme. But the shelter was not reliable enough, as in summer the trench was subjected to the hot sun and in winter to heavy rain and snow. The rain usually filled the trench and water soaked in through the walls leaving the troops up to their knees in thick, stinking mud that made any movement difficult. There was not any sanitation care and rats could appear in the trenches, which aggravated the conditions. Dysentery and trench foot were the most widespread deceases. There could be no reprieve for front line troops for weeks on end. Even a near miss from arms shell could crumple a trench or cause dugout to crumple burying alive the soldiers who happened to be unlucky stay there. The closeness of death, the horror of it and stink of it, the horrific sights of devastated bodies, and the screams of friend cut in half and the steady shooting combined to send many men insane either at the time or afterward the war. 3
The description of all the horrors of the battle and bombing which soldiers experienced staying in the trenches can be taken form any memoires. There is nothing as exhausting as the permanent, colossal bombardment as we survived last night, at the front. The night is interrupted by light as lucid as if it were day. The earth budges and shivers like jelly. And the people, who are still at the forefront, hear nothing except the drumfire, the groaning of wounded friends, the screeches of hurt horses, the wild pulsation of their own hearts, hour after hour, day after day, night after night.
The warriors plunged over like tin soldiers. Almost all the officers get injured or killed and lots of the men get killed by their own artillery fire, which was too close and consequently caused lots of victims. The losses were indexed as follows: they are killed, wounded, absent, nervous wrecks, ill and fatigued. Almost everybody suffered from dysentery. Due to the failing provisioning the men were obliged to use up their emergency portions of salty meats. They satisfied their thirst with water gathered in the shell-holes after rains. They were positioned in the village of Ville where every type of care seemed to miss. They had to construct their own housing and were given a little cacao to stop the diarrhoea. The latrines, wooden beams suspending over open holes, are engaged day and night – the holes are sealed with ooze and blood. 4
The following moment just could not be included in the fictional novel, as the sophisticated public would just refuse to read further. The latrines reasoned the major problems. They were completely blocked up and smell dreadfully. This stink was fought with chlorinated lime and this stink mixes with the battlefield smell of putrefaction. Men even wore their gas masks when using the latrines. 5
Life outside the trenches
As it has been mentioned above, Barbusse would never tell about the most terrific things during war, as the truth is really horrorfull. One of the soldiers tells about life in the periods, when the shells did not explode, and the bullets did not play their cannonade. Seven days without sleep, seven days of exhaustion, thirst and horror made these healthy men, these perfectly disciplined companies into a band of lingerers. Dangerously ill, but tranquil and satisfied, as they were now out of jeopardy and appeared to be still alive…
…At my feet two inauspicious individuals rolled the floor in misery. Their clothing and hands, their complete bodies were on fire. They looked like living torches. (The next day) watched by us on the bottom the two I had observed blazing, lay rattling. They were so unrecognizably injured that we could not make a decision on their identities. Their skin was black completely. One of them gave up the ghost that same night. In a well of lunacy the other hummed a harmony from his childhood, spoke to his wife and his mother and chatted with someone else of his village. Tears were in our eyes.
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Women on the frontline
The combination of women and the war battles could be named the most paradoxical combination ever. But even inspite of this fact, women were widely engaged in the war affairs in years 1914-1918. Henry Barbusse sheds this point, and reveals only the most common things, like nursing. He never mentions in his novel, that courageous women carried away the wounded soldiers from the battle field, under the shelling, and the whistle of bullets. To write the novel including all the horrors, which women bore could be regarded as at least exaggeration, as the readers at that time, captured by the postwar wave of pacifism would not be able to perceive those horrorfull facts.
In the difference to the 1911, France practiced no war fever in the summer of 1914. The assassination of the Austrian archduke aggravated little remark; it was just one more crisis in the crisis subjected Balkans, which had already detonated into war twice in the previous three years (1912, 1913) without absorbing or much attracting France. Although a few chronicles evoked a week or so of increasing anxiety, naturally French women described the recruitment order of 1 August and the declaration of war two days afterward as totally unanticipated. 6
It should be mentioned, that everything started from just simple hiring of women to the jobs, previously occupied only by men, as the lack of employees occurred in the cities. Women filled lots of jobs brought into subsistence by wartime requirements. As a consequence the amount of women employed rose from 3,224,600 in July, 1914 to 4,814,600 in January 1918. Nearly 200,000 women were hired in government jobs. Half a million became office workers in private offices. Women were hired as conductors on trams and buses. A quarter of a million was engaged on the land. The greatest augment of women workers was in manufacturing. Over 700,000 of these women worked in the highly treacherous armaments industry. Industries that had beforehand excluded women hired them again. There was a meticulous stipulate for women to do heavy work such as unloading coal, fueling heating systems and building ships.7
In the conclusion it would be necessary to mention, that inspite of the fact, that Henry Barbusse experience all the possible sufferings of the war, and filled his novel with the extreme emotions and impressions of those times, he just could not afford himself subject the readers to the whole truth of the wartime, as at first the community was fully against war t repeat it once more, and at second the uncovered facts was too terrific to appear on the pages of literature.
- The First World War. (2004, May). History Today, 54, 75.
- Under Fire (Le Feu), by Henri Barbusse, Dutton, 1917
- Richard Bessel and David Englander, ‘Up From the Trenches: Some Recent Writings on the Soldiers of the Great War’, European Studies Review, 11 (1981): 387-394
- G. Dallas and D. Gill, The Unknown Army: Mutinies in the British Army During World War One
- Martha Hanna, ‘A Republic of Letters: The Epistolary Tradition in France during World War 1’, American Historical Review, 104 (2004): 1338-1361
- Darrow, M. H. (2000). French Women and the First World War : War Stories of the Home Front /. New York: Berg.
- Susan R. Grayzel, Women’s Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France during the First World War