Henri Barbusse joined the French army in 1914; he was 41, and his health was poor. He fought with the 231st infantry regiment. He was invalided out of the army three times, but ended by serving for seventeen months. At the beginning of 1916 he was moved into a clerical position, suffering from lung damage, exhaustion and dysentery.
He wrote Le Feu (translated as Under Fire) on the basis of his experiences, and although some criticised its harsh realism, he gained the plaudits of his former colleagues in the army and he won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most distinguished literary award. He had shown pacifist sentiments before the war, and these were clear in the book. In 1917, he was the co-founder and first president of ARAC, l’Association républicaine des anciens combatants (the Republican Association of Veterans).
It was several years after the war that he wrote Les enchaînements (Chains) which clearly arises from his meditation upon the Great War. The protagonist, Clément Trachel, coming home from a party, is on the stairs in his own house, and suddenly experiences himself in the prehistoric past, in Biblical Canaan, and in Khufu’s Egypt. brought back to himself, he remembers reading about “quiescent ancestral memory”:
I travelled up the line of beings which, after a hundred thousand years of humanity, ends in me. […] There is no metempsychosis, no supernatural re-incarnation, no miracle. There is only the positive principle of organic heredity and of memory—that persistent and truly superhuman tracing—that phantasmagoria of the world within the mind which gives to space an inner skin (vol 1, 85).
He travels again, or his mind does, to ancient Chaldea and to the days of early Christianity, and to the high Middle Ages, and begins to meditate on the nature of history and of the great men who are remembered for their leadership. The second volume begins on board a ship travelling to Ireland in the decades after the collapse of the western Roman Empire, and carries on through the Italian Renaissance, the colonisation of the Americas, the French Revolution, and the world of the French-held trenches during the Great War. His contemporaries, he muses,
are nationalists because they have never thought to check their course down nationalism’s slippery slope. They are militarists—or revolutionaries—because they like all that explodes loudly, or shines (the tribune with Napoleon’s scintillations!) Others have found for themselves a humanitarianism, or a more-or-less humanism, which cannot, even theoretically, hold water; or else, the panache of paradox sweeps the desks; or, acrobatic, they rejoice in their enlightened detachment from all worldly concerns.
They are the functionaries of the dominant middle opinion, the amusers, but also the servitors, of ancient public custom and of authority: its echo and reflection.
The great voice that I have gone forth to hear from afar off castigates them and all the men of letters and of decoration; “If humanity is to be described by one word, that word is: Obedience.” How tremendously those of the laves with accursed flesh who have profound gleams of conscience and rebellion must despise them! (vol 2, 200).
Trachel has experienced the past at first hand, and now begins to think about the future. Unless he does something, the drama of man will continue to be what it has always been: war. Now he can contemplate the drama of a man against war. “A man, I, the centre-point: I, the resultant of time. I am the recommencement” (vol 2, 205-6). The closing scenes seems to envisage a future revolution, which might complete what the French Revolution had begun. But the closing words are hardly optimistic:
Subjugate the herd that is thyself, the herd of brute beasts. Are men evil? I know not. Evil, like good, is melodramatic spectre. But they are stupid. For wisdom’s, for pity’s sake, revolt! (vol 2, 302)