The French infantryman’s experience on the Western Front 1914-16: a soldier-novelist’s reaction

 2017 marks the centenary of the publication in English of a remarkable French wartime novel – one which aimed to ‘tell the truth about the war’

Lessay War Memorial (CC BY-NC-SA Philip Dutton)

The scale of losses experienced between 1914 and 1918 by the French Army was truly shocking. In late August 1914 alone, during the Battle of the Frontiers, French casualties totalled well over 200,000[1]. But French forces rallied, and with Allied help, pushed the German invaders away from Paris during the crucial Battle of the Marne in early September. In the ensuing trench warfare on the Western Front French armies resisted further enemy incursions, and, as opportunity allowed, launched their own attacks designed to regain national territory. This was a process of unremitting toil, loss, and misery not helped by unfortunate tactical and strategic decisions that played into the hands of a well organised enemy. Dismayed by his own personal encounters with these failures a French soldier participant, already an established writer by 1914 and one with definite socialist sympathies, concluded that many of his civilian countrymen failed utterly to appreciate the savage intensity of the fighting and intolerable conditions of the ‘front’ – ‘this catastrophe of flesh and filthiness[2] – that their soldiers were condemned to inhabit. He aimed to make good this failure by writing a novel that would tell the truth about the war.

Henri Barbusse’s powerfully anti-war novel ‘Le Feu’ was imaginatively based on his over 16 months’ active service on the Western Front in a French Infantry regiment. Written during a period of recovery after illness, his account was severely critical of the conduct of the war and uncompromising in its depiction of the gruesome realties of front line service. It first saw print in serialised form in the monthly literary journal ‘L’Oeuvre’ during 1916 and it was published in book form in December of that year. The English translation of the novel, published as ‘Under Fire’, appeared in June 1917. The novel was warmly received in France and its English translation in Great Britain, received many approving notices.

Regarded as an honest ‘piece of anti-war propaganda’, by Cyril Falls, in his classic critical appraisal ‘War Books’ (1930), ‘Le Feu’ remains in print. A remarkable piece of wartime writing in its own right, literary scholars have identified the work as having exerted a powerful influence on a number of poets and writers during the conflict and, later, on that group of post-war authors, whose of ‘trench memoirs’ and war-based fictional works, published in the late 1920s, were largely fuelled by a spirit of anger about the appalling nature of the conflict, and disillusion with its consequences. A response typified in its most extreme form by Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1929). Both All Quiet and Le Feu sold, and continue to sell, exceedingly well.

Understandably focus has remained on the continuing debate on the cultural impact of Barbusse’s novel, notably as a forerunner and template of the anti-war, realistic school of ‘disenchantment’. But in this concentration of purpose, the identity of the original translator – William Fitzwater Wray – who first made the work accessible to English readers has been lost sight of. This is a pity as Fitzwater Wray was a fascinating character in his own right, and a good and prolific writer, particularly in his own specialist field – cycling. And it was a cycling experience in wartime France undertaken by Fitzwater Wray in September 1914 that unwittingly helped prepare him for the task of translating Barbusse’s contentious novel.

A longer article about Barbusse and his translator is also avaialble: See The French soldier novelist and the British cycling journalist: some notes on ‘Le Feu’ by Henri Barbusse, and its first English translator, William Fitzwater Wray.


  • Le Feu: Journal d’une escouade, Henri Barbusse, Paris, 1916
  • Under Fire. The Story of a Squad, Henri Barbusse, translated by Fitzwater Wray (author of ‘Across France in Wartime’), E P Dutton & Co, New York, 1917
  • Under Fire: the journal of a squad, Henri Barbusse, translated by W Fitzwater Wray, introduction by Brian Rhys, J M Dent & Sons (Everyman’s Library), 1965
  • Under Fire, Henri Barbusse, translated by Robin Buss, introduction by Jay Winter, Penguin Books, 2003 (Penguin Classics edition 2014)


‘Le Feu’ is available online: This is the Fitzwater Wray translation

Teaching resource:

——– NOTES ——————-

[1] ‘No fewer than 80,000 French soldiers were killed…between 22 and 25 August, The French Army Between Tradition and Modernity. Weaponry, Tactics and Soldiers, 1914-18, by Professor Dr François Cochet, in The World War I Companion, edited by Matthias Strohn, Osprey Publishing, 2013, p.94. An aggregate figure for French war losses of ‘1,385,300’ (killed and missing) for the period 1914-18  is offered by ‘The World War I Databook’, John Ellis & Michael Cox, Aurum Press, 2001, p.269

[2] Under Fire, Henri Barbusse, translated by W Fitzwater Wray, introduction by Brian Rhys, Dent & Sons, 1965, p.269

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About Philip Dutton

Formerly a Curator at the Imperial War Museum (retired March 2014), who has spent most of his career in museum work - including the Towner Art Gallery (Eastbourne), the Royal Engineers Museum (Gillingham) and a secondment to the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. He has a particular interest in the history of the Great War - especially the literary history of the conflict, notably trench memoirs and war-inspired novels. He also has a keen regard for British First World War film (official and unofficial) and German First World War satirical medallions (which he got to know well at the IWM). In recent years he has written campaign and battle narratives for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's website, summary accounts of Anzac forces in the Great War to accompany the Royal Mail commemorative stamp issues, and contributed to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Battle of the Somme centenary commemorations.
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