Barbusse during World War I

A journalist, novelist, literary editor for various publishers and chairman of the Société des Gens de lettres, Henri Barbusse (1873-1935) was already a recognized writer when the war broke out. Despite being forty-one years old already and in poor health, he enlisted as a private in order to fight for his convictions. A socialist by temperament, he intended to wage a social war against capitalism and militarism for progress to triumph in Europe. It did not take long before his experiences on the front quickly turned his idealism into a rebellion against warfare and useless sacrifice of human life. At first, he fought in Artois with the 231st Infantry regiment. Suffering from serious dysentery though, he became a stretcher-bearer and so took part in the offensive of 25 September 1915. Awarded the Military Cross and honored several times, he left the front line in November and became a staff headquarters secretary, interrupted by stays in hospital at various times (he was discharged in June 1917). He wrote Le Feu- Journal d’une Escouade, which was first serialized in L’Œuvre in the summer of 1916, then published as a single volume. In December, it was awarded the Goncourt Prize, praised by the public for its realism and authenticity, a far cry from official patriotic propaganda. Barbusse reached his goal but propaganda might have paradoxically succeeded too, by using the book in its own strategy of warfare. Although French writer Jean Norton Cru (1879-1949) criticized its excessive use of slang and literary fantasy, the book remains the most popular French war novel.

Post-War Life

Enjoying immense prestige, Henri Barbusse founded the Association Républicaine des Anciens Combattants in July 1917 together with Raymond Lefebvre (1891-1920?) and Paul Vaillant-Couturier (1892-1937). In 1919, he created the international intellectual movement Clarté, whose revolutionary agenda inspired him to disagree vehemently with Romain Rolland (1866-1944), who disapproved of the use of violence and fought for an idealistic pacifism. Clarté was also the title of his politically-committed novel about the impact of the war and ideology, published in 1922. For Henri Barbusse, literature and revolution were part and parcel of the same overarching idea. He joined the Communist party in 1923 and became literary editor of the daily paper L’Humanité three years later, remaining a true fighting writer until he died.

Laurence Campa, Université de Paris Ouest-Nanterre

Section Editors: Alexandre Lafon; Emmanuelle Cronier

Translator: Maurice Cottenceau