A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Over the top, and into an apocalyptic bombardment

The novelist Henri Barbusse saw 17 months of active service in the French infantry, much of it in the trenches around Vimy Ridge. This is his description of a dangerous and terrifying advance on the German lines

A shadow comes in through the low doorway of our dug-out and cries “Alarm, 22nd! Stand to arms!”

A moment of silence and then several exclamations. “I knew it,” murmurs Paradis, and he goes on his knees towards the opening into the molehill that shelters us. Speech then ceases and we seem to be struck dumb.

Stooping or kneeling we bestir ourselves; we buckle on our belts; shadowy arms dart from one side to another; pockets are rummaged. And we issue forth pell-mell, dragging our knapsacks behind us.

Outside we are deafened. The roar of gunfire has increased a hundredfold, to left, to right, and in front of us. Our batteries give voice without ceasing. “Do you think they’re attacking?” ventures a man. “How should I know?” replies another with irritated brevity.

Our jaws are set and we swallow our thoughts, hurrying, bustling, colliding, and grumbling without words.

A command goes forth: “Shoulder your packs.”

“There’s a counter-command,” shouts an officer who runs down the trench with great strides, working his elbows, and the rest of his sentence disappears  with him. A counter-command! A visible tremor has run through the files, a start which uplifts our heads and holds us all in extreme expectation.

But no; the counter-order only concerns the knapsacks. No pack; but the blanket rolled round the body, and the trenching tool at the waist. We unbuckle our blankets and roll them up. Still no word is spoken; each has a steadfast eye and the mouth forcefully shut. The corporals and sergeants go here and there, feverishly spurring the silent haste in which the men are bowed: “Now then, hurry up! Come, come, what the hell are you doing? Will you hurry, yes or no?”

We are ready. The men marshal themselves, still silently, their blankets crosswise, the helmet-strap on the chin, leaning on their rifles. I look at their pale, contracted, and reflective faces. They are not soldiers, they are men. They are not adventurers, or warriors, or made for human slaughter, neither butchers nor cattle. They are labourers and artisans whom one recognises in their uniforms. They are civilians uprooted, and they are ready. They await the signal for death or murder; but you may see, looking at their faces between the vertical gleams of their bayonets, that they are simply men.

Each one knows that he is going to take his head, his chest, his belly, his whole body, and all naked, up to the rifles pointed forward, to the shells, to the bombs piled and ready, and above all to the methodical and almost infallible machine-guns – to all that is waiting for him yonder and is now so frightfully silent – before he reaches the other soldiers that he must kill.

They are not careless of their lives, like brigands, nor blinded by passion like savages. In spite of the doctrines with which they have been cultivated they are not inflamed. They are above instinctive excesses. They are not drunk, either physically or morally. It is in full consciousness, as in full health and full strength, that they are massed there to hurl themselves once more into that sort of madman’s part imposed on all men by the madness of the human race.

One sees the thought and the fear and the farewell that there is in their silence, their stillness, in the mask of tranquillity which unnaturally grips their faces. They are not the kind of hero one thinks of, but their sacrifice has greater worth than those who have not seen them will ever be able to understand.

They are waiting; a waiting that seems eternal. Now and then one or another starts a little when a bullet, fired from the other side, skims the forward embankment that shields us and plunges into the flabby flesh of the rear wall.

The end of the day is spreading a sublime but melancholy light on that strong unbroken mass of beings of whom some only will live to see the night. It is raining: there is always rain in my memories of all the tragedies of the Great War. The evening is making ready, along with a vague and chilling menace; it is about to set for men that snare that is as wide as the world…

A man arrives running, and speaks to Bertrand, and then Bertrand turns to us.  “Up you go,” he says, “it’s our turn.”

All move at once. We climb on to the parapet. Bertrand is out on the sloping ground. He covers us with a quick glance, and when we are all there he says: “Allons, forward!”

Our voices have a curious resonance. The start has been made very quickly, unexpectedly almost, as in a dream. There is no whistling sound in the air. Among the vast uproar of the guns we discern very clearly this surprising silence of bullets around us…

We descend over the rough and slippery ground with involuntary gestures, helping ourselves sometimes with the rifle. Mechanically the eye fastens on some detail of the ruined ground, on the sparse and shattered stakes pricking up, at the wreckage in the holes. It is unbelievable that we are upright in full daylight on this slope where several survivors remember sliding along in the darkness with such care, and where the others have only hazarded furtive glances through the loopholes.

No, there is no firing against us. The wide exodus of the battalion out of the ground seems to have passed unnoticed! This truce is full of an increasing menace, increasing. The pale light confuses us.

On all sides the slope is covered by men who, like us, are bent on the descent. On the right the outline is defined of a company that is reaching the ravine by Trench 97 – an old German work in ruins. We cross our wire by openings. Still no one fires on us. Some awkward ones who have made false steps are getting up again. We form up on the farther side of the entanglements and then set ourselves to topple down the slope rather faster. Several bullets arrive at last among us. Bertrand shouts to us to reserve our bombs and wait till the last moment.

But the sound of his voice is carried away. Abruptly, across all the width of the opposite slope, lurid flames burst forth that strike the air with terrible detonations. In line from left to right fires emerge from the sky and explosions from the ground.

It is a frightful curtain which divides us from the world, which divides us from the past and from the future. We stop, fixed to the ground, stupefied by the sudden host that thunders from every side; then a simultaneous effort uplifts our mass again and throws it swiftly forward. We stumble and impede each other in the great waves of smoke. With harsh crashes and whirlwinds of pulverised earth, towards the profundity into which we hurl ourselves pell-mell, we see craters opened here and there, side by side, and merging in each other.

Then one knows no longer where the discharges fall. Volleys are let loose, resounding so monstrously that one feels himself annihilated by the mere sound of the down-poured thunder of these great constellations of destruction that form in the sky. One sees and one feels the fragments passing close to one’s head with their hiss of red-hot iron plunged in water.

The blast of one explosion so burns my hands that I let my rifle fall. I pick it up again, reeling, and set off in the tawny-gleaming tempest with lowered head, lashed by spirits of dust and soot in a crushing downpour like volcanic lava. The stridor of the bursting shells hurts your ears, beats you on the neck, goes through your temples, and you cannot endure it without a cry. The gusts of death drive us on, lift us up, rock us to and fro. We leap, and do not know whither we go. Our eyes are blinking and weeping and obscured. The view before us is blocked by a flashing avalanche.

It is the barrage fire. We have to go through that whirlwind of fire and those fearful showers that vertically fall. We are passing through. We are through it, by chance. Here and there I have seen forms that spun round and were lifted up and laid down, illuminated by a brief reflection from over yonder. I have glimpsed strange faces that uttered some sort of cry – you could see them without hearing them in the roar of annihilation. A brazier full of red and black masses huge and furious fell about me, excavating the ground, tearing it from under my feet, throwing me aside like a bouncing toy.

I remember that I strode over a smouldering corpse, quite black, with a tissue of rosy blood shrivelling on him; and I remember, too, that the skirts of the greatcoat flying next to me had caught fire, and left a trail of smoke behind. On our right, all along Trench 97, our glances were drawn and dazzled by a rank of frightful flames, closely crowded against each other like men.

Forward!

Now, we are nearly running. I see some who fall solidly flat, face forward, and others who founder meekly, as though they would sit down on the ground. We step aside abruptly to avoid the prostrate dead, quiet and rigid, or else offensive, and also – more perilous snares! – the wounded that hook on to you, struggling.

The International Trench! We are there. The wire entanglements have been torn up into long roots and creepers, thrown afar and coiled up, swept away and piled in great drifts by the guns. Between these big bushes of rain-damped steel the ground is open and free.

The trench is not defended. The Germans have abandoned it, or else a first wave has already passed over it. Its interior bristles with rifles placed against the bank. In the bottom are scattered corpses. From the jumbled litter of the long trench, hands emerge that protrude from grey sleeves with red facings, and booted legs. In places the embankment is destroyed and its woodwork splintered – all the flank of the trench collapsed and fallen into an indescribable mixture. In other places, round pits are yawning.

And of all that moment I have best retained the vision of a whimsical trench covered with many-coloured rags and tatters. For the making of their sandbags the Germans had used cotton and woollen stuffs of motley design pillaged from some house-furnisher’s shop; and all this hotchpotch of coloured remnants, mangled and frayed, floats and flaps and dances in our faces.

 Extracted from ‘Under Fire’, by Henri Barbusse (1916)

‘Moments’ that have already been published can be seen at  independent.co.uk/greatwar

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