Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear

Next year will mark the one-hundredth anniversary of the First World War, and though there will undoubtedly be all manner of commemorations and teary-eyed speechmaking, not to mention an outpouring of sentiment on social media, I fear my generation is constitutionally incapable of honouring the event, of doing anything more than paying it an empty lip service. Real tribute demands understanding, and there is a chasm separating the comforts of our modern lives from the experiences of those young boys and men in the trenches of early 20th-century Europe. This is to be expected, and would, perhaps, be excusable, if we made some effort to disabuse ourselves of our ignorance, to enforce upon ourselves the importance of these events and their continued relevance on our lives, but few of us meet even this low standard. I do not think I am wrong in suggesting that present-day Europe has not seen as much chaos and internal division since the end of World War II and, were we to sleepwalk into another disastrous conflict, it would be a perversely genuine tribute to our forebears – perhaps the only one we can make – for such was their fate.

Gabriel Chevallier fought for France in the First World War. He was injured on the front lines, spent a brief few months recuperating in the rear, and then returned to active duty until the end of the war. Fear, his autobiographical novel about the war and his experiences in it, was published in 1930; by 1939, when it was clear that Europe was again doomed to war, the author and his publisher agreed to suspend sales – honesty is bad for morale. What’s worse, it was not translated into English until 2011, and so, very conceivably, it is only now finding the larger audience it deserves.

Our protagonist is Jean Dartemont, a mere teenager when he freely enlists in the army, not out of a desire to serve his country, “not to fight but out of curiosity: to see.” In France in 1914, few of the citizens had even the slightest idea what war would look like, and even the generals and military were clueless as to the nature of modern combat or the role that modern machine guns and howitzers would play in expediting the death of young men. Their troops would pay the price of their stupidity. Chevallier makes us experience the front lines with his protagonist, and always it is the death and the fighting that prompt his most visceral descriptive passages. Here, for example, is Dartemont’s first glimpse of the front:

We were shaken out of this torpor by a world in flames. We had just marched over the crest of a hill, and suddenly there before us lay the front line, roaring with all its mouths of fire, blazing like some infernal factory where monstrous crucibles melted human flesh into a bloody lava. We shuddered at the thought that we were nothing but more coal to be shovelled into this furnace, that there were soldiers down there fighting against the storm of steel, the red hurricane that burned the sky and shook the earth to its foundations. There were so many explosions that they merged into a constant roar and glare. It was as if someone had set a match to the petrol-soaked horizon, or an evil spirit was stoking up the flames in some devil’s punch-bowl, dancing naked and sneering at our destruction.

As with all of Chevallier’s descriptions of combat, the war is its own force, a malevolency separate from the army firing at him, better personified by a sneering devil than his counterpart in the German lines, a youth as inexperienced and afraid as he is. There is, in fact, no anger expressed at the Germans themselves. Later on, when Dartemont is on night patrols, for example, and occasionally catches a German infantrymen in his sights, he declines to shoot, and he senses the same reticence from the other side. In one memorable passage, a mutual understanding develops between two opposing factions, one French and one German: when their respective superiors are not around, they make no efforts to kill each other, and when said superiors do appear, they warn the other side to take cover.

The anger in Fear is reserved for others, for the non-combatants: the generals and superior officers who hold human life so cheaply, who cavalierly send men to die for their glory, their pride, their patriotism; for the families at home, the mothers and fathers, whose primary concern is not the lives of their children but their comportment in the war, their prowess in battle; and, finally, for the women of France, who expect heroic stories from men returning from the front, who don’t wish to be told about the realities of combat – all of those, in Dartemont’s memorable phrasing, “for whom courage cost precious little, since they exercised it at other’s expense.” In one of the book’s most memorable passages, Dartemont enters a make-shift infirmary after sustaining a shrapnel injury, giving him his best look at the ravages of war on human flesh:

The most unfortunate are laid out on the ground, muddy lumps crowned with haggard faces, bearing that terrible expression of resignation that pain brings with it. They look like beaten dogs. Holding their shattered limbs, they intone a mournful chant that rises up from the depths of their flesh. One has a broken jaw hanging down that he dares not touch. The hideous hole of his mouth, blocked by an enormous tongue, is a well of thick blood. A man who has been blinded, walled up behind the bandage around his face, raises his head to heaven in the hope of catching some faint glimmer of light through the loophole of his eye sockets then slumps back down sadly into the darkness of his cell. He gropes around in the emptiness like someone scrabbling at the damp, slippery walls of a dungeon. A third has lost both his hands, the hands of a farmer or a worker, his tools, his means of earning a living; once he would have said, proclaiming his independence: ‘When a man has two good, strong hand he’ll always find work.’ And now they are not even there to help him in his pain, to meet that most basic, habitual need of bringing them to the place that hurts, which they should hold, which they should calm.

This catalogue of human misery is the product of the war, of the decisions of men Dartemont has never met, given validity by a society eager to proclaim its own patriotism. He continues:

They had also brought in a piece of human scrap so monstrous that everyone recoiled at the sight, that it shocked men who were no longer shockable. I shut my eyes; I had already seen far too much and I wanted to be able to forget eventually. This thing, this being, screamed in a corner like a maniac. The revulsion that turned our stomachs told us that it would be an act of generosity, a fraternal act, to finish him off.

Understaffed, the doctors must make quick assessments about who can be saved and who is likely to die, and the unlucky are taken from the comfort of the medical hut, from the softness of the beds, and laid outside to die, to make room for other men who may yet live. Such is war’s horror that Dartemont cannot find the time to pity them: “Anything dead is irrelevant. To feel pity would weaken us.” Such a statement is shocking, but it is also honest, and honesty is Chevallier’s target: Fear offers an unflinching and horrifyingly evocative portrait of the inferno of combat; it is, in the final assessment, an indictment, a revenge upon the perpetrators of this costly stupidity, and in that project it is a resounding success.