2014 is the year everyone remembers the Great War, the war to end all wars. In just a few months, we will see the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Franz Josef and his wife, the declarations of war between the major combatants, and the beginning of the years of trench warfare and attrition. It’s fitting that this is also the year that sees the translation and publication of Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear, among other books about the soldier’s experience on the Western Front.
Fear is ostensibly the story of Private Jean Dartemonte, a Parisian draftee who manages to survive four years of war. In reality, Fear is the fictionalized memoir of Chevallier himself. Dartemonte’s career is nearly identical to Chevallier’s. Both were drafted as teenagers, fresh from school. Both were wounded and spent months in hospital behind the lines. Both were returned to the trenches where, miraculously at times, they survived until the Armistice in November 1918. (Chevallier did win medals for his service, however, which his fictional counterpart does not. In fact, Dartemonte is never promoted from Private.)
Dartemonte is far from an ideal soldier. He thinks the entire war is a bloody (literally and figuratively) waste and that the entire French command are dangerously, psychotically incompetent. He takes nothing seriously. On marches, Dartemonte catches rides from soldiers heading the same way. He looks for jobs that will take him away from the trenches. He works as a runner and mapmaker for most of the war. The infantry grunts, known as poilu in French, look down on him for this, but they understand that its just another route to surviving the bloodshed. When Dartemonte is wounded by shrapnel in 1915, he ends up having long conversations with the nurses and volunteers at the hospital about fear, cowardice, bravery, and heroism.
No one who hasn’t served at the front understands Dartemonte’s thesis that fear is healthy and that every soldier feels it. Anyone who doesn’t feel sheer terror at the though of bombardments and raids and machine gunfire is either insane or an idiot. At times, his speeches reminded me of Joseph Heller’s war classic, Catch-22, which would be written some decades later. The nurses curse him for a coward and try to remind him of his patriotic duty. It’s not clear whether he ever gets through to them or not.
Once Dartemonte returns to the trenches of Artois and Chemin des Dames, he struggles with his overwhelming fear. At times, the only way for him to face the next barrage or offensive is to make peace with his immanent death. Others interpret it as a new-found bravery, though Dartemonte views himself as a dead man who just happens to still be walking around and breathing.
Fear contains the same elements that many other novels and histories of World War I have. I was reminded strongly of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and, of course, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. (Fear was originally published in French in 1930, but the translator, Imre Malcom, gives some of the dialog a distinctly British flavor.) It’s remarkable how similar the experiences of the infantry grunts was, no matter their nationality. What makes this book unique is its meditation on fear. The emotion is present in other war memoirs and novels, but in Fear, we see how one soldier argues that fear is normal and makes his peace with it.
I received a free review copy of this book from Edelweiss in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 20 May 2014.