The slaughterhouse is the fate of both soldiers and animals. The French title translates literally as "the great herd" and the novel starts the day after a group of soldiers leave for the front, with a great herd of sheep passing through the village, suffering or even dying because there are too few shepherds to care for them properly.
The central characters are Julia and her husband Joseph, his father Jerome and sister Madelaine, and Madelaine's lover Oliver. Giono narrates episodes in their lives spread over years, compressing time and creating an impressionist effect. He also uses short sentences, in places almost staccato.
Giono had firsthand experience of the trenches and the episodes featuring Joseph and Oliver at the front have a harrowing immediacy. They involve lonely deaths, a passage through a field dressing station, soldiers and officers coming apart under the stress, and confused attacks and counterattacks. At home, the women and old men and boys face the deaths and injuries and absences of husbands and sons and fathers as well as their own stresses, ranging from sexual frustration to having to cope with the farm work.
His anti-war sentiment is clear, but Giono avoids politics. In The Slaughterhouse the broader context is largely the natural world. The landscapes range from the blasted no-man's-land of the front, with its dugouts and trenches and shattered villages and forests, to the harsh but beautiful mountain valleys and their unromanticised but invigorating fields and farms. Animals are equally important but also unsentimentalised, from a pig eating a dead baby to a shepherd's prize ram being looked after by a farmer, or a newly born lizard.
A powerful account of the terrible effects of war on a community, unusual in its structure and setting, The Slaughterhouse deserves its place as one of the classic novels of the Great War.