Chapter 1 The chapter begins with German soldiers at rest after fourteen days of fierce battle on the Western Front. A double ration of food has been prepared so the soldiers are eating their fill. Paul Baumer, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, watches in amazement as his friends, Tjaden and Muller, eat another helping; he wonders where Tjaden puts all the food, for he is as thin as a rail. Baumer is only nineteen years of age. He enlisted in the German infantry because Kantorek, his high school teacher, had glorified war and talked him into fighting for the fatherland. Kropp, Behm, and Leer, former classmates of Baumer, were also persuaded by Kantorek to join the infantry.
They are all now fellow soldiers along with Tjaden, Westhus, Detering, and Katczinsky. After a good night’s rest, the soldiers are in line for breakfast. They are overjoyed that the cook has made food for one hundred and fifty men when there are only eighty of them; they again envision being able to eat all that they want. The cook, however, says that he can only distribute food for eighty; but the soldiers argue and overrule him. After breakfast, mail is distributed.
Baumer and his friends stroll over to the meadow, located near the latrines. Baumer muses how embarrassed all of them were in the beginning to use the latrines that offered no privacy. Now all their modesty has vanished. Still, he believes that a soldier is on friendlier terms than other men with his stomach and intestines. Three quarters of his vocabulary is derived from these regions. Kantorek has written and sent a letter in which he calls his past students, now soldiers, Iron Youth. Ironically, the young men, all of them around twenty years of age, are no longer youth; war has forced them to grow up beyond their young years.
The old classmates talk about how they had idolized Kantorek while they were in school; now they hate him, blaming him for their misery. After all, he was the one who talked them into joining the military. They also blame him for the death of Josef Behm, one of their classmates who was the first of them to be killed. In truth, Baumer and his friends resent all authority at this point in their lives; the brutality of war that they have experienced has caused them to lose faith in the older adult generation. The chapter next focuses on Franz Kemmerich, a friend of Baumer whose leg has just been amputated.
He is in a makeshift hospital and in great pain; Kropp bribes an orderly to give him morphine to make him more comfortable. In spite of the pain, Kemmerich frets that his watch has been stolen by someone in the medical facility. His friends try to comfort him. Muller, however, has his eyes on Kemmerich’s leather boots and tries to persuade Kemmerich to give them to him. Being the practical and logical one of the group, Muller feels that Kemmerich no longer has use for a matched pair. He also knows that one of the orderlies in the hospital will steal the boots, just as the watch was stolen. Moral decadence is obviously a by-product of the war.
Notes It is obvious from the opening chapter that this novel will center on the war and the effects it has on a young group of soldiers, none of them more than twenty years of age. They are all friends and former classmates of Paul Baumer, the narrator and protagonist of the book; they have enlisted in the German infantry because their teacher, Kantorek, had painted for them a glorious picture of fighting and saving the homeland from destruction during World War I. In this first chapter, Baumer and his friends are away from the front lines, relaxing a bit after two weeks of fierce fighting. As each of the young men is introduced, it is apparent that they are tired, hungry, angry, and disillusioned over the war. The young soldiers are miserable over their plight and cast blame on Kantorek.
All of them have been in the midst of battle on the Western Front and have seen the horror and devastation caused by the fighting. One of their former classmates, Josef Behm, has already been killed; they partially blame Kantorek for his death as well. The only thing that makes the war tolerable is the bond of friendship that Kropp, Leer, Kemmerich, and Baumer have with one another; in fact, Baumer constantly uses the pronoun we, depicting the close bond he feels with the others. When he speaks, it is as if he were speaking for the whole group: we are satisfied or we cannot blame. Although the story is told from the German point of view by a young German soldier, it is really not a novel about the German war effort.
Remarque simply uses the German front line as the setting of the book because he knows about it from first hand experience. In truth, the book is meant to point out the horror, death, and destruction caused by war and its attendant effect on human beings, no matter their nationality; already these young men have aged prematurely, lost their modesty, and become immune to death, pain, and true emotion. Baumer’s bitterness over his war experience is no different than for any young soldier who has dreamed of war as a glorious experience. In addition to giving an insight into the wastefulness of war and into the degeneration of the young soldiers, this chapter points out the hardships that military men must endure during wartime. While fighting on the front lines, there is little time for anything but battle, and there is little food to eat.
The only thing that keeps the young soldiers going is the comradeship they feel with one another. As they are killed, one by one, the mood sinks ever deeper into gloom, loss, isolation, and destruction. Chapter 2 Baumer reminisces about his past life as a student, when he used to have time to write poetry. He realizes that his ten years of schooling have taught him less than ten weeks as a soldier. War has quickly taught him that only the fittest survive. Baumer also thinks about his parents, remembering the vague, but amiable, relationship he had with them.
Because of the war, he feels like he now has nothing. His relationship with his parents has weakened further, and he has no time for girlfriends or fun. He feels totally isolated and empty. Baumer thinks about Muller’s callousness in asking for Kemmerich’s boots when the man was close to death. He wants to believe that Muller was being logical rather than insensitive.
Baumer also thinks about his drillmaster, Corporal Himmelstoss, and calls him a bully and a sadist; Baumer thinks the man derives great pleasure from mistreating the young recruits. Kropp, Muller, Kemmerich, and Baumer were all assigned to him because they were a tough, defiant lot, and Himmelstoss was capable of handling them. Although he can inflict punishment on them, the Corporal is never able to break their spirits. It become obvious that Kemmerich is dying. He grieves over his unfulfilled dreams of being a head-forester.
Baumer tries to comfort this man, who has been his friend since childhood. When Kemmerich is close to death, Baumer searches for a doctor to help him. The doctor refuses to come, saying he has already amputated five legs that day. When Baumer returns to Kemmerich’s bed, the young soldier is already dead. Almost immediately he is removed from the bed to make way for those patients who are on the floor. Baumer suddenly realizes how precious life is.
Notes The mood in this chapter grows more dark and gloomy as images of the wastage and desolation of war are given. Also the chapter more fully develops Baumer’s character. It is obvious that he is a gentle, compassionate, and humane soul and intellectually superior to the rest of his friends. He is also a very honest person and tries to present everything as factually as possible. Baumer again admits his misery in this chapter. Cut off from his parents, girlfriends, and fun, he feels totally empty and isolated. His only pleasure is the bond that he has with his soldier friends, and he tries to think the best of them. He justifies Muller’s insensitivity as logical thinking and stays by Kemmerich’s bedside as the young man approaches death.
This chapter also provides new insights on how most of the men in the war have become immune to sensitive feelings. This is seen in the case of the doctor who refuses to attend to Kemmerich because he is too tired after amputating five legs. It is also seen in the fact that only Baumer is by Kemmerich’s side as he is dying. The chapter also reveals more of the horrible conditions that accompany a war. After Kemmerich is dead, he is quickly moved from his bed so some patient that is currently lying on the floor can be put in his place. Kemmerich’s death emotionally affects Baumer, and his emotions draw the reader closer to him.
First, the death intensifies his thoughts about the wastefulness of war; a nineteen-year-old friend lies dead for no valid reason. It also makes Baumer hunger for life himself; he wants to fight to go on living. Finally, it makes him blame the entire world for the soldier’s death. He thinks that everyone should be forced to pass Kemmerich’s death-bed to pay homage and to redeem themselves. Chapter 3 Baumer and his friends swagger like veterans as new recruits arrive. Katczinsky tells one of them that he is lucky to receive bread with turnips to eat rather than sawdust.
Kat then produces a stew of beef and haricot beans for himself. He is a resourceful young man and a good organizer. No matter where he is, he always manages to find food and supplies, feats that always amaze his friends. As he watches a fight between a German and an Allied plane, Kat muses aloud that if all the men were given the same salaries and food, the war between Germany and the Allies would be over, for the leaders would want to go home. Kropp remarks that the ministers and generals of the two countries should be armed with clubs and sent into an arena to fight it out. The survivor would be declared the winner of the war.
Kropp comments that the more insignificant the person is in civilian life, the more bull headed he becomes as an officer in the army. Himmelstoss is used as an example; before the war, he was a lowly mailman. His small bit of military power has gone to his head. Tjaden announces that Himmelstoss has arrived at the front. The friends remember one dark night when they caught Himmelstoss, wrapped a blanket over his head, and beat him mercilessly; they were never caught or discovered. All the other soldiers in camp thought that they were heroes and praised their action.
Notes Two key ideas are developed in this chapter: the importance of comradeship and the stupidity of war. The chapter begins as new recruits arrive in camp. Baumer and his friends act like veterans and tease the newcomers. Kat even taunts one of them with beef and bean stew. Somehow this resourceful soldier is always able to find extra food and supplies to share with his friends.
The comradeship is also seen as the friends reminisce about the time they paid back their drillmaster, Himmelstoss, for all the cruelty he had inflicted. They caught him on a dark road, threw a blanket over him so they would not be seen, and then beat him up. Back in the barracks, they were welcomed as heroes. The friends then discuss the stupid futility of war. They feel that the fighting is caused by greed for more land; dirt, then, becomes more important than human life. Kropp contends that fighting turns all men into beasts and claims that the less important a man was in civilian life, the more power-hungry and self-impressed he becomes in war.
He also suggests that generals from both sides should be put in an arena with clubs to fight it out, instead of playing mind games with each other. The winner of this physical contest would be the winner of the war. It is important to notice that, like Chapter 1, this is a relatively light chapter that actually includes a bit of humor. It serves as a bridge between the pain of Kimmerich’s death in the last chapter and the deaths that are to come. In fact the first three chapters really serve as a mild introduction to the death and destruction of war.
The next chapter will plunge right into the battle. Chapter 4 One dark night, Baumer’s unit is assigned the task of laying barbed wire at the frontline, putting them into grave danger. As they approach their position, there is a dense smell of smoke and the sound of artillery. Tense with fear, they all know that death is close at hand and can claim anybody at any moment; they all grow alert and watchful. After placing the barbed wire, the soldiers try to rest, but they are soon awakened by the sounds of terrible shelling.
They listen to the painful moans of horses that are wounded. They watch the rescue operations as the wounded men are nursed and the injured horses are shot. When the shelling starts again, Baumer is pelted with splinters and shrapnel, but is not seriously hurt. He manages to slowly crawl into a shell hole in a graveyard, where he encounters a coffin and a corpse; however, he cannot leave the hole, for a gas attack has begun. As the shelling continues, more and more corpses are thrown out of their coffins and into the graveyard, and more soldiers are wounded or killed. The new recruit with whom Kat had joked is hurt badly and close to death. Baumer and Kat talk about a mercy killing for the young soldier, for they believe that only death will relieve him from his intense pain.
Before they can actually decide or act, the rest of the unit arrives, thwarting any plans. Both men feel terrible for the new young recruit. Notes World War I was basically fought on land in trenches with both sides constructing intricate tunnels. The Western Front, which was approximately five hundred miles long, was the scene of many battles like the one presented in this chapter. It is the first time that the reader is actually seen military action in the book. Baumer’s unit has been assigned the duty of laying new barbed wire at the front line, a very dangerous job.
From the moment of their arrival at the front, the young soldiers are tense and watchful, fully aware of death’s proximity. Baumer comments that war is like a whirlpool whose vortex is slowly sucking them in. He looks at the ground below him and sees it in a new way; he realizes that the earth is the soldier’s best friend, who can either give him new life or take his life away. The soldiers lay the barbed wire without incident; when the job is complete, they rest. Soon, however, an intense shelling begins; both men and horses are hit.
As the horses moan in pain, accusing the men of their wrongdoing, Baumer manages to crawl into a shell hole in a graveyard; he finds he is sharing the hole with a coffin and a corpse, but can do nothing about it. Before long the entire graveyard is strewn with corpses and empty coffins, disturbed by the shelling. The author notes that during the bombing the relationship between the dead and the alive becomes intimate. Baumer points out that the flinging of each corpse from a grave probably saved the life of one soldier. The description of battle is very vivid in this scene. Remarque spares no detail in describing the acrid smells, the piercing sounds, the wounded soldiers, the moaning horses, the corpses strewn in the graveyard, or the empty coffins.
The author also manages to realistically capture Baumer’s emotions during the battle. Chapter 5 The soldiers return to their huts. They pass their time killing lice and waiting for Himmelstoss. They casually discuss what they would do if peace were declared. Tjaden jokingly says he wants to spend the rest of his life torturing Himmelstoss.
Westhus wants to join a peacetime army. Kropp believes that the war has permanently ruined them; he fears that after the war, they will be good for nothing. It is Baumer, however, that truly captures the depression of this wartime generation: We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress.
When Himmelstoss finally appears, Tjaden insults him. Though the company commander, Lieutenant Bertinck, is sympathetic to Baumer and his friends, he is forced to punish them for any insubordination. As a result, Tjaden and Kropp are given open arrest; it is an intentionally light sentence. At the end of the chapter, Baumer and Kat entertain themselves by roasting a stolen goose. As they enjoy eating the goose together, they appear as two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death. Once again the life/death theme is clearly depicted by Remarque.
Notes In this chapter, Remarque continues to build on the life/death theme that runs throughout the book. Like chapters 1 and 3, this section is about life, living, and friendship and serves as a bridge between two bleak chapters. For the moment, the soldiers are at rest, away from the front, dreaming of peacetime. Tjaden actually jokes about Himmelstoss and then openly insults the old drillmaster when he arrives. Baumer and Kat cook a stolen goose and enjoy each other’s company; but at the end of the chapter, the author reminds the reader of the circle of death that surrounds them. In war, it is impossible to separate life from death. As a result, every lighter chapter in the book is preceded and followed by one filled with the horror of death at the battlefront; as a result, the structure of the book enhances the main theme of the book, that war brings senseless destruction, followed by moral decay.
The repeated contrast between life away from the front and the fear of death at the battle line is very effective. Chapter 6 The Germans and Allies are again involved in a fierce battle that begins with an artillery bombardment, followed by an infantry attack. Baumer and his friends are in the trenches. Before the charge begins, Baumer feels like he is in a cage, waiting to be killed; the new recruits are hysterical. All the soldiers know that it is only chance that will cause them to live or die.
As both sides advance and then retreat, they leave behind a scene of death and destruction. There is blood everywhere, and several soldiers, who are still alive, have had their skulls blown apart; others have had both feet severed. Corpse rats run amidst the battlefield debris. Ironically, a stack of new …