All Quiet on Western Front

All Quiet On The Western Front #

Excerpts from Putnam & Co. 1964.

Erich Maria Remarque - of French extraction, his family immigrated to Germany at the time of the French Revolution. At the age of 18, he joined the German Army directly from school. During the war his mother died of cancer and most of his friends were killed.

Told from the German point of view, it describes the horror and pitilessness of how war is prosecuted throughout the world. He depicts the banality of the military command, the fate of a generation of young men, and their genuine comradeship.

Alex Ross in the New Yorker, writes, Remarque’s underlying message is clear:

the lads march off to battle in a mood of nationalist bravado, only to find themselves mired in an increasingly static, gruesome, and inexplicable conflict.

Toward the end of the book, Paul and his comrades ponder how wars start. Kropp suggests that they begin when one country offends another. Tjaden replies,

“A country? I don’t understand. A mountain in Germany can’t offend a mountain in France.” Kat joins in, saying, “There must be people for whom war is useful.” Kropp then proposes that war is a kind of fever that breaks out everywhere. After further objections, he growls, “Better not to talk about the whole business.”

Readers of the period exulted in this plainspoken dismantling of the justifications for war.

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war. It should disturb the conscience of all.

Food #

We are at rest five miles behind the front. Yesterday we were relieved, and now our bellies are full of beef and haricot beans. We are satisfied and at peace. Each man has another mess-tin full for the evening; and, what is more, there is a double ration of sausage and bread. That puts a man in fine trim. We have not had such luck as this for a long time. The cook with his carroty head is begging us to eat; he beckons with his ladle to every one that passes, and spoons him out a great dollop. He does not see how he can empty his stew-pot in time for coffee. Where Tjaden puts it all is a mystery, for he is and always will be as thin as a rake. What’s more important still is the issue of a double ration of smokes. Ten cigars, twenty cigarettes, and two quids of chew per man; now that is decent. I have exchanged my chewing tobacco with Katczinsky for his cigarettes, which means I have forty altogether. That’s enough for a day.

It is true we have no right to this windfall. The Prussian is not so generous. We have only a miscalculation to thank for it.

Fourteen days ago we had to go up and relieve the front line. It was fairly quiet on our sector, so the quartermaster who remained in the rear had requisitioned the usual quantity of rations and provided for the full company of one hundred and fifty men. But on the last day an astonishing number of English heavies opened up on us with high-explosive, drumming ceaselessly on our position, so that we suffered severely and came back only eighty strong.

The High Command #

In himself man is essentially a beast, only he butters it over like a slice of bread with a little decorum. The army is based on that; one man must always have power over the other. The mischief is merely that each one has much too much power. A non-com, can torment a private, a lieutenant a non-com, a captain a lieutenant, until he goes mad. And because they know they can, they all soon acquire the habit more or less.

Take a simple case: we are marching back from the parade-ground dog tired. Then comes the order to sing. We sing spiritlessly, for it is all we can do to trudge along with our rifles. At once the company is turned about and has to do another hour’s drill as punishment. On the march back the order to sing is given again, and once more we start. Now what’s the use of all that? It’s simply that the company commander’s head has been turned by having so much power. And nobody blames him. On the contrary, he is praised for being strict.

That, of course, is only a trifling instance, but it holds also in very different affairs. Now I ask you: Let a man be whatever you like in peacetime, what occupation is there in which he can behave like that without getting a crack on the nose? He can only do that in the army. It goes to the heads of them all, you see. And the more insignificant a man has been in civil life the worse it takes him."

“They say, of course, there must be discipline,” ventures Kropp meditatively.

“True,” growls Kat, “they always do. And it may be so; still it oughtn’t to become an abuse. Pages 34, 35.

Today we have done an hour’s saluting drill because Tjaden failed to salute a major smartly enough. Kat can’t get it out of his head.

“You take it from me, we are losing the war because we can salute too well,” he says.

Kropp stalks up, with his breeches rolled up and his feet bare. He lays out his washed socks to dry on the grass. Kat turns his eyes to heaven, lets off a mighty fart, and says meditatively: “Every little bean must be heard as well as seen.”

The two begin to argue. At the same time they lay a bottle of beer on the result of an air-fight that’s going on above us. Katczinsky won’t budge from the opinion which as an old Front-hog, he rhymes:

Give ’em all the same grub and all the same pay
And the war would be over and done in a day.

After returning from leave the troops hear that the Kaiser is coming for an inspection of the troops. They are all given new tunics or uniforms and drill, polish boots preparing full dress parades. These things exasperate the soldiers.

We are curious to see what he looks like. They are disappointed because he looks smaller than they imagined.

Tjaden is impressed with the Kaiser’s lofty position, because he doesn’t have to stand at attention for anyone highter, and yet, like the rest of us he has to go to the latrine.

After the Kaiser leaves, they have to return their new uniforms.

Novel proposal: #

Kropp on the other hand is a thinker. He proposes that a declaration of war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance-tickets and bands, like a bull fight.

Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing-drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins.

That would be much simpler and more just than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting.

Corporal Himmelstoss, the “terror of Klosterberg.” It is very queer that the unhappiness of the world is so often brought on by small men. They are so much more energetic and uncompromising than the big fellows. I have always taken good care to keep out of sections with small company commanders. They are mostly confounded little martinets.

Under his orders I have scrubbed out the Corporals’ Mess with a tooth-brush. Kropp and I were given the job of clearing the barrack-square of snow with a hand-broom and a dust-pan, and we would have gone on till we were frozen had not a lieutenant accidentally appeared who sent us off, and hauled Himmelstoss over the coals. But the only result of this was to make Himmelstoss hate us more.

One night, Kropp, Tjaden and the author, Remarque, ambush their Corporal coming home from the Pub:

We seized the bed-cover, made a quick leap, threw it over his head from behind and pulled it round him so that he stood there in a white sack unable to raise his arms.

Himmelstoss was thrown down, he rolled five yards and started to yell. But we were prepared for that and had brought a cushion. Haie squatted down, laid the cushion on his knees, felt where Himmelstoss’s head was and pressed it down on the pillow. Immediately his voice was muffled.

Tjaden unbuttoned Himmelstoss’s braces and pulled down his trousers, holding the whip meantime in his teeth. Then he stood up and set to work.

It was a wonderful picture: Himmelstoss on the ground; Haie bending over him with a fiendish grin and his mouth open with bloodlust, Himmelstoss’s head on his knees; then the convulsed striped drawers, the knock knees, executing at every blow most original movements in the lowered breeches, and towering over them like a woodcutter the indefatigable Tjaden. In the end we had to drag him away to get our turn..

Himmelstoss toppled over. Haie stood him up again, made ready and fetched him a second, well-aimed beauty with the left hand. Himmelstoss yelled and made off on all fours. His striped postman’s backside gleamed in the moonlight.

We disappeared at full speed.

There were instances on both sides, where overbearing officers were shot in the back by their own soldiers.

A Battle Scene Pg. 48 #

That moment it breaks out behind us, swells, roars, and thunders. We duck down–a cloud of flame shoots up a hundred yards ahead of us.

The next minute under a second explosion part of the wood rises slowly in the air, three or four trees sail up and then crash to pieces. The shells begin to hiss like safety-valves–heavy fire– “Take cover!” yells somebody–“Cover!”

The fields are flat, the wood is too distant and dangerous–the only cover is the graveyard and the mounds. We stumble across in the dark and as though he had been spat there every man lies glued behind a mound.

Not a moment too soon. The dark goes mad. It heaves and raves. Darknesses blacker than the night rush on us with giant strides, over us and away. The flames of the explosions light up the graveyard.

There is no escape anywhere. By the light of the shells I try to get a view of the fields. They are a surging sea, daggers of flame from the explosions leap up like fountains. It is impossible for anyone to break through it.

The wood vanishes, it is pounded, crushed, torn to pieces. We must stay here in the graveyard.

The earth bursts before us. It rains clods. I feel a smack. My sleeve is torn away by a splinter. I shut my fist. No pain. Still that does not reassure me: wounds don’t hurt till afterwards. I feel the arm all over. It is grazed but sound. Now a crack on the skull, I begin to lose consciousness. Like lightning the thought comes to me: Don’t faint! I sink down in the black broth and immediately come up to the top again. A splinter slashes into my helmet, but has already travelled so far that it does not go through. I wipe the mud out of my eyes. A hole is torn up in front of me. Shells hardly ever land in the same hole twice, I’ll get into it. With one lunge, I shoot as flat as a fish over the ground; there it whistles again, quickly I crouch together, claw for cover, feel something on the left, shove in beside it, it gives way, I groan, the earth leaps, the blast thunders in my ears, I creep under the yielding thing, cover myself with it, draw it over me, it is wood, cloth, cover, cover, miserable cover against the whizzing splinters.

Rats #

The rats here are particularly repulsive, they are so fat–the kind we all call corpse-rats. They have shocking, evil, naked faces, and it is nauseating to see their long, nude tails. They seem to be mighty hungry. Almost every man has had his bread gnawed. Kropp wrapped his in his waterproof sheet and put it under his head, but he cannot sleep because they run over his face to get at it. Detering meant to outwit them: he fastened a thin wire to the roof and suspended his bread from it. During the night when he switched on his pocket-torch he saw the wire swing to and fro. On the bread was riding a fat rat. At last we put a stop to it. We cannot afford to throw the bread away, because then we should have nothing left to eat in the morning, so we carefully cut off the bits of bread that the animals have gnawed.

The slices we cut off are heaped together in the middle of the floor. Each man takes out his spade and lies down prepared to strike. Detering, Kropp, and Kat hold their pocket-torches ready.

After a few minutes we hear the first shuffling and tugging. It grows, now it is the sound of many little feet. Then the torches switch on and every man strikes at the heap, which scatters with a rush. The result is good. We toss the bits of rat over the parapet and again lie in wait.

Several times we repeat the process. At last the beasts get wise to it, or perhaps they have scented the blood. They return no more. Nevertheless, before morning the remainder of the bread on the floor has been carried off.

In the adjoining sector they attacked two large cats and a dog, bit them to death and devoured them.

Savagery #

We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down–now, for the first time in three days we can see his face, now for the first time in three days we can oppose him; we feel a mad anger. No longer do we lie helpless, waiting on the scaffold, we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves, to save ourselves and to be revenged.

A young Frenchman lags behind, he is overtaken, he puts up his hands, in one he still holds his revolver–does he mean to shoot or to give himself!–a blow from a spade cleaves through his face. A second sees it and tries to run farther; a bayonet jabs into his back. He leaps in the air, his arms thrown wide, his mouth wide open, yelling; he staggers, in his back the bayonet quivers. A third throws away his rifle, cowers down with his hands before his eyes. He is left behind with a few other prisoners to carry off the wounded. Suddenly in the pursuit we reach the enemy line.

We are so close on the heels of our retreating enemies that we reach it almost at the same time as they. In this way we suffer few casualties. A machine-gun barks, but is silenced with a bomb. Nevertheless, the couple of seconds has sufficed to give us five stomach wounds. With the butt of his rifle Kat smashes to pulp the face of one of the unwounded machine-gunners. We bayonet the others before they have time to get out their bombs. Then thirstily we drink the water they have for cooling the gun. Pg: 78,79.

We get back pretty well. There is no further attack by the enemy. We lie for an hour panting and resting before anyone speaks. We are so completely played out that in spite of our great hunger we do not think of the provisions. Then gradually we become something like men again.

The corned beef over there is famous along the whole front. Occasionally it has been the chief reason for a flying raid on our part, for our nourishment is generally very bad; we have a constant hunger.

It is chilly. I am on sentry and stare into the darkness. My strength is exhausted as always after an attack, and so it is hard for me to be alone with my thoughts. They are not properly thoughts; they are memories which in my weakness haunt me and strangely move me.