An Analysis of Erich Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front"
by Travis. D. Roberts

Erich Maria Remarque was a boy of 18 when he was drafted into the German army on November 21st 1916. He was sent straight into the midst of “The Great War”, the most horrific conflict mankind had yet seen. There he witnessed the horror of trench warfare firsthand, even being severely wounded himself. This experience would change Remarque and his entire generation forever. Ten years after the war’s end in 1928, Remarque recorded his thoughts in what would become the most powerful antiwar novel of all time “All Quiet on the Western Front”.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is a fictional work about the experiences of men during the First World War. Although the characters are fictional, Remarque based them on people he knew, and the main character, Paul Bäumer, is used as the mouthpiece for the author himself. There is never an exact location given of where the troops might be, nor is a specific battle ever mentioned. The only thing we can deduce is that the story takes place late in the war, sometime between 1917 and 1918. Remarque has done this intentionally because his book is neither about the major battles of World War I nor about which tactics worked best. Rather, it is about the trials and tribulations of ordinary human beings, the horrors they experience during war, the camaraderie of soldiers, and the destruction of an entire generation of young men.

The Great War was supposed to be a quick war, many world powers predicted it would only last a few months and might be over by Christmas. With new weaponry such as aeroplanes, machine guns, tanks, and long-range artillery, they thought the conflict would certainly be decided faster. When war broke out in August 1914, it did in fact move quickly for a few months. Both Allied and Central powers were trying to outmaneuver each other on the Western Front in what became known as the race to the sea. This race was a series of maneuvers by both armies to try and take the seaports in Northern Belgium. But when the armies reached a town called Ypres in November 1914, the fighting ground to a standstill and winter set in. Now for the first time, both armies would dig trenches in order to fortify their positions. This was the beginning of a new breed of horrific warfare that would result in the poorest living conditions, and the highest casualty rates the world had ever seen.

Life in the trenches of World War I was atrocious. They were dark, damp, and cold with little comforts. Many of the trenches on the western front were also waterlogged, meaning that soldiers had to live day and night in up to three feet of muddy water. There were also no bathing facilities at front line trenches, so soldiers often became infested with lice or other parasites. The most annoying problem however was the rats; the Western Front was infested with thousands of them. Rats would break into food stores, crawl across soldiers as they were sleeping, and even eat the dead and wounded. Remarque’s main character Paul experiences rat infestation at the front firsthand, “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” (102). Rats were always a nuisance for soldiers, but the most glaring danger in a front line trench was still the artillery barrage. Some studies say that over half of the soldiers killed during the war were killed by artillery fire while still in there own trenches.   

With the inception of trench warfare came many new inventions with incredible destructive power. Machine guns and barb wire emplacements were first used en masse. Tanks, aeroplanes, extremely long-range artillery, and poison gas also made their military debut in World War  I. Despite theories that these weapons might make the war move faster, in reality all they did was make the death toll rise higher and the war last longer. New phrases also came along to describe the experiences of trench warfare. One such phrase was “Going over the top”; it refers to the order of advance where soldiers would have to climb out of their trench and charge across “no man’s land” at the enemy position. “No man’s land” is the area between trenches and is named so because it is a barren wasteland, destroyed by artillery shells, littered with dead bodies, and always covered by machine gunners and snipers from both sides. When the order to go over the top was given, it sometimes meant certain death for an entire unit. The high command would simply order a unit to charge across open fields, straight into machine gun fire until they were all dead. This occurred many times during World War I because the high command was so far removed from the situation that they either had no idea progress impossible or they just did not care.

When Remarque writes about going over the top, or any combat situation, there is always this sense of emotional detachment in his words. The scenes are delivered in a very cold manner with short clipped phrases, almost mechanical. Paul Bäumer describes the experience of going over the top like this every time, “We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off, they stagger on their splintered stumps into the next shell-hole; a lance corporal crawls a mile and a half on his hands dragging his smashed knee after him; another goes to the dressing station and over his clasped hands bulge his intestines; we see men without jaws, without faces; we find one man who has held the artery of his arm in his teeth for two hours in order not to bleed to death. The sun goes down, night comes, the shells whine, life is at an end” (134).  This kind of emotional detachment from the horror of war is necessary. One cannot become emotionally involved with each wounded man, with every atrocity, or it will eventually lead to insanity. This is the world that Remarque’s characters are forced to live in, it is brutal and cold, and in order to survive, one must become indifferent to one’s surroundings.

 Paul Bäumer tries his best to separate himself from the horrible events unfolding around him every day. He refuses to become friends with any new recruits, as they almost always die. He is emotionally detached from combat and most people throughout the story. The only friends he keeps are a very small group of combat veterans who know how to survive. However, this was all going to change in what is the most powerful moment in the entire story. Paul and his friends are sent on a recon mission one night into no man’s land. This was a common practice during World War I where soldiers would crawl across no mans land at night and get as close to the enemy trench as possible. Here they could observe enemy positions and even listen in to conversations about possible troop movements. During this mission, Paul becomes separated from his friends, then he becomes disoriented in the night and can not find his own trench lines. All of a sudden the French troops in the opposing trench launch an attack and Paul crawls into a crater and plays dead. One of the charging French soldiers falls into Paul’s crater and lands on him.  In a panic, Paul rolls over and stabs the French soldier in the chest several times. As the night goes on, the French attack continues with constant artillery barrages and machine gun fire. Paul can not escape from his crater, and when he looks back at the French soldier he stabbed earlier, he notices that the man is still alive and struggling to breathe. Paul tries to ignore him, but as the battle rages Paul is trapped in the shell hole and he begins to hear the man gurgling, trying to gasp for air. When he can no longer take it, he goes over to the man and is met by his powerful stare. Paul tries to help him now, he fetches the only water available from a mud hole and gives it to the man; he even attempts to bandage his wounds. For the first time Bäumer is becoming emotionally involved with a soldier, and worse an enemy soldier. Paul begins to feel horrible, for the first time he has seen the man he has stabbed, and now he is watching him slowly die. Eventually the French soldier passes on, but Paul’s suffering does not end. He begins to look at the face of the soldier; he begins to wonder about his wife, if he had any kids, and what he did for a living. Now the silence of the dead soldier really begins to get to Paul, he starts to apologize for what he has done, “Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony – Forgive me comrade; how could you be my enemy?” (223).   But none of this will bring him back, none of this will make Paul feel better. So Paul grabs the soldier's wallet and frantically looks for his address; maybe one day he can send money to his family anonymously he thinks. But what Paul finds hurts him even more; in the soldiers wallet he finds pictures of his wife, of his little girls, letters from his family and more. Now he has not just killed the “enemy”, he has killed a man who had a family, who had a life and a mother who worried about him. Paul finally finds the man’s address and writes it down; he swears to contact his family somehow after the war.

The next morning, the combat has died down and Paul decides to try and crawl back to his trench. Before he leaves, he makes a promise to the soldier he killed the night before, “Comrade, I say to the dead man, but I say it calmly, today you tomorrow me, but if I come out of it, comrade, I will fight against this, that has struck us both down; from you taken life-and from me-? Life also. I promise you, comrade. It shall never happen again” (226).   For the first time in his combat life, Paul has seen a man he has killed, he has learned about his life and realized he was not much different then himself. All the indoctrination that he went through at training and all the propaganda from his country did not prepare him for this. The enemy was always an evil devil to them, but now Paul has learned the truth - the enemy was a man like he was, with the same feelings and the same fears.

As the months pass in “All Quiet on the Western Front”, Paul slowly looses all of his friends in combat. Before the war, his teachers and parents had told him that war was a great patriotic adventure and that death in battle was a glorious thing. Remarque writes, “The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces” (13).   Paul feels that his generation has been betrayed by the elders, the very people they trusted. He feels the elders created this war, and then they lied to the youths about what war was really like. The older generation has betrayed them, and the younger generation will never understand them. Paul’s generation has been destroyed both physically and mentally by war and remain totally isolated, with no one to understand them.

In the last chapter of “All Quiet on the Western Front” Paul Bäumer is alone, every friend he ever had is dead. He wonders if there is anything human still left in him, anything he could return to once the war was over. But Paul will escape it all. In the very last paragraph, the story shifts from Paul’s point of view to that of an unknown narrator, most likely Remarque. The narrator tells us that Paul Bäumer was found laying dead on a day in October 1918, “that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front”(296). How ironic it had become that on a day that one man dies it is still called “All Quiet on the Western Front”. The loss of a single life no longer mattered, the loss of 10,000 men no longer mattered, they were all just numbers and now Paul was one of them. When Paul’s body is flipped over, Remarque tells us, “His face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come” (296).  Paul, unlike our author Remarque, had escaped the horrible aftermath of World War I through death. He no longer had to live with what he had seen and what he had done, so his face was calm, he was finally at peace. However. Remarque, like many other veterans, would live long past the war, always trying to cope with all he had seen for the rest of his life. He and other veterans had escaped the shells, but the war still haunted them; their entire generation was destroyed and Paul’s death represents their destruction.

Nine million soldiers were killed during the First World War - lest we forget.

 

Bibliography

 

Glibert, Julie. Opposite Attraction. New York:  Pantheon Books, 1995.


Remarque, Erich.
All Quiet on the Western Front. New York:  Ballantine Books, 1996.


Wagener, Hans. Understanding Erich Remarque.
 South Carolina: University of South Carolina, 1991. 
 

Westwall, Ian. World War I Day by Day.  London, England: Brown Partworks Limited, 2000.