*Western front. Theater of World War I in which German forces faced the Western Allies along an extensive series of battlefields that ran from the Belgian coast south into northern France. (The eastern front was the line along which Germany confronted Russia.) Much of the western front was made up of intricate systems of trenches from which troops sallied forth across treacherous “no-man’s-lands” in mostly futile attacks on enemy positions. Through most of the war, the battlefronts moved very little, and many troops stationed in the trenches endured continuous bombardment and suffered from appalling health conditions as formerly peaceful farmlands and pleasant countryside were converted into bloody battlefields.
It was along the western front that the French and British armies and those of their allies aligned themselves against the armies of Germany and its allies, using such modern weapons and implements as poison gas, tanks, powerful explosives, flame throwers, hand grenades, machine guns, long-range artillery, aircraft, and barbed wire. Thanks to modern technology, the scale of death and injury was catastrophic. Individual soldiers were considered expendable in outmoded military strategies governed by policies of attrition dictating the winners would be the last side to have soldiers still standing. This was especially true on the western front, where battles continued for months while corpses and casualties mounted.
The novel neither locates its protagonist, Paul Baumer, in any specific battlefield nor focuses on the larger strategies or battles of the war. Instead, it reveals the war only as it is experienced through the limited and subjective perspective of Paul, who knows little about the larger purposes of the war. Paul represents all the nameless soldiers who fought on the western front. To him, the battles seem both meaningless and frightening; ordinary days with his comrades are interrupted by unreal but frenetic periods of battle. Ironically, it is during one uneventful day on the front that the young, poetic Paul is unexpectedly shot by desultory enemy fire shortly before the Armistice is declared and the fighting stops. The impersonality and randomness of his death brings home the entire character of war on the western front as depicted in this novel—the inconsequential value of the millions of individual soldiers who died.
Home front. While most of the narrative takes place on the battlefront lines, one section of the novel takes Paul back to his hometown in Germany, allowing readers to contrast that world with his experiences on the front lines. During his leave, Paul returns home to a typical German small town of the time that is accustomed to the comforts and securities of peaceful middle-class life. The unnamed town represents all small German towns of the time.
Remarque uses Paul’s visit to his home to indicate the vast gulf between his perspective of the war and that of those who remain on the home front. The people at home, while suffering some deprivations, have no idea of the dimensions and depth of the suffering on the battlefields of the western front. Paul’s trip back home consolidates his feelings of a generational shift in which he and his peers represent a dramatic break with the past.