Early in Chapter 4 of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, the narrator describes the behavior of a young soldier – a “new recruit” – who has joined more experienced men near the front lines. While there, he endures his first taste of bombardment by the enemy:
Two fellows cry out. Green rockets shoot up on the sky-line. Barrage. The mud flies high, fragments whizz past. The crack of the guns is heard long after the roar of the explosions.
Beside us lies a fair-headed recruit in utter terror. He has buried his face in his hands, his helmet has fallen off. I fish hold of it and try to put it back on his head. He looks up, pushes the helmet off and like a child creeps under my arm, his head close to my breast. The little shoulders heave. Shoulders just like Kemmerich's. I let him be. So that the helmet should be of some use I stick it on his behind; -- not for a jest, but out of consideration, since that is his highest part. And though there is plenty of meat there, a shot in it can be damned painful. Besides, a man has to lie a whole month on his belly in the hospital, and afterwards he would be almost sure to have a limp.
This brief episode is significant within the context of the entire chapter for a number of reasons, including the following:
- It helps remind us that the soldiers who now seem “old timers” were themselves once as inexperienced and fearful as the new recruit.
- It initially gives the narrator a chance to interject some humor into a context that is otherwise deadly serious.
- It shows the reality of behavior on the battlefield rather than presenting some gloriously unrealistic ideal of such behavior.
- It shows the practical, realistic attitude of the narrator.
- Most significantly, it helps “set up” (and contrast with) the tragic moment later in the chapter when this very same recruit is discovered with horrifying and mortal wounds:
. . . at the most he will only last a few days. What he has gone through so far is nothing to what he's in for till he dies. Now he is numb and feels nothing. In an hour he will become one screaming bundle of intolerable pain. Every day that he can live will be a howling torture.
The chapter’s depiction of this single recruit helps emphasize the brutality of war, the waste of young human life it involves, the inability of comrades to completely protect one another even when doing so is one of their main motives, and the fact that briefly surviving death on the battlefield is often worse than immediate death itself.