Readers of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of World War I told from the perspective of a young German soldier, All Quiet on the Western Front, are not told the age of the character known simply as Detering. Early in Remarque’s novel, Paul, the narrator, discusses some of the individuals with whom he is serving in the trenches, introducing the reader to the main characters who will populate the story that follows. Such characters as Muller, Albert Kropp and Leer are, Paul notes, “nineteen years of age.” These are the young soldiers to whom Paul is closest. In the next paragraph, Paul turns his attention to others in his unit, including Detering. The reader can assume that Detering is also nineteen years of age, but the few details about this character’s background Paul provides suggest that he is probably at least several years older.
Many soldiers who served in wars over thousands of years were conscripted into their respective nations’ militaries. Some, sometimes many, volunteered out of a sense of civic responsibility or because it was the only way to support themselves and their families financially. As wars dragged on, leaders would often find it necessary to broaden the categories of individuals deemed fit to serve in the military, the ranks of younger men (and they were, in most cases, males) having been depleted through death or incapacitation. Consequently, older men were sometimes conscripted into their nations’ armies and navies. Paul, however, notes during the course of his narrative that these soldiers are mostly volunteers, serving out of a sense of responsibility to their country and to avoid the social ostracism that would befall those who failed to enlist. All that is known is that the age spectrum is broad. Stanislaus Katczinsky, for example, is forty years old and the unofficial leader. In the case of Detering, readers really do not know his age.
What is known about Detering leads one to the conclusion that he is older than Paul and many of the others. In those opening passages introducing readers to the members of Paul’s unit, Detering is described as “a peasant, who thinks of nothing but his farm-yard and his wife.” Having a wife and a farm would logically lead one to conclude that Detering could be of virtually any age above the mid-twenties. As the inquisitive Muller asks his fellow soldiers about their plans for after the war, he speculates that “Kat and Detering and Hale will go back to their jobs because they have them already.” Again, one could surmise that Detering is older than many of the others.
It is, of course, entirely possible for Detering to be nineteen years old. A “peasant” from an agrarian background could very likely have entered into marriage and assumed responsibility for a farm at an early age. Detering’s options, almost certainly, were strictly limited for socioeconomic reasons. Still, it is not unreasonable to conclude that he is at least a few years older than Paul and the other nineteen-year-old soldiers with whom he is serving on the Western Front.