Illustration of Paul Baumer in a German army uniform with a red background

All Quiet on the Western Front

by Erich Maria Remarque

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In Erich Maria Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front, why is there such an abundance of rations?

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In Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of soldiers in the First World War, All Quiet on the Western Front, the importance of food cannot be overstated.  In describing the preoccupation of soldiers living in filty, rat-infested trenches, with death a high probability, the one thing they can look forward to is eating.  As Remarque’s narrator states,

“The soldier is on friendlier terms than other men with his stomach and intestines. Three-quarters of his vocabulary is derived from these regions, and they give an intimate flavour to expressions of his greatest joy as well as of his deepest indignation.”

Consequently, the suggestion that there may be more food available than otherwise would be the case instills in the soldiers a certain glee and anticipation of being able to fill their stomachs.  That there are more rations than should be the case, however, is the product of the consequences of war:

“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.” 

In other words, the quartermaster, who is responsible for ensuring that sufficient supplies are available for the soldiers to accomplish their mission, failed to take into account the considerable attrition that occurred once the enemy, the British Army, decided to fire artillery towards the Germans.  The surplus of rations was revealed to the company cook with alarming alacrity on the part of the returning soldiers as described by the narrator:

“Our gang formed the head of the queue before the cook-house. We were growing impatient, for the cook paid no attention to us. Finally Katczinsky called to him: "Say, Heinrich, open up the soup-kitchen. Anyone can see the beans are done." He shook his head sleepily: "You must all be there first." Tjaden grinned: "We are all here." The sergeant-cook still took no notice. "That may do for you," he said. "But where are the others?" "They won't be fed by you to-day. They're either in the dressing-station or pushing up daisies." The cook was quite disconcerted as the facts dawned on him. He was staggered. "And I have cooked for one hundred and fifty men--" Kropp poked him in the ribs. "Then for once we'll have enough. Come on, begin!"

There is an abundance of rations because so many of the young soldiers have been killed.  The misfortune of the dead redounds to the benefit of those who survived.  That the surviving soldiers take more glee on the extra rations they will receive than they mourn their fallen comrades speaks to the numbing effects of combat when death and mutilation become part of one’s routine.

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