Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660
This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will simply try to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.
Nineteen-year-old Paul Baümer is the narrator of this story, and he is in the army with three of his classmates, who are also nineteen. Albert Kropp is the “clearest thinker” among them and a lance-corporal; Müller is still thinking about school and physics formulas; Leer has a full beard and an eye for the ladies. They volunteered together and are serving together. They are part of a company of soldiers that has been on the front line for the past fourteen days and has moved back after suffering heavy casualties from English forces. There is plenty of food and tobacco for them, not because they are provisioned well but because they lost so many men in battle.
Also in line for their food are their friends: Tjaden, a thin boy and the biggest eater; Haie Westhus, also nineteen, with huge hands; Detering, a married farmer who longs for his home and wife; and Stanislaus Katczinsky, the “shrewd, cunning” forty-year-old leader of the group. As the men stand in line, the cook (Ginger) is dismayed that he has so much food for so few soldiers; it is against military policy to give extra rations. He finally gives in and serves them all nearly twice what they usually receive.
It is a good day because they are full, the mail has arrived, they have extra tobacco, and they are able to relax comfortably on the boxes with seats and handles that serve as toilets. No longer reticent about such bodily functions being so public, the men are well acquainted with their stomachs and intestines. As they sit on their makeshift toilets, they smoke and read and share whatever gossip is to be had in the beautiful environment that surrounds them. They play a card game and reminisce, joking about their former schoolmaster, Kantorek. He is a diminutive man who pressured the boys in their class to volunteer; he was quick to ask others to sacrifice when it cost him nothing. Even parents were insistent that their boys join the fighting, although they had no idea of the harsh realities their sons would encounter. As soldiers who have experienced the realities of death, they know they can no longer trust the older generation. Only they know what is real and what is not, what is true and what is false. Although they love their country, just as their parents do, they understand about death and dying and reality. This knowledge leaves them “terribly alone” with a task yet to finish.
The four boys go to visit a friend, Franz Kemmerich, who has been wounded. When they arrive they see in his eyes that he will never leave the hospital alive. They tell him he will soon be going home, but Kemmerich is not encouraged. Müller has rummaged and found Franz’s prize possession—leather boots made in England, which any soldier would covet. Müller asks if he can have them, but Franz does not want to let them go. He is unaware that one of his feet has been amputated and he will never wear both boots again; he is unaware that he will probably never get out of his bed alive. The boots stay, and the friends know they will never again see them.
When they return to camp, Paul prepares himself for the letter he must write to Franz’s parents and wishes for a little rum. Kropp is fuming about a letter from Kantorek in which he calls them the “Iron Youth.” He fumes because they all know they are no longer youth; they are “old folk.”
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