Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 972
Paul and seven others are assigned to guard an abandoned village near a supply dump. They make the most of this opportunity and create “an idyll of eating and sleeping.” The village has been shelled regularly, but there is plenty for these deprived soldiers to scavenge. They find mattresses, bedding, eggs, butter, and two young pigs. One of the houses has everything a cook would need, and several of the men scour nearby fields for fresh vegetables. Cooking begins, but the smoke is visible to the observation balloons. They are now a target, so they grab the food and head for their dugout shelter. Their meal goes on as planned. For the next two weeks life is easy and the men take advantage of their access to supplies. Soon they are called back to their regiment, and they load the trucks with all sorts of luxuries from the village, including two big, red armchairs.
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Several days later they are to evacuate a village. As they approach their destination, the soldiers see a stream of citizens silently trudging away from their homes hauling everything they can possibly manage. Suddenly they are attacked and Albert Kropp is hit in the knee. Paul drags him to safety and binds his wounds; Kropp then bandages wounds on Paul’s arm and leg. They crawl until they are picked up by an ambulance full of other wounded soldiers. Kropp has decided that if he loses his leg he will take his own life. When it is his turn to be patched up, Paul decides he will not take any chloroform because military surgeons are too quick to amputate. The doctor finds the segment of shell and sets Paul’s leg, telling him he will be heading home the next day. Paul finds Kropp and bribes the sergeant-major to put them together on the hospital train in the morning. Kropp is loaded into a bottom bunk, and Paul is supposed to get into the bed on top. He is hesitant when he sees the crisp, pristine white bedding, for he knows he is filthy and full of lice. One of the Red Cross nurses assures him lice need a nice bed now and then, too, and Paul hesitates no longer.
The train leaves an hour later. When it is dark, Paul wakes and Kropp is restless. When Paul tries to climb down from his bed to head for the latrine, he finds nothing on which to place his foot and falls. One of the nurses comes in and comforts him sweetly. She is young and Paul is having difficulty telling her he needs to relieve himself. Once she understands, she brings him a bottle.
Several days pass and Albert has developed a fever and will be put off at the next stop. Paul knows he must also quickly develop a fever so they can stay together. He tricks the thermometer, and the two of them are evacuated at the next train stop and taken to a Catholic hospital. When the sisters pray early in the morning, they leave the door open so the patients can hear; however, the patients are disturbed by the noise rather than inspired by the prayers. Paul asks them repeatedly to shut the door, but the women do not understand the hostility. Finally Paul throws a bottle of urine at the door, and the sister closes the door. There are some repercussions, but they are minimal. There are eight men on this ward and one of them, Franz, begins to bleed profusely one night. The nurse thinks it is something trivial and does not come when they ring the bell. After she discovers it is something rather serious, a sister checks on them more often. Some of the volunteers, though well meaning, do not have the necessary skills to help patients move and actually end up hurting them. Despite such difficulties, their stay here is better than anything they could have imagined.
Franz never quite recovered from his hemorrhaging, and he is taken away. One of the men who has been there the longest explains Franz has been taken to the Dead Room, a place for those about to die from which no one ever returns. Albert is not doing well after his leg is amputated above the thigh. The men are a bit more hopeful when one of their comrades actually returns from the Dead Room. Paul is soon able to hobble around, and he ponders the scope of the war and the destruction it has caused:
I am young. I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in the silence, unknowingly, foolishly, innocently, slay one another....Through the years our business has been killing....Our knowledge of life is limited to death.
There are also some good moments. One of the older men in their ward, Lewandowski, is receiving his wife for a visit; he has not seen her in two years. She has finally saved enough money to make the journey from Poland; he is finally well enough to walk just a bit. When she arrives there is an understandable nervousness between them. Their child has a dirty diaper, and the simple act of changing it dispels the tension. The men of the ward conspire to allow Lewandowski and his wife a few moments of intimacy. In return for their discretion, he shares the food his wife brought him. Paul goes to the massage center every day and is doing much better. The worst is over for Albert, and he is no longer suicidal. Soon he will leave to get his artificial leg. Paul gets convalescent leave but is then recalled to his regiment instead.