Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788
The unit goes closer to the battle for “wiring fatigue.” They are packed into military trucks, lurching in the dark toward the front lines, though they will not actually be engaging in the battle. As a flock of geese flies overhead in the dark, Paul and Katczinsky exchange glances. They will be having goose for dinner tonight. The new recruits are visibly nervous, but the others show no nerves. As the ammunition lands, Kat explains how to tell what it is. The English start firing, some of it near them. They change from being men on a mission to being men on the alert. They are tensed and ready, all senses attuned to their surroundings. There is a basic instinct for self-preservation that causes men to drop to the dirt: “To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier.” On their way to the front, they are soldiers enjoying relative camaraderie; in the battle zone, they are men acting on animal instinct.
They climb out of the trucks when they reach the woods, and they gather either iron stakes or rolls of wire and start walking with their awkward burdens. Even the glow of lit cigarettes must be extinguished as they reach the front line. The bombardment continues. After several hours of planting stakes and unrolling wire, their task is done. Since the trucks are not due back for several hours, the men try to sleep. Paul is startled in his sleep and sits up quickly. Kat is there and awake, and others come to join them as a heavy barrage of fire explodes around them. A new recruit buries himself in Paul’s chest, and Paul does his best to protect him. There is a crying that can be heard during the explosions and continues even after the noise stops. It is the crying of wounded horses, and it is growing unbearable for the men. Nothing can be done until the human casualties have been taken care of, but once they are, several single shots ring out in the near-dark. Some horses are running in their panic, and one soldier takes a knee and shoots. The pitiful crying stops.
The group heads through a cemetery back toward the trucks and the explosions begin again, closer this time. Several trees in the nearby woods “sail up and then crash to pieces.” The men duck for cover as the earth appears to erupt with each explosion. A sliver of metal tears Paul’s sleeve off his arm; another slides across his helmet. Paul slithers on the ground, even under the body of a dead soldier, trying to reach a shell hole and further protection. He is grabbed by the shoulder; when he turns, he sees Katczinsky hollering at him to put on his gas mask and to pass the word to others. He stumbles forward and helps a nerve-struck recruit put on his gas mask. A bell is clanging in the midst of the artillery noise, warning soldiers about the gas. Paul huddles in a shell hole with three others as the mist of gas “creeps over the ground.” He is anxious until he knows for certain that his mask is not leaking. A coffin flies through the air and lands on a new recruit’s arm. In his haste to free himself, the recruit tries to fling off his mask, but Kropp stops him in time to save his life. They free his arm, and they brace and bandage it the best they can. A soldier is walking toward them in through the dust and debris; he is not wearing a mask and he is still alive. Paul removes his mask as well.
As the group makes its disjointed way over the wreckage and debris, they see a fallen soldier on the ground in front of them. It is a new recruit. They assess the damage: his hip is “mincemeat and bone splinters.” Clearly he will never walk again. Paul gives him a few sips of rum and they try to bandage the wound. While doing so, Paul realizes this is the same young man who sought refuge in the shell hole with him earlier. Paul and Kat are planning to get a stretcher but know the end result will be a prolonged, painful death. Since the outcome is certain, they decide to simply put him out of his misery now. However, before they can do so, others arrive and their opportunity is gone.
Their losses, five dead and eight wounded, could have been much worse. It begins to rain, and when they climb into the trucks they have more room than when they came. It continues to rain and the men are exhausted.