Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 682
It is summer, and Paul’s unit goes back to the battlefront several days earlier than planned. On the way, they see more than a hundred freshly made coffins stacked and waiting. The men joke, but they know for whom the coffins have been made. The English have fortified their position; however, their own artillery is so worn out that many of their own shells are landing in their trenches. Two men were injured by this friendly fire. The soldiers are discouraged and understand that they depend on chance for their continued survival. Huge, feasting rats have taken over the trenches, and the men kill them as best they can. Their rations of rum and Edamer cheese are delicious but signal something ominous ahead of them.
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Days pass, and the men are weary and wary as observation balloons hover above them. There is a gigantic explosion and several of the dugouts are buried. Digging them back out helps pass the time, but the damage is so extensive that provisions can no longer be brought to them. The waiting is interminable, and they barely keep from attacking each other when a horde of rats invades their dugouts. One afternoon one of the recruits goes berserk. He simply wants to get out, no matter that doing so would surely get him killed. The more experienced men know they must give him a beating to shake him from this temporary insanity. That night, the attack begins.
The storm troopers are on the move, and ammunition is flying everywhere. Kropp and Haie are throwing hand grenades to deter their progress, and the French troops suffer heavy losses before they reach the trenches. Paul and his unit retreat, detonating bombs in their wake. They are not so much fighting as simply trying to stay alive. The trenches are nearly nonexistent, but the enemy has also suffered heavy casualties. By noon they have retreated to another trench and begin to attack the oncoming troops:
We have lost all feeling for one another. We can hardly control ourselves when our glance lights on the form of some other man. We are insensible, dead men, who through some trick, some dreadful magic, are still able to run and kill.
As they run in pursuit of a retreating enemy, they suddenly find themselves in the enemy’s camp. They have the momentum and the enemy is forced to leave. Before heading back to their home base, Paul and the others dive into the trenches and gather whatever they can find. Safe in their own ditches, the men are too tired and winded to even think about the food right away, but eventually the hungry men pass around the food and drink.
While Paul is on patrol that night, he thinks of past times and beautiful things, knowing they are lost to him—to all of them—now. “We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men...we are lost.” Days pass and the soldiers are able to collect and tend to their wounded. They are able to find all but one man. Despite their best concerted efforts they do not find him, though they hear him for days—moaning, talking, weeping, and finally dying. Although it is usually quiet, when the observation planes fly the ammunition follows. There are casualties even in this relative time of peace. New regiments arrive, made up mostly of new recruits who are too inexperienced to be useful. As many as ten recruits fall for every “veteran” who dies. The old ones try to teach the young ones, but the casualties continue to mount. Paul sees Himmelstoss hiding in a trench and shoves him out; he does join the battle when a superior officer orders him to fight. Haie receives a fatal wound to his back and knows he will die. Soon the Second Company is relieved of duty and is leaving the battlefront. When roll call is made, the tragic news is that of the one hundred and fifty soldiers who arrived in the summer, only thirty-two will be heading back in the fall.