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Chapter 4 Summary:
The soldiers are sent in trucks to put up barbed wire at the front. Paul hears geese cackle, and Kat makes a note of it for later. They arrive at the artillery lines, where the fired guns rattle the ground and make the air taste of gunpowder. The men, though reserves and not in the front-line, become serious. Having been to the front before, they are not fearful, but the new recruits are. Kat predicts there will be a bombardment tonight. The English artillery starts firing--an hour before their regular ten o'clock schedule. Gunfire opens nearby, and again Paul observes a change in the men's faces and behavior. Paul feels the front is like a whirlpool, sucking him in. The earth becomes the soldier's closest ally as he buries himself into it during fighting, seeking holes and small valleys for protection. He believes this action is instinctive, and the only way to save oneself.
The trucks drop the soldiers off in the woods and plan to return before dawn the next day. Paul watches troops file down the nearby road and sees them as one mass. The magnificent-looking riders on horseback "resemble knights of a forgotten time." Paul and his unit carry wire and iron stakes to their site over hazardous terrain. They stop and watch the fiery display of rockets as the bombardment commences. Machine-guns and artillery join in; it reminds Paul of a flock of wild geese.
The men take a few hours in setting up the wire. They try and sleep in the cold, but are woken by the bombardment--they are now the targets. A young recruit, too scared even to put on his helmet, seeks shelter under Paul's arm. Someone is hit, and Paul hears cries between explosions. The battle quiets down overhead. The recruit has defecated in his pants, and Paul reassures him that it is understandable.
News arrives that some of the columns have been hit, including the horses. Detering, a farmer, pleads for them to be put out of their misery, especially once they hear the horses' screams. They find the horses in the darkness, but Kat does not let Detering shoot one of the wounded horses. They cannot bear the sounds of the horses anymore. The wounded horses are shot. Detering fumes over the idea of horses being used in war.
The unit returns. Kat is anxious to leave. The artillery fire returns, and the men seek cover behind the mounds of a graveyard. The earth is torn up as the men stay down. After a nearby burst, Paul's sleeve is torn away by an artillery shell splinter. He makes a fist to test for pain; there is none, but he knows that wounds don't hurt until after they've been inflicted. He feels his arm; it is only grazed. He receives two splinters on his helmet but fights against fainting. He covers himself in a hole created by the shells and finds a dead man in a coffin.
Paul crawls deeper into the hole but is stopped by Kat, who screams to spread the warning: gas. Paul grabs his gas mask and warns a recruit, who doesn't understand. Paul puts the boy's mask on and returns to his shell-hole. The gas-shells arrive, and Paul worries that his mask isn't airtight; he has seen in hospitals how gas can destroy lungs. The gas floats over the ground as a second bombardment begins. A coffin is thrown up from the ground and hits a man. The men free him, but his arm is shattered and he swoons. The shelling over, Paul removes his mask. They carry off the wounded man and find another man on the ground, hit in the hip. Paul knows the man will never walk again. They dress the wound, and when Paul finds the recruit is not wearing underwear, he realizes he is the one who defecated in his pants. They decide it is better to shoot the recruit and put him out of his misery, but before they can others come by and they carry him off.
The losses are fewer than expected. The soldiers climb into the trucks and ride home through the heavy rain.
Remarque depicts the brutality of modern warfare with spare, poetic precision. Artillery and gas shells, terrible and awesome sights and sounds, and grotesque injuries mark the unrelenting bombardment; if Remarque has not yet convinced the reader that war is hell, he surely has after this chapter.
Paul first notes the change of identity that occurs at the front. The men turn into animals--and more likely the hunted, not the hunters: "there is suddenly in our veins, in our hands, in our eyes a tense waiting, a watching, a heightening alertness." He later calls the soldier's impulse to seek the earth for protection an "animal instinct," and says the soldiers become "human animals" on the front.
One thing is clear: the men lose much of their humanness during war. They are de-individualized as instruments of war; the marching men are a "column--not men at all." Real animals play a significant role here, as well. Remarque contrasts the cackle of the geese--which Kat playfully promises to get at the beginning of the chapter--with the dreadful, geese-like sound of the artillery. Moreover, the wounded horses jolt the soldiers out of their desensitized states more than wounded men do. Though both soldier and horse alike are exploited in the war, at least men make the decision to enter the war, however reluctant they may be; the horses have no choice but to submit to the destruction of man.
The injuries and deaths of the horses also destroy whatever semblance of romanticism war may hold for Paul before the battle starts. He views the horsemen as the "knights of a forgotten time." One does not need to go back as far as the Middle Ages to find this "forgotten time"; battle was still romanticized even early in the war, and only massive losses could change war's glorified reputation.
War's glory is also shattered in the kinds of injuries the soldiers sustain. Paul puts the helmet on the recruit's behind because a shot there can still be serious. In the same way, Kemmerich--whom the recruit reminds Paul of--had a seemingly minor wound in his leg, but one that took his life nonetheless. The soldiers rarely die "honorable" deaths on the battlefield, instead often receiving wounds that painfully lead to death or are otherwise debilitating. (A prime example of these dishonorable wounds can be found in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises; in it, the war has reduced the protagonist, most likely, to impotence.)
If the various wounds of man and animal were not bad enough, the recruit's defecation in his pants is. But even that humiliation allows Paul to play the paternal role of a veteran--which, indeed, he and the others are in comparison to the green recruits, as they previously noted. More evidence of camaraderie occurs in the gas episode, when Paul puts on a recruit's gas mask for him, just as he shielded the first recruit.
An even more curious form of camaraderie occurs in this chapter--camaraderie between the living and the dead. Remarque deploys a dark irony as the soldiers use the coffins and mounds of the graveyard for cover. They will end up in the same place soon enough, Remarque implies, though not of their own will. However, their actions are also pragmatic. Just as Kemmerich's boots were of no use to him anymore, the bodies of the dead are more practically used as shields for the living.
Chapter 5 Summary:
The men delouse themselves, but they are preoccupied with the arrival of Himmelstoss, who was removed from his training post for his barbaric tactics and forced to go to the front. The men discuss what they would do if it were peace-time. If Haie were a non-commissioned officer--which Kat reminds him he'll never be--he would want to remain in the army, as it guarantees a cushy life after retiring. Detering wants to return to his farm. Himmelstoss shows up, unsure how to act amongst the men. He and Tjaden insult each other. Himmelstoss, as the superior officer, threatens to court-martial Tjaden and leaves. The men laugh, though Kat says Tjaden may get five days in jail.
The men realize that out of their class of twenty, seven are dead, four are wounded, and one is insane. Of the remaining twelve, three are lieutenants. They reminisce about Kantorek, reciting questions he asked about both academic and patriotic topics. Paul thinks what they learned in school is useless in the war. They question the use of going back to school after the war. Kropp points out that the young soldiers who did not have jobs before will have difficulty getting used to a new one after having fought in the war. He also doesn't believe they'll ever go back home. Paul can't imagine what he would do, as he's disgusted by the notion of "professions and studies and salaries." Kropp believes the war has ruined them, and Paul thinks he is right.
Himmelstoss returns with a sergeant, who tells them the absent Tjaden must report to him in ten minutes. Paul finds Tjaden and warns him; he disappears. Himmelstoss returns later for Tjaden, and Kropp calls to attention Himmelstoss's lack of experience at the front. Himmelstoss leaves, and Kat predicts three days' punishment. The case is put on trial in the evening, and Paul has to explain the reason for Tjaden's insubordination with the bed-wetting story. The lieutenant lectures Himmelstoss, gives Tjaden three days' open arrest, and Kropp one day's open arrest. Open arrest is a fairly pleasant stay in a former chicken-coop; close arrest is in the cellar. The men visit Tjaden and Kropp behind their wire-netting and play cards with them into the night.
After they finish cards, Kat suggests they find some geese. They ride out to a shed belonging to a regimental headquarters. Kat hoists Paul over a wall, and Paul finds two geese. He lunges for both and tries to bash their heads together, but they cackle and fight back. A bulldog knocks Paul down. Paul stays still so as not to provoke it any further. He slowly reaches for his revolver, then quickly shoots the dog, and runs out with one of the geese. Paul throws the goose over the wall and makes it just before the dog attacks him. He and Kat run away with the goose, now dead by Kat's hand. They cook the goose in a lean-to while the sound of distant fighting intrudes. Paul reflects how cooking the goose makes him and Kat more intimate. Paul watches Kat dreamily and sees in the stars a little soldier marching on in big boots. Kat interrupts him from his reverie to tell him the goose is done. They eat the tasty meat and smoke afterward, then give the leftovers to the grateful Kropp and Tjaden before retiring.
Remarque explores the long-term effect of war on soldiers, especially young soldiers. They are almost all profoundly nihilistic about life outside of the war, as Paul describes: "We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war." Their past seems useless to them; education has no place at the front. They cannot imagine any future or how to assimilate into society. Haie in particular is at such a loss that he would want to stay in the military, were he higher-ranking. Indeed, the benefits are great: a pension after a few years of service, and respect from civilians. The latter explains why the men joined in the first place--the romanticized myth of the military. Though Haie has by now seen through the myth, it is his only option for life. Nevertheless, he is the exception among the men. Detering is another exception: with a wife and a farm, he has something worth returning to.
We see more humorous instances of the military compared to animals. Tjaden and Kropp are detained in a former chicken-coop, while Paul plays the role of a fox as he raids the geese. Himmelstoss's trial, on the other hand, seems distanced from these animalistic rites, but we should remember Kat's conjecture that power struggles in the military are like those of the animal world. The trial, then, is just a more civilized version of the battles fought in the animal world--as are, one might argue, all the large-scale battles being fought.
While the homosocial relationships Remarque has so far related revolve around military camaraderie ("homosocial" is a term frequently used in literary criticism that describes relationships between people of the same sex, especially men), there has so far been little homoerotic subtext. Paul and Kat's bonding, however, overtly states this: "We don't talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have." Their behavior while cooking the goose is reminiscent of a clichéd scene of post-coital interaction: instead of a man and woman lying in bed while smoking cigarettes, a man and a man sit in a lean-to while cooking a goose. (They also smoke a cigarette and a cigar after they eat it.) Paul goes even further when he says of Kat, "I love him, his shoulders, his angular, stooping figure" Though he is not embarrassed by his thoughts, he tones them down later, calling Kat his "brother" and his "comrade"--two words that are far more acceptable in the soldier's idiom.
Chapter 6 Summary:
Rumors of an offensive call the soldiers to the front early. They see over a hundred new coffins roadside on their way over. The men joke, but understand that the coffins are for them. The evident strengthening of the English artillery dispirits the men. Soon their side's shells land in their own trench, misfired by worn-out barrels. Paul believes that all soldiers believe in "Chance" in the trenches; he cites a lucky incident in which he barely escaped being killed twice in a row.
Rats invade the worn-down trenches and assault the men's bread. They lay out some bread as bait and kill many of the rats that go for it. The men receive cheese and rum, and remove the saws from their bayonets, as the enemy kills at sight anyone with such a blade. Still, the bayonet is practically obsolete now. At night, gas shells explode, but the men are prepared. All through the night they hear the mysterious sounds of transportation behind enemy lines. Kat predicts disaster, and Tjaden is the only one in good spirits. Days pass with no major attacks. Finally, the enemy launches an artillery bombardment one night and continues through to the next day, but no full attack commences. Men are sent out to bring back food, but no one can get through the bombardment. One recruit has a claustrophobic attack and wants to be let out of the trench. A direct hit rocks the trench. Several recruits throw insane fits.
The men wait more until night, the strain nearly paralyzing them. Finally, the bombardment stops and the attack begins. The men jump out of the trenches and run toward the enemy Frenchmen, lobbing grenades as they approach. Barbed wire slows the French assault. Paul stares into the eyes of a Frenchman on the ground and eventually throws a grenade at him. The Germans retreat and allow the next line of machine-guns to do their work. Paul reflects that the men have become "wild beasts" who kill with "mad anger." The French casualties add up. The Germans reach the enemy line and repel the French, drinking their water and eating their superior food.
On night watch, an exhausted Paul imagines being in a quiet cathedral and thinks about the meadows behind his town. He realizes that all his memories are silent and calm, and that they always make him check his gun in case he gives in to their serenity. The memories do not provoke desire, but sorrow, as they no longer exist in the current world. Even if what they remember did exist, the men would not know what to do with them.
More casualties pile up in the coming days; the men cannot always retrieve their wounded comrades in no-man's-land, and they die out there. They spend days trying unsuccessfully to find one wounded man whose cries grow increasingly hoarse and from seemingly everywhere. The men recover the copper driving-bands and silken parachutes of the French shells; Haie wants to use the driving-bands to "supplement" his girlfriend's garters. The silk is for handkerchiefs or women's blouses. Rats devour the dead in no-man's-land. Through the regular shelling, the men watch airplane battles for amusement. Observation planes, however, direct the artillery, and eleven men die in one day from their efforts. The shelling renews its strength. New recruits are brought in, but they are so inexperienced that they almost hurt the cause. They die at high rates from foolish mistakes.
Paul dives into the same trench as Himmelstoss. A novice at trench fighting, he pretends to be wounded in the trench. Paul orders him to go out with the others. He doesn't, and Paul knocks him around until a lieutenant orders them both to join the others. Paul and the other veterans teach the recruits the ways of war, but in the heat of the battle they forget the lessons. Haie is wounded in the back. Men lose body parts. In the end, the battle is a success for the Germans, who have yielded just a few hundred yards to the French--"But on every yard there lies a dead man." The men are relieved, ride away, and regroup. Second Company has thirty-two men left.
This chapter is divided into two graphic, minutely detailed portraits of war: life in the trenches, and life--or, rather, death--during battle.
The trench section is unrelenting in its description of the death that gradually creeps in on the men. Before they even directly face the enemy, the men have to contend for days with rats, claustrophobia, strained nerves, and hunger. The long-range capabilities of improved artillery and the advent of the airplane for reconnaissance created this new kind of fighting, or pre-fighting. Neither side could advance while under constant artillery bombardment, so the trenches, or dug-outs, became their only ally.
The fighting depicted here is true to life. The goal of trench fighting was less to advance--indeed, the French army gains only a few hundred yards--but more to inflict massive loss of life. Although Paul finds that "Chance" governs a soldier's fate while he is in the trenches, during combat experience tremendously increases the survival rate. The veterans again turn into animals, or "wild beasts," as Paul says; even in his cowardice Himmelstoss snaps and barks like a dog. This animal instinct is again necessary to desensitize the men to the horror around them. Paul's eye frequently roves over missing limbs and open gashes, but he cannot allow these sights to affect him too deeply. Rather, he must embrace his bloodlust along with the others and kill mercilessly. When he sees the Frenchman's face up close, he only momentarily refuses to kill before coming to his senses and hurling a grenade.
Despite the length and breadth of this chapter, Paul occasionally remarks on the difference between the horror of war and the language that conveys it: "Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand-grenades--words, words, but they hold the horror of the world." Remarque may be alluding to Hamlet's famous line "Words, words, words" here, and it makes sense: both Hamlet and Paul see the futility of words in the place of action. No matter how graphic and intimate Remarque's narrative is, he implies that it does not match up to the real thing. Even the terms he ticks off here sound harsh (though they are, of course, translated into English), and Paul's narrative tone reflects this: spare and hard, his language emulates the vicious war he fights in.