Paul describes his fellow soldiers: he, Leer, Müller, and Kropp are all nineteen years old. They are from the same class in school, and each enlisted in the army voluntarily. Tjaden, a locksmith, is a voracious eater but remains thin as a rail, making Paul wonder where all the food goes to on his skinny frame. Haie Westhus, also nineteen, is a peat-digger with a body as large and powerful as Tjaden's is thin. Detering is a peasant with a wife at home. Katczinsky, the unofficial leader of Paul's small group of comrades, is a cunning older man of about forty years.
After a sound night's sleep, the men line up for breakfast. The cook has unwittingly made enough food for 150 men. The men are anxious to eat the rations designated for their fallen comrades, but the cook insists that he is only allowed to distribute single rations and that the dead soldiers' rations will simply have to go to waste. After a heated argument, however, he agrees to distribute all of the food.
Paul remembers that he and his friends were embarrassed to use the general latrines when they were recruits. Now they find them a luxury. Every soldier is intimately acquainted with his stomach and intestines. The men settle down to rest, smoke, and play cards in order to forget about their narrow survival during their last trip to the front. Kemmerich, one of Paul's classmates and a member of the Second Company, is in the hospital with a thigh wound.
Paul recalls his schoolmaster, Kantorek, a fiercely patriotic man who persuaded many of Paul's friends to enlist as volunteers to prove their patriotism. Joseph Behm, one such young man, was hesitant but eventually gave in to Kantorek's unrelenting pressure. He was one of the first to die, and his death was particularly horrible. With Behm's death, Paul and his classmates lost their innocent trust in authority figures such as Kantorek. Kantorek writes a letter to them filled with the empty phrases of patriotic fervor, calling them "Iron Youth" and glorifying their heroism. The men reflect that they once idolized Kantorek but now despise him; they blame him for pushing them into the army and exposing them to the horror of war.
The men go to see Kemmerich, who is unaware that his leg has been amputated. Paul discerns from his sallow skin that Kemmerich will not live long. The men give some cigarettes to an orderly in return for his agreement to give Kemmerich a dose of morphine to ease his pain. Müller, reasoning that a one-legged man has no need for matching shoes, wants Kemmerich's boots for himself, but Paul discourages him from pressing the matter further. They will have to keep watch until Kemmerich dies and then take the boots before the orderlies steal them.
(Kantorek's letter is particularly disgusting to Paul and his friends because of what it reveals about the older generation's attitude toward the younger men who fight in the war. In calling Paul and his friends "Iron Youth," Kantorek implies that they are young, impassive, and strong. But Paul and his friends do not feel impassive; rather, they feel as though they are losing their minds. Nor do they feel young—the hell of combat has aged them beyond their years. Paul and his friends feel that older men such as Kantorek have betrayed their trust and sent them to die for empty and useless ideals).
Start of 2: Paul ruminates that he and the other young men of his generation were cut off from life just as they had begun to live it. The older soldiers have jobs and families to which they can return after the war, but the younger men have nothing; the war has become their entire lives. Whereas the older men will forget the trenches and the death, the young men have nothing definite on which to focus thoughts of the future. Their prewar lives are vague, unreal dreams with no relevance to the world that has been created by the war. Paul feels utterly cut off from humanity; his only feelings of love and loyalty are those that he shares with his friends and fellow soldiers. As a result, Paul tries to see them in the best possible light. He thinks about Müller's attempt to persuade the dying Kemmerich to give him his boots and tries to convince himself that Müller was being reasonable rather than inconsiderate.
During training, Paul and his classmates were taught that patriotism requires suppressing individuality and personality, a sacrifice that civilians do not require of even the lowest class of servants. Corporal Himmelstoss, formerly a postman, trained Paul's platoon. He was a small, petty man who relentlessly humiliated his recruits, especially Paul, Tjaden, Haie, and Kropp. Eventually, Paul and the others learned to stand up to Himmelstoss's authority without outright defiance. Paul and his friends detested Himmelstoss, but now Paul knows that the humiliation and the arbitrary discipline toughened them and probably helped them to survive as long as they have. He believes that had Himmelstoss not hardened the men, their experiences on the front lines would have driven them insane.
Kemmerich is very near death. He is saddened by the fact that he will never become a head forester, as he had hoped. Paul attends Kemmerich's death throes. He lies next to his friend to try to comfort him, assuring him that he will get well and return home. Kemmerich knows that his leg is gone, and Paul tries to cheer him with talk about the advances in the construction of artificial limbs. Kemmerich tells Paul to give his boots to Müller. Kemmerich begins to cry silently and refuses to respond to Paul's attempts at conversation. Paul goes to find the doctor, who refuses to come. When Paul returns to Kemmerich's bedside, Kemmerich is already dead. His body is immediately taken from the bed to clear room for another wounded soldier. Paul takes Kemmerich's boots to Müller.
(This process of cutting oneself off from one's own feelings in order to endure the hardship of war is repeated throughout the novel and is shown to be the primary method by which war strips one of one's humanity. In this chapter, for instance, the doctor refuses to see Kemmerich because he has already amputated five legs that day; he can tolerate no more, and he simply shuts himself off from his feelings of sympathy and compassion, allowing Kemmerich to die in pain rather than expose himself to any more tragedy and gore. It is impossible to blame the doctor in this situation; Remarque emphasizes that war forces everyone, including doctors, to confront more than they can possibly stomach - In modern warfare, there is no room for refined notions of honor, nor for sentimentality. Müller needs Kemmerich's boots; it is not that he or any of the other survivors are not affected by their friend's death but rather that they cannot allow themselves to dwell on their grief. In this way, the boots become one of the novel's most important symbols of the cheapness of life: the boots repeatedly outlive their owners, and each time the man wearing them dies, the question of who will inherit the boots overshadows the death).
Start of 3: Kat believes that if every soldier got the same food and the same pay, the war would end quickly. Kropp proposes that the declaration of wars should be conducted like a festival. He thinks that the generals and national leaders should battle one another with clubs in an open arena—the country with the last survivor wins the war.
Paul and his friends remember the recruits' barracks with longing now. Even Himmelstoss's petty humiliations seem idyllic in comparison to the actual war. They muse that Himmelstoss must have been different as a postman and wonder why he is such a bully as a drill sergeant. Kropp mimics Himmelstoss and shouts, "Change at Löhne," recalling a drill in which Himmelstoss forced them to practice changing trains at a railway station. Kat suggests that Himmelstoss is like a lot of other men. He remarks that even a dog trained to eat potatoes will snap at meat given the opportunity. Men behave the same way when given the opportunity to have a little authority. Every man is a beast underneath all his manners and customs. The army is based on one man having more power over another man. Kat believes the problem is that they have too much power. Civilians are not permitted to torment others the way men in the army torment one another. Tjaden arrives and excitedly reports that Himmelstoss is coming to the front. Paul explains that Tjaden holds a grudge against Himmelstoss. Tjaden is a bed wetter, and during training, Himmelstoss set out to break him of this habit, which he attributed to laziness. He found another bed wetter, Kindervater, and forced them to sleep in the same set of bunk beds. Every night, they traded places. The one on the bottom was drenched by the other's urine during the night. The problem was not laziness but bad health, rendering Himmelstoss's ploy ineffective. The man assigned to the bottom often slept on the floor and thus caught a cold.
Haie, Paul, Kropp, and Tjaden plotted their revenge upon Himmelstoss. They lay in wait for him one night on a dark road as he returned from his favorite pub. When he approached, they threw a bed cover over his head, and Haie punched him senseless. They stripped him of his pants and took turns lashing him with a whip, muffling his shouts with a pillow. They slipped away, and Himmelstoss never discovered who gave him the beating.
(Although Kemmerich's death in Chapter One is sad, the reader never really meets Kemmerich; the scene reveals more about his friends than it does about him. The introduction of more fully drawn characters such as Kat, in Chapter Three, enables Remarque to render their eventual pointless dehumanization and death as truly tragic. Of course, the presence of individualized characters hardly makes this text unique, but one should bear in mind that these characters constantly confront a system that denies them any individuality and that this tension animates much of the novel. The mindless drilling, such as the "Change at Löhne" exercise and Himmelstoss's stupid and cruel solution to Tjaden's bed-wetting, expose an impersonal, highly rationalized military that does not serve even its own interests: the "Change at Löhne" drill is a waste of time, and Himmelstoss's solution only makes matters worse).
(Remarque associates Kat with the artifacts and behavior of premodern society).
(Kat's rant about the brutal hierarchies of the military blames the suffering that soldiers endure on a fundamental human sadism. Though Paul and Kropp volunteer theories about why officers are needlessly cruel, the text privileges Kat's opinions by letting Kat air them to a greater extent than others are allowed to air their opinions, and by having the others defer to him in the end. Kat argues that officers are cruel to those ranked below them because they enjoy exercising power that they do not have in civilian life; a certain company commander's "head has been turned by having so much power." This sadism is a kind of class warfare. Kat maintains that the lower one's station in civil society, the more power corrupts one in the army).
(With the account of the beating of Himmelstoss, which went beyond a mere prank; it was brutal, as Himmelstoss was whipped and partially suffocated. Haie, whose name means "sharks" in German, bent over Himmelstoss "with a fiendish grin and his mouth open with bloodlust." Paul describes him winding up "as if he were going to reach down a star," an ironic play on Himmelstoss's name, which consists of the German words meaning "heaven" and "strike" or "hit." This account illustrates that Paul and his friends are not above the same cruelty that they fault in their officers).
Start of 4: Paul ruminates that, for the soldier, the earth takes on a new significance at the front: he buries his body in it for shelter, and it receives him every time he throws himself down in a fold, furrow, or hollow. At the front, a man's ancient animal instincts awaken. They are a saving grace for many men who obey them without hesitation. Often, a man drops to the ground just in time to avoid a shell that he did not even hear coming. On the front, men are transformed from soldiers into "human animals."
The soldiers carry wire and iron rods to the front. After they lay the wire, they try to sleep until the trucks arrive to drive them back. Kat's prediction that they would be bombarded is correct. Everyone scrambles for cover while the shells land around them. Paul attempts to place a terrified recruit's helmet back on the recruit's head, but the boy cowers under Paul's arm. Paul places the helmet on the recruit's behind to protect it from shell fragments. After the shelling lessens, the recruit comes to and notices with embarrassment that he has defecated in his pants. Paul explains that many soldiers experience this problem at first. He instructs the boy to remove his underpants and throw them away.
The men hear the wrenching sounds of wounded horses shrieking in agony. Detering is particularly horrified because he is a farmer and loves horses. After the wounded men are gathered, those in charge of shooting the wounded animals do their job. Detering declares with disgust that using horses in war is the "vilest baseness."
As the trucks drive the men back, Kat becomes restless. A flurry of bombs then lands around them. The men take cover in a nearby graveyard. Paul crawls under an uncovered coffin for protection. Kat shakes him from behind to tell him to put his gas mask on. After he dons his mask, Paul helps a new recruit put his on. He then dives into a hole created by an exploding shell, reasoning that shells seldom hit the same place twice. Kat and Kropp join him. Paul takes a breath on the valve of the mask, hoping that the mask is airtight.
Later, Paul climbs out and sees a soldier not wearing his mask who appears to be okay. Paul tears his mask off and gulps fresh air. The shelling has stopped. Paul notices a recruit lying on the ground with his hip a mess of flesh and bone splinters at the joint. It is the recruit who defecated in his pants earlier. Kat and Paul know that he will not survive his wounds. Kat whispers that it would be merciful of them to end his life with a gunshot before the agony of his wound begins to torment him. Before they can end the recruit's life, however, other soldiers begin to emerge from their holes.
(Although this Freudian interpretation is complicated by the fact that the earth is almost everything to the soldier—brother, friend, and mother—the sexual and maternal systems of imagery predominate, and the assessment of Oedipal desire proves consistent with other kinds of regression and reversal described in the chapter. Paul declares that soldiers must become like animals in order to survive; the fact that Detering attributes to animals some degree of human dignity in war completes this reversal. A veteran accustomed to human suffering, Detering cannot bear to hear horses cry in agony. He feels that they are more blameless for the war than a private in the trenches, who, by being human, somehow shares responsibility for the war. "I'd like to know what harm they've done," he asks. The graveyard scene blurs the boundaries between the living and the dead: Paul wonders for a moment, half-seriously, whether a dead man has awakened and grabbed him. He survives the shelling by burrowing under a coffin; indeed, the war has left him, in a sense, more dead than the corpse disinterred by the bombardment).
Start of 5: Himmelstoss has arrived in the camp, proving the rumor true. He was caught tormenting his recruits excessively and has been sent to the front as punishment. Müller begins asking everyone what they would do if the war ended suddenly. Kropp says the war will not end, but Müller persists. Kat mentions his wife and children. The younger men mention women and getting drunk. Haie says that he would become a noncommissioned army officer since digging peat, his old job, is such a terrible occupation. Tjaden states that he would concentrate on getting revenge on Himmelstoss. Detering says that he would return to his farm.
Himmelstoss approaches the men, who rudely ignore him. He orders Tjaden to stand, but Tjaden moons him in response. Tjaden rushes off to hide before Himmelstoss returns with the authorities. Müller continues with his questions. They calculate that there are only twelve men left out of the twenty from their class who joined the army. Seven are dead, four are wounded, and one went insane. They mockingly recite questions that Kantorek shot at them in school. Paul cannot imagine what he will do after the war. Kropp concludes that the war has destroyed everything for them. They are not impetuous youths anymore but men perpetually on the run. They cannot believe in anything except the war.
Himmelstoss returns with the sergeant-major to punish Tjaden. Paul and the others refuse to tell him where Tjaden is hiding. The sergeant-major solves the problem by declaring that Tjaden must report to the Orderly Room within ten minutes. The men resolve to torment Himmelstoss at every opportunity. Himmelstoss returns later to demand that they tell him where Tjaden is. Kropp insults him, and Himmelstoss storms off.
Later that evening, Kropp and Tjaden are put on trial for insubordination. Paul and the others tell the court about Himmelstoss's cruelty toward Tjaden during training. After hearing their story, the presiding lieutenant gives Tjaden and Kropp light punishments and lectures Himmelstoss about his behavior. Tjaden receives three days open arrest and Kropp receives one. Paul and the others visit them in the makeshift jail and play cards.
Kat and Paul bribe a driver of a munitions wagon with two cigarettes to take them back to the house where they heard the geese. Paul climbs over the fence and enters the shed to find two geese. He grabs both and slams their heads against the wall, hoping to avoid a commotion. The attempt fails, and the geese cackle and fight with him furiously before he manages to escape with one goose in hand. Kat kills it quickly, and they retreat to an unused lean-to to cook it, eating quickly for fear of their theft being discovered. They keep the feathers to make pillows. Paul feels an intimate closeness with Kat as they roast the goose. They eat their fill and take the rest to Tjaden and Kropp.
(Müller's persistent questioning about his friends' postwar plans reveals why the young generation of men who enlisted right out of school was termed "the lost generation" by Gertrude Stein, an American writer who spent much of her life in Paris. Older men who had prewar jobs and families regarded the war as an interruption in their lives that eventually would end. They had concrete identities and functions within society. Younger men, such as Paul and his classmates, had no such concrete identities. They entered the war when they were on the threshold of their adult lives. None of them have definite answers to Müller's questions: they no longer have any conception of themselves apart from the war, emphasizing the theme of the war's ravaging effect on the humanity of soldiers - Haie gives the most definite postwar plans, but even his answer involves remaining in the army—he cannot imagine himself as anything but a soldier. Paul and his younger comrades cannot imagine functioning in civilian jobs after what they have seen and done. Their only definite plan for the future is to exact revenge upon Himmelstoss. Their curt answers to Müller's questions betray a certain anxiety about the end of the war, as if they fear the end of the war as much as they fear the war itself - Himmelstoss, like Kantorek, is a very significant figure in All Quiet on the Western Front because of what he reveals about the mentality of war. Paul and his friends observe repeatedly that war makes small, petty men become arrogant and hungry for power. Himmelstoss is the perfect example, a former mailman who becomes a fearsome bully simply because he is given military authority. Paul continually differentiates between the ceremonial, formal aspects of the army and the hellish chaos of actual battle. He sees little relation between parade drilling and saluting, on the one hand, and the madness of combat, on the other. Until he arrives at the front, Himmelstoss represents only the useless formal rituals of the army, demanding that men salute him on sight. Paul's friends observe that the German army is losing the war because the soldiers know how to salute too well, implying that too much attention is paid to outmoded propriety and not enough to the actual techniques of fighting in a modern war - Remarque suggests that peacetime social relationships can never approach the intimacy or intensity of a soldier's bonds with other soldiers - Paul marvels at the flood of emotion that he experiences while roasting the stolen goose with Kat. He and Kat would never have known one another in peacetime, but the war has brought their lives together in a crucible of horror. Their shared suffering makes peacetime concerns and concepts of friendship pale by comparison. In many ways, the bond forged between soldiers in trench warfare is the only romanticized element of Remarque's spectacularly unromantic novel).
Start of 6: The soldiers can do nothing but wait. Chance determines whether things will take a turn for the better or for the worse. Paul relates that he once left a dugout to visit friends in a different dugout. When he returned to the first, it had been completely demolished by a direct hit. He returned to the second only to discover that it had been buried.
The soldiers have to fight the fat, aggressive rats to protect their food. Large rations of cheese and rum are doled out to the men, and every man receives numerous grenades and ample ammunition. The men remove saw blades from their bayonets because the enemy instantly kills anyone caught with this kind of blade on his bayonet. Kat is in bad spirits, which Paul takes as a bad sign, since Kat has an uncanny sense for knowing what will happen on the front.
Days pass before the bombs begin to fall. No attack comes right away, but the bombing continues. Attempts to deliver food to the dugouts fail. Even Kat fails to scrounge anything up. The men settle down to wait. Eventually, a new recruit cracks and attempts to leave. Kat and Paul have to beat him into submission. Later, the dugout suffers a direct hit. Luckily, the shell is a light one, and the concrete holds up against it. Three recruits crack, and one actually escapes the dugout. Before Paul can retrieve him, a shell whistles through the air and smashes the escaped recruit to bits. They have to bind another recruit to subdue him. Everyone else tries to play cards, but no one can concentrate on the game.
Finally, the shelling lessens. The attack has come. Paul and his comrades throw grenades out of the dugout before jumping out. The French attackers suffer heavy losses from the German machine guns and grenades. The soldiers kill with a mindless fury after days of waiting helplessly in the dark while the bombs fell above them. The Germans repel the attack and reach the enemy lines. They wreak havoc and destruction before grabbing all of the provisions they can carry. They run back to their position to rest for an hour. They devour the tins of food they have gathered, noting that the enemy has far better provisions than they do.
Later, Paul stands watch. Memories of the past come to him. The calm and quiet memories bring sorrow rather than desire. He muses that desires "belong to another world that is gone from us." He is sure that his youth is lost and that he has become permanently numb and indifferent.
Days pass while dead men accumulate on both sides. Paul and his comrades listen to one man's death throes for three days. They are unable to locate him despite their best efforts. The new recruits figure heavily in the dead and wounded; these reinforcements have had little training, and they drop like flies on the front.
During an attack, Paul finds Himmelstoss in a dugout, pretending to be wounded. Paul tries to force him out with blows and threats, but Himmelstoss does not give in until a nearby lieutenant orders both of them to proceed. They rush forward with the attack. The old hands try to teach some of the new recruits combat tricks and wisdom during the hours of rest, but the recruits do everything wrong when the fighting begins again. Haie receives a fatal wound. When the Second Company is relieved, only thirty-two of the original 150 men remain.
(There really was no "victor" because the gains usually constituted a few hundred yards of ground. Generally, they ended in stalemate, with an unprecedented cost in human lives and human suffering - Paul and his comrades are able to man their machine guns and mow down the attacking soldiers. However, they do not achieve this success out of patriotic fervor or bravery; indeed, they have removed the blades from their bayonets, thus making their weapons less effective, because they fear death more than they long to kill the enemy. They are not seekers of glory but rather men driven to the brink of insanity - They savagely kill and maim the attackers not because they are enemies of the fatherland but because they can do nothing else to release the anxiety, stress, and terror of a days-long bombardment - The new recruits are younger than ever before, and they have had scant training. As a result, they perish in numbers five to ten times greater than experienced soldiers do. In essence, it is clear that Germany is running out of able-bodied adult men: soldiers are being killed and wounded at such a debilitating rate that the German army cannot even effectively train the boys they send to replace the men they have lost).