‘All quiet on the Western Front’

The first edition book covers from 1929.

The first edition book covers from 1929.

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That both Robert Graves’ Good-bye to All That and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front were each first published in the same year, 1929, just a decade after the treaty of Versailles ended their war, was not merely an accidental coincidence.

As Graves himself explained, 10 years had passed, since the Armistice of 1918, before he was able to record what at the time had been terrifying, traumatic, nightmarish experiences on the Western Front. Only now could he begin to put them into a sequence of words on the page. The images were all still so vivid, such as his first sight of human brains; of two rats wrestling with each other for the possession of a severed human hand; or of the dead soldier who had silenced his agony by forcing his knuckles into his open mouth. In unguarded moments, these and many others, still haunted him. Only by de-sensitizing himself was it possible to stay more or less sane in such a world of ceaseless, deafening noise, destruction, mutilation and sudden death.

Though transparently disguised in fictional form, Remarque’s reactions were much the same. He too had found it impossible to write about the daily abominations of trench warfare until the pain they had caused had been muted by time and distance. Only now could he bear to describe some of his worst memories such as the cries of the wounded in no man’s land; the huge fat rats gorging themselves on bloated, stinking human corpses; and the dug-outs full of the dead gassed, their heads blue and their lips black.

In such circumstances, the human mind had to rid itself of conscious reasoning and natural emotion, “otherwise we would all go to pieces before the horror”. In the trenches, existence had been reduced to “one continual watch against the menace of death”. The only way to avoid insanity was to value comradeship, “so that we escape the abyss of solitude”; though it was unwise to become too attached in case yet another death or mutilation severed the vital link.

Through the eyes and thoughts of a fictional Paul Baumer, Remarque imagined himself as one of a class of 18-year-olds who together had volunteered in August 1914 to join the Prussian infantry. When his account began, a year or so later, there were only eight of them left: seven were already dead, four were wounded and out of the line, and one was “in the mad house”.

At one lull in the battle, the boys reminisced about their recent school days and classroom education. For warfare and the many practical skills it demanded of them, they had received no preparation. Patriotism was hardly sufficient. Since August 1914 they had had to learn how to find fuel and start a fire with wet wood, how to forage for and steal food, how to light a cigarette in a rain storm, and, most practical of all, how to bayonet an enemy in the soft belly, not jam it into his ribs!

All of them agreed that the war had ruined them, should they survive, for a life in peacetime. Home-leave had become an embarrassing ordeal. Civilians at home had no conception of what was happening at the front and soldiers were unable or unwilling to tell them the truth. Between them and the old men and womenfolk they had left behind there was now a total disconnection. When Paul went back home on leave he felt like a foreigner there and was relieved to return to his comrades.

So, by 1915, Paul Baumer was already a 19-year-old veteran who felt only sadness for “the young fellows” who came out to the front to replace relentless losses. Inadequately trained, lacking useful life-saving knowledge, “they fell like flies”. They had no understanding of the contours of the ground, no ear for the sound of incoming artillery, no experience of what to do during a gas attack. They could not distinguish shrapnel from high-explosive shells, the “daisy-cutters” from the “big coal-boxes”. Instead of scattering under shell-fire, they flocked together like sheep. When poison gas reached them, they did not know that “the gas lies longest in the hollows” and so perished there together in groups.

Long before his fictional death by sniper’s bullet in October 1918, Paul explained the inevitability of German defeat on the Western Front. By then there were too many fresh English and American regiments. They had too much corned beef and white wheaten bread, too many new guns and aeroplanes. The Germans were starving but not beaten, simply overwhelmed by superior numbers. Their artillery was short of ammunition and their gun barrels were worn out. Allied tanks had won command of the battlefield; the Germans had no answer to their number, size and strength. Defeat and surrender were only a matter of time.

Unsurprisingly, All Quiet on the Western Front, was condemned by Hitler’s Nazis as pacifist, defeatist and unpatriotic. And though a faithful film version won Hollywood’s best picture award in 1930, it was banned in the Third Reich.

The comments of three of Remarque’s principals: Tjaden, “the skinny locksmith” with a large appetite; Katczinsky, the hard-bitten, cunning old soldier; and Paul himself, summarised the resigned fatalism and cyncism of his masterpiece:

Tjaden: “Me and the Kaiser, we are both fighting. The only difference is, the Kaiser isn’t here.”

Katczinsky: “At the next war let all the Kaisers, Presidents, Generals and diplomats go into a big field and fight it out amongst themselves. That will satisfy us and keep us at home.”

Paul: “We live in the trenches and there we fight. We try not to be killed, but sometimes we are. That’s all.”