Five miles behind the front lines between Langemark and Bixschoote, Paul Bäumer's company is at rest. They have had very little sleep for the fourteen days since they relieved the front line and seventy of their one hundred and fifty men are dead at the hands of Russian gunfire. The cook, Ginger, has fixed rations for the one hundred and fifty and, after arguing with the lieutenant, grudgingly consents to give all the food to the eighty soldiers left, including double rations of smokes. As the narrator remarks, "Today is wonderfully good."
The narrator is Paul Bäumer, a nineteen-year-old boy who is already battle-hardened in this first chapter. As they rest, Paul describes the group of German schoolboys who enlisted with him at the prodding of their schoolmaster, Kantorek. One by one he introduces the doomed group as Albert Kropp, "the clearest thinker"; Müller, who carried books and "dreams of examinations"; and Leer, bearded and a frequenter of officers' brothels. These young men were in Paul's school class, and the novel follows their lives. Along with these comrades, Paul describes several others who will become part of his wartime company: Tjaden, a nineteen-year-old locksmith, skinny but a big eater; Haie Westhus, nineteen, a peat digger with huge hands; and Detering, a peace-loving peasant with his wife and farm always on his mind. In contrast to these youngsters is a forty-year-old veteran named Stanislaus Katczinsky or "Kat." He is "shrewd, cunning, and hard-bitten" with "a remarkable nose for dirty weather, good food, and soft jobs." A cobbler in civilian life, he is older than the boys and assumes the role of leader and he seems to have a special bond of friendship with Paul.
While the company is resting, they play cards, read letters and newspapers, and smoke. Realizing how lucky they are for this respite, they do not discuss the war. Instead, Paul reflects on their differences from the new recruits; using the common latrine as an example, he cites their own lack of embarrassment and hints of their war-driven knowledge of "things far worse." Clearly, the main focus of soldiers is their stomachs and intestines.
The mail catches up with the company and there is a letter from Kantorek, their former schoolmaster, who encouraged them to join the war effort with his tales of glory. Bitterly, Paul speculates, "There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best — in a way that cost them nothing." Paul considers one story in particular of Joseph Behm, who was not meant for combat but was persuaded to join. Shot in the eye and left for dead, he crawled around No Man's Land until he was shot again and killed. Thinking of the fragile Behm, Paul reflects on how their young, innocent world was destroyed at the first bombardment.
The scene shifts to the aid station, where Paul, Kropp, and Müller visit their buddy, Franz Kemmerich. Insensible to the amputation of his injured leg, Kemmerich puts on a cheerful face, yet fails to hide a serious physical decline. This visit is the first of many they will make to hospitals or dressing stations where Paul smells carbolic, pus, and sweat. Paul realizes immediately that Kemmerich will die, because he is used to seeing death now in a man's face and eyes. Paul bribes the attendant to give Kemmerich more morphine while Müller callously tries to persuade their friend to let him have his English boots of soft, yellow leather. The boys know the orderlies will steal the boots when Kemmerich dies. Kemmerich doesn't want to give up the boots, so they remain with him for now. But the school friends leave, foreseeing this first death among their group.
Back at the camp, Paul realizes he must write a letter to Kemmerich's mother at home. Meanwhile, Kropp is angry because Kantorek has called them "Iron Youth" in his letter. Reflecting on this phrase, Paul thinks, "Youth! We are none of us more than twenty years old. But young? Youth? That is long ago. We are old folk." This transition has already happened prior to Chapter 1; the ex-schoolboy can already see and accept death on the face of his friend.
The first chapter of All Quiet on the Western Front sets the tone quietly for the violent and often gruesome story to follow. Remarque takes us away from the action long enough to introduce the characters and setting, produce the initial tone of the narrator, set in motion various themes to be illustrated shockingly, and string together a group of symbols that will be amplified.
The characters and setting are introduced through the eyes of the novel's narrator. Paul's comrades are partly school chums who spent many years together reading books, studying, and listening to their teachers. Paul ponders on Müller, with his textbooks of science and mathematics. Where will those textbooks take Müller in this war? Then there is Kropp, the quiet, thoughtful boy; these personal characteristics are hardly good ones for a hardened soldier. And Behm certainly represents the slaughter of the innocent, already lost to impractical dreams. Paul thinks about the girls and the dances that might have been. In fact, when Paul goes home later, he realizes these memories are from another time and another world. Germany, outmanned and outpaced by better-supplied Allied forces, struggles to hold on to slender gains, purchased at the price of thousands of dead and wounded men.
Remarque also elaborates in this chapter on the tone of the narrator, Paul Bäumer, speaking for his creator. Paul seems at first philosophical and uncaring. Through his narration, we will see benchmarks in the soldiers' progression from innocence to a realization of the cruelty and inhumanity of war. Already Paul describes the abundance of food as a mere "miscalculation" instead of commenting on the extent of the company's deaths. His discussion of the public latrine and his concern for creature comforts rather than people seems already to make us aware of his progress in this downward spiral. But we also see a touch of humanity when he goes to visit Kemmerich with the others. He is being practical about the boots and the theft in the hospital, but he also sees death in his friend's eyes where a few months ago he did not even know the specter of death. He bribes the attendant to give Kemmerich extra morphine to ease his suffering.
A number of themes, which will be abundantly developed throughout the novel, begin in this introductory chapter. Again and again Paul mentions his generation's loss of innocence. "Youth? That is long ago. We are old folk." He comments on Detering, who thinks of his farm and wife, an example of the peace-loving peasant swept up in a place and time from which he cannot escape. Loss of innocence is paralleled by the tragic loss of traditional values and faith. Kantorek, the object of Paul's bitterness, is only one of many German role models who convinced the lost generation that it was their duty to go to war. As Paul remarks, "The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces." Their lost innocence is partly a result of the violence and cruelty of man against man. They come up with euphemisms such as "pushing up daisies" to describe the massive death they see all around them. Before his story is over, Paul will end up running from one trench to another like a cornered animal. Even in this first chapter, he describes vividly the knowledge that the "old hands" like himself know compared to the raw recruits.
Callousness and greed are also a part of this story. We see this in the soldiers' casual attitude toward eighty deaths, the cook's reluctance to part with any extra morsel for the remaining soldiers, Müller's desire for Kemmerich's boots while his heart still beats, the theft of Kemmerich's watch, and the bribery of the greedy orderly.
In contrast to these themes, Remarque also provides contrasting motifs of warmth. There is comradeship and rare humanity on the part of the lieutenant who champions his men, the shared fears and terrors, the communal deprivation and loss, Paul's pretense with Kemmerich that he is not dying, and his friendship with Kat. Another positive theme is Remarque's insistence that, through all of the mud, the gore, the deaths, the starvation and disease, the aesthetic pleasures of nature, in the form of flowers, butterflies, trees, and meadows, continue all around, as though the people and their violence do not matter.
Nature emerges as a symbolic value in this story with red poppies blooming amid latrine boxes, white butterflies fluttering around and floating on "the soft wind of late summer," and a flowery meadow blooming on as part of the natural order of things despite man's war. Whenever Paul begins to bow down under the terrible burden of his eyes, he momentarily finds peace in the world of nature. Its innocence is a welcome refuge from the grim horrors of war.
The boots of Kemmerich are another symbol; they already had belonged to an English airman. Then they became Kemmerich's and, because he is dying, they may soon become Müller's. Each time the boots change hands they are worn as long as the owner lives and become a somber reminder of the fragility of life. These bright spots in so dismal an introductory chapter are dampened by Paul's realization of his past: "And we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through."
haricot beans any of various edible beans, especially kidney beans.
quids pieces of chewing tobacco.
English heavies cannons, or field artillery.
dressing-station a first-aid tent where wounded men are stabilized before being transported to military hospitals.
pushing up daisies [Slang] dead and buried.
dust-up [Slang] a commotion, quarrel, or fight.
dixie an oversized iron cooking pot.
non-com [Informal] a noncommissioned officer; an enlisted person of any of various grades in the armed forces.
quartermaster an officer whose duty it is to provide troops with quarters, clothing, equipment, and so on.
billets the quarters or lodging provided for military personnel.
observation-balloons the enemy's method of locating the dugouts of soldiers and assaulting them with grenades and light firearms.
anti-aircraft shells explosive projectiles fired at enemy aircraft.
misere ouverte an open discussion of hardship.
nap short for napoleon, a card game similar to euchre.
blighty a wound that assures the victim a permanent departure from action.
No Man's Land the unoccupied region separating opposing armies.
carbolic a solution used as an antiseptic, disinfectant, etc.
morphia morphine, a bitter, white or colorless, crystalline narcotic alkaloid derived from opium and used in medicine to relieve pain.