At nine o'clock in the evening, under cover of darkness, Paul's company, tense with the understood danger of their mission, boards trucks to travel down a bumpy road to lay wire near the front. Although they keep up a steady flow of repartee with a marching munitions column, Paul's group is disconcerted by a change in the usual pattern of British artillery, which begins firing before ten o'clock, an hour too soon. As they pass one particular house, Paul hears geese and glances significantly at Kat, who is already thinking about geese for dinner. As they near the front line they see the guns camouflaged and they smell the air, acrid with smoke. The fumes of powder can be tasted and the guns make the earth quake.
The young recruits are agitated but the veterans like Paul and Kat are thick-skinned and use the moment to teach the novices. Kat can recognize the type and size of the shells by the sounds, and he teaches the young recruits these differences. Meanwhile, Paul is thinking about the awareness of the front known to all soldiers; their senses are alert and they are changed from a relaxed state by "a tense waiting, a watching, a heightening alertness, a strange sharpening of the senses." As he ponders this, the lorries leave to collect them again at dawn.
While the night is lit up by the bombardment, Paul's detail goes about its task, pushing in iron stakes and stringing barbed wire at regular intervals. They finish long before the lorries return. Even though he is cold, Paul falls asleep for a while but awakens with a jolt. Kat calms him and ominously predicts a barrage. As incoming artillery begins, soldiers cry out and run for cover. Paul tries to console a young recruit, holding him in his arms as the rookie cries and shakes. It is a nightmare: Between explosions, cries of the wounded soldiers are heard and these are joined by the screaming of wounded horses. Detering is angered by the plight of the horses, but Kat explains that the other soldiers must help the men first. Not to be stopped, Detering aims his gun to shoot the distant horses, but Kat stops him before he shoots another soldier by mistake. Then they hear the horses being shot and Detering is upset that horses are used at all in war.
At three o'clock the next morning, the lorries return and Kat continues to be nervous about an attack. Not surprisingly, he is right, and the attack comes quickly and crushingly. There is no escape, and the men seek shelter. Paul catches a splinter in his arm and almost faints. He crawls into a hole and, realizing that they are in a cemetery, hides under a coffin. Kat, Kropp, and the young recruit are there also. As they shrink in terror at the barrage, Kat also realizes that gas is being used and warns them to put on their gas masks. The gas hovers and sinks into holes, forcing them to get above ground once again. However, another barrage begins and they are under attack with nowhere to hide.
A coffin hits the fourth man and Kropp keeps him from tearing off his gas mask. The injured man is the young recruit Paul comforted earlier, and they try to free his arm from underneath a coffin. As these anxious moments go on, Paul feels as though he is suffocating, because he is breathing the same air over and over in his gas mask. The cemetery is a mess of corpses and coffins. The barrage lets up and they discover that the recruit is hit on the hip; Kat surmises that he will never walk again and sees that the young victim's arm is bleeding also. As with the horses, Kat suggests they shoot the young recruit and put him out of his misery, because Kat knows what the young man will go through in his final days if they don't. Paul agrees, but before they can shoot him other soldiers arrive, so they must get a stretcher and call for a medic.
In the battle, five are killed and eight are wounded. Two of the dead lie in graves, so they simply throw dirt on them. An hour later, they reach the lorries and, in the desperate early morning hours, rain begins to fall.
This chapter, one of the most dramatic in the book, depicts how Paul reacts to the intense fighting along the western front. As Remarque's most pointed explanation of how war reduces combatants to simple survival skills, the section contains reminders that humanitarianism and compassion quickly return, impelling the men to help the wounded and dying and to commiserate with maimed horses. Like animals themselves, the men cling to the earth in shell holes, trenches, and dugouts, foreshadowing their own burials, as well as the cemetery battle scene. As Paul notes, if fate proves false, the earth will receive them forever.
The consciousness of the front and its terrors streams through this chapter in Paul's thoughts. He says "there is suddenly in our veins, in our hands, in our eyes a tense waiting, a watching, a heightening alertness, a strange sharpening of the senses." This new consciousness is compared to the instincts of animals in fight-or-flight mode. All are changed from the relatively carefree soldiers they were in Chapter 3, or even from the stillness and peace of the ride in the lorries they experienced just moments ago.
Like a machine, the men become mere cogs in the wheel of war. They are part of a greater drama in which they are mere bodies. Even as they drive to the front, Paul himself feels sucked into this nightmare. He feels the front is "a mysterious whirlpool. Though I am in still water far away from its centre, I feel the whirl of the vortex sucking me slowly, irresistibly, inescapably into itself."
Man's inhumanity is stressed throughout this surreal nightmare. The screaming horses are like nature itself crying out at the actions of mankind. Euthanasia seems a fitting end for the horses as well as for the young recruit, whose life is shattered like his hip and arm. Both horse and man are but numbers in a huge battle that knows neither identities nor names. As Kat remarks that the young recruit is such "an innocent," Remarque seems to be commenting on the entire "lost generation" of this war.
Nature is also a key actor in this chapter. The earth becomes spiritually connected to mankind, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." It is a refuge from the shelling, a site of horrifying death from gas, and a final resting place for literally thousands of nameless bodies that once were boys with names. Paul's description is an invocation to earth's refuge from the annihilation of man: "Earth with thy folds, and hollows, and holes, into which a man may fling himself and crouch down. In the spasm of terror, under the hailing of annihilation, in the bellowing death of the explosions, O Earth, thou grantest us the great resisting surge of new-won life." And even as nature shelters mankind, it also cleans up after him. When the battle is over, the rain comes to wash away the blood and the tears. As Paul says, "It falls on our heads and on the heads of the dead up in the line, on the body of the little recruit with the wound that is so much too big for his hip; it falls on Kemmerich's grave; it falls in our hearts."
wiring fatigue the tedious task of laying barbed wire to slow an enemy assault.
lorries [British] motor trucks.
munition-columns narrow lines of soldiers accompanying artillery to the front.
Feast of the Tabernacles Sukkot; a Jewish festival celebrating the fall harvest and commemorating the desert wandering of the Israelites during the Exodus; observed from the 15th to the 22d day of Tishri, the first month of the Jewish year.
second sight the hypothesized ability to see things not physically present or to foretell events; clairvoyance.
Flanders to the Vosges from a region in northwest Europe, on the North Sea, including a part of northwest France and the provinces of East Flanders and West Flanders in Belgium to a mountain range in northeast France, west of the Rhine.
pioneer dump a supply source for the pioneers; here, a supply source for the infantrymen who are preparing the road for marching columns.
coal-boxes low velocity German shells; nicknamed "the black Maria," because they emitted dark smoke.
fete festival, entertainment.
nose-cap the metal tip of an explosive device.
gun-shy easily frightened at the firing of a gun.