The record of several schoolmates who represent a generation destroyed by the dehumanization of World War I's trench warfare, All Quiet on the Western Front tells of their enlistment in the army at the urging of their teacher, Kantorek, whose wisdom they trusted. Paul Bäumer, a sensitive teenager, serves as central intelligence, the prototypical young infantryman whose youth is snatched away by the brutality of war.
Behind German front lines between Langemark and Bixschoote in 1916, only eighty of the original one hundred fifty soldiers of the Second Company remain fit for duty. Paul and his comrades have acquired a bit of battle experience, including the loss of Joseph Behm, the first of their group to die. Franz Kemmerich, his leg amputated, faces imminent death. A letter from Kantorek calling them "Iron Youth" stirs Kropp's anger.
The soldiers, recalling Platoon 9's brutal basic training in Klosterberg, abandon their idealism as a result of the sadistic tutelage of Corporal Himmelstoss. In its place, they evolve a strong comradeship, which bolsters and protects them far better than the now useless information they learned in school. Franz Kemmerich, Paul's friend, dies after the amputation of his leg. Müller inherits Kemmerich's boots.
Kat, the shrewd, self-reliant scrounger, manages to supply his friends with beans and beef. Paul and the others, excited by news of Himmelstoss' arrival at the front, recall the night before they left the training camp, when they trapped their drill instructor in a bedspread and beat him.
Paul's unit, which includes some inexperienced recruits, lays wire at the front. As they wait for return transportation, a bombardment and poisonous gas barrage pin them in a cemetery, churning up corpses from old graves. At dawn, a truck returns the men to their billets.
Himmelstoss arrives and tries to ingratiate himself with his former drill students. The men ignore and abuse him. Himmelstoss succeeds in having Tjaden and Kropp punished for insubordination. Kat and Paul thwart a guard dog and steal a goose, which they roast and share with the others.
Second Company spends the summer near the front, fighting savagely with grenades, bayonets, and sharpened shovels. The thirty-two men who survive return to the rear in the fall to rest.
The company moves farther behind the lines than usual, where they eat, sleep, and spend time with willing French girls, whom they shower with gifts of food. Paul returns home for a seventeen-day leave. Alienated by battle trauma, he lacks ambition and is unable to enjoy the pleasures of his youth. He despairs at his mother's weakness but enjoys the humor of Mittelstaedt tormenting Kantorek, now a member of the home guard and a poor specimen of a soldier.
Paul receives additional training at a camp on the moors, where he observes the sufferings of Russian prisoners of war, who must barter and scavenge garbage in order to stave off hunger. He thinks of them as pathetic human beings rather than adversaries and wishes that he could know them better.
Back with his unit, Paul feels more at home with comrades than he did with family. Inspected by the Kaiser, Second Company returns to the front. While on patrol, Paul becomes separated from the others and fatally wounds Gérard Duval, a French soldier, in self-defense. Face to face with a dying enemy, Paul is remorseful and tries to ease the man's sufferings. Returned to the dugout with his comrades, he confesses to the killing, then calms himself by concluding that "war is war."
Paul's luck changes when he is assigned to the supply depot and enjoys food and comfortable beds. While evacuating a village, Paul and Kropp are shot and sent by train to St. Vincenz Hospital. Kropp's leg is amputated. Paul recovers and goes on leave, but sorry to leave his friend behind, he returns to front-line duty.
In the summer of 1918, the war goes badly for Germany. Even rations, which are adulterated with unwholesome additives, are in short supply. Troops suffer dysentery and nervous exhaustion from the seemingly endless assaults of the Allies. Paul is the last remaining member of his schoolmates. He carries Kat to an aid station to be treated for a shin wound. On the way, Kat is hit in the head by a tiny splinter of shrapnel and dies. Paul collapses.
In October 1918, Paul, recently returned from two weeks' leave to recover from poisonous gas, is killed on a quiet day, shortly before armistice ends the war.