Summary and Analysis
Rumors return the men's attention to a possible offensive. As they pass the shelled remains of a school, they see a hundred sweet-smelling pine coffins stacked against it, preparations for their own casualties. Nightly, the British strengthen both troops and munitions — ominous reminders that the war shows no signs of ending. Paul grows morose and superstitious about his fate after narrowly escaping death in either of two foxholes while passing from one to the other. German artillery is so worn that shells fall on German troops. Fat rodents, which the men call "corpse-rats," gnaw the men's bread. Detering makes a game of outwitting the creatures.
The law of averages seems to work against the men's chances of survival. Dispersal of Edamer cheese and rum suggests that hard times lie ahead. From nights of persistent shelling, green recruits vomit from fear, endangering the others with the spread of panic. Although no attack begins, the men grow numb from the continual din of barrage.
Paul's trench is almost obliterated by exploding shells, which also hinder the cook from transporting rations from the rear. Two parties attempt to locate food, then return empty-handed. Exhausted by the lengthy bombardment, lack of sleep, and inadequate food, the men battle insurgent rats, which scream in terror. One soldier, overcome by claustrophobia, loses control and is forcefully subdued. His reason destroyed by falling shells, he rams his head against a wall.
On the third day, heavy gunfire projects beyond Paul's dugout as the French launch an attack. The trenches, blown apart, attest to the fierceness of the fight. Like robots, the men fall back to more stable positions, surprising the Allies with fierce resistance, then plunge ahead in renewed effort. Paul sees glimpses of carnage as he rushes to capture enemy positions. He and the others, after an hour's rest, consume French rations of canned corned beef, bread, and cognac.
At nightfall, Paul clutches a dew-sprinkled gun and walks sentry duty in a cathedral courtyard under cover of mist. After the day's battle, he has difficulty recovering his composure. He allows his mind and emotions to focus on the poplar avenue, which evokes nostalgic memories of home, of innocent play: "We loved them dearly [the trees], and the image of those days still makes my heart pause in its beating." Overcome with melancholy, he longs to immerse himself in the serenity of nature, but concludes, "[W]e fear and love without hope."
As the war drags on, Paul loses his sense of time. He and the others attempt to retrieve the wounded, one of whom pleads for rescue but lies hidden from the search party. The offer of a reward for finding him fails. In searching, Albert is slightly wounded. The dying man calls faintly for a woman named Elise, then lapses into weeping. Against a backdrop of fleecy clouds, fresh winds, and blue skies, the dead putrefy, sickening the survivors with a sweetish smell.
The next day, Paul tries to comprehend why Haie joins souvenir hunters in collecting parachute silk and copper bands. The carefree larks and butterflies seem out of place in this No Man's Land. Although the cannons have stopped shelling them, spotter planes strafe them with gunfire. Eleven men die hideously. Lacking transport to proper burial sites, Paul and the others heap the dead three layers deep in shell holes.
Inexperienced recruits fail as reinforcements and die because they have no survival skills. Himmelstoss, panicked by the reality of front-line duty, nurses a slight wound until Paul forces him out of the dugout with insults and a rap on the head. At a lieutenant's order, Himmelstoss joins the others. Paul becomes disoriented. In his words, "[W]e run, we throw, we shoot, we kill, we lie about, we are feeble and spent. . . ." Paul and the other experienced infantrymen teach recruits how to use their ears to determine which projectiles are incoming and where they will land. Haie, severely wounded in the back, drags himself along, acknowledging to Paul that death is near. As autumn arrives, the line maintains its hold on the trenches, but roll call reveals that only thirty-two out of a hundred and fifty men of Second Company survive.
Chapter 6, one of the most brutal, graphic episodes, tests the men's mettle as they battle for a few yards of turf while living in vermin-ridden dugouts surrounded by hissing, gaseous cadavers. Despite Paul's friend's black humor about the coffins, the soldiers despair as Germany fails to overcome Allied forces. Paul, weighed down by combat, mentions the poplar trees, a strangely graceful, nonthreatening antithesis to the worn-out guns, which are so inaccurate that they endanger German troops. The repugnant motif of rat-hunting replicates the human image of men living in foxholes and scrabbling for food. The ignoble death of rats trapped in the gleam of a flashlight calls to mind the airman who is trapped by searchlights and gunned down. Just as Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest predicts, the rats that survive are the most aggressive — bloodthirsty enough to devour a couple of cats and a dog.
Seemingly, even warfare has no limits, as demonstrated by the savage Allied response to saw-edged bayonets, with which they mutilate German soldiers, strangling them with sawdust. The men, disenchanted with dependence on bayonets, rely on multipurpose spades, which can cleave "as far down as the chest." The detached tone of Paul's recitation of how to assault an aggressor evidences his immersion in self-preservation at any cost. Only twenty years old, he is already a grim mercenary capable of killing all adversaries, even if his "own father came over with them."
The counterpoint of Paul's stint of guard duty heightens the sense of loss as he tries to summon former feelings of love, innocence, and optimism, but cannot fully override the distant sound of artillery fire that triggers his siege mentality. His wistful, elegiac mood persists, forcing him to accept the fact that his generation is burned out, indifferent, emotionally stifled. He recognizes that he can go on existing, but that he will never feel fully alive again. Regretting the loss of his former self, he concludes, "I believe we are lost."
Paul's inability to warm his hands parallels the deaths of his comrades and foreshadows his own coming death. He decries the pitiless landscape, so pockmarked by craters that it resembles the moon, a cold heavenly body. Unable to solace his flagging spirits, he looks forward to a mug of barley soup, but the meal fails to brighten his mood. Even with blue skies and gentle breezes overhead, the earthly scene of rotting, bloated corpses sickens the men, who are incapable of interring so many dead comrades. Against this hellish backdrop flutter larks and two yellow and red butterflies, symbols of fragile beauty, which settle on the "teeth of a skull." Likewise Paul and his comrades, at one time innocent denizens of nature, perch on the rim of death, because they have no other place to rest.
Ironically, Paul, himself childlike under the tutelage of Kat, loses patience with ignorant recruits, whose presence indicates that German draft boards lack adult males to restock the fighting force. When recruits endanger themselves, Paul, playing the role of disapproving father, wants to spank them and "lead them away from here where they have no business to be." Poisonous gas leaves them hemorrhaging from ravaged lungs, and they soon die. Haie's injury, which bares a quivering lung, denies Paul the opportunity to bandage and rescue his friend. Haie, familiar with the odds against remaining alive, accepts his fate.
Aunt Sally name of a figure of a woman's head at which balls are thrown, as in a sideshow; a person or idea seen or set up as an easy target for criticism.
pocket-torch [British] a flashlight.
Somme a river in northern France, which flows past Amiens, where both sides battled in 1916 and then again in 1918. The first battle, costing a million lives, was a Pyrrhic victory, with so much loss to combatants that neither could claim advantage.
listening post an advanced, concealed position near the enemy's lines, for detecting the enemy's movements by listening.
flame-thrower a weapon for shooting a stream of flaming gasoline, oil, napalm, etc.
calibre the size of a bullet or shell as measured by its diameter.
parapet a wall or bank used to screen troops from frontal enemy fire.
shell-shock a psychological condition characterized by anxiety, irritability, depression, etc., often occurring after prolonged combat in warfare.
storm-troops the first wave of the infantry assault.
Stations of the Cross a series of fourteen crosses, as along the walls of a church, typically placed above representations of the stages of Jesus' final sufferings and of his death and burial, visited in succession as a devotional exercise. The foreboding image connects Paul's wartime sufferings with Christ's final days.
waggle-top a mortar shell that wobbles like a Roman candle as it spins to earth.