Summary and Analysis
At the camp on the moors near the Soldiers' Home, Paul spends a month in retraining. Drill in the autumn air allows him time to enjoy juniper and birch trees and the fine sand underfoot. The joy of the outdoors plus card games and joking with other soldiers helps separate Paul from his thoughts of the inevitable return to the front. The Russian prisoner of war camp which abuts the training camp, forces him to look at a different kind of war victim, who must scavenge trash barrels for potato peelings and meager dregs, and suffer the bloody discharge of dysentery. The apathetic inmates, who look more like "meek, scolded, St. Bernard dogs" than adversaries, inspire his empathy. In exchange for bread, they trade their boots and crude carvings. Peasants tantalize the hungry prisoners by devouring bread and slices of sausage in front of the silent men.
On the last Sunday of his leave, Paul's father and sister visit him at the Soldiers' Home and they stroll the moors together. The hours are a torture to Paul because they have no subject to discuss but his mother's illness. She is now in a charity ward awaiting an operation. Paul's father is working overtime to try to pay the bills, but he is obviously worried. Paul goes with them to the train and they give him potato-cakes and jam his mother made. He considers giving the food to the Russian prisoners but remembers his mother stood painfully over a stove to cook them; feeling a little less guilty, he shares only two.
Away from the front, Paul is able once more to appreciate nature. He basks in its beauty and tranquility and continues his steadfast denial of his own humanity. To think about that would mean death when he returns to the front. He muses on the nature of war and enemies. He reflects on the Russian prisoners: "A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends." War here seems futile and absurd. Why does it happen? Paul begins to think the unthinkable: "I am frightened: I dare think this way no more. This way lies the abyss." To be humane is not healthy, and thoughts about fear and death will lead him to lose his nerve. There is not place for humane thoughts now.
The potato cakes symbolize the love of Paul's mother, who concerns herself with his deprivations. His decision to save them and share them at the front shows his appreciation for her sacrifice. In the next chapter, both the thoughts about war and the description of a mother's love are repeated and enlarged.
Soldiers' Home a recreation center, similar to the American U.S.O.