Friday, 6 July 2012

All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Its obligatory place on the school reading list meant that I first read Remarque’s devastating novel about the German experience in the Great War when I was fourteen. Over twenty years later it feels far more poignant; the young soldiers of nineteen seemed impossibly adult back then, they don’t now.

The story follows Paul Bäumer and three of his friends from school who join up at the behest of their schoolmaster. All now nineteen, they are trying to survive in the hell that is the Western Front, under constant bombardment and the threat of sniper fire, not to mention the periodic sorties across no-man’s-land in futile attempt to seize a few more square yards of land from the other side.

Relieved from active service at the front for a few days they are staying behind their lines in a French village. Swimming in the river one day, they attract the attention of three local women who indicate that they might want to bring some food around to their house that evening... A bit of Dutch courage is needed first, and to shake off one of their pals:

No one can cross the bridge without leave, so we will simply have to swim over tonight. We are full of excitement. We cannot last without a drink, so we go to the canteen where there is beer and a kind of punch. We drink punch and tell one another lying games of our experiences. Each man gladly believes the other man’s story, only waiting impatiently till he can cap it with a taller tale. Our hands are fidgety, we smoke countless cigarettes, until Kropp says: “We might as well take them a few cigarettes too.” So we put some inside our caps to keep them. The sky turns apple green. There are four of us, but only three can go; we must shake off Tjaden, so ply him with rum and punch until he rocks.  As it turns dark we go to our billets. Tjaden in the centre. We are glowing and full of a lost for adventure. The little brunette is mine, we have settled all that. Tjaden drops on his sack of straw and snores. Once he wakes up and grins so craftily that we are alarmed and begin to think that he is cheating, and that we have given him the punch to no purpose. Then he drops back again and sleeps on.

The evening is a success, although Paul leaves depressed. Later, he is given two weeks leave and makes his way back home. He makes the mistake of falling in with some of his old school masters and accepting a smoke. After the reality of the front, their enthusiasm for the war is shocking:

Unfortunately, I have accepted the cigar, so I have to remain. And they are all so dripping with good will that it is impossible to object. All the same, I feel annoyed and smoke like a chimney as hard as I can. In order to make at least some show of appreciation I toss off the beer in one gulp. Immediately a second is ordered; people know how much they are indebted to the soldiers. They argue about what we ought to annex. The head-master with the steel watch-chain wants to have at least the whole of Belgium, the coal-areas of France, and a slice of Russia. He produces reasons why we must have them and is quite inflexible until at last the others give in to him. Then he beings to expound just whereabouts in France the break-through must come, and turns to me: “Now, shove ahead a bit there with your everlasting trench warfare – Smash through the johnnies and then there will be peace.” In reply that in our opinion a break-through may not be possible. The enemy may have too many reserves. Besides, the war may be rather different from what people think. He dismisses the idea loftily and informs me I know nothing about it. “The details, yes,” says he, “But this relates to the whole. And of that you are not able to judge. You see only your little sector and so you cannot have any general survey. You do your duty, you risk your lives, that deserves the highest honour – every man on you ought to have the Iron Cross – but first of all the enemy line must be broken through in Flanders and then rolled up from the top.” He blows his nose and wipes his beard. “Completely rolled up they must be, from the top to the bottom. And then to Paris.” I would like to know how he pictures it to himself, and pour the third glass of beer into me. Immediately he orders another.

Paul makes his excuses and leaves. Even though he has survived the war so far, inside he was killed long ago.

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