Roberta Eaton Cheadle, or Robbie, is an esteemed member of the U. L. S. — the Underground Library Society — and she is offering her thoughts on another book! Robbie, thank you so much!
Thoughts about All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
This book is a first-hand account of the life of Paul Bäumer, who belongs to a squad of German soldiers on the Western Front during World War I. Paul and his classmates enlisted in the army at the end of their high school career as a result of the impassioned patriotism and relentless coaxing of their teacher, Kantorek.
All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of Paul and his friends experiences in the trenches. There is a lot of fighting, death, and destruction in this book, but there are also scenes of comradery, friendship, and bravery that break up the ‘heaviness’ of this read and give the reader some short periods of lighter relief.
Among these lighter scenes is one when Paul and his friend ‘Kat’ decide to poach a goose from a local farm. They roast the bird and enjoy a midnight feast, even venturing to share some of their spoil with friends who are in prison for insubordination towards a senior officer.
There are also some interesting insights into life for the French civilians trying to survive amid the disruption and decimation of the war. Russian prisoners of war also feature in this story and their pitiful plight is almost too much to bear.
Why do young men volunteer for war?
I look at my two sons, and I wonder why young men hurl themselves into the teeth of the storm through voluntary subscription to the army. I read about this in The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, and I read about it again in this great, but disturbing, novel, All Quiet on the Western Front.
I have decided there are a few reasons that lead to this rash action. The first, is the expectation of parents and other older members of society that their sons throw down the gauntlet and risk all for “king and country”. Secondly, I believe there has historically been a terrible ignorance about the reality of war. War is glamourized and young men enter the fray with no concept of its harsh conditions or the horror of death.
I wonder if the young men of today would be as eager to take up the role of ‘cannon fodder’ with their greater knowledge of the world through internet access and better educational opportunities.
Leaders and war mongers pray on the passionate fervor of the young to achieve their ill-gotten ends when it comes to war. Wars are all fought either for purposes of greed and power or over religion. More recently, greed and power have trumped the possibly purer intentions of religion. Have recently explored in great depth the reasons behind the Anglo Zulu War and both Anglo Boer Wars in South Africa, as well as the First and Second World War, power and the gain of wealth have been the overarching reasons for placing young men in the line of fire and, often, ending their lives before they have even started.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a book that is written in a war setting and exposes with a sharp and unerringly accurate pen, the absolute horror of the First World War. The book is not, however, about the war, but rather about the loss of innocence the young soldiers experience and their inability to ever adapt back to civilian life afterwards. This is quite clear by the manner in which the story is told. Battles are not named and have so little relevance to the story that whether they are won or lost is not even revealed. Battles feature as a regular feature of the lives of Paul and his comrades; one during which death is a high possibility and survival is the only goal.
The obvious themes of war and patriotism that present in this novel are not the ones that resonated with me.
Given my status as the mother of two teenage boys, not much younger than the boys featured in this novel, it is understandable that the following themes are the ones that have stayed in my mind. I am sharing select quotations that explain these themes as they do so far better than I could.
Loss of innocence
“While they went on writing and making speeches, we saw field hospitals and men dying: while they preached the service of the state as the greatest thing, we already knew that the fear of death is even greater. This didn’t make us into rebels or deserters, or turn us into cowards – and they were more than ready to use all of these words – because we loved our country just as much as they did, and so we went bravely into every attack. But now we were able to distinguish things clearly, all at once our eyes had been opened. And we saw that there was nothing left of their world. Suddenly we found ourselves horrible alone – and we had to come to terms with it alone as well.”
Loss of individuality
“I can still remember how embarrassed we were at the beginning, when we were recruits in the barracks and had to use the communal latrines. There are no doors, so that twenty men had to sit side by side as if they were on a train. That way they could all be seen at a glance – soldiers, of course, have to be under supervision at all times.
Since then we’ve learnt more than just how to cope with a bit of embarrassment. As time went by, our habits changed quite a bit.,
Out here in the open air the whole business is a real pleasure.”
“It gets dark. Kemmerich’s face gets paler, it stands out against his pillow and is so white that it looks luminous. He makes a small movement with his mouth. I get closer to him. He whispers, ‘If you find my watch, send it home.’
I don’t argue. There is no point any more. He is beyond convincing. I’m sick with helplessness. That forehead, sunk in at the temples, that mount, which is all teeth now, that thin, sharp nose. And the fat, tearful woman at home that I shall have to write to – I wish I had that job behind me already.”
“But our mates are dead, and we can’t help them. They are at peace – who knows what we might still have to face? We want to chuck ourselves down and sleep, or stuff as much food into our bellies as we can, and booze and smoke, so that the passing hours aren’t so empty. Life is short.”
“It’s a nuisance trying to kill every single louse when you’ve got hundreds of them. The beasts are hard, and it gets to be a bore when you are forever pinching them between your nails. So Tjaden has rigged up a boot-polish lid hanging on a piece of wire over a burning candle-end. You just have toss the lice into this little frying-pan – there is a sharp crack, and that’s it.”
All Quiet on the Western Front is a book we should never allow to be burned or removed from its place as a historical classic. Its primary role in literature, in my opinion, is that it illustrates the pointlessness of war which descends into a series of actions and day-to-day survival with no real meaning or even importance to those involved in the fighting. This sentiment is generally presented through the character of Albert Kropp, one of Paul’s previous school friends.
This book also highlights the destruction of young men’s innocence and their inability to ever reconnect with ordinary civilian life. It doesn’t mention post-traumatic stress syndrome specifically, but this is alluded to throughout the book.
All in, this is one of the most emotional and memorable books I have ever read.
Again, thank you to Roberta Eaton Cheadle for this U. L. S. post!