Paul Bäumer enlisted with his classmates in the German army of World War I. Youthful, enthusiastic, they become soldiers. But despite what they have learned, they break into pieces under the first bombardment in the trenches. And as horrible war plods on year after year, Paul holds fast to a single vow: to fight against the principles of hate that meaninglessly pits young men of the same generation but different uniforms against each other — if only he can come out of the war alive.
Whilst known as “All Quiet…” in English, the original German title is “Nothing New….”. I read this book as my nod to the centenary start of the First World War. Whilst most World War films, books etc are Hollywood influenced, where the Brits and the Americans are the winners, this is a story told about the German soldiers sent to the front line.
Paul Bäumer , along with the rest of his 18 year old classmates, enlists with the army near the start of the war, and after some training, all get sent to the front. Before they are even 20, they have seen things they should never have seen and realised that what they were taught in school would never have trained them for the real world.
I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.
As the war gets worse for the Germans, more recruits are sent to the front, younger every time, with less and less training and only good for cannon fodder as they cant even tell the difference between the different types of basic artillery.
At school nobody ever taught us how to light a cigarette in a storm of rain, nor how a fire could be made with wet wood-nor that it is best to stick a bayonet in the belly because there it doesn’t get jammed, as it does in the ribs.
Paul has realised that bayonets are of no use now in fighting (only good for the enemy to hack off German noses from German corpses), and that fighting is now a matter of guns, grenades, tanks and planes.
It is a thin book – circa 200 pages, but each page is filled with lyrical but graphic descriptions of war, where whole platoons can live, die and be buried in a trench, spending days without food and little water, fighting for what is left with desperate fat rats.
This is as much about comradeship and family as it is about the fighting itself. Paul has an extended leave, and manages to return to his home town only to find how much he has changed – he can no longer get any joy from staying with his family, and is fed up talking about the fighting at the front with the people of the town. As the war goes on, more and more of the original 7 are lost through death and injury until only Paul is left and then…..