All Quiet on the Western Front

Erich Maria Remarque

translated from the German
Mayflower 1977 [1929]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
A searing first-person account of the First World War, All Quiet on the Western Front describes one German soldier's experiences and the fate of the school companions who joined up with him. There is no belaboring of the horrors of war, just a simple and understated narrative. In the opening scene, for example, everyone is happy because they've been relieved from the front and there's plenty of food — and it is several paragraphs before we discover the reason there's no shortage of food: only eighty out of one hundred and fifty men have come back...

We follow soldiers scavenging for food, defying petty authority, and on an amorous excursion — as well as facing artillery barrages, enduring the screams of wounded men and horses, and lost in no-man's-land. Episodes of joy and happiness and intervals of relaxation are combined with periods of numb endurance and sudden outbreaks of violence. There is the occasional lyrical passage or philosophical rumination, but Remarque's approach is mostly straightforward.

Though only one political discussion among the soldiers is described, a broader perspective is present throughout All Quiet on the Western Front. Patriotism and nationalism are attacked through the figure of the bombastic schoolmaster who encouraged the narrator and his friends to join up, who cuts a sorry figure when drafted himself. When the narrator is on leave he remains totally disconnected from civilian life, having gone straight from school to the trenches without a chance to establish ties. And there are ruminations on the broader effects of the war, perhaps marked by hindsight:

"Had we returned home in 1916, out of the suffering and the strength of our experiences we might have unleashed a storm. Now if we go back we will be weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope. We will not be able to find our way any more."
But while All Quiet on the Western Front may help us understand the effects of the Great War on Germany, it is as an account of trench warfare and a simple story of human endurance in extremity that it really shines. It is understandably one of the most famous of war novels.

February 2004

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%T All Quiet on the Western Front
%A Remarque, Erich Maria
%M German
%I Mayflower
%D 1977 [1929]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0583112315
%P 192pp