Mechanized Warfare, Battle Scars, and all Quiet on the Western Front
Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman coined the phrase “War is Hell.” Being a military leader during such a bloody war, he knew how much it costs to wage a war and win that war, better than any present day scholar, historian, or student writing a research paper. Throughout the course of human conflict we have seen time and time again great military leaders that will do whatever it takes to win the war. World War I is infamous for being the birthplace of mechanized warfare, using new found technology to create the ultimate killing machines. To even begin to understand what the price of war really is, you would have to see it through the eyes of soldier who has seen it all. Being placed on the front lines of the Western Front caused a multitude of physical and mental stresses on the soldiers, making it impossible for most to return to ordinary civilian life as shown by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I, in his novel All Quiet on the West Front.
Wars prior to World War I, were fought with a basis on honor and chivalrousness between the soldiers, friend or foe. Wars were fought in a different manner and the soldiers on either side treated one another with a form of chivalry and respect. The last major display of this chivalry and respect was seen in the 1914 Christmas Truce. The Christmas Truce showed soldiers from both sides get out from their trenches unarmed and greet each other and celebrate a day away from war as well as be able to gather each sides wounded and killed. The cease fire was made between the soldiers and was never made official by the higher ups, showing how the soldiers humanity was still in them and they were no different from their enemies. Since then there has never been another Christmas Truce because if the soldiers attempted to do it, they would face punishment by their officers.
How it works
Erich starts his novel by giving his reason behind writing what many consider to be “The Greatest War Novel of All Time.”
This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure too those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.
Erich does not mean or want for his novel to be used as an accusation against anyone or to place blame on someone for why things the way they were in World War I.
When Erich states that is not a confession he is talking about how this is not a confession for himself and the things he did when he served in World War I.
He did not write his novel to be used for his or others benefits or to make an excuse for why they did what they did. The novel, above all, is not meant to be read as if it were an adventure. His novel is filled with death of many men and being a veteran, he knows that death is no adventure. His reason for writing the book was to try and bring us readers a perspective of what these men went through. When Erich states that even if they dodged the shells they were still destroyed by the war tells us that just because some men left that war with no physical injury and were still alive, they were mentally destroyed and would be scarred for rest of their lives.
Erich tells the story through the eyes of Paul Baumer, a young man who enlists with his classmates in the German Army of World War I. Paul and all of his friends go into the war and go through boot camp with a youthful enthusiasm. Erich describes each of Paul’s friends and their youthful and innocent aspects of themselves.
At the head of the queue of course were the hungriest-little Albert Kropp, the clearest thinker among us and therefore only a lance-corporal; Muller, who still carries his school textbooks with him, dreams of examinations, and during a bombardment mutters propositions in physics; Leer, who wears a full beard and has a preference for the girls from the officers’ brothels. He swears that they are obliged by an army order to wear silk chemises and to bathe before entertaining guests of the rank of captain and upwards. And as the fourth, myself, Paul Baumer. All four nineteen years of age, and all four joined up from the same class as volunteers for the war.(3)
This is what it is like for many young men that enlist right out of high school. They are young and innocent and want to be a part of something, but they never know what they are really getting themselves into. We have seen this attitude in young men in many wars like World War II, Korean War, Vietnam, etc. They dive in headfirst and find themselves in some of the worst possible places in the world.
Erich wrote on the back of the book what Paul believes in.
Through the years of vivid horror, Paul holds fast to a single vow: to fight against the principle of hate the meaninglessly pits young men of the same generation but different uniforms against one another . . . if only he can come out of the war alive.
Paul sees many of his friends and comrades die throughout the years in the war and has taken the lives of many enemy soldiers as well. When Paul looks at the young faces of the enemy soldiers across the trenches from his, he thinks he is looking into the eyes of himself and his friends. He sees that they are just like him but in a different uniform. He sees no hate in their eyes, he only sees fear just like when he looks in his comrades eyes. Paul does not see the reason why these young men have to fight and kill each other continuously.
World War I brings to the world a new way of fighting wars, and will change how wars would be fought forever. World War I also is the site of some of the most inhumane forms of warfare in history. With the introduction of new technologies, wars were fought in a different manner. The airplane made its appearance, introducing new threats to any soldiers down below, so to counter the airplane, the anti-air cannon was invented. With the tank also came along anti-tank or HE explosives. Because of gas and chemical attacks, gas masks were distributed to all the soldiers. It would then continue on till this day and forward with the idea of how to counter your counter. In World War I, new technologies were mainly utilized find a more efficient and fast way to kill one another. The young men that would enlist and fight would be the first to used as “test subjects”
for these horrible new weapons. Erich writes about what it was like to witness men succumb to gas attacks
These first few minutes with the mask decide between life and death: is it airtight? I remember the awful sights in the hospital: the gas patients who in day-long suffocation cough up their burnt lungs in clots.
Cautiously, the mouth applied to the valve, I breathe. The gas still creeps over the ground and sinks into all hollows. Like a Like a big, soft jellyfish it floats into our shell-hole and lolls there obscenely. I nudge Kat, it is better to crawl out and lie on top than to stay where the gas collects most. But we don’t get as far as that; a second bombardment begins. It is no longer as though shells roared; it is the earth itself raging.(68-69)
It would be after World War I ended in 1925 at the Geneva Conference when chemical weapons would be banned (Britannica).
Paul and his comrades were constantly faced with conflicting views of reality or morality. There is one part in the novel where a kid, who Paul had helped earlier, is wounded might not make it all the way back while being carried on a stretcher. Paul and his friend Kat, go to get a stretcher for him but stop and turn to each other.
Kat looks around and whispers: “Shouldn’t we just take a revolver and put an end to it?”
The youngster will hardly survive the carrying, and at most he will only last a few days. What he has gone through so far is nothing to what he’s in for till he dies. Now he is numb and feels nothing. In an hour he will become one screaming bundle of intolerable pain. Every day that he can live will be a howling torture And to whom does it matter whether he has them or not.
I nod. “Yes, Kat, we ought to put him out of his misery.” He stands still a moment. He has made up his mind. We look around but we are no longer alone. A little group is gathering, from the shell-holes and trenches appear heads.
We get a stretcher. Kat shakes his head. “Such a kid.” He repeats it. “Young innocents.” (73)
This is one of the hundreds of times that Paul will have to see men doomed to die and be able to do nothing to change it. Kids just like himself, kids that he might of been friends with, kids that he once shared his rations with, kids he risked his life for to save, kids that were so full of energy and with the thought that they’re invincible. After seeing this time and time again, soldiers would experience shell shock and PTSD. Shell shock was often look at as a form of cowardice and showed weakness. Medics found the condition hard to treat because they did not know much about it (Monitor on Psychology). PTSD on the other hand was a much more severe and painful psychological endearment. PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is psychological condition that is triggered by a horrific event that has occured in the past. PTSD causes flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety (Mayo Clinic). This disorder would continue to haunt many men returning home from the war for the rest of their lives. It would also cause massive strains on those soldiers families due to the fact that they would have to watch their loved ones suffer uncontrollably and not be able to do anything to fix it.
Paul and his friends enlisted in a war that would become one of the most horrific wars of all time. There was no sense, or code of honor that the soldiers fought by, and there were no laws that prohibited the use of certain weaponry like gas attacks. They fought during a time that was in between old warfare and new and anything goes. They never expected to see and go through what they had happened, and this showed heavily as the continuous mental strain that weighed down on them caused these men to break and fall apart. Erich’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front gives us readers an opportunity to see through a soldier’s eyes in World War I, and get better understanding of what the devastation and horrors of war did to young men and how they would never be the same when they returned home.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Geneva Gas Protocol.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 July 2017, www.britannica.com/event/Geneva-Gas-Protocol.
Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/monitor/2012/06/shell-shocked.
“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 6 July 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967.