I consider myself to have read a lot of literature written about World War One and Two, yet I have never picked up this classic. I didn’t know anything about it before I began, although perhaps the author’s name could have given me a clue that the narrative is told from the point of view of a German soldier, Paul Baumer. In this aspect the novel is different from any others I have read, although the experiences described could be that of any soldier fighting in World War One. We learn surprisingly little about the narrator himself, but quite a lot about his friends:
“All four of us are nineteen years old, and all four of us went straight out of the same class at school into the war.”
The young age of the narrator and many of the soldiers is emphasised throughout the novel, yet Baumer is clear from the beginning of his narrative what a terrible effect the war has had on them:
“Young men? That was a long time ago. We are old now.”
Although he seems young in many ways, by the end of the novel Baumer is considered to be one of the most experienced soldiers in his company and it is easy to forget his age as the narrative progresses. His experience of the war is always tempered by innocence though, and he often questions the purpose of the war and why they are fighting:
“‘So why is there a war at all?’ asks Tjaden.
Kat shrugs. ‘There must be some people who find the war worthwhile.'”
It is clear that the author himself fought in the war, and sometimes it felt as though he was using the narrator as a mouthpiece for his views. Mostly though, the reader is left to wonder again at how these children dressed as men fought and lived through such terrible experiences, and at how they managed to go on living after the war ended:
“The war has ruined us for everything.”
The opening of the novel is quite light-hearted, with an unexpected feast for Baumer’s company and double rations due to heavy losses in the previous day’s fighting. Despite their missing compatriots being in a bad way – “it’s either a field hospital or a mass grave for them” – the other soldiers remain upbeat, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the novel is a comedy from the opening pages. However, at the beginning of the second chapter Baumer tells us “we were not always like that,” and we come to see how these young men were so altered by the war that they are strangers to themselves. As the novel progresses, the full horrors of the war are gradually revealed, and some sections of the book were very difficult to read.
Despite the horrors that he faces, Baumer remained very human for me – he never managed to reconcile himself to the fact that he was there to kill; for him the war was just something to be survived. The reader is a witness to his inner monologue as he explains to us why he came to sign up and how he and his friends have managed to survive both physically and mentally. In fact, his friends are his principle reason for living, and they have become especially close as the war goes on and fewer of their original group remain:
“We don’t talk much, but we have a greater and more gentle consideration for each other than I should think even lovers do.”
It is this group of friends who make the war, and the novel, bearable; the only redeeming feature of a set of terrible circumstances is what these men will do for one another to ease their friends’ suffering. This novel certainly deserves it’s place amongst the classics, but isn’t an easy read in terms of content (what war novel is?)