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All Quiet on the Western Front tells what happens to a group of German teenagers during World War I. The narrator is Paul Baumer. He and his classmates had patriotically marched off for recruitment, spurred on by the slogans of their teacher, Kantorek. But they find no glory in war.
As the story opens, 80 men have just returned from two weeks at the front. Seventy of their comrades may be dead or wounded, but their empty bellies concern them more. They nearly riot when the cook won't dish out the food prepared for twice their number. But the commander steps in, and for once they eat their fill. Afterward, Paul and his friends visit their classmate Kemmerich, dying from a leg amputation. All Muller can talk about is who will get Kemmerich's fine leather boots. The more sensitive Kropp laughs bitterly at Kantorek's having called them Iron Youth.
Lounging around the next few days, Paul recalls the basic training methods of the sadistic Corporal Himmelstoss. Cruel as he was, Himmelstoss did a lot more than Kantorek to toughen them for battle. Alone with Kemmerich, Paul can hardly bear it when his friend dies and all the orderly cares about is getting the bed cleared. Outraged at the senseless death of all such frail-looking boys, Paul nevertheless takes Kemmerich's boots to Muller-they are of no use to Kemmerich now.
Soon, underfed replacements arrive. Katczinsky, a scavenger who could find a dinner roast in the Sahara, surprises everyone with beef and beans. He listens as Paul and his friends gleefully recall the night they trapped Himmelstoss with a bedsheet and soundly thrashed him, and joins in as they argue heatedly that the leaders simply ought to slug out their war with each other, while the soldiers watch them.
Horror descends anew the night they string barbed wire at the front. In the dark, the men instinctively avoid incoming shells, but the screaming of horses innocently caught in the bombardment chills them to the bone. When the shelling eases they trudge to a cemetery to wait for transport. Many nearly suffocate in a surprise gas attack, and after a new bombardment their stomachs turn at the sight of dead companions mixed with corpses from blown-up graves. At dawn they mindlessly return to camp.
Resting the next day, Paul's group reluctantly conclude that war has ruined them. After their horrifying experiences, how can they ever again take jobs or studies seriously? Their spirits lift when Himmelstoss appears, sent to the front at last! Tjaden and Kropp openly insult him and leave him sputtering. When the matter is officially reviewed that evening, their light punishment is amply balanced by the lecture Himmelstoss gets on the idiocy of saluting at the front. Much later, Paul and Katczinsky slip off to a farm. Neither squawking goose nor growling bulldog thwarts Paul, and he and his comrade Katczinsky spend a companionable night roasting and eating their goose.
Then it's back to rat-infested trenches at the front. At night they scramble for masks when the enemy sends gas; by day, they cower in stiffness to deceive observers in balloons. Terror is their companion through deafening barrages; Paul's dugout survives a direct hit. One night the French infantry attack. All through the next day Paul's company fights in a frenzy, the men armed only with grenades and sharpened shovels. For days, attacks and counterattacks alternate. Once Himmelstoss panics until Paul shouts sense into him and he plunges back into battle. Paul's only relief is to dream of quiet cloisters. By the time the siege ends, only 32 men are left in the company. Back at a field depot for reorganization, the men loaf and joke as if they hadn't a care in the world. Thinking about their lost comrades would only drive them mad. Even Himmelstoss has changed. Not only did he rescue Westhus, who had been wounded, but, as substitute cook, he is slipping Paul's group badly needed extra rations. Twice, Paul, Kropp, and another classmate, Leer, swim a closely guarded canal, not for the brief pleasures of a soldiers' brothel but for the luxury of hours with three French girls. When Westhus dies after all, Paul-due for leave and temporary reassignment-wonders in agony who will be there when he returns.