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This chapter opens a whole new stage in the novel. Battered and numbed as Chapter 4 left Paul and his friends, with its screaming horses and twice-killed corpses, it was only one night-a series of flash impressions of war. Now Remarque moves Paul-and us-into the deadening cage of weeks of trench warfare. In 1929 a few critics accused Remarque of sensationalizing the war in chapters like this one, of deliberately trying to shock readers to sell more books. The National Socialists, or Nazis, who were then coming to power, pounced on every mention of worn-out equipment or lack of supplies as an attack on the Fatherland. But everyone else found Remarque's account, if anything, an understated report on the horrors of war for men on either side. Things that we world scream about at home-infestations of rats or days without food-are simply reported as facts of the soldier's life. The chapter also helps us see why fighting men sometimes lose religious faith: they see only blind luck in operation on the battlefield, no evidence of the orderly plan of a loving God. For men Paul's age, a scene glimpsed on the way to the front says it all: brand new coffins, stacked against a bombed-out schoolhouse. The scene predicts their future and shows that nothing remains of their past.
NOTE: WORLD WAR I TRENCH WARFARE
In World War I, attacks changed from those of earlier wars, since a machine gun behind barbed wire could mow down whole columns of attackers. Flag-waving cavalry charges were replaced with prolonged bombardment, followed by days upon days of infantry attacks and counterattacks. Often, both sides ended up in their original positions. Battles became sieges, the aim simply being to drain the other side's resources. As it became clear that this was static warfare-war at a standstill-leaders began to compute even human casualties like an inventory of shells or fuel. Any loss was acceptable if the enemy loss was greater. In the 1916 battle of the Somme, for instance, casualties totaled more than one million, approximately one man for every four square yards of contested ground.
Trenches became fortresses: above ground-barbed wire, mines, and a maze of foxholes; below ground-command posts, supplies, and damp, rat-infested living quarters. Men burrowed in these places for months, surrounded by corpses and exposed to constant danger from gas and artillery. They hoped to be wounded seriously enough to be sent to the rear for convalescence. Morale grew so bad by the spring of 1917 that mutinies broke out in some French, Italian, and Russian units.
Paul remarks that the trenches are in poor condition. For days his group loafs and makes war on the rats, rats so voracious they devoured two cats and a dog in an adjoining sector. At night the enemy sends gas; by day, observation balloons.
Morale is lowered by rumors of tanks, low-flying planes, and flame-throwers. Deafening bombardment continues; the trench is cratered and battered. Food cannot be brought up. One night the men battle a swarm of fleeing rats; one noon a recruit turns into a raving madman from being enclosed in the underground living quarters. That night the dugout survives a direct hit. Suddenly the nearer explosions stop, and the French attack. Paul's company fight and throw grenades and use their sharpened spades like wild beasts, killing to save themselves. The fight continues into the next day, Paul's side chasing the retreating French right into their own trenches. They seize what provisions they can carry and clear out. Back in their own trench, they are too tired even to enjoy their booty-the rare luxuries of corned beef, bread, and cognac.
Night comes, and Paul, on sentry duty, dreams of cloisters and an avenue of poplar trees-quiet dreams in a place where there is no quiet. He believes his generation is lost, unable ever to have innocent peace again. For several days attacks and counterattacks alternate; the dead pile up between the trenches. The men search two days in vain for a crying man. The dead swell and hiss and belch with gas; the smell is nauseating. On quiet nights the soldiers search for souvenir parachute silk and for copper bands from bombs. Two butterflies settle one morning on a skull. Three layers of bodies fill a huge shell hole. Recruits in clothes too big fall like flies; a surprise gas attack kills many. One day Himmelstoss panics and Paul shouts at him until he can grasp an order and regain his wits. Haie Westhus, who had hoped to reenlist in the army for a nice, clean job after the war, suffers a serious back wound. Still, says Paul, they have held their little piece of convulsed earth. It's the only kind of victory to be seen in this war. On a grey autumn night they return behind the lines. Second Company is now down to 32 men.
Paul again dreams of quiet beauty. He notices a butterfly amid the devastation and comments on how terribly young the replacement recruits are. Of his own group he says, "We are forlorn like children.... I believe we are lost." He has felt like a child at least twice before-the night they strung barbed wire and the night he helped Kat baste the goose. Both times he awoke to find Kat there, like a father. Why does part of him long for that element of childhood? What is it from childhood that he thinks he and his classmates have lost so completely?