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By now Paul has lost a great deal: youth itself, faith in his elders, belief in the traditions of Western civilization. He's even lost much of his own ability to rise about pure animal reactions-to feel and think as a sensitive human being. Only comradeship now keeps him going, and he has already seen several friends killed or maimed. In this chapter Paul records the collapse of the Western Front during the last terrible year of World War I, and the deaths of his few remaining close friends. It was winter when Paul returned to duty. His life has alternated between billets and the front until it is once again spring. His moods and thoughts depend on the kind of day it is; all soldiers are brothers in this. They have been reduced to relying on animal instinct to avoid death. Otherwise the madness around them would kill them, physically or emotionally. Says Paul, "We are little flames poorly sheltered by frail walls against the storm of dissolution and madness, in which we flicker and sometimes almost go out.... Our only comfort is the steady breathing of our comrades asleep, and thus we wait for the morning." Every barrage cuts into this thin protective shell, however; everyone's nerves are dangerously frayed. With Detering it takes only the sight of a cherry tree in blossom to madden him with thoughts of his wife and farm.
He deserts but is caught and court-martialed. Another man, Berger, six feet tall and the most powerful man in the company, dashes into a barrage to help a wounded messenger dog. A pelvis wound kills him. Yet another man madly tries to dig himself into the earth with hands, feet, and teeth. Muller is shot point blank in the stomach. Before he dies he gives Paul Kemmerich's boots; they are to go to Tjaden next. (Is this simply being practical, or a premonition of death to come for Paul?) As the men bury Muller, they are saddened to think that well fed English and Americans will probably soon overrun his grave. For the enemy are sure to win. They are well fed on beef and bread, well supplied with guns and planes, while the Germans are emaciated, starved, short of all supplies. For every German plane there are five English and American planes. For every German soldier there are five of the enemy. Dysentery is constant, the artillery is worn out, the new recruits are anemic boys who can only die. Tanks are common now, new and terrible armored beasts that squash men like bugs. Things have grown so bleak that Paul is reduced to reciting lists. The men see only:
Shells, gas clouds, and flotillas of tanks-shattering, corroding, death.
Dysentery, influenza, typhus-scalding, choking, death. Trenches, hospitals, the common grave-there are no other possibilities.
In one attack the company commander, Bertinck, a superb front-line officer, dies shooting a flamethrower team about to ignite the oil in his companions' trench. A final fragment that shatters Bertinck's chin plows on to tear open Leer's hip. It takes Leer only minutes to bleed to death. Still the bloody and terrible summer wears on. Weeks of rain leave rifles caked with mud, uniforms sodden, the earth an oily, dripping mass. Tormenting rumors of an armistice make the front even more unbearable. Then one late summer day, Kat is hit. Paul bandages his smashed shin and struggles to carry him to an aid station. But there the medics shake their heads; Kat has died on Paul's back, killed by a stray splinter to his head. Paul reels in shock. How is it that he can see and move-with Katczinsky dead? He faints at this loss, his last and best friend.