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The novel is set on the Western Front in 1917 and 1918, during the last two years of fighting in World War I. The Central Powers, including Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire, had met with many early victories in the war; but by 1917, they had been stopped by the Allied Forces, including France, Great Britain, Belgium, Greece, China, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Russia, and Serbia. Fighting still continued on the Western Front, near the border of France, but the tide was turning. The Germans were being routed despite their earlier victories. With the United States entering the war in April of 1917, the Allied troops and supplies had been reinforced. Things looked bleak for the Central Powers, especially for Germany, where fighting was taking place.
All through the war, the Western Front was a major battle line, riddled with trenches and tunnels. The fighting there was always fierce, with much hand-to-hand combat and frequent air strikes. Then in early 1918, after a year of being stalled, the Germans vowed to push forward and take Paris. They began their march in the spring, reaching the Marne River in France by May. The Allied Forces, with much help from the United States, staged an offensive against the Germans and kept them from crossing the Marne into Paris. The Allied offensive never slackened, and the Germans were forced to retreat further and further from France. By the fall, the Central Powers were beginning to break up. In September, Bulgaria signed an armistice, followed by the Ottoman Empire in October. At the same time, the Austro- Hungarian Empire was crumbling rapidly, with the Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and Hungarians declaring their independence; on November 3, Austria-Hungary signed an armistice. Germany then stood alone. Finally, on November 11, 1918, Germany signed the armistice, and World War I was over. These events of World War I form the background for the entire novel, which ends only one month before the final armistice is signed by Germany.