Erich Maria Remarque

     All quite on the western front
The front is a cage in which we must await fearfully whatever may happen.  We lie under the network of arching shells and live in a suspense of uncertainty.  Over us Chance hovers.  If a shot comes, we can duck, that is all; we neither know nor can determine where it will fall.

It is this Chance that makes us indifferent.  A few months ago I was sitting in a dug-out playing skat:  after a while I stood up and went to visit some friends in another dug-out.  On my return nothing more was to be seen of the first one, it had been blown to pieces by a direct hit.  I went back to the second and arrived just in time to lend a hand digging it out.  In the interval it had been buried.  

It is just as much a matter of chance that I am still alive as that I might have been hit.  In a bomb-proof dug-out I may be smashed to atoms and in the open may survive ten hours' bombardment unscathed.  No soldier outlives a thousand chances.  But every soldier believes in Chance and trusts his luck.  


An hour passes.  I sit tensely and watch his every movement in case he may perhaps say something.  But he only weeps, his head turned aside.  He does not speak of his mother or his brothers and sisters.  He says nothing; all that lies behind him; he is entirely alone now with his little life of nineteen years, and cries because it leaves him.  This is the most disturbing and hardest parting that I ever have seen, although it was pretty bad too with Tiedjen, who called for his mother—a big bear of a fellow who, with wild eyes full of terror, held off the doctor from his bed with a dagger until he collapsed. 


Kropp on the other hand is a thinker.  He proposes that a declaration or war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance-tickets and bands, like a bull fight.  Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing-drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves.  Whoever survives, his country wins.  That would be much simpler and more just than this arrangement, here the wrong people do the fighting. 


            From the earth, from the air, sustaining forces pour into us—mostly from the earth.  To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier.  When he presses himself down upon her long and powerfully, when he buries his face and his limbs deep in her from fear of death by shell-fire, then she is his only friend, his brother, his mother; she stifles his terror and his cries in her silence and her security; she shelters him and releases him for ten seconds to live, to run, ten seconds of life; receives him again and often for ever.

            Earth!—Earth!—Earth!

            Earth with thy folds, and hollows, and holes, into which a man may fling himself and crouch down.  In the spasm of terror, under the hailing of annihilation, in the bellowing death of the explosions, O Earth, thou grantest us the great resisting surge of new-won life.  Our being, almost utterly trough our hands from thee, and we, thy redeemed ones, bury ourselves in thee, and through the long minutes in a mute agony of hope bite into thee with our lips!


            Although we need reinforcement, the recruits give us almost more troubles than they are worth.  They are helpless in this grim fighting area, they fall like flies….They flock together like sheep instead of scattering, and even the wounded are shot down like hares by the airmen.

            Their pale turnip faces, their pitiful clenched hands, the fine courage of these poor devils, the desperate charges and attacks made by the poor brave wretches, who are so terrified that they dare not cry out loudly, but with battered chests, with torn bellies, arms, and legs only whimper softly for their mothers and cease as soon as one looks at them.

            Their sharp, downy, dead faces have the awful expressionlessness of dead children.

            It brings lump into the throat to see how they go over, and run and fall. A man would like to spank them, they are so stupid, and to take them by the arm and lead them away from here where they have no business to be.  They wear grey coats and trousers and boots, but for most of them the uniform is far too big, it hangs on their limbs, their shoulders are too narrow, their bodies too slight; no uniform was ever made to these childish measurements. 


            I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow.  I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently, slay one another.  I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring.  And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me.  What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account?  What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over?  Through the years our business has been killing;—it was our first calling in life.  Our knowledge of life is limited to death.  What will happen afterwards?  And what shall come out of us? 


            The months pass by.  The summer of 1918 is the most bloody and the most terrible.  The days stand like angels in blue and gold, incomprehensible, above the ring of annihilation.  Every man here knows that we are losing the war.  Not much is said about it, we are falling back, we will not be able to attack again after this big offensive, we have no more men and no more ammunition. 

            Still the campaign goes on—the dying goes on——

            Summer of 1918—Never has life in its niggardliness seemed to us so desirable as now;—the red poppies in the meadows round our billets, the smooth beetles on the blades of grass, the warm evenings in the cool, dim rooms, the black mysterious trees of the twilight, the stars and the flowing waters, dreams and long sleep—— O Life, life, life!

            Summer of 1918—Never was so much silently suffered as in the moment when we depart once again for the front-line.  Wild, tormenting rumors of an armistice and peace are in the air, they lay hold on our hearts and make the return to the front harder than ever. 

            Summer of 1918—Never was life in the line more bitter and more full of horror than in the hours of the bombardment, when the blanched faces lie in the dirt and the hands clutch at the one thought:  No! No! Not now! Not now at the last moment!

            Summer of 1918—Breath of hope that sweeps over the scorched fields, raging fever of impatience, of disappointment, of the most agonizing terror of death, insensate question:  Why? Why do they make an end?  And why do these rumours of an end fly about? 


            Had we returned home in 1916, out of the suffering and the strength of our experience we might have unleashed a storm.  Now if we go back we will be weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope.  We will not be able to find our way any more. 


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Updated: November 27, 2005


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