They were soldiers…

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Translated by Brian Murdoch

This remarkable novel about young German soldiers in WWI was our book group’s read for August; I had pushed strongly for a WWI-related choice for the month of the 100th anniversary of the war’s start. Several of us had already read some of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, but none had read this book. Indeed, despite having owned a copy for years, I don’t think I would ever have got around to reading it – now, I am so glad I did.

All Quiet (as I shall abbreviate it to) was published in 1929. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they denounced and burned copies of it as being anti-German. Remarque went to Switzerland, and in 1938 the Nazis withdrew his German citizenship. In 1939, with help from Marlene Dietrich, he got a US visa just before war broke out in Europe again and, ending up in Hollywood a film was made of the novel just a few years after that.

Remarque was sixteen when WWI started and was called up two years later. He survived Passchendaele and was later wounded, spending the rest of the war in hospital, then serving there. It is fair to assume that All Quiet reflects many of his own experiences as a young soldier for it is remarkable in its honesty.

The novel starts with a band of young soldiers getting a belly full of food for a change. We soon read that they had been sent up the line with 150 men but less than 80 returned – so they got double rations. These young men are already hardened survivors.

It moves on to tell us how a group of young students, barely nineteen years old had signed up in a romantic fit of nationalism, urged on by their tutor:

We went down to the local recruiting office, still a class of twenty young men, and then we marched off en masse, full of ourselves, to get a shave at the barber’s – some of us for the first time – before we set on a parade-ground. We had no real plans for the future and only very few of us had thoughts of careers or jobs that were firm enough to be meaningful in practical terms. On the other hand, our heads were full of nebulous ideas which cast an idealized, almost romantic glow over life and even the war for us.

We all now know what happened, and how the lives of millions of young men were wasted in WWI. There are scenes of real horror in the novel: a memorable one is where Paul, the narrator, is hiding in a cemetery under bombardment, surrounded by flying bits of already dead bodies, an arm hangs from a tree. Then there are the scenes in the hospital, where the surgeons couldn’t cope and any serious wound or large dose of gas became a death sentence.

The irony of the book’s title (originally Im Western nichts neues – In the West, nothing is new) is renewed afresh with each bombardment and slaughter. There is one scene where the soldiers acknowledge that surely the French feel the same way about their country, and they wonder why are they doing this. The soldiers in All Quiet could have been from any of the nations involved – all their experiences were similar.

As you’d expect, the cameraderie that grows between the soldiers is touching, but at the front there has to be an element of self-preservation in order to survive. This may mean killing the opposition, or escaping being mown down oneself. As Paul says:

We set out as soldiers, and we might be grumbling or we might be cheerful – we reach the zone where the front line begins, and we have turned into human animals.

Yet amongst all the sturm und drang there are some moments of pure comedy – the soldiers pull their latrines round in a circle so they can play cards in the middle, and this which must have inspired Black Adder…

The recruit pulls a face. ‘Bread made out of turnips for breakfast, turnips for lunch and turnip cutlets with turnip salad in the evening.’

Baldrick!  And that neatly brings me to the one point that several of our book group made in our discussions – Since we (or some of us) had read Birdsong or The Regeneration Trilogy, and seen Black Adder Goes Forth, it felt as if this novel was just another war novel, even not quite as good – but of course it is the original that inspired all the others!

Personally, this was another Moby Dick book for me – i.e. a classic that I’m so glad I finally read and saw how it has inspired and been referenced in so many other places; All Quiet is much more readable than Moby though. As the first great anti-war novel it is a compulsive read – I thoroughly enjoyed it as did our book group – it also generated some excellent discussion. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Pub 1929. Vintage paperback translated by Brian Murdoch, 224 pages.

16 thoughts on “They were soldiers…

  1. Simon T (Stuck-in-a-Book) says:

    I read this for my book group too. Such a brilliant book – I was expecting it to be worthy and important, but hadn’t prepared myself for how engaging it was. Justifiably famous. Also, a much better title in English than in the original!
    Lovely piece, Annabel 🙂

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      Thanks Simon. I too was pleasantly surprised by this book. It really felt as if he’d poured all his own experiences into it.

  2. Alex says:

    It’s only in the last year that I’ve realised that this book, which I’ve heard of but never read, is actually from the perspective of the German forces. I’ve yet to chose my book for this year in one of my groups and it’s some time since we read a classic. Maybe this should go on the list.

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      It’s a great book group choice, especially as you can compare and contrast with works that came much later. Recommended.

  3. susanosborne55 says:

    We have a much-thumbed, falling-apart copy on our shelves. It’s my partner’s but I haven’t yet read it and I really think I should after reading your post. I did watch the film many years ago which was excellent – wrenching but how could it be anything else.

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      I’ve not seen the film – although one of our book group (a German teacher) saw the original film which was, of course, made in Hollywood and thus rather Americanised in pronounciation of the names apparently, but gut wrenching in content as you say.

  4. Col says:

    I was fortunate to be introduced to this years ago at school by a wonderful history teacher – I was studying the Weimar Republic but he encouraged me to start with this book so I understood just how the war affected peoples way of thinking in the 20’s and early 30’s. He was so right. Since then I’ve read lots of other WW1 books but have always seen them in context of this being the inspiration for them. I thought it was a stunning book then and still do. Am glad you found your way to it – I really think it’s one of those books everyone should read at least once on their life!

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      I’m so glad I did find my way to it and didn’t really share my friends’ views that everything that came after was just that little bit better either – in this respect you can’t beat writing from some experience. Absolutely ground-breaking.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Great review Annabel – I have been wondering whether I should read this, and now I think I must!

  6. Biblibio says:

    While I hadn’t necessarily read all that many war novels before tackling All Quiet (at least, not real-world war novels…), I agree that it stands strong in its category. I thought the writing and imagery were brilliant – maybe not as broad and encompassing as some later books, but incredibly powerful.

    • Annabel (gaskella) says:

      I still haven’t read many WWI novels either, including Birdsong – am I the only person not to have read that now?

      Interestingly, upon reflection, this novel reminds me of certain aspects of M*A*S*H, which certainly got the cameraderie aspects of war…

  7. BookerTalk says:

    I could have sworn I had read this but having now read your review I’ve realised that was just in my imagination. I was looking for WW1 related book to start on Sept 15 which is when my great grandfather enlisted so this is now one for me to consider

  8. kimbofo says:

    I read this book several years ago and remember admiring it a lot. When the first World Book Night was held this is the book I gave out. I stood at my local tube station one morning pressing it into the hands of commuters. Those who stopped to chat wanted to know what it was about. The heartbreaking futility of war, was the best one-liner I could come up with.

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