All Quiet on the Western Front: Novel Summary: Chapter 4
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One evening, Paul's company makes its way by military truck to the front lines to lay some barbed wire. As they get closer the air is acrid with the smoke of the guns. The guns roar and the earth reverberates. Three shells land close to them. Kat predicts there will be a bombardment that night. They reach a wood and climb out of the truck. The trucks are scheduled to collect them again in the morning, at dawn. The men trudge on, avoiding shell holes and trenches, until the front line is immediately ahead of them. After a few hours of work with the wire, the job is done. They try to sleep, for there is still some time before the trucks come for them. But soon the enemy bombardment begins. The men try to crawl away, and Paul comforts a terrified new recruit. Between the explosions, the cries of the wounded are heard. Then, during a lull in the bombardment, the men hear the terrible cries of wounded horses. The sound is unbearable, and eventually the horses are shot.
The men of Paul's company make their way back to the trucks. It is three o'clock in the morning. They almost reach the wood, but then the attack begins in earnest and they take cover in a graveyard. The earth seems to erupt in flames as the shelling continues. Paul is hit by splinters and crawls into a shell-hole. He is not badly hurt. Kat yells at him that there is a poison gas attack. They put on their gas masks. Kropp and another man join them in the shell-hole. The bombardment intensifies. Coffins from the graveyard are thrown up in the air.
The shelling ends, and the men remove their gas masks. Coffins and corpses lie strewn around the graveyard. The recruit whom Paul tried to comfort has been badly injured. Kat and Paul bandage his wounds, but they know he will only live for a few days, in great pain. They decide it would be more merciful to shoot him, but before they can do so, other soldiers appear. They get a stretcher instead. The company has lost five dead and eight wounded in the bombardment. They march back. An hour later they reach their trucks and return to their base.
After the quiet of the previous chapter, the men are thrust into the hell of war, and this chapter vividly conveys the nature of trench warfare in World War I. The poison gas attack suffered by Paul's company was a regular feature of the war. Poison gas was used by all sides in the conflict. An estimated 91,198 soldiers died as a result of poison gas attacks during World War I, and another 1.2 million were hospitalized.
By all accounts, trench warfare was a kind of living hell, or living death. The presence of death and the fear of death were constant. This is what lies behind Paul's poetic tribute to the earth, in the paragraph that begins, "From the earth, from the air, sustaining forces pour into us-mostly from the earth." The earth shelters the soldier and protects him from the shelling, but the earth is also a reminder of death, because the body will eventually return to the earth.
The closeness of the soldiers to the earth and to death is again emphasized when the men take cover in a graveyard. Here the living and the dead intermingle. Corpses and coffins are thrown up from the ground; just as the living are almost dead, the dead seem almost alive again, made to participate in the battle.
The themes of the loss of innocent young men in a war that is none of their doing is repeated in the figure of the recruit who is killed in the battle. He is like Kemmerich-a young man who dies prematurely in a war no one understands. As Kat says, "Such a kid-" and "Young innocents-." He is in fact describing them all.
In addition to the gruesome action, Remarque has subtle yet effective ways of emphasizing the reality of the war. This occurs for example when Paul states in a matter-of-fact way, as the truck picks them up after the bombardment, "There is more room now than there was." This of course is because some of their men have been killed. It puts in mind the way the novel opens, in which the men are enjoying extra rations, but only because so many of their company have been killed the previous day.