All Quiet on the Western Front: Novel Summary: Chapter 6
On their way to the front, Paul and his friends pass a shelled school-house. Stacked up against the side is a pile of about a hundred new coffins. It is not a good omen.
Once at the front, they wait in their trenches. They have to deal with the presence of numerous fat, hungry rats who gnaw at the men's bread. For days the men make war on the rats, as they wait for the battle to renew. At night, the enemy sends poison gas over, and the Germans expect an attack to follow. They are in low spirits. For a few days the expected attack does not come. But in the middle of one night they are awoken by the sound of heavy fire. The bombardment has begun and it continues into the morning. The new recruits are frightened. The German trench is almost disintegrated from the shelling. The troops are temporarily buried and must dig themselves out. The food supplies cannot get through.
Night comes and the bombardment continues. One of the recruits has a fit and tries to climb out of the trench. Paul and Kat have to strike him to calm him down. Their dug-out then takes a light direct hit from a shell, but the men survive. Another recruit tries to escape and jumps out of the trench; he is killed instantly. Night comes, the bombardment continues, and the attack they have long been waiting for finally comes. Enemy infantry approach, and Paul sees they are French. The Germans abandon their trenches and retreat to a trench in the rear. As they do so, Paul and his friends hurl hand grenades back at the enemy. They have become like wild beasts defending themselves against annihilation.
Paul and the others find a trench in the rear. It is manned and ready to launch a counter-attack. Paul swiftly plunges back into the horror of battle as the counter-attack begins. They push on beyond their original trench, going for the enemy lines. When they reach enemy lines, there is hand-to-hand fighting, and they take over the French trench, killing many French soldiers. The fight ends as the French retreat. Paul and his comrades grab all the supplies they can find, including five tins of corned beef, and retire under cover of their artillery to their former position.
That night, the attack over, Paul does sentry duty. His thoughts go back to pleasant, quiet memories of home. But the memories make him sorrowful and melancholy because they belong to a world that has passed.
Days go by. There are more attacks and counter-attacks. Casualties mount. The men try to bring in the wounded as quickly as possible. One injured man calls out in pain for two days, but they are unable to locate him. The dead pile up, unburied.
In quiet interludes, the men manage to joke with each other and keep themselves amused with some improvised hobbies.
Many recruits are sent up as reinforcements, but their inexperience often costs them their lives. Paul also discovers that Himmelstoss is not as brave as the impression he liked to give. During one attack launched by the Germans, Himmelstoss hides in a trench, pretending to be wounded. Paul kicks him out, and Himmelstoss, hearing the order of a lieutenant, then joins in the attack. Haie Westhus, one of Paul's friends, is fatally wounded.
In the autumn, having spent the whole summer at the front, Paul's company is relieved. The German lines have been forced back, but only by a few hundred yards. Of the 150 men of Second Company who began the battle, only thirty-two remain.
Like chapter 4, only with even greater intensity, this chapter captures the reality of trench warfare as it was experienced by the infantrymen who fought it.
The trenches of World War I were built by the Germans, the French and the British all along what became known as the Western Front. Huge battles such as Verdun and the Somme were fought, with massive casualties on both sides, but very little gain in territory. In the battle of Verdun, for example, which began in February, 1916, and lasted for five months, the French lost 350,000 dead as they repelled the German assault on a strategically important fort. The Germans lost 300,000 dead. In the battle of the Somme, from July to November, 1916, the Germans lost about 500,000 dead.
The futility of the barbaric, back-and-forth conflict that killed in such staggering numbers is illustrated in Paul's comment that after an entire summer of war, the battle lines have shifted by only a few hundred yards of territory. No one has won, but so many have lost. As Paul says of the territory the Germans conceded, "But on every yard there lies a dead man."
Although this chapter contains vivid descriptions of the dead and dying, and makes the reader feel what that terrible conflict must have been like, it is often in his terse, matter-of-fact style that Remarque conveys the horror most effectively. As in this sentence, for example: "We put the dead in a large shell-hole. So far there are three layers, one on top of the other."
The emotional effect of this terse style can also be felt in the carefully understated final scene of the chapter, in which the commander of Second Company reassembles his men, only to find that almost 80 percent of them are dead or missing. The scene is dramatically effective, even devastating, not so much because of what is said but because of what is not said. The emotion is all under the surface, and is all the more powerful because of it.