All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque
Contributed by Loretta Ingwersen
Chapter 4
Summary

The soldiers are sent in trucks to put up barbed wire at the front. Paul hears geese cackle, and Kat makes a note of it for later. They arrive at the artillery lines, where the fired guns rattle the ground and make the air taste of gunpowder. The men, though reserves and not in the front-line, become serious. Having been to the front before, they are not fearful, but the new recruits are. Kat predicts there will be a bombardment tonight. The English artillery starts firing--an hour before their regular ten o’clock schedule. Gunfire opens nearby, and again Paul observes a change in the men’s faces and behavior. Paul feels the front is like a whirlpool, sucking him in. The earth becomes the soldier’s closest ally as he buries himself into it during fighting, seeking holes and small valleys for protection. He believes this action is instinctive, and the only way to save oneself.

The trucks drop the soldiers off in the woods and plan to return before dawn the next day. Paul watches troops file down the nearby road and sees them as one mass. The magnificent-looking riders on horseback "resemble knights of a forgotten time." Paul and his unit carry wire and iron stakes to their site over hazardous terrain. They stop and watch the fiery display of rockets as the bombardment commences. Machine-guns and artillery join in; it reminds Paul of a flock of wild geese.

The men take a few hours in setting up the wire. They try and sleep in the cold, but are woken by the bombardment--they are now the targets. A young recruit, too scared even to put on his helmet, seeks shelter under Paul’s arm. Someone is hit, and Paul hears cries between explosions. The battle quiets down overhead. The recruit has defecated in his pants, and Paul reassures him that it is understandable.

News arrives that some of the columns have been hit, including the horses. Detering, a farmer, pleads for them to be put out of their misery, especially once they hear the horses’ screams. They find the horses in the darkness, but Kat does not let Detering shoot one of the wounded horses. They cannot bear the sounds of the horses anymore. The wounded horses are shot. Detering fumes over the idea of horses being used in war.

The unit returns. Kat is anxious to leave. The artillery fire returns, and the men seek cover behind the mounds of a graveyard. The earth is torn up as the men stay down. After a nearby burst, Paul’s sleeve is torn away by an artillery shell splinter. He makes a fist to test for pain; there is none, but he knows that wounds don’t hurt until after they’ve been inflicted. He feels his arm; it is only grazed. He receives two splinters on his helmet but fights against fainting. He covers himself in a hole created by the shells and finds a dead man in a coffin.

Paul crawls deeper into the hole but is stopped by Kat, who screams to spread the warning: gas. Paul grabs his gas mask and warns a recruit, who doesn’t understand. Paul puts the boy’s mask on and returns to his shell-hole. The gas-shells arrive, and Paul worries that his mask isn’t airtight; he has seen in hospitals how gas can destroy lungs. The gas floats over the ground as a second bombardment begins. A coffin is thrown up from the ground and hits a man. The men free him, but his arm is shattered and he swoons. The shelling over, Paul removes his mask. They carry off the wounded man and find another man on the ground, hit in the hip. Paul knows the man will never walk again. They dress the wound, and when Paul finds the recruit is not wearing underwear, he realizes he is the one who defecated in his pants. They decide it is better to shoot the recruit and put him out of his misery, but before they can others come by and they carry him off.

The losses are fewer than expected. The soldiers climb into the trucks and ride home through the heavy rain.

Analysis

Remarque depicts the brutality of modern warfare with spare, poetic precision. Artillery and gas shells, terrible and awesome sights and sounds, and grotesque injuries mark the unrelenting bombardment; if Remarque has not yet convinced the reader that war is hell, he surely has after this chapter.

Paul first notes the change of identity that occurs at the front. The men turn into animals--and more likely the hunted, not the hunters: "?there is suddenly in our veins, in our hands, in our eyes a tense waiting, a watching, a heightening alertness." He later calls the soldier’s impulse to seek the earth for protection an "animal instinct," and says the soldiers become "human animals" on the front.

One thing is clear: the men lose much of their humanness during war. They are de-individualized as instruments of war; the marching men are a "column--not men at all." Real animals play a significant role here, as well. Remarque contrasts the cackle of the geese--which Kat playfully promises to get at the beginning of the chapter--with the dreadful, geese-like sound of the artillery. Moreover, the wounded horses jolt the soldiers out of their desensitized states more than wounded men do. Though both soldier and horse alike are exploited in the war, at least men make the decision to enter the war, however reluctant they may be; the horses have no choice but to submit to the destruction of man.

The injuries and deaths of the horses also destroy whatever semblance of romanticism war may hold for Paul before the battle starts. He views the horsemen as the "knights of a forgotten time." One does not need to go back as far as the Middle Ages to find this "forgotten time"; battle was still romanticized even early in the war, and only massive losses could change war’s glorified reputation.

War’s glory is also shattered in the kinds of injuries the soldiers sustain. Paul puts the helmet on the recruit’s behind because a shot there can still be serious. In the same way, Kemmerich--whom the recruit reminds Paul of--had a seemingly minor wound in his leg, but one that took his life nonetheless. The soldiers rarely die "honorable" deaths on the battlefield, instead often receiving wounds that painfully lead to death or are otherwise debilitating. (A prime example of these dishonorable wounds can be found in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; in it, the war has reduced the protagonist, most likely, to impotence.)

If the various wounds of man and animal were not bad enough, the recruit’s defecation in his pants is. But even that humiliation allows Paul to play the paternal role of a veteran--which, indeed, he and the others are in comparison to the green recruits, as they previously noted. More evidence of camaraderie occurs in the gas episode, when Paul puts on a recruit’s gas mask for him, just as he shielded the first recruit.

An even more curious form of camaraderie occurs in this chapter--camaraderie between the living and the dead. Remarque deploys a dark irony as the soldiers use the coffins and mounds of the graveyard for cover. They will end up in the same place soon enough, Remarque implies, though not of their own will. However, their actions are also pragmatic. Just as Kemmerich’s boots were of no use to him anymore, the bodies of the dead are more practically used as shields for the living.

info_outline
Have study documents to share about All Quiet on the Western Front? Upload them to earn free Studypool credits!