Old at Twenty

This is my review of All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.

Having read and seen so many books and films about war, I made the mistake of expecting this to have little to add apart from the different perspective of a First World War soldier on the German front. Written in the 1920s by a young journalist who fictionalises his own experiences of the futile lunacy of war, it soon proved to me its status as a classic.

What marks it out is the combination of a whole gamut of reactions, from the MASH-like scenes of cynical survival to moving scenes portraying the psychology of survival at the front. In the opening chapter, the eighty men out of a company of a hundred and fifty who have returned alive and uninjured from the front are delighted to find that the quartermaster has not been informed in time to reduce their supplies so they have double rations for a day. A young man is dying from his wounds in a field hospital, and a friend is mainly preoccupied with laying claim to his rather fine pair of boots.

Using the present tense to give events more immediacy, the narrator Paul describes the sinister nature of the front in apparently calm periods which may be shattered with no warning by shells and gas – how to survive he must throw himself instinctively to the earth, which may protect, bury alive or claim him for ever. He must kill or be killed without emotion to stay alive, feeling his most conscious hatred for the teachers who abused their authority by urging him to enlist, or the sadistic ex-postman, now Corporal who provided his training, none of them with any realistic first-hand experience of the front. The prospect of leave seems like heaven, until Paul realises that he can no longer relate to family and acquaintances, or any aspect of his past life. He can no longer read the books he used to treasure, and his academic education now seems useless.

The narrative makes very early on the telling point which recurs at the end: the fact that young men plucked from school to the battlefield have no clear framework of work, wife or children to which to return, should they survive. They are a generation cast in limbo: "if we go back…. we shall be weary, broken-down, burnt-out, rootless and devoid of hope. No one will understand us – we are superfluous even to ourselves."

This well-translated novel is saved from unendurable sadness by the range and frequent black humour of incidents. It is one of the most powerful pieces of anti-war writing I have ever read. The saddest aspect is that, when he wrote it, Lemarque might still hope there would be no future struggles of this sort on such a scale.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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