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The very first paragraph takes us within five miles of the front lines. The men are resting on the ground, having just stuffed themselves with beef and beans (the cook is stiff dishing out more). There are double rations of bread and sausage besides, and tobacco is so plentiful that everyone can get his preference- cigarets, cigars, or chews. Whoever is telling the story is right there, in it; this is what is called first person narration. But the narrator (we soon find out that he's 19 years old and his name is Paul Baumer) makes clear that the whole situation is incredible:- "We have not had such luck as this for a long time."
Where did the windfall come from? Paul says, "We have only a miscalculation to thank for it." It turns out that the quartermaster sent, and the cook prepared, food for the full Second Company-150 men. But 70 were killed at the end of a quiet two-week mission when the English suddenly opened up with high-explosive field guns.
Before we can stop to think about Paul's dismissing all those deaths as a miscalculation, he backs up to tell the whole story of how they nearly had to riot to get all that food and tobacco. The cook, it seems, didn't care about the count; he just didn't want to give any man more than a single share. In the course of retelling how their noise brought the company commander, who finally ordered the cook to serve everything, Paul introduces all his friends.
They're an assorted lot: first, three of his classmates from school-Muller, the bookworm, Albert Kropp, the sharp thinker, and bearded Leer who likes officers' brothels. Then there are three other 19-year-olds: the skinny locksmith Tjaden, the farmer Detering, and the peat-digger Haie Westhus. Finally he names an older soldier-the group's shrewd, 40-year-old leader, a man with a remarkable nose for food and soft jobs, Stanislaus Katczinsky.
From their names we see that these major characters are German, but it really doesn't matter. They could just as well be French or English, so far as their experiences are concerned.
At this point we don't really know if Paul, the narrator, is as cold and unfeeling as he appears. He and his friends seem to care much more about food than about the lives of their companions. Is Remarque indirectly telling us that war reduces people to animals? Or are the men just being realistic? We'll have to wait and see.
The day continues to be "wonderfully good," says Paul, because their mail catches up with them. But one letter angers them. It's from their schoolmaster, Kantorek, who pumped them all so full of the glory of fighting for their country that they marched down to the district commandant together and enlisted. The only one who had to be persuaded was homely Josef Behm, and he's dead already-the first of their class to fall. Paul doesn't blame Kantorek personally for Behm's death, but he does blame the "thousands of Kantoreks" who were so sure their view of the coming war was the right one. We were only 18, he says; we trusted our teachers and our parents to guide us, and "they let us down so badly." He seems to be saying that the war has cut them adrift from a meaningful life, with no new values to replace the old ones. All the young soldiers know for sure is that it's good to have a full belly or a good smoke.
The friends go over to visit Franz Kemmerich, a classmate who is dying after a leg amputation. Muller turns out to be totally crude and tactless. Kemmerich is dying, and Muller rattles on about Kemmerich's stolen watch and just who will get Kemmerich's fine English leather boots. Paul, on the other hand, recalls Kemmerich's mother, crying and begging Paul to look after Franz as they left for the front. To Paul, Kemmerich still looks like a child accidentally poured into a military uniform. Perhaps war hasn't blunted his sensitivity yet, but Muller's crudeness shocks us.
As they leave the dressing station, it is obvious that Kropp, like Paul, is still brimful of feelings. Erupting into anger, he hurls his cigaret to the ground and mutters, "Damned swine!" He is thinking of the leaders who sent them into battle and of people like Kantorek calling waifs like Kemmerich "Iron Youth." "Youth!" thinks Paul. "That is long ago. We are old folk."
NOTE: THE ROMANTIC VIEW OF WAR
From history we know that the Kantoreks passionately believed the ideals they taught their children and students. World War I broke out in what seems to us a largely innocent world, a world that still associated warfare with glorious cavalry charges and the noble pursuit of heroic ideals. Everyone- Allies and Central Powers alike-expected a quick, clean war with a glorious aftermath. Most Europeans, not just Germans, saw war as the adventure of a lifetime. The popular English poet Rupert Brooke thanked God in his poem "1914" for waking "us from sleeping" and providing the opportunity to do something new and clean in "a world grown old and cold and weary." Americans were no different, though Stephen Crane's Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage-showing war in all its ugliness-had been around for 20 years. Listen to the lighthearted tone of patriotic World War I songs by George M. Cohan. Later in the war and afterwards, poets and novelists (including Remarque) dispelled the myth. The English poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote about a battlefield, "I am staring at a sunlit picture of hell."