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Baumer is a young German soldier who is the narrator and protagonist of the novel. Although he is not twenty years of age when he enlists in the infantry, the brutality of his war experiences quickly ages him. He is also a truthful narrator, trying to report on the activities at the Western Front with honesty and objectivity.
As a youth, Baumer was more sensitive and intelligent than most of his peers, traits that carry over into his adulthood. Although he had a group of close childhood friends, he also enjoyed being alone and writing poetry. Additionally, he liked to please adults. When his teacher, Kantorek, encouraged him and his friends to join the war effort to save Germany from its enemies, Baumer and his friends obeyed. Six of his classmates are assigned with him to the same infantry unit on the Western Front.
During basic training, Baumer quickly realizes that war is not the glorious thing described by Kantorek; he resents that the teacher has lied to him and his friends. The others from Baumer's school feel the same way. They even blame Behm's death on Kantorek; he was the first of the classmates to be killed. Kemmerich will be the next fatality. As the days pass and the fighting from the trenches intensifies, Baumer grows weary of the war; his mood grows more gloomy as he sees the needless destruction and waste of life caused in the fighting. The only thing that makes life bearable for him is the friendship he has with the other soldiers.
When he is given a pass so he can return home for a short period of rest, Baumer realizes that he is a changed man. He feels strange in his civilian clothes, as if they no longer "fit" him; neither can he relate to his family or the small town mentality of his hometown. He is, however, still a sensitive and humane young man. He goes to see Kemmerich's mother to pay his respects; while visiting with her, he lies and tells her that her son died instantaneously, feeling no pain.
Baumer feels that going home was a big mistake, making him more miserable than ever; he is eager to return to his friends, the only ones who can now understand him. Back on the warfront, Baumer has several depressing experiences. While at a training camp, he views daily a group of Russian prisoners of war who are being starved to death. He is very pained to watch their misery as they search the garbage for scraps of something to eat. Whenever Baumer can, he shares his food with them, proving that the war has not destroyed his humanity. The Russian prisoners also make him realize that the enemy is not just a faceless creature, but a fellow human being.
Back in the trenches, Baumer finds that he is in the middle of an attack and separated from his friends. He lies face down in a shell hole, pretending to be dead while the enemy troops pass by. Soon he is joined in the hole by a French soldier; panicked at the presence of the enemy, Baumer stabs him. He immediately regrets his action; he gives the injured soldier some water and tries to bandage his wounds. In spite of his efforts, the soldier dies. Baumer finds out that his name was Gerald Duval, a printer with a wife and a child. Suddenly for Baumer, the enemy has a face and a name; and he is a young soldier much like he is. War now seems more senseless and brutal than ever.
Later, while trying to evacuate a village, Kropp is seriously injured, and Baumer receives some minor wounds. Baumer manages to get the two of them on a hospital train traveling to the rear. To make certain that he is not separated from his friend, Baumer heats up a thermometer and pretends to be very ill himself. His pretending works, for he and Kropp wind up at the same hospital. Kropp, however, has his leg amputated and is then sent away; Baumer is soon returned to the front. Before long, he also loses Muller and Leer to the fighting and Detering to a court martial for desertion.
The final depressing blow for Baumer is when Stanislaus Katczinsky, Baumer's best friend, is injured in the fighting. Baumer puts his friend on his own back to carry him to the nearest medical station. On the way, Kat is hit again and dies before Baumer can get him help. Now most of his infantry unit, all of his former classmates, and his best friend are dead; Baumer is amazed that he is still alive. But he worries about his future and the future of this generation lost to the brutality of war. Then one month before the armistice, Baumer is killed on a "quiet day on the Western Front." His physical death is anti-climatic, for his real dying occurred as he lost his friends. Now he will be re- united with them for eternity.