Days pass while dead men accumulate on both sides. Paul and his comrades listen to one man’s death throes for three days. They are unable to locate him despite their best efforts. The new recruits figure heavily in the dead and wounded; these reinforcements have had little training, and they drop like flies on the front.
During an attack, Paul finds Himmelstoss in a dugout, pretending to be wounded. Paul tries to force him out with blows and threats, but Himmelstoss does not give in until a nearby lieutenant orders both of them to proceed. They rush forward with the attack. The old hands try to teach some of the new recruits combat tricks and wisdom during the hours of rest, but the recruits do everything wrong when the fighting begins again. Haie receives a fatal wound. When the Second Company is relieved, only thirty-two of the original 150 men remain.
In this gruesome chapter, Remarque fuses together all of the preceding focuses of the novel—physical repulsiveness and gore, psychological drain, the animalistic savagery of battle—as the bombardment wreaks havoc on the men in the trenches. With its in-depth look at the grim reality of trench warfare, this chapter deals with some of the most hideous historical details of combat in World War I.
Before modern trench warfare, inventive military strategies and sweeping victories were possible. As the endless, grinding attack in this chapter illustrates, World War I quickly became characterized by battles of attrition. The goal was not “victory” but rather the wearing down of the enemy’s ability to attack or even continue the war. The strategy was simple: the attacking side bombarded enemy trenches relentlessly, sometimes for up to a week. The death toll from bombardment compared to the death toll in the actual attack was comparatively low. The Germans in particular built strong bomb-proof dugouts, although those built later were of lesser quality. After the bombardment, a wave of attacking soldiers advanced on the enemy trenches.
Unfortunately, as we see in this chapter, the defending side knew that the attack was coming the moment the bombing ended. The result was an ever-growing collection of bodies in No Man’s Land, the space between the trenches that neither army controlled. The major battles of attrition in World War I resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties, making them among the bloodiest battles in human history. There really was no “victor” because the gains usually constituted a few hundred yards of ground. Generally, they ended in stalemate, with an unprecedented cost in human lives and human suffering.
Paul’s description of the German response to the attack leaves no doubt as to the decidedly unromantic nature of trench warfare. Sensing the imminent French attack wave, Paul and his comrades are able to man their machine guns and mow down the attacking soldiers. However, they do not achieve this success out of patriotic fervor or bravery; indeed, they have removed the blades from their bayonets, thus making their weapons less effective, because they fear death more than they long to kill the enemy. They are not seekers of glory but rather men driven to the brink of insanity. They savagely kill and maim the attackers not because they are enemies of the fatherland but because they can do nothing else to release the anxiety, stress, and terror of a days-long bombardment.