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We want to live at any price; so we cannot burden ourselves with feelings which . . . would be out of place here.
The Second Company is sent to a depot for reorganization. Himmelstoss tries to make amends with the men after having experienced the horror of the front. He becomes generous with food and gets easy jobs for them; he even wins Tjaden over to his side. Good food and rest are enough to make a soldier content. Away from the trenches, Paul and his comrades make vulgar jokes as usual. Over time, their humorous jests become more bitter.
Paul, Leer, and Kropp meet three women while they are swimming. They communicate with them in broken French, indicating that they have food. They are forbidden to cross the canal, just as the women are. Later that night, the men gather some food and swim across, wearing nothing more than their boots. The women throw them clothing. Despite the language barrier, they chatter endlessly. They call the soldiers “poor boys.” Paul is inexperienced, but he yields to desire. He hopes to recapture a piece of his innocence and youth with a woman who does not belong to the army brothels.
Paul receives seventeen days of leave. Afterward, he has to report to a training base, and will return to the front in six weeks. He wonders how many of his friends will survive six weeks. He visits one of the women on the other side of the canal, but she is not interested to hear about his leave. He realizes that she would find him more exciting if he were going to the front.
When Paul reaches his hometown, he finds that his mother is ill with cancer and that the civilian population is slowly starving. He cannot shake a feeling of “strangeness”; he no longer feels at home in his family’s house. His mother asks if it was “very bad out there.” Paul lies to her. He has no words to describe his experiences—at least no words that she would understand.
A major becomes angry that Paul does not salute him in the street. As a punishment, he forces Paul to do a march in the street and salute smartly. Paul wishes to avoid further such incidents, so he begins wearing civilian clothing. Paul’s father, unlike his mother, keeps asking him questions. He doesn’t understand that it is dangerous for Paul to put his experiences into words. Others who don’t ask questions take too much pride in their silence. Sometimes the screeching of the trams startles Paul because it sounds like shells. He sits in his bedroom with his books and pictures, trying to recapture his childhood feelings of youth and desire, but the memories are only shadows. His identity as a soldier is the only thing to which he can cling.
Paul learns from a fellow classmate, Mittelstaedt, now a training officer, that Kantorek has been conscripted into the war. When he met Kantorek, Mittelstaedt tells Paul, he flaunted his authority as a superior officer over their old schoolmaster. He bitterly reminded Kantorek that he coerced Joseph Behm into enlisting against the boy’s wishes—Joseph would have been called within three months anyway, and Mittelstaedt believes that Joseph died three months sooner than he would have otherwise. Mittelstaedt arranged to be placed in charge of Kantorek’s company and has taken every chance to humiliate him, miming Kantorek’s old admonitions as a schoolmaster.