All Quiet on the Western Front is narrated by Paul Bäumer, a young man of nineteen who fights in the German army on the French front in World War I. Paul and several of his friends from school joined the army voluntarily after listening to the stirring patriotic speeches of their teacher, Kantorek. But after experiencing ten weeks of brutal training at the hands of the petty, cruel Corporal Himmelstoss and the unimaginable brutality of life on the front, Paul and his friends have realized that the ideals of nationalism and patriotism for which they enlisted are simply empty clichés. They no longer believe that war is glorious or honorable, and they live in constant physical terror.
When Paul’s company receives a short reprieve after two weeks of fighting, only eighty men of the original 150-man company return from the front. The cook doesn’t want to give the survivors the rations that were meant for the dead men but eventually agrees to do so; the men thus enjoy a large meal. Paul and his friends visit Kemmerich, a former classmate who has recently had a leg amputated after contracting gangrene. Kemmerich is slowly dying, and Müller, another former classmate, wants Kemmerich’s boots for himself. Paul doesn’t consider Müller insensitive; like the other soldiers, Müller simply realizes pragmatically that Kemmerich no longer needs his boots. Surviving the agony of war, Paul observes, forces one to learn to disconnect oneself from emotions like grief, sympathy, and fear. Not long after this encounter, Paul returns to Kemmerich’s bedside just as the young man dies. At Kemmerich’s request, Paul takes his boots to Müller.
A group of new recruits comes to reinforce the company, and Paul’s friend Kat produces a beef and bean stew that impresses them. Kat says that if all the men in an army, including the officers, were paid the same wage and given the same food, wars would be over immediately. Kropp, another of Paul’s former classmates, says that there should be no armies; he argues that a nation’s leaders should instead fight out their disagreements with clubs. They discuss the fact that petty, insignificant people become powerful and arrogant during war, and Tjaden, a member of Paul’s company, announces that the cruel Corporal Himmelstoss has come to fight at the front.
At night, the men go on a harrowing mission to lay barbed wire at the front. Pounded by artillery, they hide in a graveyard, where the force of the shelling causes the buried corpses to emerge from their graves, as groups of living men fall dead around them. After this gruesome event, the surviving soldiers return to their camp, where they kill lice and think about what they will do at the end of the war. Some of the men have tentative plans, but all of them seem to feel that the war will never end. Paul fears that if the war did end, he wouldn’t know what to do with himself. Himmelstoss arrives at the front; when the men see him, Tjaden insults him. The men’s lieutenant gives them light punishment but also lectures Himmelstoss about the futility of saluting at the front. Paul and Kat find a house with a goose and roast the goose for supper, enjoying a rare good meal.
The company is caught in a bloody battle with a charging group of Allied infantrymen. Men are blown apart, limbs are severed from torsos, and giant rats pick at the dead and the wounded. Paul feels that he must become an animal in battle, trusting only his instincts to keep him alive. After the battle, only thirty-two of eighty men are still alive. The men are given a short reprieve at a field depot. Paul and some of his friends go for a swim, which ends in a rendezvous with a group of French girls. Paul desperately wishes to recapture his innocence with a girl, but he feels that it is impossible to do so.
Paul receives seventeen days of leave and goes home to see his family. He feels awkward and oppressed in his hometown, unable to discuss his traumatic experiences with anyone. He learns that his mother is dying of cancer and that Kantorek has been conscripted as a soldier, from which he derives a certain cold satisfaction. He visits Kemmerich’s mother and tells her, untruthfully, that her son’s death was instant and painless. At the end of his leave, Paul spends some time at a training camp near a group of Russian prisoners-of-war. Paul feels that the Russians are people just like him, not subhuman enemies, and wonders how war can make enemies of people who have no grudge against one another.
Paul is sent back to his company and is reunited with his friends. The kaiser, the German emperor, pays a visit to the front, and the men are disappointed to see that he is merely a short man with a weak voice. In battle, Paul is separated from his company and forced to hide in a shell hole. A French soldier jumps into the shell hole with him, and Paul instinctively stabs him. As the man dies a slow, painful death, Paul is overcome with remorse for having hurt him. He feels again that this enemy soldier is no enemy at all but rather a victim of war just like himself. Paul looks through the soldier’s things and finds that his name was Gérard Duval and learns that Duval had a wife and child at home. When he returns to his company, Paul recounts the incident to his friends, who try to console him.
Paul and his friends are given an easy assignment: for three weeks, they are to guard a supply depot away from the fighting. When the next battle takes place, Paul and Kropp are wounded and forced to bribe a sergeant-major with cigars in order to be placed on the hospital train together. At the hospital, Paul undergoes surgery. Kropp’s leg is amputated, and he becomes extremely depressed. After his surgery, Paul has a short leave at home before he returns to his company.
As the German army begins to give in to the unrelenting pressure of the Allied forces, Paul’s friends are killed in combat one by one. Detering, one of Paul’s close friends, attempts to desert but is caught and court-martialed. Kat is killed when a piece of shrapnel slices his head open while Paul is carrying him to safety. By the fall of 1918, Paul is the only one of his circle of friends who is still alive. Soldiers everywhere whisper that the Germans will soon surrender and that peace will come. Paul is poisoned in a gas attack and given a short leave. He reflects that, when the war ends, he will be ruined for peacetime; all he knows is the war. In October 1918, on a day with very little fighting, Paul is killed. The army report for that day reads simply: “All quiet on the Western Front.” Paul’s corpse wears a calm expression, as though relieved that the end has come at last.