At the sound of the first droning of the shells we rush back, in one part of our being, a thousand years. By the animal instinct that is awakened in us we are led and protected. It is not conscious; it is far quicker, much more sure, less fallible, than consciousness. . . . It is this other, this second sight in us, that has thrown us to the ground and saved us, without our knowing how. . . . We march up, moody or good-tempered soldiers—we reach the zone where the front begins and become on the instant human animals.
With these words, Paul describes, in Chapter Four, the psychological transformation that soldiers undergo when heading into battle. Paul observes this phenomenon as he and his comrades near the front on their mission to lay barbed wire. They cease to become men (“moody or good-tempered soldiers”) and instead become beasts (“human animals”). To survive, it is necessary for the soldiers to sacrifice the thoughtful and analytical parts of their minds and rely instead wholly on animal instinct. Paul describes men who have been walking thoughtlessly along and suddenly thrown themselves to the ground just in time to avoid a shell, without having been consciously aware that a shell was approaching and without having intended to leap to avoid it. Paul calls this instinct a “second sight” and says that it is the only thing that enables soldiers to survive a battle. In this way, Paul implies that battles are animalistic and even subhuman, a large aspect of the devastation that the war wreaks on a soldier’s humanity.