It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.
This statement, from the novel’s epigraph, sets up the intent of All Quiet on the Western Front: to discuss a generation of men who, though they survived the war physically, were destroyed by it mentally.
Chapter One opens with Paul Bäumer, the narrator, and the other members of the Second Company, a unit of German soldiers fighting during World War I, resting after being relieved from the front lines. They have spent the last two weeks at the front in constant battle. Out of a company originally comprised of 150 men, only eighty returned after a heavy attack on the last day.
Paul describes his fellow soldiers: he, Leer, Müller, and Kropp are all nineteen years old. They are from the same class in school, and each enlisted in the army voluntarily. Tjaden, a locksmith, is a voracious eater but remains thin as a rail, making Paul wonder where all the food goes to on his skinny frame. Haie Westhus, also nineteen, is a peat-digger with a body as large and powerful as Tjaden’s is thin. Detering is a peasant with a wife at home. Katczinsky, the unofficial leader of Paul’s small group of comrades, is a cunning older man of about forty years.
After a sound night’s sleep, the men line up for breakfast. The cook has unwittingly made enough food for 150 men. The men are anxious to eat the rations designated for their fallen comrades, but the cook insists that he is only allowed to distribute single rations and that the dead soldiers’ rations will simply have to go to waste. After a heated argument, however, he agrees to distribute all of the food.
Paul remembers that he and his friends were embarrassed to use the general latrines when they were recruits. Now they find them a luxury. Every soldier is intimately acquainted with his stomach and intestines. The men settle down to rest, smoke, and play cards in order to forget about their narrow survival during their last trip to the front. Kemmerich, one of Paul’s classmates and a member of the Second Company, is in the hospital with a thigh wound.
Paul recalls his schoolmaster, Kantorek, a fiercely patriotic man who persuaded many of Paul’s friends to enlist as volunteers to prove their patriotism. Joseph Behm, one such young man, was hesitant but eventually gave in to Kantorek’s unrelenting pressure. He was one of the first to die, and his death was particularly horrible. With Behm’s death, Paul and his classmates lost their innocent trust in authority figures such as Kantorek. Kantorek writes a letter to them filled with the empty phrases of patriotic fervor, calling them “Iron Youth” and glorifying their heroism. The men reflect that they once idolized Kantorek but now despise him; they blame him for pushing them into the army and exposing them to the horror of war.