Narrative Style: First person, chronological
Synopsis: Paul and his classmates are goaded by their teacher to join up and they are quickly shipped off to the front. Paul is able to stay with some of his classmates and he also meets Kat, an older soldier who becomes a mentor like figure to him. The battles are brutal and affect the soldiers mentally as well as physically. They are still young and the only life they have experienced is that of the front.
Time on Shelf: This has been on my list of things to read for a long time but I only recently acquired a copy.
This is a book I’ve been wanting to read for a while. I’ve read a lot of World War One literature (the Regeneration Trilogy, Strange Meeting by Susan Hill and The Absolutist by John Boyne being some of the best) and Wilfred Owen is one of my favourite poets, It was high up on the list of books I needed to acquire. Just before Christmas, it came up on my Kindle Daily Deal and I knew it wouldn’t be long before I read it.
As soon as I started to read it, I knew I was going to enjoy it. Paul’s narrative voice was compelling. He describes the battles and his thoughts and feelings with the same careful detail. It is impossible not to feel for him. He is only nineteen. He has known no life apart from the front. Unlike Kat, and the older soldiers, the boys have no knowledge of the outside world apart from their time at school. They have no wives or girlfriends waiting for them. One of Paul’s friends tries to cling to the idea of education, even going so far as to still be muttering formula when they are under fire. He can imagine an after the war which Paul cannot. It does him no good. He dies from a wound from a flare gun. Later on, on the death of another classmates, Paul says, “What use is it to him now that he was such a good mathematician in school?”
They were thrown into an intolerable situation. They had no knowledge of strategy (if indeed there was any) and none of the battles are named. Paul comments that they aren’t fighting the enemy but both sides are fighting death. They kill the enemy merely because if they don’t, they themselves will be killed, not because of any nationalistic fervour. I was often reminded of Owen’s poetry and particularly Dulce et Decorum Est. It is nowhere near fine and fitting to die for one’s country. It is painful, brutal and unnecessary. Towards the end, Paul says ‘Our hands are earth, our bodies mud and our eyes puddles of rain. We no longer know whether we are still alive or not.’ The soldiers are no longer completely human. They are weapons. They are the war itself.
There are lighter moments. Much is made of the camaraderie of Paul, Kat and the school friends. Kat is described as having a sixth sense when it comes to finding the things that they need. When they need straw for their mattresses, he finds some, also bringing horsemeat, fat and a pan to cook it in. Another time, Paul and Kat find and kill two geese, taking the meat to other of their party who were being punished for insubordination. One day, they are swimming in the river when they see some girls and they arrange to meet later. As the soldiers were not allowed on the girls’ side of the river, they have to take their uniforms off and swim naked to them, carrying their gifts of food above their heads.
All this just makes it more tragic when, one by one, Paul’s friends are killed off – each in a slightly different way. There is an infinite variety of ways to die on the front. Baum is blinded. He is thought to be dead but the next day he is seen wandering around no man’s land. He is shot before he can be rescued. Mueller is shot in the stomach. Westhaus is shot in the back and Paul can see his lungs as he breathes. Even soldiers that seem out of the war are not safe from death. Detering deserts but is picked up by the military police and is never seen again. Kropp is injured and he and Paul spend time in hospital together. Kropp ends up having his leg amputated. He vows to kill himself but when Paul leaves the hospital he hasn’t because of the camaraderie and the lack of a gun. However, it is strongly implied that he will.
It might sound like hyperbole but this is one of the few times that I’ve thought that this is one of those books that everyone should read. It is deeply affecting and shows the true horrors of warfare, the sacrifice of mere boys for a country’s political ambitions and the emptiness of blind nationalism. A must read.