Well, with ‘The Heritage of Dante and the Renaissance’ out of the way now, I only have one exam left. It’s probably not a good thing to do, but I think I deserve a bit of a rest before I start preparing for my last exam. Hence why I’m here, with you lovely people, with All Quiet on the Western Front in my hands. So last chapter was surprisingly happy, considering the circumstances, thus the chances for it to all go downhill from here are probably fairly high.
Our fourth chapter starts with the group going up to the front on “wiring duty”, whatever that means: much as I love retro technology and gadgets, I have no clue how most of them work. They keep up good spirits, shouting jokes to overtaking lorries and making plans to steal a goose, but you can tell that this isn’t a pleasant job that they’re about to do. Mainly because they don’t mind being thrown off the truck they’re on and ending up in hospital with a broken arm. The only bone I’ve ever broken is a toe, and that really bloody hurt, so it must be pretty damn unpleasant if they don’t mind that happening. Although it may just be the fact that they’re going to the front. Painful injury or threat of death? Yeah, that’s pretty unsurprising now that I think about it. They get to the gun line, pretty much as far away from the actual action as the front line can get as far as I could tell from this, and things get noticeably more tense. It turns out that something big is likely to happen that night, as the British have started battery fire an hour earlier than normal. Is it just me, or does it seem really odd that the trenches were run on a timetable? Something along the line of “so long as we’re just staying where we are, start shelling at 2200 hours sharp”. I was expecting a bit more chaos somehow. In any case, there’s a bit of a discussion about how being at the front immediately puts you on alert, but I think that’s an obvious enough side-effect that I won’t over-discuss it.
We now get a discussion about how earth is the most important part of life in the trenches. I’ll admit, I was surprised at the importance it’s given. When Bäumer talks about ducking down to avoid shell-fire, there’s almost an intimacy with the earth, which I really wasn’t expecting; it’s like it’s taken on both a guarding and consoling role for them. I mean, read through this bit and try to tell me that, despite the horrific circumstances, this is not beautiful:
“When he presses himself to the earth, long and violently, when he urges himself deep into it with his face and with his limbs, under fire and with fear of death upon him, then the earth is his only friend, his brother, his mother, he groans out his terror and screams into its silence and safety”
Maybe it’s just me, but I imagine that that will stay with me for a while. There’s a shorter section leading on from the earth part, where Bäumer describes how instinct comes to the fore when you get on to the front line, and he uses an interesting turn of phrase:
“We set out as soldiers, and we might be grumbling or we might be cheerful – we reach the zone where the front line begins, and we have turned into human animals.”
It’s possibly the first time I’ve heard humans likened to animals in a good way. When you describe someone as an animal, it’s usually to do with savageness and lack of civilised behaviour (essentially a description that can be applied to the majority of professional footballers), but here it’s a reference to being in tune with your basic instincts and self-preservation. Another unexpected metaphor.
The group gets to wherever they’re doing their wiring duty, there’s a little bit of description about various different things going on behind the trenches, a quick stop to pick up equipment and they’re on their way. They’re close to the trenches now, and the tension is rising. I almost don’t want to go any further, because it’s one of those scenes where you can just tell that something bad is going to happen.
So it turns out that I’ve not been thinking literally enough, and wiring duty is literally setting up lines of barbed wire. In any other circumstance, I would probably have some kind of sarcastic comment about this like “riveting stuff”, but it just seems wrong here. They finish after a few hours, but there’s still time until the truck comes back to retrieve them, so most of them settle down to try and get a nap, our narrator included. He wakes up just in time to crawl away from some shelling. Knew it. Only one shell lands in amongst the group, so they’re safe for now, but Bäumer is still stuck with one of the new recruits huddling into his chest, which is rather sweet.
So the shelling stops and people are safe for now, but the group are now subjected to the haunting sound of wounded horses screaming. Much as I want to be really affected by this scene, I’m feeling only slightly sympathetic. I have no idea why: I like animals, I get affected by lives lost in wars and the graphic detail here is pretty shocking, but I’m just not all that sad about it. I guess because I was so anxious about the characters themselves dying or getting hurt, horses getting hurt doesn’t have the same impact; if I’m honest, after worrying about the human characters, the horses are pretty much a relief in contrast. It’s a horrible thing to say, and I know it’s bringing up the issue of animals in warfare, but if Remarque wanted me to care so much, then he should probably have focused on them a bit more before they were all killed.
So they go back to where they’re supposed to meet the trucks, when another round of shelling starts up, forcing them to hide in a military graveyard. I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting that round. Bäumer gets knocked around a bit and ends up taking shelter in the grave he was hiding behind. I would say something about the sanctity of the dead, but it’s extreme circumstances. He’s then told by Katczinsky that there’s now a gas attack to worry about too. Wonderful. Whoever came up with gas must have either been seriously unlucky or a total sadist. It’s the most horrific thing I remember learning in History of Medicine, simply because of how bloody effective it is at killing you. So, while Bäumer’s lying in the shell crater with Kat, Kropp and another guy, the barrage of explosive and gas shells is still going on, so staying in the crater is, unfortunately, their only option. Gas is heavy so it sinks into the craters, but they can’t lie on higher ground because there’s a chance they’ll get hit by explosives; damned if they do, damned if they don’t. To make things worse, the fourth guy gets his arm trapped when a shell blows a coffin through the air. If it weren’t so tense, I’d laugh. Eventually though, the gas disperses and the shelling stops. Good lord.
So after everything’s calmed down a bit, they get on with treating their wounded. They find one lad whose hip joint is now just so much torn up pulp. Turns out he’s the one Bäumer comforted earlier on. Ouch. They consider mercy-killing him, seeing as he’s unlikely to survive being moved, but a stretcher arrives before they can do it.
They eventually get back to the truck, but it’s pretty plain to see that it’s been a tough night for all of them, even if their losses are small. Their main job on the way back is to avoid the telephone wires that have dropped down low enough to take their heads off. What a lovely way to end a night’s work.
So yeah, that’s the chapter over, and what a chapter. Christ, I don’t think I’ve been that tense in a while. Hell, I don’t think I was that tense before my exam this morning. So really, reading has failed the intent of relaxing me this time, but I don’t think it really matters. I really loved this chapter, even though I was fearing for their lives. I mean, it shows the work of a good author when they make you scared for the life of a fictional character, isn’t it?