I have always loved studying history. It was one of my favourite subjects growing up, and the path I decided to take in university. When I was in my final year I took a module that looked at the impact war had on society in the twentieth century. I found it to be a really interesting module, and ended up writing my assignment on the psychological impact that war had on the men who fought in it, and how it affected society’s perception of masculinity in the twentieth century. It was an assignment I found fascinating to work on, and it presented me with some tragic statistics. While studying the module, we were required to read Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
It’s a powerful read. Following a group of young Germans, barely out of childhood, it details the physical and psychological effects that the First World War had on the common soldier. The narrator and protagonist, Paul Bäumer, is an eighteen year old who documents his time on the Western front during the ‘war to end all wars’. Like so many young men during this period in time, he and his classmates are inspired to rush to the battlefield after being filled with an idealistic and patriotic view of war. They go forth confident and proud to be fighting for their country. But what follows is an account of how desperate and horrific war really is.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a profound novel, and the stories of its characters are made more realistic when you remember that Remarque himself fought at the front. He knew first-hand the emotions his characters would be feeling. The First World War has often been made synonymous with the idea of patriotism, and it’s a war in which the achievements of the men who fought in it seem to be celebrated more than any other, at least where I am from. In many ways, it has become a glorified war. Yes, we all know that it was a tragic war, and one that had an impact so large that the ripples from it caused another, even more destructive war. We always remember the humanity of World War Two, it’s hard not to. But sometimes people seem to forget the real men and women behind the numbers relating to World War One.
Remarque’s novel takes all the glory and patriotism out of war, and instead gives the reader the gritty, disillusioned, ugly side of it. Through the eyes of Paul and the young men fighting alongside him, you are forced to witness the side of war that no one wants to remember. The dull, monotonous fear and boredom that filled the void between battles. The coldness of long, wet, hungry nights, and the ache of the men wondering whether or not to they would live to see home. The novel strips back the propaganda of war and shows the real men behind it. While I was writing my assignment I came to realise just how big an impact the First World War had had on men. Men had always been expected to be the strong ones. They were supposed to take war in their stride; go to war, defend your country with honour, and then come home and pick up exactly where you left off if you were lucky enough to survive. The art of war changed in 1914, but society’s idea of how men should react to it didn’t.
Throughout the novel Paul constantly reminds you of how he and his friends are no longer boys. But they are not quite men yet, either. Instead, they all balance precariously on the cusp between boyhood and manhood, knowing that many, if not all of them, will perhaps never reach the other side. And if they do survive, they will have the weariness of old men in the bodies of young ones. One by one, the boys lose their youthfulness, and become shells of who they once were, and who they could have become.
The story of Paul and his fellow soldiers at the front is a harrowing tale. Set in a war unlike any that had come before it, the horrors of the western front provide the backdrop for a novel that to this day remains a powerful reminder of what war can do.