On a hot summer’s night in southern Edinburgh (so hot that one member arrived with white wine in a cooler) the proposer introduced “All Quiet On The Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque. He said that, given the current debate about Britain’s involvement in the Afghan War, it seemed appropriate to revisit a book about “the war to end all wars” which had made a great impact on him. On his second reading of the book he still found it engaging and moving.
Remarque was conscripted in late 1916 at the age of 18. After training he was posted to the Arras front on 12 June 1917. On 31 July 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele he was wounded by shrapnel in the leg, arm and neck, and was repatriated to an army hospital in Germany. He had only returned to training when the war ended. This – probably the most famous of all World War One novels – was therefore based on only just over seven weeks of experience in the front line.
The novel was first published in November and December 1928 in a German newspaper Vossische Zeitung and in book form in January 1929. He wrote a sequel, “The Road Back” (1931), which one of our number reported was also good but not quite as powerful. Both were among the books banned and burned in Nazi Germany.
“All Quiet On The Western Front” sold 2.5 million copies in twenty-five languages in its first eighteen months in print. Indeed one of our number was sporting an American First Edition complete with cuttings of contemporary reviews, which, surprisingly, referred to unnecessary censorship in the American edition on “moral” grounds. In 1930, the book was adapted as an Oscar-winning film of the same name.
Surprisingly, although one or two members of the group had an interest in military matters, no-one in the group other than the proposer had read the book before. Without exception, they were extremely positive about the book. “Absolutely marvellous”. “Great pace – I couldn’t put it down”. “Have read nothing approaching this, other than possibly Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ ”. “Beautifully constructed, so that his anti-war messages are put over without interrupting the narrative flow and without preaching”. “Engaging variety of humour”. “Totally compelling”.
Looking at in more detail, one reader was struck by the way Remarque could venture into quite poetic uses of language – for example on the subject of earth – without any sense of inappropriateness, despite the generally grim subject matter.
Another was struck by the ability of his characters to joke in the direst of situations, such as the description of roasting pork in a ruined house despite the fact that the smoke from the fire was attracting increasingly heavy artillery fire. The very first episode – about double rations for the troops – was laced with irony as the cause was that half the company had been killed.
His writing was particularly powerful – short and too the point. He could bring a scene to life or create a character with just a couple of brush-strokes, just a telling detail or two. Remarque’s descriptive ability could be measured by seeing how much more gripping his work was than the now widely-published recollections of former World War One soldiers describing similar events. Two particularly powerful scenes were that of the hero’s isolation on returning home on leave and that of his surreal experiences trapped in a shell crater.
The scenes set in hospital – with the ghastly range of injuries, the frequency of death, and the sense of the hospital’s limited resources being overwhelmed by demand – were perhaps the most potent of the many anti-war elements of the book.
The novel, which exposed us to the elemental in the trenches, made one reflect that our generation had been a very sheltered one. It was terrible that a teacher – presumably with no experience of war – could persuade a class of schoolchildren to volunteer.
It was intriguing that 1929 saw the publication of this classic in Germany and in the same year two other World War One classics: “Goodbye to All That” by Robert Graves and “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway. This coincidence might reflect a desire by publishers to publish anti-war books. However, the great majority of German war literature in the twenties and thirties was nationalistic and pro-war, and some of it glorified death for one’s country in almost mystical terms. The Hemingway book included a lot of material other than the War, but Hemingway’s ability to conjure up moving descriptions with simple short sentences and a few lucid details was similar to that of Remarque’s.
One notable difference was that Graves and Hemingway were writing from an individual perspective, whereas Remarque’s hero characteristically wrote about “we” rather than “I”. The “we” often refers primarily to his group of school friends, but more widely it can be taken to echo the idea of a lost generation set out in his preface:
“This book is intended to neither as an accusation nor as a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war – even those of it who survived the shelling.”
This striking theme was developed as he observes that older soldiers had jobs and families to return to, while the next generation had escaped military service. It was his generation that was left in limbo. The theme was deepened further in the painful scenes where he returns home and is unable to connect properly with his family and neighbours.
(Perhaps, ventured your scribe, Remarque’s emphasis on “we” also reflected the remarkable German capacity for organisation, which would shortly be demonstrated against England in the next round of the World Cup? This was swiftly silenced by a few anti-racist glares from those unaware that your correspondent could rival an octopus for powers of prediction).
One note of reservation was about the very brief ending, in which we discover from a new narrator that the original narrator Paul Bäumer was killed right at the end of the War. For some this was rather perfunctory and had little dramatic impact. Perhaps the real function of the ending was to underscore that Remarque was writing a novel and reserved the right to produce further novels about other World War One characters. The ending was, however, tied in to the title – in German “Im Westen nichts Neues”, with the English paraphrase “All Quiet on the Western Front” introduced by the first translator A.W. Wheen and entering the language. The title also reflected the gulf between the experience of the participants at the front and the understanding of civilians at home.
Remarque was very observant about the detail of warfare, such as how soldiers could spot the different types of artillery shell from the sound of its flight (artillery being the major cause of death in the First World War, as in most wars). He noted how the Germans had started to use entrenching tools as weapons in preference to bayonets, and how fragments of frozen ground thrown up by shells could cause as many injuries as shrapnel.
Remarque’s lack of nationalism was one of the most attractive features of the book, and must have contributed to its international success. He for one did not subscribe to the “myth of total evil” (see our discussion of Jonathan Haidt last month). Perhaps that was why he had dropped the “Remark” spelling of his name and reverted to that of his French ancestors. However, he did reproduce the widely held German view that they had not really been defeated on the Western Front in 1918. He argued that they were the better soldiers and had lost only because they lacked food and replacement artillery, and had been overwhelmed by greater numbers.
Every war sowed the seeds of the next war, and the view that the Germans had not in reality been defeated, combined with the severity of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, had combined to provide fertile ground for the development of the Second World War.
Finally we briefly considered two World War One poems. One was Owen’s iconic “Dulce et Decorum Est”. The proposer noted that it followed on from the description of a gas attack in the Remarque book. He found Owen’s work very powerful. It built up a vivid picture in your head with its simple but imaginative language and compelling rhythms.
It was remarkable that such a hideous war should have produced so much memorable poetry, and we could not think of a war before or since that had seen such a flowering of poetry. (It was pointed out, however, that revisionist historians felt that the poignancy of the poetry had contributed to misconceptions about the competence and integrity of the British military effort).
In this poem Owen set out to shock, and he succeeded:
“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud…”
Shock also came from the incongruously erotic undertones of :
“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling…”
Some of the power came from onomatopoeia, as in the hard work getting through the consonantal mud of
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge..”
but with alliteration pulling the reader on. The language’s energy also came from the use of a high proportion of nouns and verbs rather than adjectives, as in the use of gerunds in:
“As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams…”.
It was pointed out that there is a permanent exhibition to the War Poets at Craiglockhart that anyone can visit, and before long we were off on to a debate about shell-shock.
A brave soldier set off over the top armed only with the argument that we all suffered from a degree of shell-shock, simply from living long enough to be disillusioned by our inability to change things. He was mercilessly gunned down by a machine-gun nest spitting out bullets such as “unable to cope with everyday life!”, “post-traumatic stress!”, and “nonsense!” and left bleeding in no-man’s land.
Harold Begbie’s “Fall-In” (1914) was very different to Owen’s poem: aimed, like a white feather, at shaming young men into volunteering.
“What will you lack, sonny, what will you lack,
When the girls line up the street
Shouting their love to the lads to come back
From the foe they rushed to beat?…
But what will you lack when your mate goes by
With a girl who cuts you dead?”
Remarque would have hated this manipulative piece as much as his hero hates the schoolmaster who had persuaded his class to volunteer.
In printing this poem from the internet one member had inadvertently also printed a series of posts from schoolchildren who had been given the poem as a set text, along the lines of:
“I’m doing this poem for my interim assesment and I really like it but I don’t get some of the meaning behind the words. Can anyone help”
“I’m doing the yr 10 coursework, we’re doing this poem as one of our pro-war choices i like it, altho i hate the idea of war i really like this jingoistic poem”; and
“I have to do this poem for coursework for english , and i need to give a summary about what it is about , would anyone like to help”
All of which suggested that exposing the young to war literature might not have quite the impact we fondly hope for.
Inculcating post-war generations of British schoolchildren with First World War poetry did not stop a British Prime Minster from that generation leading Britain into five wars.
And Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” – which we were unanimous in hailing as a brilliantly powerful anti-war novel, probably the best of all – had not been enough to stem the pressures building up in Germany that would lead to the outbreak of the Second World War ten years later.