We return to the trenches and the War is coming to a critical stage, and
both sides realize this. Both warring factions are desperate to break the stalemate.
Before an offensive takes place, a prolonged artillery bombardment is used
in order to weaken the enemy’s defenses. Sometimes the bombardment will last for days and the soldiers are forced to hide in their bunkers and hope that they do not suffer a direct hit. These
bombardments had limited effect because there were always sufficient survivors to significantly diminish the attacking force with machine guns and grenades. What the bombardment did accomplish was to damage
the trenches themselves, but there were normally at least two parallel sets of trenches, and usually the second line did not sustain the same amount of damage as the first line.
So, when one side attacked, the other would retreat to the better defended line. The attacking force would take control of the damaged first line of trenches, but when the other side changed defense into attack, they found they were unable to defend the enemy’s first line, and they would retreat to their own trenches. Finally, both sides would return to their original positions.
On this particular day, Paul’s unit went up to the Front Line passing a
shelled schoolhouse where there was a double wall of new coffins waiting. The soldiers realized that these coffins were for them. Paul describes the situation during the bombardment as being like a cage
where you are trapped wondering what will happen. It was purely a matter of chance whether you survived the bombardment or not.
Although they were not actually told that there was going to be an offensive, veterans like Paul knew the pattern of events by now. They would receive extra rations only because these came up with the increased supplies of ammunition. Before the offensive, the heavy bombardment increased significantly. They would also receive a tot of alcohol, and sometimes some cheese.
This particular barrage seemed to go on day after day after day, and many of
the new recruits cracked under the constant pressure. At one stage several of the recruits struggled to escape the bunkers and Paul and Kat had their hands full trying to restrain them. However, one did
get past, and ran out into the trench only to be disintegrated into pieces of flesh and uniform. They had to tie up another recruit.
At last the attack came, and Paul and his comrades spewed out from the dugout throwing a hail of grenades. On this day they would be fighting the French. Paul and his unit quickly set up their machine guns and mowed down the French attackers, all of them killed in a manic frenzy after spending days cooped up in their bunker.
Seeing the French in disarray, Paul and his unit left their trenches and
traversed no man’s land and reached the enemy lines with little opposition. Killing the few French that were left, they searched the French trenches for provisions and gatherer up what they could and then
returned to their own lines. They noted that the French seemed to be better supplied than them.
Attack and counter-attack took place during the next few days.
As the casualties built up on both sides, those that were left witnessed horrific scene after horrific scene. Soldiers were running with both feet cut off, a man next to Paul had his head blown off yet he still carried on running for a few paces more, and men still living with their skulls blown open. During one attack, Paul came across Himmelstoss hiding, pretending to be wounded. Paul struck Himmelstoss urging him to attack. It was not until a nearby Lieutenant ordered him to proceed that he got up. Finally, when Paul’s company is relieved, only 32 out of the original 150 men remained.
This is a most gruesome Chapter, and to the reader it is in stark contrast
to the previous Chapter.
Remarque builds the tension by vividly describing the scenes inside the
dugout during the bombardment. We read, “The recruit who had the fit earlier is raving again, and two more have joined in.
One breaks away and runs for it. We have trouble holding the other two. I rush out after the one who ran away and I wonder if I should shoot him in the leg; then there is a whistling noise, I throw myself flat, and when I get up there are fragments of hot shrapnel, scraps of flesh and torn pieces of uniform splattered on the wall of the trench. I scramble back inside.”
It is easy for someone to say that war is terrible – a living hell, but in
order to truly appreciate this sentiment, it needs to be backed up.
Remarque does this. Having experienced war at first hand; he is able to provide us with a vivid insight into this wholesale slaughter. The futility of this engagement is that nothing is achieved – no territory is won – both sides are equally weakened. We are aware that even death for many is not clean.
Even the way in which soldiers kill one another has become a science.
The soldiers carry a spade so that if they take the enemy trenches they will be able to repair them quickly, but the soldiers have also realized that the spade is a better weapon than the bayonet, so they have
sharpened the spade in order to make it even more lethal.
The problem with the bayonet is that it can sometimes get stuck or break off in your enemy, and while you are trying to remove the bayonet, you are making yourself a better target. The spade will not get stuck in your opponent and once you have killed your enemy you can crouch down and blend in better with the landscape.
We sense that Paul and the other veterans have little time for the new
recruits. Their panicking only affects the moral of the other soldiers and the fact that they are coming in ever increasing numbers indicates to the war-hardened soldiers that German is losing the war, and is
reaching the bottom of her manpower resources.
We read, “We have turned into dangerous animals.
We are not fighting; we are defending ourselves from annihilation. We are not hurling our grenades against human beings – what do we know about all that in the heat of the moment? – the hands and the helmets that are after us belong to death himself, and for the first time in three days we are able to look death in the eyes, for the first time in three days we can defend ourselves against it, we are maddened with fury, not lying there waiting impotently for the executioner any more, we can destroy and we can kill to save ourselves, to save ourselves and to take revenge.”
Perhaps the generals realized that the effects of artillery bombardments
were two-fold – not just to weaken the defenses of the enemy, but to turn the troops into frenzied killing machines.
The generals realized that both sides engage in the bombardments, so if you can protect more of your own troops than the opposition, then you will have a better killing machine when the offensive starts.
We note Paul’s observation that if his father came charging at him from the
French lines, he would throw a grenade at him just the same.