The First World War came at time of social unrest where years of tension between the expanding empires of European countries led to a situation where all that was needed to start a war was a small event known as a trigger. This trigger came in the form of the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, by a member of a Serb national group known as the Black Hand gang. The assassin’s name was Gavrilo Princip. Little did he know what terror he was about to unleash.
At the time of the assassination Europe was in political turmoil and split into two distinct groups, members of the Allied forces France, Britain and Russia known as the Triple Entante and Members of the Axis forces, Germany, Austria Hungary and Turkey known as the Triple Alliance. These two groups vowed to help the countries within them if war started. Thus a power vacuum was created and a war could not exist between any two countries without involving others. At the same time Germany and Britain were involved in a huge Arms race, constantly competing with each other to try and gain the upper hand.
General distrust between Germany, England, and France and many of the Balkan States also contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914. This was the First, World War the people of earth had ever seen. Unfortunately it would not be the last.
In his 1928 classic anti war novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” Erich Maria Remarque attempts to portray the horror and futility of war in a number of ways. The book is written from a first person perspective. The characters themselves are fictional but are based on the author’s own experiences of what was ironically described as the Great War. The first person perspective is a great aid when building empathy with characters and Remarque has used this to his advantage adding a sense of realism and closeness.
Remarque wastes no time in addressing the main pacifist issue of the book, but treats it differently at the start gradually building up from numbers to horrific accounts of the lives and deaths of soldiers on the front Line some barely seventeen years of age.
The first event relating to the horror and futility of war can be found very early on in the book where the central characters Baumer, Kropp, Muller, Detering, Haie Westhus, Tjadan and
Katczinsky are awaiting lunch five miles behind the front line. The company had suffered heavy losses that day and out of the hundred and fifty soldiers only eighty remained. When the cook asks where the rest of the company is he is simply told “Pushing up daises”. At this point although the reader may be shocked at the loss of the large number of men and the callous manner in which Tjadan refers to them, they are probably not as emotionally affected as they will be later in the book because seventy is just a number. The men who died do not as far as the reader is concerned, have lives; they are just numbers. It is not until later that Remarque starts to put lives to the numbers and make the deaths of men all the more tragic and horrific. Thus working on the pacifist theme.
The callous manner in which the soldiers refer to the dead is not because they are evil and cold, but because war has taught them that if they become involved with every death emotionally then it will just greaten their own suffering. Tjadan, after hearing the cook had prepared food for one hundred and fifty people rather then mourning the dead, says, “each man gets practically two issues”. Without this attitude towards life on the front line soldiers would find it even harder to stay emotionally stable. “We have not had such luck as this in a long time” is not suggesting that the remaining men are pleased about the deaths of their comrades but that they are pleased about what it entails. Remarque suggests that before the war these men would have what could be described as an average view towards life, but war has hardened them and made them older. Older not in years but mentally, when they left Germany in 1916 to begin fighting in the war the characters were just school boys. “Youth, that is long ago we are old folk” This statement by Paul Baumer (whose eyes the book is written through) is one of the most poignant and enforces Remarque’s views about what war has done to the young men involved stated in the prologue.
Further on in the book Remarque writes about an incident where the company is sent on wiring duty to the front line, they are shelled heavily and whilst taking cover in a trench, hear the screams of not men, but dying horses. This is one of the most horrific accounts in the book and paints a vivid picture of the horror of war. “The belly of one is ripped open, the guts trail out.”
Remarque shows horror by first stating just numbers then going on to mention the suffering and death of the horses and then finally men. “men were found whose noses were cut off and eyes poked out”, “another has the lower part of his body and legs torn off” It is at points in the book like these that the reader is able begin to understand the full brutality and horror of war.
The Futility of war is shown right through the book but is particularly evident when the group of central characters discuss alternative methods of fighting a war. “The generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing-drawers and armed with clubs can have it out among themselves.” Although being a humorous suggestion it still relates to the fact that “the wrong people were doing the fighting” and the leaders of the countries had attempted to turn their men into fighting machines. “Individuals are no longer recognisable”
This book gives an excellent insight into the First World War through the eyes of a Pacifist. The horror and futility of war is portrayed graphically and disturbingly, making a mockery of some of the propaganda of the time encouraging young men to join up and fight for their countries. The book destroys much of the glamorous image of war and what was described as “The Iron Youth”. Remarque certainly achieved his objective of showing war in its true colours and produced a powerful and enjoyable book in the process.