Have you read ‘All quiet on the western front?’  I hadn’t until this week.  It is a remarkable work, shocking, poignant but  at the same time uplifting and hopeful.  It’s a story of survival, but all war stories are of survival.  Remarque’s novel tells it you feel it really was; fear, squalor and an animal instinct for survival 

Eric Remarque writes in the first person and present tense.  We are there with him,  crouching in shell holes,  deafened by explosions,  but still acutely aware of the pop of mortar shells, the hoot of gas shells  or the little whirring ones that release enough shrapnel to cut a man to pieces.   We smell and see death everywhere,  the sickly sweet scent of corruption, bits of body hanging on splintered trees.  We hear the screams.  We see boys broken down, weeping for their mothers .  We are there clearing an enemy trench with grenades, running, lunging, stabbing, not thinking, limbs working like a robot. The enemy is a machine to be put out of action, a dangerous animal; kill it or be killed.  Don’t think!   We spend the night lost in a shell hole in no man’s land, crouching up to our necks in mud and water  as bullets whistle overhead.  We suffocate in our masks as the greenish gas settles in our craters.  We see those who have torn them off coughing up the pink froth of their lungs.  There is only so much gore and death that a person can take!  We become immune to the horror of it all.  It is the inevitable backdrop of war.  Just keep your head down, run like the devil and if one comes for you, throw yourself in a hole.  Stay alive!  Don’t think! 

 As a common foot-soldier, you can’t see the bigger picture, you are not fighting for your country, you are fighting for yourself and your mates; you just have to get through it, to last out until it ends.  Remarque is German, but that is irrelevant.  There are no sides in this war; the only enemies are pain, fear  and death.  Glory, bravery, honour, have no part of this.  Pleasures are much more mundane;  a full belly, a night’s sleep,  an regular bowel, getting a good billet, going on leave, the memory of the touch of a woman, and comradeship; the companionship of communal latrines, crude jokes, a shared cigarette, a snaffled meal, revenge on a sadistic NCO.  In war, it’s your mates that get you through.

If the function of historical literature is to bring events alive,  All Quiet on the Western Front  succeeds like no other novel in conveying the essence of war for those who fight in it.  It’s up there on a par with Wilfred Owen’s poem.   

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
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 you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 

Erich Maria Remarque was born Eric Paul Remark in Osnabruck and was just 16 when war was declared.  He went to the front in 1917, was wounded at Passchendaele and evacuated to hospital.  He never returned to the front.  His novel was condemned by the Nazis as unpatriotic but he escaped to America on the last sailing of the Queen Mary with the help of his friend, Marlene Dietrich.  He lived in Hollywood, got to know Greta Garbo and was part of the émigré celebrity circuit. His sister,Elfreda, remained in Germany and was executed by the Nazis for defeatist sentiments. Remarque, himself, was inaccessible. Somehow, I wish I didn’t know all that, but it doesn’t detract from the reality that he and the few like him achieved more hope  in a few lines than a whole dead generation of young man. .     

 My grandfather, William Scriven, chief clerk at the Bristol and West Building Society, went to war with millions of others, even though he had a rheumatic heart.  He was killed in the last battle in 1918.  We might say, my mother, only 2 at the time, never got over it.

 

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