Friday, 8 August 2014

All Quiet on the Western Front - Eric Maria Remarque

First published in an English language translation in 1929, this has been in print ever since.  Remarque went from school straight to the Western Front.  During the course of WW1 his mother died and every one of his friends was killed.  So his experiences led him to write All Quiet On The Western Front.  The book sold over half a million copies within the first three months of publication.  When the Nazis came to power Remarque left Germany, never to return.  Having lived through trench warfare in WW1, I'm sure he did not want to be part of a country that wanted to fight all over again.

This is one of those books that should be on everyone's reading list.  I cannot say I enjoyed the read but I chose to read it as my WW1 anniversary read, and I am very glad I did.  What a writer. To want to recall what he had seen and suffered instead of burying it deep in his subconscious - but perhaps he needed the catharsis that writing it brought.  There is nothing in this book that he describes that you can't see.  Some of it is funny, most of it is not;  there are many passages in the book that I did not enjoy reading, but I needed to read.  There are some heartbreaking passages in the book, but I cried no tears.  I just read it with an open mind and was not long into the book (which, by the way is very short, less than 200 pages) before I realised that Paul, the soldier who is telling the story, is everyman.  Change that name to Tex, to Mohamid, to Charlie - any name, anywhere, and this little book will tell you the same story - that war is futile, and those who never have to put on a uniform are the ones that encourage it's start, and will be there at the finish:  unwounded, clean, friends still alive, well fed and in good mental health.  Those who encourage a war are usually those behind the lines, not those who obey orders.

The descriptions of life (and death) in the trenches are better read than seen on film - somehow, someone's thoughts seem more real than  on film, however good that film is.  What I found was that soldiers eat when they can, not when they are hungry; that they form solid friendships with people they might not even have talked to in a civilian life; they cope with conditions that would repulse most of us;  they live from day to day, and cannot think about "before" and certainly not "afterwards" - and one of the reasons for that total breakdown we used to refer to as shell shock and what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress is that war is just so foul,  how can a man forget it when he gets to the "afterwards"?

There is a passage in the book which I found very moving.  Paul and a friend are in a hospital recovering from injuries, and another soldier in the ward is looking forward to the visit of his wife with his child, who was born after he left for the Front.  Of course he wants sex to occur.  He is badly injured and can only lay on his side.  Very shortly after her arrival, he is propped up  with pillows at his back so that he does not fall backwards, the soldiers arrange for two to stand guard to stop the nuns coming into the ward, and the others to turn their backs, and play a game of cards, loudly, until the act is over. 

I hope that those of you who have not read this book will now, perhaps, pick it up.  And having picked it up, I hope that you will read it. And having read it, I wonder if and hope that you will see the futility of war from one soldier's point of view.