In essence this is quite a simple book. It concerns a class of German students, aged around 18, whose over zealous, jingoistic school master practically forces them to sign up to fight in the war. Some are more eager than others but none feel able to refuse. The narrator is Paul Baumer an academic, thoughtful boy from a poor background, and the book follows his and half a dozen of his friends' experiences as they try to stick together throughout the war.
Their basic training is brutal, made worse by Himmelstross, the monster who is in charge of their unit. He is cruel beyond words and develops a real hatred for Baumer's group of friends. After that they are sent to the front and most of the book deals with conditions...
"They [the rats] seem to be really hungry. They have had a go at practically everybody's bread. Kropp has wrapped his in tarpaulin and put it under his head, but he can't sleep because they run across his face to try and get at it. Detering tried to outwit them: he fixed a thin wire to the ceiling and hooked the bundle with his bread onto it. During the night he puts on his flashlight and sees the wire swinging backwards and forwards. Riding on his bread is a great fat rat."
...going over the top, how it feels being under fire and the part 'chance' plays in whether they live or die.
"It's this awareness of chance that makes us so indifferent. A few months ago I was playing cards in a dugout; after a a bit I got up and went out to go and talk to some men I knew in another dugout. When I got back, there was nothing left of the first one, a direct hit from a heavy shell had flattened it. I went back to the other dugout and got there just in time to help dig the men out. While I was away it had been buried."
At one stage Paul is sent home on leave for two weeks. The sense of alienation he feels from his family, friends and various townsfolk, who have no idea what he and thousands of other young men are going through on the front, is intense and heart-breaking. He ponders whether an entire generation, those who survive, will ever be able to live a normal life again. The men who are fighting have become like machines, hardly capable of thinking like human beings anymore. All that matters is staying alive, where the next meal is coming from, and supporting their comrades.
There is much more to this book of course: I could go on and on. In my opinion it *is* the definitive book on the Great War. Some might say that it is written by 'the other side', the enemy we were fighting and yes, this is true. But the odd thing is that you forget that when you're reading it. Remarque makes hardly any mention of British, French or American troops, referring to them as 'the others' most of the time and the narrator and his friends just become human beings caught up in terrible events that they have no control over.
There was a comment in the paper this weekend to the effect that with most wars people know what they're fighting for and know there's a good reason for being there. But with WWI hardly anyone actually understood why exactly they were risking their lives and certainly this is made very apparent in the book. The futility and waste, the human suffering and appalling conditions are really brought home to the reader. It is the definitive book because in it I can see other books that have been written since where the author has clearly used this work as a reference point. So, do I agree that everyone should read All Quiet on the Western Front? Yes, absolutely. Millions died in this futile conflict, believing it was the war to end all wars. We should never forget their sacrifice.