When the novel begins, the Second Company of the German army has just returned to their camp after two weeks of fighting on the frontlines. Their unit has sustained heavy casualties. Paul Bäumer, the novel’s nineteen-year-old narrator, reports matter-of-factly that over half of the Company’s 150 men were killed the previous day in a shell attack.
Good food is scarce on the front, so Paul and his friends quickly make their way to the camp’s mess tent. Because so many men have died, there are enough extra rations for the soldiers to have double portions. Initially, the cook refuses to give the men the surplus food, saying it is against regulations. The men argue heatedly until the company commander intervenes, telling the cook to distribute the extras.
The deaths of other soldiers offer meager benefits for those who survive, like the chance for more food. Such practical, physical concerns are all the surviving soldiers have. The cook, meanwhile, blindly follows the rules—rules set by those running the war, which show no compassion for those fighting on the front lines.
After eating, Paul and his fellow soldiers pay a visit to the group latrines together. Paul recalls how, when he first joined the army, he was embarrassed about using the latrines in front of the other soldiers. Now, however, such behavior has come to seem completely natural, even enjoyable.
Before the war, Paul saw the group latrines as disgusting and embarrassing. The fact that he doesn't any longer shows how much worse life in the trenches must be. It also reveals his comradeship with his fellow soldiers. He is comfortable with what he once would have considered animalistic.
Paul and his friends spend their first afternoon back relaxing, playing cards, and reading letters from home. One of the soldiers, Albert Kropp, has received a letter from his former teacher, Kantorek. We learn that four of the men were schoolmates back in Germany: Paul; the clear-headed Kropp; the brainy but practical Müller; and Leer, the most worldly of the bunch. All of the students had originally joined the army at Kantorek’s urging. (A fifth classmate, Joseph Behm, had resisted at first; finally, under pressure from Kantorek and his community, he reluctantly enlisted as well. Behm was killed horrifically in an early battle.)
A teacher, an authority figure whom the boys respected, urged them to join the war effort. Though his students volunteered for active duty, they were under immense pressure to do so. Behm’s senseless death early in the war immediately made clear the realities of war to the boys, destroying any romantic illusions (planted in their heads by Kantorek) that they may have had. It also illustrates the randomness of who lives and who dies in the trenches.
Paul says that there were “thousands of Kantoreks” in Germany: people who believed they were doing the right thing by encouraging young men to join the military. This older generation filled young men’s heads with romantic notions about honor, but failed to prepare them for the savagery of war. As students, Paul and his friends looked to Kantorek for guidance. Now, however, their eyes have been opened to the harsh truth. Though men like Kantorek continue to bluster about patriotic duty, Paul knows there is “nothing of their world left.”
Age is supposed to bring wisdom, but Kantorek’s generation seems more naïve than the young men they were meant to guide. For Paul and his friends, the war has revealed how empty concepts like patriotism and valor really are. The “Kantoreks” back in Germany, however, still haven’t gotten the message.
In addition to the four students, Paul’s group of friends also includes some older soldiers: the skinny locksmith Tjaden; the gigantic peat-digger Haie; the married peasant Detering; and the resourceful Katczinsky (Kat), who at age forty is the group’s unofficial leader.
The war brings men from all walks of life together. Before the war, a well educated, middle-class student like Paul would likely never have even known a simple peasant like Detering.
Later that day, the soldiers go to visit their wounded friend Kemmerich in the hospital. Though he does not seem to realize it yet, his leg has been amputated and he is obviously dying. His friends try to cheer him up, but they are already planning to divide up his possessions. Müller tries to persuade Kemmerich to give them his beautiful leather boots, but Kemmerich resists. Eventually, Paul steps on Muller’s foot, getting him to drop the subject.
The visit with Kemmerich highlights how the war has forced the soldiers to temper any sympathy they feel with the practical need to survive. They visit Kemmerich to comfort him, but when they see that he's likely to die, they also want his boots. Paul still has the decency to stop Müller from being too cruelly practical.
As the soldiers leave the hospital, Paul thinks about the letter he must soon write to Kemmerich’s mother when her son dies. The men walk back through the camp to their huts, preoccupied and mostly silent. Only Kropp becomes visibly upset, tossing away his cigarette and swearing. Müller tries to distract him by asking about the contents of Kantorek’s letter.
Though the men are clearly disturbed by what they saw in the hospital, they avoid openly discussing it. Angry outbursts like Kropp’s are quickly deflected and hidden from the others, suggesting that exposing such emotions threatens their survival.
Kropp tells them that Kantorek’s letter calls his former students the “Iron Youth,” a title that makes the men smile bitterly. Paul says that while most of them are under twenty years of age, they do not feel young or strong anymore. Their horrific experiences in the war have made them old before their time.
Kantorek’s nickname for the young soldiers reveals how out of touch he is with the realities of life on the front. "Iron" suggests an indomitable strength that is made a mockery by modern warfare that wipes out half a company, while “Youth” suggests an innocence that the men lost long ago.