In the evening, the men of the Second Company are required to go up to the front to help build barbed wire fences along the trenches. The trucks cannot use their headlights for fear of being shot, so the ride is bumpy and the men are often nearly thrown off. Paul says the men are not concerned, however, as a broken arm is “better than a hole in the guts” and may even allow them to return home to recover. The usually moody Muller is in particularly good spirits, as he is wearing the new boots he has inherited from their dead friend Kemmerich.
Muller’s cheerfulness seems odd given that the men are heading directly into the line of fire, but it indicates how good the soldiers are—and must be, just to stay sane—at compartmentalizing their emotions. He’s focused on his new boots.
The trucks pass by a farmhouse, where Paul hears geese cackling. He glances at Kat, who has had the same thought: the geese would make an excellent supper for the hungry soldiers.
Kat’s fatherly influence on Paul is evident here. Good parents teach their children how to survive in a difficult world (often by example). In noticing the geese cackling, Paul is demonstrating survival skills learned from Kat.
When the men finally arrive at the artillery lines, Paul notices that the gun-mounts are camouflaged with bushes, giving the scene an almost festive appearance. The illusion is quickly shattered, however, as the air fills with smoke from the guns. The men’s good spirits vanish in an instant. The veterans are not afraid, but the young recruits become agitated. Kat patiently explains to them how to identify different types of bombs by the sound of the explosions. Though the English usually start firing promptly at ten PM, tonight they have begun attacking an hour early. According to Kat, this is a sign that the enemy is preparing to launch a heavy bombardment.
The bushes are part of the natural landscape, and for a moment when Paul sees them he catches a brief glimpse of what the French countryside might look like during a time of peace. But these bushes are only an illusion, concealing the ugly machinery of war. When the battle begins, the men are immediately all business again. Kat once again assumes a leadership role, guiding the terrified young soldiers through their first experience on the front.
Paul describes the transformation that takes place in the soldiers when they reach the front. The men may not visibly display any signs of fear or concern, but they experience an inner transformation, becoming tense and alert. Every word the soldiers say to each other seems to take on new significance, especially Kat’s prediction about the impending bombardment.
Given Kat’s experience and general know-how, it’s clear that his words must be taken seriously. On the front, the men enter a state of complete alertness—just as a weaker animal must constantly be on guard against a more powerful predator.
The soldier’s relationship to his environment also changes on the front. According to Paul, no man is closer to the earth than the soldier, who becomes a kind of mother for the men who fight and die on her soil. The mud of the trenches shelters the soldier from shellfire, stifles his cries of fear, and eventually covers his body in the grave.
The war creates new kinds of bonds between people and their environments, which Paul struggles to explain to those who lack firsthand experience. Describing these bonds as familial relationships is one way of ‘translating’ them into more comprehensible terms.
In the trenches, survival requires a mixture of luck and instinctual reaction. The animal instinct for survival, Paul says, “far quicker, much more sure” than conscious thought. For example, a soldier may throw himself to the ground without even realizing why—only to realize after that he had just narrowly avoided a hail of shrapnel.
Higher thought has no place on the battlefield. There’s no time for reflection—if your reflexes aren’t fast enough, you die.
The lorries continue towards the front. The sight of the troops filing silently along the road strikes Paul as strangely beautiful, like “knights of a forgotten time” marching off to battle. As they approach the frontline, the night sky is lit up by bursts of light from exploding rockets. The bombardment Kat predicted has begun. Paul watches as the enemy’s searchlights illuminate a tiny, insectlike figure in the sky: an unlucky airman, who is immediately shot down.
Knights are associated with concepts like chivalry and valor. As Paul has mentioned before, however, these ideas of gallant war are utterly destroyed in the face of modern technology and its capacity for random and anonymous destruction. The airman’s death is a perfect example of how insignificant a single soldier’s life is in the grand chaos of World War I.
The men quickly complete their task of building the barbed wire fences, but must wait until the lorries return to take them back to camp. Most lie down and try to sleep despite the noise. Paul briefly drifts off and wakes up disoriented. For a second he thinks he has woken up in a beautiful, peaceful garden. He realizes suddenly that his face is wet with tears. Kat soothes him, telling him he was simply frightened by a nearby explosion. The bombardment draws closer.
Paul’s tears seem to be a reaction to a sudden shock rather than evidence of conscious fear. At the same time, his ability to respond to a beautiful garden in such an emotional way is very human, indicating perhaps that the war has not yet managed to fully transform him into a savage animal or a mindless machine.
Paul spots one of the new recruits lying terrified on the ground. Reminded of his dead friend Kemmerich, he lets the frightened young soldier crawl under his arm for comfort. The ever-practical Paul also places a helmet over the soldier’s rear—not as a joke, but because it would be a painful place to be wounded. When the bombardment ends, Paul realizes the young man has had an accident. Kindly, he tells the soldier that it’s happened to many men before, and sends him off to clean himself up.
In this interaction, Paul takes on the fatherly role previously filled by Kat. He provides comfort, but also passes on practical survival lessons to the new recruit (who represents a new generation in the military ‘family’). Paul also once again demonstrates the soldier’s typical lack of embarrassment towards bodily functions, which are not treated as something shameful.
As the noise of the bombardment dies down, the men hear the terrible cries of horses that have been wounded. The soldier Detering, a peasant farmer who loves animals, becomes agitated, shouting for someone to put the horses out of their misery. He aims his rifle at one of the wounded horses, but Kat stops him from firing. The men must lie still and wait for the others, listening to the maddening sound of the horses’ death agonies.
Paul often depicts the soldiers as innocent pawns in a war run by rich and power-hungry men. But the animals have even less control over their fates than the men. The soldiers may have become desensitized to the prospect of human death, but the senselessness of the horses’ suffering disturbs even the most emotionally stoic.
Finally, just before dawn, the men are able to return to the lorries. Kat is nervous, a bad sign. His instinct turns out to be correct, as shells begin to fall on the men as they walk through a graveyard. Searching blindly for cover, Paul discovers the shells have burst open the graves. Without hesitation, he crawls into an open coffin for protection. Kat calls out a warning that the enemy is using poison gas, and Paul helps a new recruit pull his gas mask on just in time.
The significance of this grim setting is clear: the men are forced to face their own mortality while surrounded by death. Also, in battle, societal taboos against disturbing graves or touching dead bodies fly out the window. Paul will do whatever it takes to survive, even if his actions might seem horrifying to the reader.
The first few minutes of the gas attack are tense, as the men wait to discover whether their masks are airtight. Paul breathes cautiously, watching the clouds of gas sink into the shell-hole as a second bombardment begins. Nearby, a soldier is wounded when a coffin falls on his arm, crushing it. Finally, just as the men feel they are close to suffocating, the gas dissipates and they can remove their masks. The field is littered with corpses “killed once again” when they were thrown from the coffins; but Paul says that each one saved one of the surviving soldiers.
The uprooted coffins are an ambiguous symbol. They are quite literally containers of death; they also bring death, in the case of the soldier whose arm is crushed. At the same time, the coffins provide shelter for the living soldiers, shielding them from a similar fate. It seems significant, too, that the corpses are tossed out of the coffins—a kind of bizarre rebirth that is also a second death.
Kat and Paul go over to help bandage the injured soldier’s wounds. Paul realizes it is the young recruit he comforted earlier. The young man has been horrifically wounded in the hip and arm; Paul says he will live in “howling torture” for only a few days at best. Kat and Paul quietly decide to put the young man out of his misery by shooting him, but a group of soldiers arrives before they can do so. They put the wounded man on a stretcher and return to the lorries.
To Kat and Paul, shooting the soldier isn’t an act of further violence, but one of mercy. The decision isn’t even a difficult one—though they don’t explicitly say so, they know they would want their fellow soldiers to do the same for them. And yet the army—in the form of the other soldiers—offers no such mercy.
The Second Company has lost five men and had eight more wounded. Two of the men have perished in upturned graves, and are simply buried in the same spot. As the men board the lorries it begins to rain; Paul thinks about the rain falling monotonously all over the world, over the living, the wounded, and the dead alike. Exhausted from the long, sleepless night, he and the other soldiers fall into a restless half-sleep.
The dead men aren’t even granted the dignity of individual burial. Their deaths are truly anonymous, perhaps even more so than if they had died in the trenches. The ‘monotony’ of the falling rain reinforces the sense that all is bleak, grey, and meaningless.