The men are infected with lice from living in the squalor of the camp and trenches. Killing the bugs one by one is too time-consuming, so they have rigged up a contraption involving a tin lid and a candle. The men gather around the tin to pick off lice and gossip. Word in the camp is that Himmelstoss, their much-hated former training corporal, has just arrived at the front. Tjaden, who has a particular grudge against the man, is busy planning what to say when he sees him again.
The soldiers’ mundane, mechanized killing of lice symbolizes the way technological advancements were harnessed in World War I to kill men more quickly, efficiently, and dispassionately. Himmelstoss's arrival at the front seems to suggest a coming confrontation between the men and their former tormentor.
Muller suddenly turns to Kropp and asks him what he would do if there were peace again. Kropp bluntly tells him there won’t be peace, but Muller is persistent. Finally, Kropp replies he would get drunk, because “what else should a man do?” Kat becomes interested in the conversation, adding that he would take the first train home to his family. He takes out a photo of his wife and passes it around. Now Paul joins the conversation too, pointing out that Kat, unlike the young students, actually has a family to return to.
It’s odd that Muller insists on a serious answer, as the men usually avoid talking about the future. Kropp’s evasiveness may also reveal his uncertainty about what that future holds—getting drunk sounds like escapism, not celebration. Kat’s contribution also highlights the age disparity between the young students and the older veterans. The older men have established lives waiting for them back home. The younger men have nothing.
Müller won’t let the subject drop. He wakes up Haie and asks him the same question. Haie seems confused at first, then answers cheerfully that he’d find a pretty woman and a real bed. When Muller asks him what he’d do after that, Haie becomes serious and says that he would stay in the army and serve out his time. Though Paul is incredulous, Haie explains that for a peasant laborer, army life in peacetime doesn’t seem so bad—at least you get regular meals, clean clothes, and respect from your home villagers.
Haie’s remark reminds Paul that that the soldiers come from a wide variety of economic and social backgrounds, even if they share a common experience in the trenches. If Haie survives the war, he will still belong to the lower working class, whereas Paul and the other students will return to the world of upper middle class.
Kat points out that it’s a moot point—Haie is a common soldier, not a noncommissioned officer, so he’ll never get to live out his dream even if the war ends. Haie looks at him sadly and says nothing, clearly still thinking about the life he might have had. Tjaden, when asked what he’d do in peacetime, describes his fantasy of beating Himmelstoss to a pulp. Detering answers that he would simply go on with the harvest.
The soldiers’ differing responses to Müller’s question further highlight their vastly distinct backgrounds and philosophies towards life. Detering’s response is notable: the peasant’s matter-of-factness shows that he doesn’t have the luxury of analyzing life as deeply as Paul and his cohort can.
Himmelstoss appears at the camp and awkwardly approaches the group of men. He is met with outright hostility, and he and Tjaden exchange insults. Himmelstoss finally commands Tjaden to stand up. Tjaden ignores his superior officer and instead passes gas. Himmelstoss storms off, threatening to have Tjaden court-martialed for his impudence. After the corporal leaves, Tjaden and Haie laugh about the altercation—Haie laughs so hard he dislocates his jaw. Kat warns Tjaden that he may be disciplined harshly, but Tjaden is carefree.
The scramble for survival in trench warfare has eroded many of the soldiers’ senses of deference to authority. Tjaden—the bedwetter during boot camp— is now fearless in his defiance of his superior officers, perhaps because he perceives that he has less to lose for acting that way.
Müller and Kropp tally up the casualties their school class has suffered: twelve out of twenty are either dead, wounded, or in a mad-house. The men then imitate Kantorek and quiz each other on scholarly knowledge, which they conclude is useless to them on the front.
The knowledge that the educated soldiers valued so highly in their civilian lives is no help to them on the front. This is yet another affirmation of the change in perspective that will leave them unable to readjust to the lives they had.
Having realized the uselessness of their schooling, the men worry about what jobs they will work once they return to civilian life. Paul confesses that peace-time seems like an unattainable concept, and that he is sickened by the thought of a career and a salary. The men agree that their generation has been “ruined…for everything” by their exposure to the horrors of war.
After the intense life-and-death mayhem of the frontlines, and the feeling of being betrayed and use by those in power, no civilian activity seems meaningful, and the soldiers worry that their exposure to such absolute suffering will leave them desensitized for a lifetime.
Himmelstoss and a fat sergeant-major look for Tjaden to discipline him. He receives three days of open arrest as punishment, which Paul describes as “quite pleasant.”
Tjaden’s insubordination isn’t effectively disciplined because the officers cannot inflict worse punishment than what the soldiers already endure.
At Kat’s suggestion, Paul breaks into a barn to steal two geese. He tries to kill the birds quickly, but they cackle, and a guard dog comes to subdue Paul. After staying still for a long time, Paul shoots at the dog with a revolver and escapes with the geese. He and Kat pluck and roast the geese, and plan to make cushions with the feathers that read “Sleep soft under shell-fire.”
This goose-rustling adventure reminds a reader that Paul is still very much a young man. And yet there is casual violence in the stealing of the geese—the murder of the guard dog—which indicates that Paul is also no longer just a young man. He has been changed by the war.
As the two men sit in the dead of night and cook their geese, Paul reflects that they have a profound bond—he and Kat represent sparks of life surrounded by a lifeless night. In a sleepy daze, Paul lovingly watches Kat baste the roasting goose, and he laments the way soldiers harden their hearts. He wakes up, apparently weeping. Kat comforts Paul and the two eat together, each insisting that the other enjoy the best pieces. The two bring the leftovers to Kropp and Tjaden, and the men eat gratefully.
This scene is a brief respite from the horror of the frontlines. The trying circumstances have made Paul attuned to his common humanity with Kat, and the hardship they have suffered together prompts them to treat one another generously, with love.