The company is sent to the front two days earlier than usual, after hearing rumors of a new offensive. On their way, they pass a large stack of brand-new coffins. The men joke about the spectacle, but they understand that the coffins are meant for them.
The new coffins foreshadow death and suffering to come. The soldiers are being sent to the front with the expectation that many of them will be slaughtered. The men know it and their leaders know it, and yet the men still do their “duty.”
When they reach the front, the men notice that the enemy artillery has been reinforced. Worse yet, the German artillery is so worn out that they often shoot into their own trenches, occasionally wounding men.
The soldiers’ unrest is heightened in anticipation of an enemy attack. The casualties from friendly fire show a breakdown in basic order.
Paul recognizes that life on the front is uncertain, and that chance alone determines whether he lives or dies. He has a detached understanding of the risks he faces: “no soldier outlives a thousand chances,” he says, “but every soldier believes in Chance and trusts his luck.”
The company’s trench is in deteriorating condition, and it is infested with fat, revolting rats that the men call “corpse-rats.” Tired of the rats eating their bread, the men make a pile of bread and use shovels to kill any rats that come near it.
The vermin grow fat off the dead bodies of the common soldiers, which can be taken as a metaphor for the powerful who also grow even more powerful on the backs of the soldiers who die for them.
Rations of cheese and rum are handed out to the soldiers, but the men understand them to signify hard times ahead. The men receive more ammunition, and set to remove serrated blades from their bayonets, because the enemy will brutally kill any German found to be using a saw-blade bayonet.
The temporary comforts of rum and cheese do little to calm the soldiers, and they occupy themselves in mindless work to escape their anxiety.
The uneasy German soldiers hear the enemy fortifying its lines, but no major moves are made by either side. Kat is dejected—he predicts intense violence to begin soon—and this worries Paul, because Kat is an experienced frontline fighter. Only Tjaden remains unsuspicious and content during the lull.
As the lull in fighting drags on, the tension builds, and the soldiers’ mind-numbing anxiety mounts.
After a few more days of uncertainty, the men relax slightly. Then, in the middle of one night, their lines are shelled heavily. The men are shaken; some of the new recruits are even vomiting. The bombing continues. The men become numb and silent, and their trench is nearly destroyed.
The sudden violence hardens the veterans and stuns the recruits. The depiction of the recruits shows what Paul and his friends must have looked like in their first experiences of the front—and creates an understanding of why they had to become so detached as a defense mechanism to preserve their sanity.
Attempts to bring food and ammunition to the trench fail because the enemy barrage cannot be traversed. The men grow hungry, and they cannot sleep at night. The next morning, the trenches are beset by an onslaught of fleeing rats. A rat-killing melee ensues, and the exhausted men stop just short of striking one another in the confusion.
The men begin to lose their basic human necessities, and the rats’ predatory advance shows that more animalistic rules are beginning to govern behavior.
The company continues to wait. At midday, one of the new recruits begins convulsing and tries to escape the front. Paul says the recruit suffers from claustrophobia, and the other soldiers beat the raving man in an attempt to restore his sanity. The other recruits witness this episode fearfully, and Paul pities them for being thrown inexperienced into such a harrowing bombardment.
The circumstances are obviously proving too much for the new recruits, who haven’t been combat-hardened like Paul and his comrades. The men continue to act like animals—instead of trying to reason with the raving recruit, they simply beat him into submission.
The dugout Paul is inside sustains a direct hit, and only barely remains intact. The claustrophobic recruit goes insane and butts his head against a wall. Others begin to rave. Paul and Kat try to distract themselves with card games but cannot focus.
Constant bombardment continues to erode the soldiers’ sanity, and even experienced soldiers cannot detach themselves from the danger at hand.
The bombardment lets up, and the soldiers understand that an enemy attack is now coming. They throw grenades into the no-man’s-land between the trenches and recognize a charging line of French soldiers. Paul sees an enemy soldier fall into barbed wire with his hands clasped in front of him; when Paul looks again, only the stumps of the soldier’s arms remain hanging in the wire.
The horrors Paul witnesses become ingrained in his memory; the French soldier’s clasped, severed hands offer a cynical image of a prayer gone unheeded.
The company begins to retreat. Paul makes eye contact with an enemy soldier, and the connection momentarily removes him from the entire “circus” of violence around him. Paul then throws a grenade at the man and runs toward the rear.
The brief moment of human connection between Paul and the enemy soldier suggests that the common soldiers are not actually true enemies. But the rush of mindless fighting continues and the need to survive overcomes any other thought.
The mayhem has turned the men into animals defending themselves against annihilation. The soldiers continue to flee, and Paul reaches a manned German trench. From this point, the Germans begin to drive back the enemy advance. Paul and his comrades follow the retreating French and brutalize any stragglers, and the Germans reach the enemy line at roughly the same time as the retreating French do. The Germans clear out the French frontline and quickly retreat with provisions.
When they are pushed to their limits, the men lose their humanity and instead become solely concerned with fighting to survive. Their brutal treatment of the retreating French shows that the harrowing circumstances have utterly stripped them of their reason.
Paul and his comrades return to their frontlines. They are so drained by their experience that an hour passes before anyone speaks. Gradually, they regain their usual demeanor, and begin to enjoy the French provisions they have looted.
As the immediate danger fades, the men’s humanity returns, and they begin to enjoy the basic necessities they had ignored in the chaos. Of course, these necessities are things they have taken from the men they have killed.
Paul is placed on evening sentry duty. During the night he is haunted by unsettlingly calm visions from his childhood and hometown. He laments that the desires of his youth are now lost to him. Even if Paul and his fellow soldiers were to return to the scenes of their youth, their exposure to the “hard facts” of life would make them indifferent.
The back-and-forth attacks continue for days. Paul’s company tries to collect the dead, but some of the injured are too far away to retrieve, and the soldiers are forced to listen to their agonized cries. One man screams for days, but cannot be found. His cries become steadily weaker and more delirious until they taper off into a death rattle.
The dying man’s haunting, impossible-to-locate cries add to the impression that the men are surrounded by death and agony. Despite the men’s best efforts, the chaos of war leaves them unable to aid their suffering comrade
After another brief lull in fighting, a bombardment begins. Inexperienced recruits die in droves, and Paul notices that their faces have the expressionlessness of dead children. Paul comes across Himmelstoss cowering in a trench, pretending to be injured. He yells at Himmelstoss, but the officer will not budge. A lieutenant orders a charge, and Himmelstoss eagerly runs ahead. Paul tries to teach the new recruits the skills that will keep them alive, but they are unable to learn quickly enough and repeat the same mistakes.
Paul’s experience in combat has even alienated him from the less-experienced soldiers—he sees in them an innocence that he can’t find in himself. While the younger men suffer, Himmelstoss proves to be a two-faced coward, intent only on protecting himself and impressing his superiors.
Haie suffers a significant wound and fears for his life. Finally, Paul and his fellow soldiers are relieved from the frontlines. At roll call, Paul discovers that only 32 of the original 150 men in the Second Company are still alive.
The hundreds of coffins the soldiers saw on their way to the front have proven necessary. Trench warfare has exacted an astoundingly devastating toll on Paul’s comrades.