After enduring heavy fighting on the Western front of World War I, a group of German soldiers rest behind the front lines. Over their first good meal in weeks, Paul Bäumer (the novel’s narrator), and his friends Kropp, Tjaden, Leer, Katczinsky (Kat), and Müller bitterly remember how their schoolteacher Kantorek convinced them to enlist in the army with his idealistic and romantic ideas about war and glory. Now they’ve become so pragmatic and focused on mere survival that when they visit Kemmerich, a friend dying in the hospital, Muller asks Kemmerich if he can have Kemmerich’s boots since Kemmerich won’t need them anymore. Paul and his friends spend a lot of time talking about their petty and cruel commander during boot camp, Corporal Himmelstoss. They discuss why men like Himmelstoss, who was a postman in civilian life, become so terrible during war. Kat suggests that the military offers men an outlet for their animalistic impulses. When Himmelstoss is called up to join Paul’s company, Paul remembers how he and his friends ambushed and beat Himmelstoss on the last day of boot camp.
The German army sends Paul’s company back to the front to set up barbed wire. After finishing the job under heavy fire, the company is attacked and forced to take cover in a cemetery. The shelling throws coffins into the air; dead bodies mix with the bodies of the living and dying. Paul and his friends survive, though many don’t. Back at camp, the men discuss what they would do after the war. It’s soon apparent that the younger soldiers in the group, such as Paul, can’t come up with anything. Their lives have been defined by war. Paul thinks of them as “lost.”
A new French offensive begins. The men shelter in a cramped bunker, and the constant French shelling drives some recent reinforcements insane. Himmelstoss, for one, cowers in a bunker pretending to be injured. Paul beats him until an officer orders them both to join a charge against enemy lines. The Germans eventually repel the French attack and make a counter-attack of their own before retreating to their original lines.
Only 32 of the 150 men in Paul’s company survive the battle, and the company is brought off the front line to a depot to reorganize. While there, Paul, Albert and Leer meet three French women who are excited to sleep with soldiers. Soon after, Paul receives enough leave to visit his hometown, where he finds that his mother is suffering from cancer, and that the townspeople, including his father, are supportive of the war and know nothing of its horrific nature. The townspeople’s ignorant patriotism annoys Paul, but also makes him feel distant, as if he’s lost his home. When his leave is up, Paul is sent to a camp on the moors for further training. His duties include guarding Russian prisoners of war, with whom he comes to identify and sympathize as fellow human beings
Eventually Paul is sent back to the front and his company. On an intelligence-gathering mission between enemy lines, he loses his bearings just as a French attack begins. As he waits in a shell hole for the attack to end, a retreating French soldier falls on top of him. Paul stabs the man but does not kill him. As the man slowly dies over the next day, Paul feels regret and does what he can to comfort him. After the shelling ends, Paul returns to camp, and is sent with his friends to guard an abandoned village. Paul and Albert are injured while on patrol, and wind up in a hospital, a frightful and depressing place where doctors sometimes practice unnecessary surgical procedures on injured soldiers. Albert has to have a leg amputated, but Paul recovers and is sent back to the front. Though the Germans are clearly losing, they fight on, and the war rages on into the summer of 1918. Many new recruits go crazy; a soldier named Detering deserts and is captured; Müller, Leer, and Kat are killed. In October of 1918, one month before the long awaited armistice is finally agreed to, Paul is killed on a day of otherwise quiet on the western front. The expression on the face of his dead body is calm, as though he were relieved to be dead.