Shifting Mentalities of World War I Soldiers
by Lauren Jackson
Gunfire is a constant melody here; a tune that becomes synonymous with nature. The sun trickles in through a gray haze, a constant gray that drizzles despair over the soul. Screams of agony, the sounds of men in their death throes are constant companions. The sight, the sickly smell of life blood, corpses being ravaged by animals, limbs hanging in morbid gestures; grotesque in their lifelike postures. Hope is a waning creature; it dissolves little by little with each wave of shells that strikes the blood-soaked earth. Life is no longer an adventure, but an in-between that separates death from all. The attitude of those at the Front, the first line of defense against the enemy in Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, dwindles in a downward spiral like so many bodies being sucked in the mire.
In the beginning, youth was the landmark of these young men’s lives. School and learning were of the highest order and pertained to nothing but great advancement in life. Knowledge would be success, and their achievements marked who they were as men. But their boyhoods were stripped from them, they were left stark naked on a plain of despair that would threaten to overwhelm them on a daily basis. The hope, the renewal, the sense of life that they inherently possessed within them was swallowed whole like a shadow in the nighttime.
What they believed of life, of love, of striving, of yearning for something more suddenly became purposeless, even senseless. In the novel, Paul, the protagonist claims: “We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 88). This deviation from all that was considered “normal” to these soldiers is quite distinct. To give up something that is believed in belies more than just changing one’s mind. It is changing one’s very outlook and perspective on life. The perceptions these boys held towards life are altered in an irreversible way. This pessimistic belief that life holds nothing more than war can easily be translated that life holds nothing more for them than death itself. War inherently marks the idea of death, the transcendence from life to that irretrievable path that death inevitably takes you on. To say this is avoidable is impossible. The hope that was once instilled in these young men is lost very early on in their embarkation as soldiers, as men.
Luxuries become quite ridiculous to the soldiers at the front. They find such fineries mere fripperies. When confronted with a goose, they strip the feathers to use for cushions that they want to inscribe with: “’Sleep soft under shell-fire’” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 93). This inscription is obviously intended as a mockery, an irony of their own situation and their own position in life. They relate this to what they already know. Sleeping soft is not the way of the soldier, and the inclusion of it in their every-day lives seems to them quite an oddity. Like the sunlight on a dark battlefield. Such things they cannot know, they can no longer understand, nor maybe appreciate them the way they are intended. In Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Spring we are given insight into this belief as well: “’…to be civilized – to wash and change and write letters.’ Otherwise each man was savage” (Rites of Spring, 147). Savagery is now imagery that disturbs the soldiers on the front.
Slowly the soldiers begin to call the frontline their “home”. This designation is a typical human construct, wherever we spend our time, where we pour our emotions, our thoughts, our deepest hopes and fears encapsulates what we consider “home”. It was only natural for these young men to do so out in the darkest despair of battle they had yet faced: “We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 94). This is a direct reference from the soldiers that they feel they are surrounded or encircled by death itself. This gives death depth, it breathes it into life, it becomes a looming specter that waits to seize its opportunity of taking the life from these young men. These young men who form bonds that no one can break. Battle, death, blood, despair, it forges relationships that cannot happen naturally. “We don’t talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 94), this quote in and of itself gives us an accurate portrait of the depth of the feelings swirling around and tormenting the soldiers’ minds. They cannot give way to words, they cannot let sentences rise, for if they do it embodies and brings to life the unnatural, the things they cannot say. Thus in this silence, they are enveloped in communion with one another, an intimacy that ties deeper than that between lovers. It speaks volumes to the state of their emotions.
The soldiers find that on the front death is a chance. Chance is what determines who lives and dies. In fact they clearly state their feelings on the matter: “It is this Chance that makes us indifferent” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 101). One should be quick to note the capitalization of the word chance, it gives it more meaning; it nearly anthropomorphizes it by giving it a proper name. This theory pervades all their thoughts. They are so enmeshed with the idea of war that when rats begin to invade their living space they say “…and make war on the rats” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 103). This is their new mentality, their new thought process; everything is a battle, a war. This is again reiterated in Rites of Spring: “The battle against the rats was as serious at times as that against the human enemy” (Rites of Spring, 149). The rats are the invading enemy and thus must be eradicated. It becomes their way of thinking, of living: “…we just stop in time to avoid attacking one another” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 108). Indeed, they nearly annihilate one another in their bid for slaughter. These shifting paradigms of the soldiers on the Western Front are what makes them. They think of death almost as their shadow, it is ever present: “We sit as if in our graves waiting only to be closed in” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 110). The protagonist Paul continues to explain what they have become, what the war has made them into. He claims that it is in fact animals, that they are now instinctual, it is not for bloodlust but for survival: “We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down…” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 113). This idea is again supported in Rites of Spring as to “defend ‘existence’” (Rites of Spring, 146) and nothing more. Kill or be killed became the theme of the day.
Death is the reason why these young soldiers at the front have lost their desire. They consider it a part of times past. In the stillness, all is lost. All is gone when they look into the lifeless eyes of their comrades. They recognize that what happened before is a part of them, it belongs to them, but they cannot return to it, it flies in the night. It flees from them like their enemies under fire. And what they once saw as the stuff life is made of; they now see as a mere nothing. In fact Paul says: “I believe we are lost” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 123). Time becomes an object of measurement and nothing more, it holds no promise, no future. We are given a glimpse of this lost ideal: “We see time pass in the colourless faces of the dying” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 133). Contentment and happiness come from food and rest, the only things a soldier needs on the front. The young men believe thoughts alone can kill. And if a man thinks too much it will be the end of him. Time and thinking have now become their greatest adversaries in this bid for freedom they are making; freedom from themselves and this prison of war.
The home front is another paradox for the soldiers who are burrowed at the front lines. This is a near myth that they cannot comprehend, they cannot decipher. It is a puzzle they hold in their hands with furrowed brows, it is a mist that does not resolve. For how can it be sensible for the home front to riot and rant and applaud for the men that march off to battle never to return? How high of a price are the people willing to pay to sacrifice such men willingly? What irks the young soldiers the most is the idea that all is well and good, jolly and merry at the front lines. In the novel: “It’s all rot that they put in the war-news about the good humour of the troops, how they are arranging dances almost before they are out of the front-line. We don’t act like that because we are in a good humour; we are in a good humour because otherwise we should go to pieces. Even so we cannot hold out much longer; our humour becomes more bitter every month” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 140). The obvious denial of those at home, nestled amongst their familiar surroundings is part of the trouble that stirs the soldiers. They find it irrational and irreconcilable that they should suffer such conditions and not even be recognized for it. Paul recognizes the own absurdity of their front-line situation versus the comforts of home: “’Just look at those thin shoes though, she couldn’t march many miles in those,’ I say, and then begin to feel silly, for it is absurd to stand in front of the picture like this and think of nothing but marching” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 142). But this quote of his is quite an apt way to paint the picture of what is happening inside the soldiers’ minds, what is shifting and what is remaining the same. We can see their mentalities as being unstable compared to what we categorically define as stable. Now marching and soldiering is the order of the day, and everything else rather new or old will be compared to this new way of life. The fact that a pair of shoes can inspire such discourse within Paul makes this obvious.
Paul makes an interesting statement that stands out brutally amidst the ink of the pages of the novel: “…but I am not myself there. There is a distance, a veil between us” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 160). Paul is speaking of home. He is at this time on leave and is amongst his family and childhood home. Yet when he is present in the home, and speaking of the home as he is in that quote, he oddly uses the word “there” instead of “here”. He has already physically separated himself from that place which he once dubbed his home. Now the front-lines are his home. Despite his current presence in his home, he cannot but say “there”.
We are given an interesting glimpse of front-line soldiers versus home-front soldiers. Paul is on leave, but in his uniform, walking down the street towards home when he is stopped by a superior officer. Paul is humiliated and made to perform for the officer who would have him put on nothing more than a charade in Paul’s mind. There is this obvious parallel between what it is to be a real soldier and what it is to perform the reality. There is nothing tangible within this soldier in Paul’s mind, especially having the mindset of the front-lines. Once one has had these experiences, it is impossible to erase them, or go back. Thus Paul sees the absurdity within such demonstrations of rigidity, although these may be the very building blocks that create the perfect soldier on the battlefield! This paradox and irony is sadly eschewed and instead the situation is obfuscated by our mixed emotions over Paul’s pitiful state.
Indeed, the home side opinion is one of much lofty disdain. When Paul is on leave with his father and his father’s companions, he sees the political side of things that is nothing more than figurative to a soldier who has tasted blood and seen splintered bones. A head-master sitting and drinking with Paul makes the mistake of saying these ill-chosen words: “He dismisses the idea loftily and informs me I know nothing about it. ‘The details, yes,’ says he, ‘but this relates to the whole. And of that you are not able to judge. You see only your little sector and so cannot have any general survey…’” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 167). This attitude of a non-combatant individual is what the young soldiers have learned to hate most. The political ramblings, the ideas bandied about in rooms of council, these are where the decisions for life and death are made. Where battle plans are formulated but not put into action. How can these men of ‘high minds’ be so oblivious to the reality of battle? This is the argument that grips Paul and many young soldiers in its uproarious wake. Paul says sadly: “I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world” and “They have worries, aims, desires, that I cannot comprehend” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 168). These sentences define what Paul feels towards the population at home, a quiet indifference. A sad resignation pervades his emotions. He believes one should merely sit quietly and accept the hand fate deals him. Paul has found that death is not an enemy, it can be a savior. He no longer distinguishes between single deaths, one death, one individual no longer matters. It is a much larger picture than that, and this Paul acknowledges.
It is hard for the soldiers to return to the front, or to see the enemy up close. They find they look too much like their own people, their own friends and family and peasants. This is disturbing knowledge; they prefer faceless enemies, the ones that the political types fight in their plush offices. There is no simpler statement than when Paul says “How little we understand one another” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 192). He sees the fickleness of war: “A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 193-194). This transitory nature makes war dangerous for the human mind. It is too confusing, especially for soldiers so young. In fact as the war goes on this becomes something they distinguish: “It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me” and “…Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 223). And Paul makes one last distinction about killing saying: “…innocently slay one another” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 263). This terming of killing as “innocent” provides us with insight into the soldier’s state of mind. Paul’s friend says of the war and the killing: “I think it is more a kind of fever” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 206). And in Rites of Spring: “Death seemed totally without purpose” (Rites of Spring, 155). And again: “’War has nothing to do with chvilary anymore,’ he wrote “The higher civilization rises, the more vile man becomes” (A History of the Great War, 120). They all see it as a senseless scramble for power and control; a lust that cannot be satiated.
These young men find that life has escaped them and that: “Our knowledge of life is limited to death” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 264) and “…life is simply one continual watch against the menace of death…” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 273). But despite this lack of hope and this threat of eventual death that all men feel, they in the end find that they will take no more. They will stand for a greater time, a greater peace, and a greater purpose: “If there is not peace then there will be revolution” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 293).
Despite these ups and downs, the rollercoaster of emotions, and the spiraling of human life, the soldiers are left with only one emotion when it is all over: despair. Death was the pervading entity in the war, and nothing could replace or eradicate it. It overcame, it swept away, it destroyed. And thus in the very end the soldiers feel the absence of the death, the nothingness that consumed them and yet again time is their mortal enemy: “Let the months and years come, they can take nothing from me, they can take nothing more. I am so alone, and so without hope that I can confront them without fear” (All Quiet on the Western Front, 295). The war did not destroy only lives, peace, or youth, it destroyed hope, although as Paul says in that last quote, the loss of hope allowed him to conquer fear. And in that we can take solace, and that hope is reborn anew in each generation, and each generation not touched by war, or cursed by fate.
Brose, Eric D. A History of The Great War: World War One and the International Crisis of the Early Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
Eksteins, Modris. Rites of Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989. Print.
Remarque, Erich M. All Quiet on the Western Front. US: Fawcett Books, 1928. Print.
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