Paul’s luck appears to change when he is assigned, along with seven others, to guard a deserted village and supply dump. He is pleased to join Kat, Albert, Muller, Tjaden, Detering, and the rest, but mourns that Haie is no longer alive to share their good fortune. These few weeks are the last happy moments in the novel. Billeted in a cellar, Paul and his buddies create an “idyll” by rounding up blankets, a bed, eggs, butter, vegetables, and suckling pigs. With a homemade grater, they shred potatoes, which Paul cooks into cakes. While they are preparing their feast, the chimney smoke draws heavy enemy fire. The men quickly carry their loot to the dugout and spend the afternoon eating, drinking coffee, and smoking cigars; at six thirty, they eat supper. Throughout the night, they suffer diarrhea after gorging themselves on the rich pork and must dash outside to relieve their pained intestines.
For almost three weeks, Paul’s group is glad to have a soft job, so they continue to enjoy the good life — eating, drinking, and smoking cigars. Finally, they reluctantly board a transport to the front, bearing with them a four-poster bed, chairs, mattress, blue silk canopy, lace coverlets, as well as sausages, conserves, and cigarettes. They also take with them a kitten they have been feeding. As their column is sent to evacuate a village, Kropp catches a bullet a little above the knee. Paul is wounded in the leg and arm.
Fleeing over a hedge into a mucky ditch, the men — Paul in the lead — head cross-country toward a dugout where they bind their wounds and size up their chances of recovery. A field ambulance evacuates them to a dressing station, and there they are vaccinated against tetanus. Albert worries about a leg amputation and Paul fights to keep his senses and not be chloroformed as the doctor examines him. The doctor removes shrapnel and appears to enjoy Paul’s discomfort; he sets Paul’s leg and informs him he will be going home. Afterward, Paul bribes the sergeant-major with cigars to keep him and Albert together.
Transferred to an eight-man ward in a Catholic hospital, Paul awakens at seven o’clock the next morning to the sound of Morning Devotion. Albert shouts an order for quiet and the men hurl objects at the door so that the sisters will close the door and leave them in peace. To the hospital inspector’s questioning, Josef Hamacher, who receives special privileges because of a head injury, claims to have made the ruckus. During the night, while there is only one night sister on duty, the men ring repeatedly to report that Albert’s wound is hemorrhaging.
The next morning, Albert’s face has yellowed from loss of blood. After Franz Wachter, the victim of a gunshot wound in the arm, is wheeled away on a gurney, Josef informs the others about the Dying Room, a separate space adjacent to the mortuary where seriously ill patients are taken to die. By afternoon, a new patient occupies Franz’s bed. Little Peter, who suffers a lung injury, cries out belligerently that he will not be dumped in the Dying Room. Solemnly, Josef predicts that they will not see Peter again.
The doctors at the hospital are portrayed as cruel and indifferent to suffering. Paul is operated on because his bones are not growing together. Josef warns him that the doctors love to operate because they have so many human guinea pigs. Eventually, more men die than will fit into the Dying Room. Then, amazingly, Peter returns from the Dying Room in triumph. Paul, overcome by the suffering around him, observes, “A hospital alone shows what war is.” Albert’s leg has been amputated at the thigh and he spends a great deal of time depressed, not speaking, and he says he would kill himself if given a gun. Once again Paul ponders what they will do after the war, because all they have known is killing.
Paul turns his attention to Johann Lewandowski, a Polish soldier and the oldest patient, who has suffered a serious abdominal wound. Thrilled with a letter from his wife, Marja, he longs to see her and the child who was born during his two-year absence. Propped on a pillow after Marja arrives, Johann and his wife make love while the men play skat; two other men watch for intruders and Albert tends the baby. Remarque compresses much of Paul’s convalescence into the closing paragraphs. Soon, Paul returns home on leave and again regrets having to leave his mother. Return to Second Company is less comforting without the presence of Albert, his best friend, who has gone to an institution that fits prosthetic limbs.
As Paul recovers enough to walk about the hospital, he analyzes the impact of the war from another perspective. The experience of seeing so many hideous wounds, so many groaning, dying men forces him to ponder the great waste of the war, which extends throughout Germany, France, and Russia. Speaking for Remarque, he says,
How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.
Paul broadens this thought out to his entire generation, no matter what country or side in the war. How will they ever go back to a civilian life they cannot comprehend? They went directly from school to killing. They do not even know what civilian life is supposed to be like as young adults. The entire chapter is filled with despair, death, and pain; the suffering of the men in the hospitals is only assuaged by the mercy of the sisters who tend them.
One aspect of the chapter is hopeful, however. When Lewandowski’s wife comes to visit with their child, she brings a ray of hope to the ward and to the story. In this shadow of death and suffering, the men join together to allow the couple some privacy so they can share their love. It is one bright bit of sunshine in a shadowy valley of gloom.
wireless-men radio operators.
“An der Weser” “On the Weser [River].”
daisy-cutters anti-personnel shells that are fired at ground level.
Saxon a member of an ancient Germanic people of northern Germany; here, a blue-eyed, blond European.
the well-known phrase from Goethe’s “Gotz von Berlichingen” the reference is to the phrase “lick my ass.”
chloroform a toxic liquid, with a sweet taste, used as a solvent, fumigant, etc. and here as a general anesthetic.
tea-cosy a knitted or padded cover placed over a teapot to keep the contents hot.
clink [Informal] a jail; prison.
commissariat food supplies.
excreta waste matter excreted from the body, as sweat or urine.
mantilla a woman’s scarf, as of lace, worn over the hair and shoulders.
napkin [British] a diaper.