On his way back to Second Company, Paul goes by rail and on foot in search of its new location. He hears that his company is being sent to places “wherever it is hottest.” While this is not “cheerful” news, he searches for his friends and finds he must wait two days for the company to arrive. When his friends return they appear “grey, dirty, soured, and gloomy.” Paul, holding back his emotions, shares the best cakes and jam with comrades and keeps the moldy ones for himself. He hears talk of assignment to the Russian front. Clothed temporarily in new tunics, for eight days the men drill in preparation for inspection by the Kaiser. When their leader appears, Paul is disappointed that he looks like an ordinary man. After the Kaiser distributes Iron Crosses, the group talks about war and why it happens. Remarque once again shows the plight of the little man caught up in forces over which he has no control. The inspection finished, the uniforms are returned because the show is over and it is now time to get back to work.
Returning to battle, Paul, by now desensitized to macabre scenes, marches past parts of bodies hanging in trees, blown out of their uniforms by the impact of trench mortars, the blood still fresh. Paul volunteers to go out on a night patrol with his friends to check the strength of the enemy. Because he has been away from the front, this is his first retesting of his battle courage. Something falls near Paul and he panics. Telling himself that he is panicking because he is new again at the front, Paul sees and hears a hundred sounds and images in his mind: his mother’s voice, Russians, wire fences, dead bodies. Covered with sweat, Paul is losing his nerve, and he cannot move from his shallow hole. Paul argues with himself to go, feeling guilt and remorse. But then he hears the voices of his company and imagines one is Kat: It is alright now, and he is fine.
Cautiously Paul leaves and snakes his way forward. Now “intelligent fear” and “heightened caution” are guiding him. Momentarily confused, he does not recognize the best direction. The light of the rockets keep him paralyzed and, as he describes it, “A shell crashes. . . . bombardment. . . . Machine-guns rattle.” He has made his way, despite his fear, to a large crater and lies with his legs in water up to his belly. Soon the attack will start and he will pretend to be dead. Pulling out a small dagger just in case someone ends up in the hole with him, he senses that shells of his own side fall near him, making him furious that he might be killed by friendly fire. However, Paul realizes that if his own side makes a counter raid, he will be saved. Sure enough, they seem to repulse the attack.
Just as Paul is about to leave, a body falls on him in the dark. He strikes at it madly and it convulses and collapses. Wanting to leave, Paul must wait because machine-gun fire pins him down. Light increases and he can feel the wet, sticky blood on his hands. He wipes it off with mud and figures his company has given up on finding him. Morning light breaks and the body moves, a man with a small, pointed beard. Not dead, he is staring at Paul in terror, and Paul tries to reassure him by whispering, “No, no.” Paul uses a handkerchief to collect water for the man and gives him a drink. Unbuttoning the man’s tunic, Paul discovers three wounds and decides, as he bandages the man, that it is only a matter of time before the man dies. If he had a revolver, he would shoot the man mercifully, but he does not, so he must listen to the man’s gasps for breath for hours. Around three o’clock in the afternoon, the man breathes his last breath, and the silence is worse than the groans. This is the first time Paul has killed a man in hand-to-hand combat. All is chance in war.
In a moment of temporary insanity, Paul speaks to the corpse. He explains that the man was merely an abstraction. But now Paul realizes, “We always see it too late.” He asks the man’s forgiveness because he knows now that the enemy is a flesh-and-blood man like himself. Checking the man’s tunic for his name and address, Paul hesitates because a name will make the man real and will stay with Paul for the rest of his life. He finds a picture of a woman and a little girl in the man’s tunic. They are obviously not rich, and Paul thinks of writing to the woman or sending her money. Finally, he resolves to live for the sake of this man, Gerald Duval, printer, and he promises that if he does come out of this, he will make sure war never happens again.
Twilight comes and, along with it, a return to temporary reason. Paul is no longer thinking about the dead man. He is recognizing instead that if he tries to return to his own company, they may shoot him accidentally. By the light of a rocket, Paul sees helmets from his own company and realizes Kat and Albert are there with a stretcher, looking for him.
The next day, Paul tells Kat and Albert about the dead printer; they assure him that he could have done nothing else. Listening to his friends, Paul calms himself and tries to rationalize the whole experience. He is finally able to forgive himself and concludes pragmatically, “After all, war is war.”
Much of Chapter 9 concerns Paul’s readjustment to the front and also continues to develop Remarque’s philosophy on a number of issues stemming from war. The Kaiser’s visit causes Paul and his friends to discuss the nature of war and those who fight it. They wonder who is right: The French fight for their homeland and the Germans fight for theirs. So who is really right in protecting their land, and who is wrong? These wars are started by rulers like the Kaiser but the little people — the shopkeepers and the farmers — are the ones who must fight the war. So who profits from this event? The rulers and the generals gain fame, and many others profit financially. But those who must do the dirty work are the little people who have wives and families at home. Finally, Albert concludes, “The best thing is not to talk about the rotten business.” Later, when Paul kills the French soldier, he promises him that he will try to live so as to bring wars to an end, thus ensuring peace for the little people.
The inhumanity of war is drummed home again and again, but in this chapter Remarque uses grotesque corpses hanging in trees to remind us of the impersonal use of mortars to kill large numbers. This depiction contrasts, of course, with Paul’s horror when he kills a man face to face. The soldiers walk on through the woods of death, realizing that to stop and think about the grotesque sights will possibly cause them to lose their nerve. It is better not to see the enemy as human beings. In fact, the only thoughts that can calm the nerves and help survival are the voices of Paul’s comrades: “They are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere. . . .”
The most powerful image of this chapter is the incident in the shell hole, in which Paul comes face to face with his capacity to kill. The emotional cost weighs heavily on Paul as he listens to the rasping breath of Gerard Duval, a man no more belligerent nor bloodthirsty than he. Unable to speak, Duval’s letters and photos speak for him, attesting to Paul that this corpse was once a contributing member of society — a husband, father, and skilled laborer. Once again, the voices of Paul’s friends cut through his guilt, but one wonders whether Paul will ever be able to forget this personal, not statistical, horror.
flying divisions mobile units capable of rapid deployment wherever they are needed.
Kaiser Wilhelm, or William II (1859-1941), emperor of Germany and king of Prussia (1888-1918), whose ambitions led Germany into a fruitless and costly war.
Hindenburg Paul von (1847-1934); German field marshal; president of the Weimar Republic (1925-1934).
tommy [British informal] a private in the British army.
trench mortars any of various portable mortars for shooting projectiles at a high trajectory and short range.
parachute star-shell a parachute carrying a light to illuminate troop movements in the dark.
Valenciennes city in northern France, near the Belgian border, which the Germans occupied during World War I.
compositor a typesetter.