All Quiet on the Western Front. Erich Maria Remarque.

Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Translation from German by A W Wheen. Original German publication Ullstein A G, 1928. English translation Random House, New York, 1929. F; 10/16.

Among the most famous and widely-read modern war stories, I didn’t know that this World War I tale was written from the German point of view. It’s stunningly horrifying and realistic, physically and psychologically.

Paul Baumer is a young soldier fighting alongside friends from school and others met in combat. Relentless focus on their experiences and not much context as far as the overall war is concerned are the main drivers of the story’s dramatic impact. Paul is repeatedly exposed directly to shelling, sniper fire, and hand-to-hand combat usually at night, and is always frightened and desperate. Supplies are meagre and in many less-deadly scenes the soldiers conspire to steal food. Paul returns to his family in a German city on leave and eventually spends time injured in a hospital. His war experiences put him at odds with civilians at home who have a hopelessly unrealistic understanding of the conflict.

Eventually all the original group of soldiers is killed, and Paul himself dies just before the end of the war.

I think part of the success of this amazing story comes from its being an early successful attempt to force readers on both sides of the war to understand that modern warfare (even 100 years ago and of course everything since) is anything but glorious. This point of view represents an about-face from the kind of attitude that still existed at the end of the 19th century, in the minds of people like Winston Churchill. In the 20th century, death in increasingly mechanized battle stopped (except among certain religious fanatics) being something romantic and sought-after and began to look hideous and arbitrary. Among those who survived, personal inner damage replaced ideas of exhibiting and being congratulated for acts of honour and courage. There is in this book also probably one of the earliest and best expositions of disorientation and (we would now say) PTSD among soldiers returning from the front.

…a sense of strangeness will not leave me, I cannot feel at home amongst these things. There is my mother, there is my sister, there my case of butterflies, and there the mahogany piano – but I am not myself there. There is a distance, a veil between us.

(Before the war) I still knew nothing about the war, we had only been in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world.

A very good read. Gripped with its terrible realism and unaffected style I read it quickly and couldn’t put it down. 9.2/8.8.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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