Plot summary: In 1914 a room full of German schoolboys, fresh-faced and idealistic, are goaded by their schoolmaster to troop off to the 'glorious war'. With the fire and patriotism of youth they sign up. What follows is the moving story of a young 'unknown soldier' experiencing the horror and disillusionment of life in the trenches.
I thought this was about cowboys. Yeah, I know. I can see the giant poppy too.
I'm not even sure why I picked it up off my shelf that morning. I was in a rush and panic-picked a book that I could comfortably leave on my seat without a client believing they were being represented by a mushy teenager. Snobbery, so sue me. I glanced at the blurb and, after being disillusioned of my cowboy-related fears, I shoved it in my bag.
I read the first few pages at lunchtime and didn't know whether to cry or be sick. You know when a book grabs you completely within a page or two, and the world just sort of... stops? I put the book down and was just sat, staring blankly into space whilst everything that had just happened swirled around my head.
Every second that I was not reading All Quiet on the Western Front, I wanted to be. It's simultaneously really easy to read and really difficult. It's quite obviously not a happy story. There are no chirpy evacuees, no whirlwind romances and no duck-shaped gas marks. This is solely one soldier's experiences of life at the Front and it is brutal.
What make this book a classic, however, is the humanity of it. Paul is nineteen years old, bullied into joining up by well-intentioned teachers, and he is now numb inside. This is not a story of one man's terror, as Paul is past that now. Instead he is resigned to his death, protective of the new recruits, betrayed by authority and sickened by his life at home. There is so, so much feeling in this book.
They were supposed to be the ones who would help us eighteen-year-olds to make the transition, who would guide us into adult life, into a world of work, of responsibilities, of civilized behaviour and progress - into the future. In our minds the idea of authority – which is what they represented – implied deeper insights and a more humane wisdom.There is a narrative, to an extent. Paul gets sent on offensives, gets some home leave, gets injured, etc. There's a story here, to an extent, but it's much more valuable for the emotion contained within. It's as if somebody has handed you a big ball of Feelings, tied up with string.
But the first dead man that we saw shattered this conviction. We were forced to recognize that our generation was more honourable than theirs; they only had the advantage of us in phrase-making and in cleverness. Our first experience of heavy artillery fire showed us our mistake, and the view of life that their teaching had given us fell to pieces under that bombardment.
While they went on writing and making speeches, we saw field hospitals and men dying: while they preached the service of the state as the greatest thing, we already knew that the fear of death is even greater. This didn’t make us into rebels or deserters, or turn us into cowards – and they were more than ready to use all of those words – because we loved our country just as much as they did, and so we went bravely into every attack. But now we were able to distinguish things clearly, all at once our eyes had been opened. And we saw that there was nothing left of their world. Suddenly we found ourselves horribly alone – and we had to come to terms with it alone as well.
All Quiet on the Western Front is traumatic. Not for the graphic gore or the bloodshed (although obviously there's fairly prevalent), but for the aspects of war that we are so removed from. I read this three weeks ago now and it's still going through my head. That said, it somehow avoids being a depressing book. I never felt miserable, despite reading about the atrocities that are somehow acceptable in wartime. Instead I felt, and still feel, so incredibly blessed and so lucky that our generation has been able to experience growing up without fear.
Visit the British Legion's website and learn more about the Poppy Appeal here.