All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Remarque tells what happens to a group of German teenagers during World War I. Paul Baumer is the protagonist in the novel who changes from an innocent, inexperienced young man to a hardened disillusioned soldier. It is through his narration that the reader lives through what they experienced. Chapter one introduces each character, theme, and tone for the entire novel and sets up the intent: to illustrate how a generation of men, who though they survived the war physically, were destroyed by it mentally.
At the outset, chapter one opens with the narrator, Paul Baumer, returning from the front lines of World War I. The seriousness of war is evident immediately when Baumer relates that out 150 men only eighty return. “But on the last day an astonishing number of English heavies opened up on us with high-explosives, drumming ceaselessly on our position, so that we suffered severely and came back only eighty strong” (page 2). From this point in the chapter, Paul Baumer introduces the other characters, giving brief descriptions that connect the reader with each individual. This is important because it allows the reader to empathize with what these men went through, to feel their suffering and the horrific experiences of war. Through the narration Kantorek, the schoolmaster and fiercely patriotic man, is recalled. He is the person that inspires Paul Baumer and his band of fellow classmates to enlist. Kantorek, once an idolized man, is now despised because of the erroneous picture he painted for them of going off to war to fight for their country. This realization is presented when Baumer relates, “The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces” (page 13). The other characters, Leer, Muller, Kropp, Tjaden, Haie Westhus, Detering and Katczinsky are also introduced in this chapter through the story telling of Paul Baumer. The last sentence of chapter one illustrates that each individual, though young numerically, has lost their youth forever. “We are none of us more than twenty years old. But young? Youth? That is long ago. We are old folk” (page 18). The loss of youth, while still young summarizes the meaning of the lost generation of World War I. The introduction and development of the characters is so intriguing to the reader, that you desire to know what happens to them and are inspired to read on in order to find out. Each person is different, with characteristics that everyone can relate to.
The young men entered as patriotic citizens fighting for their homeland, full of dreams and youth, only to have their innocence lost. The opening chapter is key in explaining, through the voice of Baumer, a major theme in All Quiet on the Western Front: the horror of war and its effect on the ordinary soldier. Paul and his fellow classmates were caught between rhetoric from ignorant orators about their responsibility to their country and the reality of a bloody battlefield. “Even one’s parents were ready with the word Сcoward”; no one had the vaguest idea what we were in for” (page 11). Trusted individuals were encouraging these young men to volunteer for service. Parents, teachers and leaders of the communities were all instrumental in this band of friends enlisting only to be shattered permanently by the reality of war. Kantorek, their respected and trusted teacher was one in particular who was instrumental in the entire class enlisting. “During drill-time Kantorek gave us long lectures until the whole of our class went, under his shepherding, to the District Commandant and volunteered” (page 11). The first chapter emphasizes the unheroic, unglamorous, horrifying life of a soldier. The reality versus the glamorization by authority figures is relayed completely during that time period. The reality of blood and death, represented by the death of Joseph Behm and the impending death of Kemmerich destroys any ideals that war is glamorous. The death of these two comrades being in the first chapter is significant because it illustrates the brutality and raw truth of war. The lengthy description of using the general latrines further describes how dehumanizing their lives were. It is also an example of the true reality that they lived with each day and demonstrated how unaware Kantorek was. Everything conveys that it is a new sort of war novel; one that reflects exactly what being at war was like.
The tone of this novel is one of struggling with the fear of death, struggling to survive, and dealing with the death of their comrades and others around them. The routine way that Paul describes events that happen set a tone of someone that is detached and retelling a nightmare. This detachment from reality must take over in order to get through it. The fact that half of his company was killed is related in a way that is very casual. Almost, a look on the bright side, we get more food. “Then for once we’ll have enough” (page 4). When Paul and his fellow soldiers go to see Kemmerich they discuss what is going to happen to his boots because they know that he is not going to live. Muller even matches them to his shoe size. “He matches their soles against his own clumsy boots” (page 16). Kemmerich has had one leg amputated, is dying, and will have no need for them any longer. It is a serious novel and it is expressed at the outset. The author states in the forward, “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it.” A great deal of the setting of the novel takes place on the battlefield or in the trenches. Paul and his fellow soldiers live day-to-day dodging bullets and trying to stay alive. All Quiet on the Western Front is a serious novel, not for entertainment, but through the characters that Remarque introduces, the tragedies and realities of war are learned.
All Quiet on the Western Front shows the change in attitudes of men before and after the war. The novel portrays the effects that war has on the individual. Each aspect of the novel is addressed in the opening chapter of the book. The introduction of the characters is presented in such a way as to connect the reader to the personalities of this group of young men who volunteered as innocent people and turn into soldiers who struggle each day to survive. The horrifying truths of war are related in this novel and presented right away to the reader, along with the seriousness of battle in the opening chapter. The author attacks those individuals who rally around country and patriotism with their words, but do not have to engage in the war that these young men experienced first hand. The significance of the opening chapter is apparent through the narration of Paul Baumer as he sets the tone, and lays out the theme intended by the author Erich Remarque.