Saturday, 18 September 2010
Nothing New on the Western Front
And on top of it all we're not really entitled to this lot....We've only got it because of a mistake. Fourteen days ago we were sent up the line as relief troops. It was pretty quiet in our sector, and because of that the quartermaster drew the normal quantity of food for the day we were due back, and he catered for the full company of a hundred and fifty men. But then, on the very last day, we were taken by surprise by long-range shelling from heavy artillery. The English guns kept on pounding our position, so we lost a lot of men, and only eighty of us came back.
This "mistake" sets the tone for the jarring mix of carnage and humour that follows. What's most impressive is what's not there. There's no heroism, no grand ideals, no sense of strategy and purpose, no good guys or bad guys. There's only a group of soldiers - some young boys just out of school, some older men, farmers signed up for the pay - who have no loyalty except to their mates and think no further than surviving another day. There are moments of black comedy behind the lines when, to the distant boom of artillery, the soldiers live entirely for the moment, scrounging food where they can and stuffing themselves like there's no tomorrow. Then there are moments on the line when you see why there may be no tomorrow as they kill or are killed with brutal impersonality.
The Nazis burnt copies of this book saying it betrayed the frontline soldiers but it doesn't do that. They are brave, resourceful and they care for one another. The people it betrays are the leaders and generals on both sides who signed up for the war, sending young men to their deaths without rhyme or reason. In the process, so much of their humanity is stripped away.