I recently finally got around to reading “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I had avoided it for a number of reasons; first I didn’t want it to interfere with my recollections and second, I didn’t want it to bring up anything unwelcome.
I haven’t had clear memories of the war in a couple years now so the former was no longer a concern; as for the latter, I had to set the book aside for some weeks because it did strike some raw nerves.
In particular I’m struck by how much of what I remembered is exactly the same sorts of things Remarque talks about. Some of the images burned into his mind are exactly the ones burned into mine. That, more than anything, shook me because it drives away some of my doubts that these memories are authentic.
When he began talking about wiring patrols and star shells, I had to set the book aside because it was too much for me. I’m almost certain now that Jack met his end during one such detail. Remarque’s description is uncannily similar too.
He also described the dead hanging from trees. I had remembered seeing dead Canadians in Railway Wood but I had assumed the Germans had thrown them into the trees as some macabre warning; I had heard that a mine blown near the line could do that but nobody blew any lines in that sector. However, Remarque did offer another explanation: trench mortars. Very likely, as the last of the Canadians were retreating through Railway Wood, they got hit with a mortar barrage. I can’t say I feel any better about what happened to them but at least it wasn’t a bit of macabre landscaping.
It’s very likely the religious-looking building I seem to recall in or near Le Havre was a hospital. Jack was very likely wounded at some point and taken behind the lines to recover. Remarque mentions a Catholic hospital in his work.
For much of the book I either knew exactly what was being described or had a fairly easy time imagining it. The German experience- at least when it came to the front itself- wasn’t that different. When Remarque describes the retreat of 1918 I can’t help but think of how it was in the spring of 1915 for us, when we were caught unawares and our line was blasted into a string of foxholes we couldn’t possibly hold. Retreat under those circumstances is always terrifying.
I don’t know what else I could say about it. War is a sick enterprise and a culture that can’t stop making war is a sick culture. Unfortunately, that’s us.