In what ways did Paul Baumer’s participation in the First World War change him as a person?
Franz Kemmerich was Paul’s first classmate to die in the war. His death shattered Paul’s belief in authority. He admits to himself that he trusted and listened to them. They were supposed to have greater insight and wisdom yet they were the ones who had encouraged the boys to enlist instead of protecting them from the horrors of war.
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The 10 weeks of army training before going to the front had a more profound influence on Paul than 10 years of school ever did. And after the 10 weeks, Paul could no longer recall his early life as a student-as if it no longer existed-what he once thought was important.
His emotions went through stages: first was astonishment, then he became embittered and finally what emerged was indifference. All eagerness and enthusiasm were knocked out of them, the soldiers. “We were trained for heroism’s as though we were circus ponies.” But he points out that without this training, they would have gone insane in the trenches. Paul explains, in chapter 6 how indifferent their attitudes became because the chance of getting hit was just that-a a matter of chance, of being alive or dead.
Paul eventually gets 6 weeks to leave only to come home and find himself a stranger in his own home. Questions from his father, his teachers, make him realize they know nothing of war, which surprises him. They all have an opinion they’d like to share and he has conflicting emotions of envy and despair. He can see that he has changed, his innocence is lost. He sits in his room hoping for familiarity and emotion to return as before but it doesn’t.
When he goes to Kemmerich’s mother, he swears to all that is sacred that Franz died instantly, not that it was true but what is sacred changes for Paul. So after saying goodbye to his sick mother, he wished he had never come home because feeling indifference was better than how he felt when he left.
What were the horrors of war, which Paul experienced?
In chapter1 Paul and his friends had a windfall of double food and cigarette rations due to the high casualty of German soldiers. Out of 150, only 80 remained and so the extra rations.
Paul recognizes in his comrade Kemmerich the impending signs of death, wax-like hands and pulseless skin. The orderlies wait for his bed to be available for there are more wounded lying on the floors. As soon as he is gone, they whisk him off the bed in a waterproof sheet and Paul is left with a great hunger to live.
Living under the constant threat of warfare, the shells raining down on them, Paul’s friend Katczinsky observes the nighttime sky, remarking “mighty fine fire-works if they weren’t so dangerous.” During particularly heavy shellfire, Paul is forced to crawl under a casket in a graveyard for protection. It had been hit by artillery and had opened up. In his search, Paul feels a sleeve and an arm before he remembers he is in a graveyard, then when the shelling finally stops; many a casket is upended and emptied. Paul remarks the dead men have been killed again, but for each dead soldier unburied, one soldier was saved.
In chapter 6, the German soldiers discovered their own men had been tortured before dying, eyes cut out and noses cut off. They were then smothered with sawdust stuffed into their noses and mouths. Paul goes on to describe how to hurt a man with a spade, illustrating the tool was better than a bayonet for killing. He admits men turn into beasts during hand-to-hand combat, then they revert back to a man when they return to their trench carrying the spoils of victory. Once they heard the cry of one of their own lasting for 4 days. After numerous attempts to locate the soldier, with the promise of 3 days’ leave to whoever found him, he was never located. He talks about burying the dead, sometimes in layers 3 deep.
It saddened Paul that the inexperienced soldiers were being sent to the front lines where they were being picked off like flies. They are easily killed because they don’t know how to listen for the light whistle of the daisy-cutters, nor know to scatter for cover instead of bunching up like sheep, nor know to keep their gas mask on until they climb out of the shell hole, above the low lingering gases. Then there are those critically wounded men, comrades, who ought to be dead but take heroic measures to stay alive.
On patrol, Paul crawl’s out in no man’s land, becomes lost and ends up in a shell hole after killing the French soldier who scrambles in. In remorse, he copies down his address so to make amends after the war but once he returns to his comrades, they point out he is here to kill the Frenchman, who is their enemy.
Paul also says tanks are the horror of war, great big killing machines. One of the greatest horrors of war was seeing his friends die, especially
Katczinsky was more than a brother in arms, he was a soulmate. And of course, the death of Paul himself.
How did Paul maintain a sense of dignity during the course of the war?
First of all, he overcame his shyness of the latrine. All of his friends thought nothing of pulling their commode boxes around in a circle to sit in pleasure for 2 hours sometimes. Paul said three-fourths of a soldier’s vocabulary is derived from his stomach and intestines- it is a universal language.
Paul describes the 10 weeks of training he and his friends endured before being sent to the front as humiliating and gruelling, but it toughened them all and prepared them for what “developed into the finest thing that arose out of the war-comradeship.”
A new recruit to the front experienced his first bombardment with letting loose his bowels. Paul soothed his shame, telling him there have been countless men before him doing the same.
A soldier lives on instinct, knows when to duck a shell and can sleep standing up. Humour keeps terror at bay.
One-day Paul’s group of friends was discussing the information they learned in school and how little it helped them in the throes of war. It wasn’t helpful in teaching to start a fire with wet wood, light a cigarette in a rainstorm of where to plant a bayonet so as not to get it stuck in the ribs of the enemy.
It took a great amount of kindness for Paul to forgive Himmelstoss, their harsh training leader. He did so after he brought injured Haie Westhus, Paul’s friend and classmate, back from the front line. All notions of revenge further dissipated when Himmelstoss repays Paul and his friends with food from the mess hall when he is temporarily assigned there.
After Paul’s 6-week leave, he returns to training camp and finds Russian prisoners there, sick and starving. He shares cigarettes and potato cakes with them because he finds himself feeling sorry for them-they are humans too and only the war has made them his enemy.
What did the war teach Paul about freedom and life?
On returning from the front lines one day one of the soldiers remarked it was a close call, a near hit but luckily they escaped death again. This gave them the opportunity to appreciate the fact they weren’t the targets that day and the world looks fresh and new. Top that off with good cigarettes, good food and a summer breeze and they had it made.
When reminiscing about his schoolmaster Kantorek, Paul compares him to Corporal Himmelstoss, his despicable training officer, saying, “it is very queer that the unhappiness of the world is so often brought on by small men.” (Did he have second sight concerning Hitler?)
The one fact that Paul not only observes but feels himself is that the soldier wants to live at any price. Yet he also believes life is short.
Paul says “a hospital alone shows what war is.” See the injured and maimed in every bed. He talks about the inventiveness of more superior weapons, which only refines what man can do to a man.
Paul wonders what will become of himself after the war when all he knows and has learned is about killing and death. He sees himself as a soldier first, an individual man second. Life as a soldier is about watching for death and avoiding it. All else is buried inside else it bubbles up to overtake the emotions and sanity.
In What ways did the book change your views about war?
One way this book changed my view was the fact it was written by a German soldier. Before, I only saw the war through the eyes of a person fighting on the side of the Allies. I thought all the German people hated us and thought they were wrong to want to fight instead of keeping the peace. It showed me that it was their leaders who manipulated them into believing this war was right and just and they were fighting a worthy cause. Their patriotism and their ignorance allowed them to be led into this war. They may have signed up voluntarily but their teacher and mentor told them that this was the “right” thing to do for their country. They had no inkling about what lay ahead of them. They envisioned themselves as “heroes” to their families and friends and fellow citizens back home. There is just so much killing, and the soldiers are all so young and innocent, growing up fast the hard way, not really having a chance at life. If it weren’t for the old soldiers and not age-old, but experienced in the field, they keep the young ones alive by teaching them the tricks of survival.
After Paul comes back from leave, he and his closest comrades ponder the meaning of war after they pass inspection from the Kaiser. None can come up with “why” they are at war. It is so sad.
Friendly fire is a hard fact to accept. Paul talks about two men in his regimen being injured by shots from their German guns because the barrels and sights are worn out.
Lice and rats are two aspects that one doesn’t dwell on. Kropp, a friend of Paul’s had rats running over his face trying to eat the bread he had wrapped up and tucked under his head.
It is often the little victories of Paul and his comrades that cheer me up. Like the revenge, the boys got with attacking Himmelstoss and Mittelstaedt belittling Kantorek when he is called up for service and the praying sisters in the hospital who refused to close the door to the ward so that Paul, Albert and the others couldn’t sleep. Paul smashed a bottle in protest but credit was quickly accepted by a man who was awarded a shooter’s license in which he was “periodically not responsible for my actions” thus no one could punish him. The soldiers went back to sleep.
Very distressing was the experimental surgery that occurred by surgeons on soldiers with flat feet. I’m sure there were other types of surgery performed unnecessarily and unfortunately by consent, under duress.
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