Life on the WWI German rear line
By Gery de Pierpont
Heritage and literature dialogue: Erich Maria Remarque
There are some texts which describe atmospheres and historical settings so realistically that they can almost bring old stones back to life. When words, musical cadences and poetry bring scenes alive, describing personalities, passionate encounters and tragedies, we are inescapably drawn back in time. Particularly if these are read in the actual settings they describe …
The “Heritage and Literature dialogues” will give you a little flavour of this timeless alchemy, a sample of imaginary delights to be discovered when you stay in history, after a quick trip to your local bookshop!
Your bedside book when commemorating WWI
“All Quiet on the Western Front“, by Erich Maria Remarque, is one of the exceptionally moving novels about the First World War, describing, through the eyes of a young German soldier, the horror of the trenches, the questions of those who try to survive in this butchery, the reaction from the rear, the ineptitude of the commanding chiefs, the strong fellowship in the front line, and the bitterness of an unnecessary war.
A book to be read by all those who come back to WWI’s battlefields and cemeteries to commemorate the loss of a family member − or to remember that everyone who went through this tragic war used to say ‘Never again’…
Excerpt: all humans like others, finally …
« We have settled ourselves on the sunny side of the hut. There is a smell of tar, of summer, and of sweaty feet. Kat sits beside me. He likes to talk. Today we have done an hour’s saluting drill because Tjaden failed to salute a major smartly enough. Kat can’t get it out of his head. “You take it from me, we are losing the war because we can salute too well,” he says.
Kropp stalks up, with his breeches rolled up and his feet bare. He lays out his washed socks to dry on the grass. Kat turns his eyes to heaven, lets off a mighty fart, and says meditatively: “Every little bean must be heard as well as seen.”
The two begin to argue. At the same time they lay a bottle of beer on the result of an air-fight that’s going on above us. Katczinsky won’t budge from the opinion which as an old Front-hog, he rhymes: Give ’em all the same grub and all the same pay and the war would be over and done in a day.
(…) The windows of the barracks are empty and dark. From some of them trousers are hanging to dry. The rooms are cool and one looks toward them longingly. O dark, musty platoon huts, with the iron bedsteads, the chequered bedding, the lockers and the stools! Even you can become the object of desire; out here you have a faint resemblance to home; your rooms, full of the smell of stale food, sleep, smoke, and clothes.
Katczinsky paints it all in lively colours. What would we not give to be able to return to it! Farther back than that our thoughts dare not go.
Those early morning hours of instruction –“What are the parts of the 98 rifle?”– the midday hours of physical training –“Pianist forward! By the right, quick march. Report to the cook-house for potato-peeling.” We indulge in reminiscences. Kropp laughs suddenly and says: “Change at Lohne!” That was our corporal’s favourite game. Lohne is a railway junction. In order that our fellows going on shouldn’t get lost there, Himmelstoss used to practise the change in the barrack-room. We had to learn that at Lohne, to reach the branch-line, we must pass through a subway. The beds represented the subway and each man stood at attention on the left side of his bed. Then came the command: “Change at Lohne!” and like lightning everyone scrambled under the bed to the opposite side. We practised this for hours on end.
Meanwhile the German aeroplane has been shot down. Like a comet it bursts into a streamer of smoke and falls headlong. Kropp has lost the bottle of beer. Disgruntled he counts out the money from his wallet. »
Exerpt from “All Quiet on the Western Front“, by Erich Maria Remarque (1929), chapter 3.