The dog days of summer are over!

The dog days of summer are over!

All Quiet on the Western Front

By: Liam Norris

All Quiet on the Western Front, made in the United States in 1930 and directed by Lewis Milestone, has been one of the most enduring of war films.  It was based on the novel of the same name written by the German author, Erich Maria Remarque, recounting graphically and emotionally, his own experience and that of the typical German soldier in the trenches during the Great War.  The story follows a group of German school boys, including the movie’s protagonist, Paul Bäumer, as they join the army and train to fight for “the glory of the Fatherland”.[1]  After their training is complete they leave their German home to fight in France and Belgium on the western front where they are introduced to an older soldier by the name of Kat, who promptly informs them to forget what they have learned because it will not serve them on the front lines[2]. Time proves Kat right as one-by-one the German schoolboys are killed on the battlefield, leaving Paul as the last of his group of closely knit companions left to face the horrors alone.

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The film, All Quiet on the Western Front, follows quite closely the story laid out by Erich Maria Remarque in his novel.  As the author fought for Germany in the Great War, and experienced the horrors of trench warfare firsthand, All Quiet on the Western Front is inclined toward being a realistic, unglamourised, and unromanticised account, very true to the reality and akin to watching the memoirs—written soon after the event— before time could soften them— of a soldier who has experienced not only combat and the horror of the trenches, but the ultimate disillusionment experienced during this era.  Owing to this perspective, most of the film’s action occurs at the front lines, with some linking scenes occurring in the rear.  That which is shown the least is the home front, due to the lack of time spent at home by most soldiers on either side of the conflict. However, the brief period that Paul spends at home on leave does provide useful and telling insight into the ever-widening divide in the perspectives, views, and attitudes of the returning soldiers and those at home who glorify them as heroes but observe the war from afar.

Aspects of World War I that All Quiet on the Western Front Conveys Well:

There are a number of aspects of World War I that are conveyed well, and likely realistically in All Quiet on the Western Front. The first of these aspects is the portrayal of the ‘will to war’.  At the start of the film the viewer is taken into a classroom where a teacher lectures his class on the glory of war, and how there is no higher honour than to fight for one’s country[3]. He describes this glory—fighting for the fatherland— with great gusto.  In the spirit of Horace’s, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, he stirs his young and impressionable charges into a frenzy about signing-up and fighting to vanquish their enemies and become heroes of Germany[4].  In the years leading up to and including the early years of the war, there was a strong ‘will to war’ among the general populations of most European nations— not just in Germany[5].  The concept of the “will to war” was driven by intense nationalism and the need to prove that one’s own country, nation, political system, and way of life was the best in all of Europe[6]. At the time it was believed that the way to prove this was through martial prowess and through ultimately conquering one’s enemies on the battlefield[7].  This ‘will to war’, born in the boys’ classroom endured throughout their basic training, despite the strict command and poor example of their superior officer[8].  Arriving at the front, they still held on to the idea that to fight for the Fatherland was the highest honour they could achieve, though this ‘will to war’ would rapidly evaporate.

The second of the well conveyed aspects is the disillusionment that the soldiers experience, as well as the alienation from the home front and the lives they once knew.  Upon reaching the frontlines, soldiers in World War I quickly saw through the propaganda that had been force-fed to them[9].  Any illusions of glory—inculcated by their parents and teachers— that may have clouded their eyes were rapidly and violently shattered by the horrors of the new ‘industrialised’ warfare[10].  The endless slaughter at the front quickly made soldiers feel disconnected from, and abandoned by, the people at home[11]. This caused them to quickly form close bonds with their comrades in arms.  Moments after their arrival in the trenches, the young recruits find themselves in dugouts being hammered by constant shelling[12]. It does not take long for some of them to succumb to shell-shock. Later diagnosed and renamed post traumatic stress disorder, shell-shock was, at the time, perceived as insanity caused by a ‘delicate’ constitution subjected to, and crumbling under, the constant concussion and noise caused by shells. The maddening pounding of the shells quickly drives one of Paul’s friends out of the dugout and over the top of the trench where he is promptly shot and later dies in hospital[13].  In gradual succession, the rest of Paul’s school friends die in battle[14].  In the film this is cleverly shown through a montage in which the next man to die is wearing the seemingly cursed boots of the first man to die[15]. After Paul has lost most if not all the men he signed up with, he is given leave to return home[16]. He is astonished at the lack of knowledge present on the home front about the true reality the soldiers face on a daily basis.  He first visits his mother who asks “Is it very terrible?”  to which Paul lies and says that it isn’t that bad[17].  He then visits a bar where a group of “armchair generals” are discussing the best way to win the war, simplifying the deadlock of attrition warfare to grandiose and generalised statements like “you just have to push through to Paris!”[18]  Finally, Paul visits the man who started it all for him—his former schoolmaster. Years into the war, Paul is astonished to discover that the schoolmaster is still preaching the same tired message that had propelled Paul and his friends on their ill-begotten odyssey[19].  In an attempt to save the next generation of schoolboys from his fate, Paul attempts to sway them away from the heroic romance of war[20]. Feeling disconnected and alienated at home, Paul ends his leave early just to return to the front see his friend Kat and be with the only ones who truly understand.  The film is thus very effective in exposing the viewer to the reality of the front and in contrasting the graphic frontline experiences of Paul and classmates with the romanticised notions of those at home.  The film depicts how the spell cast upon those who had gone to the front was broken and how this later causes a divide between the soldiers and the very country they are fighting for.

The third aspect portrayed well in All Quiet on the Western Front is the chaos and ineffective nature of combat on the front lines. World War I was, by the time portrayed in the story, primarily a defensive war for the Germans and it was the first war where trenches were developed extensively and used as a key part of the strategy.  Prior to World War I, the charge had been the time honoured key to victory[21]. The charge however, did not take into account the invention of the machine gun. Now, when combatants charged over their trenches and across no- man’s land they would be running directly into enemy machine gun fire[22]. If a charge was successful in capturing an enemy trench—often at great cost in killed and wounded— the opposing faction would simply fall back to the next trench and either counter-attack or resume the fight over a new 20 or so yards of shell cratered terrain[23].  In All Quiet on the Western Front, this futility is emphasised in a scene where after a long period of shelling, Paul and his comrades hear the whistle blow and intent on repelling the oncoming French attack, hurry from the dugout to the trench to man the machine guns[24]. The French push the Germans out of their trench only to have the Germans counter attack and almost immediately take it back[25]. This kind of senseless back and forth carnage continued for the near totality of the war.  Seeing it on film, without the ‘romance’ of even a spirited bayonet defense, let alone ‘heroic’ words— only that of a bludgeoning with shovels, gritty, terrifying, and disturbing—the film serves very effectively to disillusion the viewer, just as the young recruits were.  Thus, the aspects of World War I portrayed realistically, and likely as close to the truth as possible, by All Quiet on the Western Front are the romanticised ‘will to war’ pervading the early years of the conflict—particularly at home and places far from the battlefront, the inevitable disillusionment of the troops upon their baptism under fire at the front (and how this served to disconnect and alienate them from home), as well as the reality of the chaos, confusion and ineffectiveness of the tactics employed on the front lines.

Problematic Aspects of All Quiet on the Western Front’s Interpretation of World War I:      

All Quiet on the Western Front, though depicting extremely well a number of important facets of the Great War experience, also neglects or minimises a number of key aspects corroborated by other sources which are crucial for a balanced and comprehensive understanding of the conflict. The first of these problematic aspects relates to the impact of industry and how this was not emphasized in the film. World War I was the first ‘total war’—a war in which entire nations and their economies are directed toward victory[26].  In total war, all factories are repurposed to produce the materiel of war—weapons, ammunition, and later planes and tanks—for the war effort[27].  All Quiet on the Western Front is a fairly personal account of an individual soldier’s experience on the front lines and therefore does not really highlight or even allude to the significant and constant involvement of industry far behind the front.  With this unacknowledged (in the film) galvanization of industrial effort came the production of terrifying new technologies—the machine gun, chemical warfare, precision artillery capable of cutting wire, to name few—which ultimately found their way to the front lines.

The second problematic aspect with All Quiet on the Western Front’s portrayal of the Great War relates to the impact of technology.  The new technology of the early twentieth century changed warfare drastically—particularly with respect to battlefield tactics[28].  Prior to World War I, armies would charge at one another, a breakthrough would occur as one side overran the other, and the battle would be over shortly after it had begun[29]. However, the introduction of the machine gun—a weapon capable of unleashing a stream of bullets like a laser beam across the battle field, mowing down advancing troops—rendered old tactics ineffective[30]All Quiet on the Western Front, though showing a few scenes—perhaps totalling five minutes of footage— in which machine guns are used, does not really emphasize the impact this weapon had in halting advances by either side and resulting in years of attritional (vice ‘advancing’) warfare[31].  The concept of tactics made ineffective is really underemphasized and perhaps too subtly summed-up by a looping scene of French soldiers being shot down in a trench charge repeated with the same looping footage with the same actors wearing German uniforms for their charge[32].

All Quiet on the Western Front not only passes quickly over the effect upon tactics brought about by the new technology, but misses, as well, two very important technological innovations used for the first time in World War I.  The first of these missing technologies is that of chemical warfare: the use of poison gas.   Chlorine gas was first used, en masse, against the allies on the western front at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915[33].  Chlorine gas affects the nose, eyes, throat, and lungs and causes its victims to die a painful death of asphyxiation[34]. To counter the threat that chemical weapons posed, the gas mask was created[35].  In the event of a gas attack, soldiers would quickly put on their masks and pray that it was airtight to avoid the noxious vapour.  Despite the introduction of chemical weapons to the battlefield, as well as the fact that the Germans were the first to use them, All Quiet on the Western Front neither has any gas attacks nor any evidence of the soldiers drilling with, or wearing gas masks[36].  This omission leaves out a crucial aspect of World War I warfare and thereby adversely affects one’s comprehensive understanding of the impact of technologies on the war.  The second technological advancement that manifested itself in World War I related to heavy weapons:  the development of the German U-Boat, or submarine, and the creation of the tank[37].  The tank was developed later in the war and, once the tactics of fighting tanks in large groups were developed, and improved serviceability of individual tanks was attained, much of the recently acquired trench warfare tactics were rendered completely useless[38].  Due to the tank’s armour plating, machine gun fire and barbed wire could not halt an advancing tank, nor could trenches stop them due to the tank’s long tracks used for propulsion[39].   The tank saw significant service in the Great War, the first of which appeared on the battlefield in 1916, two years prior to the end of the war[40].  Though All Quiet on the Western Front takes place over the course of the entire war, ending with Paul’s death in 1918 just prior to the end of the war, no tanks, from either side, appear in the film[41].  This is, in effect, an omission of an important aspect of the Great War and the effect of technology.  Though All Quiet on the Western Front presents the misery and horrors of trench life extremely well, it tends to leave out many aspects of the impact technological advances had upon the nature of war and the necessity to adapt tactics.  As well, the sense of total war—of the mobilization of nations’ entire industrial output—is also not emphasized, leading to a less than comprehensive portrayal of the Great War.

Conclusion:   

All Quiet on the Western Front is an excellent source for understanding the individual soldier’s frontline experience in World War I.  It cements this excellence through gritty, well depicted scenes of a soldier’s life in the trenches, the disillusionment of the soldiers and their alienation from the home front, and through the depiction of the chaos and ineffective nature of the tactics employed.  However, it should be noted that All Quiet on the Western Front does omit, or fail to emphasise some aspects of the First World War that are crucial for a complete and comprehensive understanding.  It misses the ‘total war’ aspect of industrial mobilization as well as the individual impacts of the development of new technologies and their tactics. This being said, though All Quiet on the Western Front may not be the best ‘documentary’ of some of the aforementioned, it is indeed an excellent film to teach and emphasise the ‘human’ aspect to the war.

……………………… Nothing more to report, “all quiet on the western front”…………………………….



[1] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[2]“All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[3] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[4] Boatwright, Mary T., and Daniel J. Gargola. The Romans: From village to empire: A history of Rome from earliest times to the end of the western empire. 2nd rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

[5] Smith, Bonnie G.. Europe in the contemporary world, 1900 to the present: a narrative history with documents. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

[6] Smith, Bonnie G.. Europe in the contemporary world, 1900 to the present: a narrative history with documents. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

[7] Smith, Bonnie G.. Europe in the contemporary world, 1900 to the present: a narrative history with documents. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

[8] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[9] Levack, Brian P., Edward Muir, and Meredith Veldman. The West: encounters & transformations combined volume. Fourth ed. Austin: Pearson, 2013. Print.

[10] Levack, Brian P., Edward Muir, and Meredith Veldman. The West: encounters & transformations combined volume. Fourth ed. Austin: Pearson, 2013. Print.

[11]Smith, Bonnie G.. Europe in the contemporary world, 1900 to the present: a narrative history with documents. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

[12] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[13] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[14] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[15]“All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[16] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[17] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[18] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[19] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[20] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[21] Joll, James. Europe since 1870. An international history. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973. Print.

[22]Joll, James. Europe since 1870. An international history. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973. Print.

[23] Joll, James. Europe since 1870. An international history. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973. Print.

[24] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[25] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[26] Smith, Bonnie G.. Europe in the contemporary world, 1900 to the present: a narrative history with documents. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

[27] Smith, Bonnie G.. Europe in the contemporary world, 1900 to the present: a narrative history with documents. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

[28] Smith, Bonnie G.. Europe in the contemporary world, 1900 to the present: a narrative history with documents. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

[29] Joll, James. Europe since 1870. An international history. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973. Print.

[30] Joll, James. Europe since 1870. An international history. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973. Print.

[31] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[32] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[33] Slotten, Hugh. “Humane Chemistry or Scientific Barbarism? American Responses to World War I Poison Gas, 1915-1930.” The Journal of American History 77, no. 2 (1990): 476-498.

[34] Slotten, Hugh. “Humane Chemistry or Scientific Barbarism? American Responses to World War I Poison Gas, 1915-1930.” The Journal of American History 77, no. 2 (1990): 476-498.

 

[35] Slotten, Hugh. “Humane Chemistry or Scientific Barbarism? American Responses to World War I Poison Gas, 1915-1930.” The Journal of American History 77, no. 2 (1990): 476-498.

[36] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

[37] Joll, James. Europe since 1870. An international history. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973. Print.

[38] Joll, James. Europe since 1870. An international history. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973. Print.

[39] Joll, James. Europe since 1870. An international history. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973. Print.

[40] Smith, Bonnie G.. Europe in the contemporary world, 1900 to the present: a narrative history with documents. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

[41] “All quiet on the western front”. DVD. Directed by Lewis Milestone. United States: Universal Pictures Co., 1930.

Liam Norris is a Political Science student at Carleton University

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