We march up, moody or good-tempered soldiers—we reach the zone where the front begins and become on the instant human animals.See Important Quotations Explained
The Second Company is assigned to lay barbed wire at the front, an extremely dangerous task. As the men’s trucks rumble toward the front, they pass a house, and Paul hears the cackle of geese. He and Kat agree to come back later, take the geese, and feast on them. The sound of gunfire and shells fills the air, gripping the new recruits with fear. Kat explains to the recruits how to distinguish which guns are firing by listening to the blasts. He announces that he senses there will be a bombardment later in the night: the English batteries have begun firing an hour earlier than usual. Paul reflects that the roar of guns and whistling of shells sharpens men’s senses.
Paul ruminates that, for the soldier, the earth takes on a new significance at the front: he buries his body in it for shelter, and it receives him every time he throws himself down in a fold, furrow, or hollow. At the front, a man’s ancient animal instincts awaken. They are a saving grace for many men who obey them without hesitation. Often, a man drops to the ground just in time to avoid a shell that he did not even hear coming. On the front, men are transformed from soldiers into “human animals.”
The soldiers carry wire and iron rods to the front. After they lay the wire, they try to sleep until the trucks arrive to drive them back. Kat’s prediction that they would be bombarded is correct. Everyone scrambles for cover while the shells land around them. Paul attempts to place a terrified recruit’s helmet back on the recruit’s head, but the boy cowers under Paul’s arm. Paul places the helmet on the recruit’s behind to protect it from shell fragments. After the shelling lessens, the recruit comes to and notices with embarrassment that he has defecated in his pants. Paul explains that many soldiers experience this problem at first. He instructs the boy to remove his underpants and throw them away.
The men hear the wrenching sounds of wounded horses shrieking in agony. Detering is particularly horrified because he is a farmer and loves horses. After the wounded men are gathered, those in charge of shooting the wounded animals do their job. Detering declares with disgust that using horses in war is the “vilest baseness.”
As the trucks drive the men back, Kat becomes restless. A flurry of bombs then lands around them. The men take cover in a nearby graveyard. Paul crawls under an uncovered coffin for protection. Kat shakes him from behind to tell him to put his gas mask on. After he dons his mask, Paul helps a new recruit put his on. He then dives into a hole created by an exploding shell, reasoning that shells seldom hit the same place twice. Kat and Kropp join him. Paul takes a breath on the valve of the mask, hoping that the mask is airtight.
Later, Paul climbs out and sees a soldier not wearing his mask who appears to be okay. Paul tears his mask off and gulps fresh air. The shelling has stopped. Paul notices a recruit lying on the ground with his hip a mess of flesh and bone splinters at the joint. It is the recruit who defecated in his pants earlier. Kat and Paul know that he will not survive his wounds. Kat whispers that it would be merciful of them to end his life with a gunshot before the agony of his wound begins to torment him. Before they can end the recruit’s life, however, other soldiers begin to emerge from their holes.