Course Hero. "All Quiet on the Western Front Study Guide." Course Hero. 13 Oct. 2016. Web. 2 June 2020. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/All-Quiet-on-the-Western-Front/>.
Course Hero. (2016, October 13). All Quiet on the Western Front Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved June 2, 2020, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/All-Quiet-on-the-Western-Front/
(Course Hero, 2016)
Course Hero. "All Quiet on the Western Front Study Guide." October 13, 2016. Accessed June 2, 2020. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/All-Quiet-on-the-Western-Front/.
Course Hero, "All Quiet on the Western Front Study Guide," October 13, 2016, accessed June 2, 2020, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/All-Quiet-on-the-Western-Front/.
Professor Bradley Greenburg of Northeastern Illinois University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 4 of Erich Maria Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front.
The platoon is called up to the front to install barbed wire fences. The ride there is bumpy and treacherous, and Paul Bäumer notes that many of them wouldn't mind being injured if it meant they got to go home. When they arrive at the front, the air is thick with gun smoke, and the attitudes of the men shift imperceptibly now that they are close to danger. Paul likens the sharpening of their instincts in wartime to that of animals who learn to survive by anticipating danger.
The soldiers arrive at the spot to install the fences, and begin to work in the pitch dark. Paul describes seeing the front lines—a red glow from one end to the other, always moving. A bombardment begins. The whistling of the shells reminds Paul of flocks of wild geese. The men finish their job, and try to lie down and sleep until their ride back to the barracks returns. When Paul wakes up, he is disoriented, and for a few moments, thinks he is at a garden party. Stanislaus "Kat" Katczinsky reassures him that all is well, and jokes that explosions of the nose caps (the exploding front parts of shells) would be good fireworks if they weren't dangerous. The nose caps begin to land closer and closer, and the soldiers try to crawl away amidst the barrage. Some are injured. One young soldier panics and Paul tries to protect him. The barrage stops, and Paul reassures the young soldier that he'll get used to it.
The soldiers hear terrible cries nearby, but it turns out to be wounded horses, not soldiers. The sound is unbearable, and Detering begs someone to shoot the horses and put them out of their misery. Paul thinks how they can bear almost anything, but the sounds of the horses dying is driving them all mad. Finally, a group of soldiers begin to shoot the wounded horses until it becomes silent again. Detering, a horse-lover, tells them he believes it is "the vilest baseness to use horses in the war."
The men begin walking back to where their ride will meet them. Suddenly they are under bombardment, and the only place to take cover is a makeshift graveyard for newly buried soldiers. Paul feels a crack against his skull and begins to lose consciousness, but steels himself against fainting. He realizes that he has dug himself into the earth and is shielding himself with a dead soldier's body and coffin. Kat yells at him to put on his gas mask and to tell the others to do the same. Paul helps a newer soldier put his on as well. The shelling finally stops.
Paul and his comrades find a wounded soldier, the same one whom Paul protected earlier, and promise to go and get a stretcher for him. He begs them not to leave him, and Kat wonders if they should just kill him to put him out of his misery. Paul agrees, thinking of how much pain the man will be in until he eventually dies anyway. But too many people have gathered, and so they get him the stretcher instead. The soldiers are finally able to find their ride. The vehicle is now roomier because five soldiers were killed in the bombardment. The men fall asleep, exhausted and weary.
Chapter 4 introduces the raw reality of life on the front lines. The shift in the soldiers' mentality from the previous chapter is palpable as Paul Bäumer describes how they must become more animal than human as they reach the front lines. There's little time for thinking or reflecting. Instead, the soldiers rely on their heightened instincts to survive the bombardment.
Paul's disoriented reaction when the bombardment jolts him reveals that his subconscious still straddles a place between war and his former life. For a brief moment, he believes he is waking up at a garden party with fireworks, and wonders if he is a child. Then he feels tears on his face, not from fright, but from the shock of the realization of where he really is.
The men's reaction to the death of the horses is revealing. Detering feels that the horses' deaths are senseless, and believes it is "the vilest baseness to use horses in war." It's important to note that earlier, Paul compared the soldiers to animals, but here, the horses are almost humanized in their suffering, and their fate causes the soldiers terrible anguish. What may be most disturbing is that the soldiers' reaction to the horses' suffering feels far more painful and immediate to them than the suffering of other soldiers; however, that is in large part because the men cannot alleviate the horses' suffering, while they can at least bandage their wounded comrades and offer words of comfort and encouragement.
The battle scene in the graveyard is described in horrific detail and demonstrates how the soldiers must do what they can to survive, even if it means touching corpses and disturbing their coffins. In another instance of situational irony, Paul notes that he and his comrades have been saved by soldiers who are already dead, so the soldiers have actually died twice. There is no glory or honor depicted in this climactic scene, only an instinct for survival. Yet there are still glimpses of humanity and compassion, such as when Paul helps the younger soldiers protect themselves and offers them reassurance.
Paul and Stanislaus "Kat" Katczinsky's debate over whether or not to kill the wounded soldier shows that they struggle over whether it is a merciful act or not, and that they are desensitized to the young man's actual death. Instead, they want to spare him further pain. This parallels the earlier euthanasia of the suffering horses. But it is still taboo for the soldiers to kill one of their own, even though it's likely they would want someone to do the same for them, and while the horses are shot, the young soldier is not.