All Quiet on the Western Front is a story narrated by Paul Baumer, a young German man who, a long with his friends, enlists in the German army during World War 1. No jingoist, he is clearly disillusioned at the opening pages, and becomes only more so throughout. His enlistment, we learn, was largely due to social pressure, personified by an arrogant teacher who bombarded his students with stories of false glory.
The story is episodic, with the only overarching narrative e being the course of the war, which Baumer, as a lowly soldier, barely glimpses. We see through his eyes, and what he sees are generally periods of boredom and hunger punctuated with week-long stretches of terror at the front. Stints on leave and at a military hospital broaden the picture further, giving a cross-section of life as a soldier at that time and place.
The descriptions are frank and horrific without being melodramatic. Indeed, the almost casual way in which Baumer details life as a soldier serves to reinforce the horror of the war. However, the prose isn't always plain, and Remarque allows Baumer the odd poetic digression, without going beyond what a young German intellectual might reasonably say.
All told, the book deserves its reputation as a preeminent work of World War 1 fiction. It's interesting to read as a Canadian with German heritage, as I have relatives who fought on both sides of that conflict. Baumer's reflection on the war's futility, and the perversion of killing men who share more in common with you than the generals and leaders who insist you do the killing, is a simple one, but its truth is profound.