All Quiet on the Western Front Chapter 4
Paul's group is sent to the front to string barbed wire. They ride in the dark, jammed in the back of lorries, or trucks. They drive without lights to avoid alerting the other side. During the ride, Paul hears geese cackling from a house, and he and Kat make plans to return. At the artillery lines, the group is surrounded by gunfire. Kat predicts that the English will bombard them soon. Paul and the others aren't afraid, but are tensely aware of what is going on around them and ready to take cover.
"To me the front is a mysterious whirlpool. Though I am in still water far away from its centre, I feel the whirl of the vortex sucking me slowly, irresistibly, inescapably into itself." Chapter 4, pg. 55 This is how Paul thinks of the front. At the front, he lives on instinct. He clutches the ground for protection, doing what has become natural. That is how he survives. He has no need to explain it. He and his companions simply let animal instinct take over at the front.
They arrive at a wooded area and get out of the trucks. A column of men pass by them in the mist as the trucks leave. The men load up with barbed wire and begin to walk to where it needs to be placed. They are ordered to put out their cigarettes, to avoid being a target. The horizon glows red, and they can see rockets being fired. Searchlights cross the sky, shooting down an airplane. The men begin stringing the barbed wire, attaching it to iron stakes. Paul cuts his hand while working. After a few hours, they are done with the job and settle in to wait for the trucks to pick them up. Paul falls asleep, but is awakened by shells exploding nearby. The new recruits are scared. The men begin to crawl away quickly as the shelling gets closer. One hits in the middle of their group. Paul bumps into a new recruit, scared to death, holding his head to the ground. He is small and scared, and reminds Paul of Kemmerich. Paul grabs the recruit's helmet and covers his rear with it. The men stay down and wait out the shelling. He hears cries in the distance. Once it quiets down, Paul shakes the recruit and tells him it's safe. The recruit puts his helmet back on and realizes that he's soiled his underwear. Paul tells him that is happens to everyone and sends him off to throw his underwear away. Kropp reports that there are wounded some distance away. The cries, however, are of horses, not men. Detering, the farmer, loves horses and says that someone should shoot the horses and put them out of their misery. They listen to the screams for some time, getting more and more upset. Using binoculars, they see wounded horses running while soldiers move wounded men on stretchers. Finally, after the wounded men are moved, the soldiers start shooting the horses. It takes a long time to finish them off.
Paul's group starts heading back to the trucks. Just as they get back to the wooded area, the shelling begins again and trees explode around them. The men take cover in a cemetery, where they are trapped. Paul is hit in the head by something, and almost faints. Directly in front of him, a shell hits and blows a hole in the ground. Paul dives into the hole for cover, but the hole is part of a grave. He stays close to the dead body in the ground until Kat grabs him and tells him to put his gas mask on. They are being hit with mustard gas, which burns the lungs and will kill them very slowly if they breathe it. A few feet away, a new recruit is on the ground. Paul crawls to him, pulls his gas mask on, and then jumps back into the shell-hole. Kat, Kropp, and another man take cover there as well. They can barely see through the goggles of their gas masks. Gas starts collecting in the hole, but they are trapped by the shelling. A shell hits the ground and sends a coffin flying on top of them. It hits the fourth man and traps his arm. They free him and use wood from the coffin to make a splint for his broken arm. The gas masks are suffocating. The shelling stops, and Paul crawls out of the hole. The gas has cleared enough for Paul to pull his mask off. All around him, the graveyard is a pile of bodies that have been blown out of the ground. Paul and Kat stop to help a man whose hip has been destroyed. As they try to dress his wound, Paul sees that he has no underwear on and realizes that it is the boy he helped earlier. The boy is badly hurt and begs them not to leave him. Kat and Paul contemplate shooting him to end his pain, but before they can, others start to gather. They get a stretcher for the boy, and move on.
After the eight wounded are taken care of and the five dead buried, the men walk another hour in the rain to get back to the trucks. As they ride back to camp, the rain pours down on them. The men start to doze. They hear another explosion in the distance, but when nothing else happens, they fall back asleep.