Extract from ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque
The wood vanishes, it is pounded, crushed, torn to pieces. We must stay here in the graveyard.
The earth bursts before us. It rains clods. I feel a smack. My sleeve is torn away by a splinter. I shut my fist. No pain. Still that does not reassure me: wounds don’t hurt till afterwards. I feel the arm all over. It is grazed by sound. Now a crack on the skill, I begin to lose consciousness. Like lightning the thought comes to me: Don’t faint! I sink down in the black broth and immediately come to the top again. A splinter slashes into my helmet, but has already travelled so far that it does not go through. I wipe the mud out of my eyes. A hole is torn up front of me. Shells hardly ever land in the same hole twice, I’ll get into it. With one lunge, I shoot as flat as a fish over the ground: there it whistles again, quickly I crouch together, claw for cover, feel something on the left, shove in beside it, it gives way, I groan, the earth leaps, the blast thunders in my ears, I creep under the yielding thing, cover myself with it, draw it over me, it is wood, cloth, cover, cover, miserable cover against the whizzing splinters.
I open my eyes – my fingers grasp a sleeve, an arm. A wounded man? I yell to him – no answer – a dead man. My hand groups farther, splinters of wood – now I remember again that we are lying in the graveyard.
But the shelling is stronger than everything. It wipes out the sensibilities, I merely crawl still further under the coffin, it shall protect me, though Death himself lies in it.
Before me gapes the shell-hole. I grasp it with my eyes as with fists. With one leap I must be in it. Then I get a smack in the face, a hand clamps on to my shoulders – has the dead man waked up? – The hand shakes me, I turn my head, in the second of light I stare into the face of Katczinsky, he has his mouth wide open and is yelling. I hear nothing, he rattles me, comes near, in a momentary lull his voice reaches me; ‘Gas – Gaas – Gaaas – Pass it on.’
I grab for my gas-mask. Some distance from me there lies someone. I think nothing but this: That fellow there must know: Gaas – Gaas –
I call, I lean towards him, I swipe at him with the satchel, he doesn’t see – once again, again – he merely ducks – it’s a recruit – I look at Kat desperately, he has his mask on – I pull out mine, too, my helmet falls to one side, it slips over my face, I reach the man, his satchel is on the side nearest me, I seize the mask, pull it over his head, he understands, I let go and with a jump drop into the shell hole.
The dull thud of the gas-shells mingles with the crashes of the high explosives. A bell sounds between the explosions, gongs, and metal clappers, warning everyone – Gas – Gas – Gaas.
Someone plumps down behind me, another. I wipe the goggles of my mask clear of the moist breath. It is Kat, Kropp and someone else. All four of us lie there in heavy, watchful suspense and breathe as lightly as possible
These first minutes with the mask decide between life and death. It is air-tight? I remember the awful sights in the hospital: the gas patients who in day-long suffocation cough up their burnt lungs in clots.
Cautiously, the mouth applied to the valve, I breathe. The gas still creeps over the ground and sinks into our shell-hole and lolls there obscenely. I nudge Kat, it is better to crawl out and lie on top than to stay where the gas collects most. But we don’t get as far as that; a second bombardment begins. It is no longer as though shells roared; it is the earth itself raging.
With a crash something black bears down on us. It lands close beside us; a coffin thrown up.
I see Kat move and I crawl across. The coffin has hit the fourth man in our hole on his out-stretched arm. He tries to tear off his gas-mask with the other hand. Kropp seizes him just in time, twists the hand sharply behind his back and holds it fast.
Kat and I proceed to free the wounded arm. The coffin lid is loose and bursts open, we are easily able to pull it off, we toss the corpse out, it slides down to the bottom of the shell-hole, then we try to loosen the under-part.
Fortunately the man swoons and Kopp is able to help us. We no longer have to be careful but work away till the coffin gives with a sigh before the spade that we have dug in under it.
It has grown lighter. Kat takes a piece of the lid, places it under the shattered arm and we wrap all our bandages around it. For the moment we can do no more,
Inside the gas-mask my head booms and roars – it is nigh bursting. My lungs are tight, they breathe always the same hot, used up air, the veins on my temples are swollen. I feel I am suffocating.
A grey light filters through onto us. I climb out over the edge of the shell-hole. In the dirty twilight lie s a leg torn clean off; the boot is quite whole, I take that all in at a glance. Now something stands a few yards distant. I polish the windows, in my excitement they are immediately dimmed again. I peer through them, the man there no longer wears his mask.
I wait some seconds – he has not collapsed – he looks round and makes a few paces – rattling in my throat I tear my mask off too and fall down, the air streams into me like cold water, my eyes are bursting the wave sweeps over me and extinguishes me.