Erich Marie Remarque,
On the Western Front, 1928
A. W. Wheen
Death of the
Death of the
it has become somewhat lighter. Steps hasten over me. The first.
Again, another. The rattle of machine-guns becomes an unbroken
chain. Just as I am about to turn round a little, something heavy
stumbles, and with a crash a body falls over me into the shell-hole,
slips down, and lies across me —
I do not think at all, I make no decision — I strike
madly home, and feel only how the body suddenly convulses, and then
becomes limp, and collapses. When I recover myself, my hand is
sticky and wet.
The man gurgles. It sounds to me as though he
bellows, every gasping breath is like a cry, a thunder — but it is
only my heart pounding. I want to stop his mouth, stuff it with
earth, stab him again, he must be quiet, he is betraying me; now at
last I regain control of myself, but have suddenly become so feeble
that I cannot any more lift my hand against him.
So I crawl away to the farthest corner and stay
there, my eyes glued on him, my hand grasping the knife — ready, if
he stirs, to spring on him again. But he won’t do so any more, I can
hear that already in his gurgling.
I can see him indistinctly. I have but one desire,
to get away. If it is not soon it will be too light; it will be
difficult enough now. Then as I try to raise up my head I see it is
impossible already. The machine-gun fire so sweeps the ground that I
would be shot through and through before I could make one jump.
I test it once with my helmet, which I take off and
hold up to find out the level of the shots. The next moment it is
knocked out of my hand by a bullet. The fire is sweeping very low
over the ground. I am not far enough from the enemy line to escape
being picked off by one of the snipers if I attempt to get away.
The light increases. Burning. I wait for our attack.
My hands are white at the knuckles, I clench them so tightly in my
longing for the fire to cease so that my comrades may come.
after minute trickles away. I dare not look again at the dark figure
in the shell-hole. With an effort I look past and wait, wait. The
bullets hiss, they make a steel net, never ceasing, never ceasing.
Then I notice my bloody hand and suddenly feel
nauseated. I take some earth and rub the skin with it, now my hand
is muddy and the blood cannot be seen any more.
The fire does not diminish. It is equally heavy from
both sides. Our fellows have probably given me up for lost long ago.
It is early morning, clear and grey. The gurgling
continues, I stop my ears, but soon take my fingers away again,
because I cannot hear the other sound.
The figure opposite me moves. I shrink together and
involuntarily look at it. Then my eyes remain glued to it. A man
with a small pointed beard lies there, his head is fallen to one
side, one arm is half-bent, his head rests helplessly upon it. The
other hand lies on his chest, it is bloody.
He is dead, I say to myself, he must be dead, he
doesn’t feel anything any more; it is only the body that is gurgling
there. Then the head tries to raise itself, for a moment the
groaning becomes louder, his forehead sinks back upon his arm. The
man is not dead, he is dying, but he is not dead. I drag myself
toward him, hesitate, support myself on my hands, creep a bit
farther, wait, again a terrible journey of three yards, a long, a
terrible journey. At last I am beside him.
Then he opens his eyes. He must have heard me and
gazes at me with a look of utter terror. The body lies still, in the
eyes there is such an extraordinary expression of flight that for a
moment I think they have the power enough to carry the body off with
them. Hundreds of miles away with one bound. The body is perfectly
still, perfectly still, without a sound, the gurgle has ceased, but
the eyes cry out, yell, all the life is gathered together in them
for one tremendous effort to flee, gathered together there in a
dreadful terror of death, of me.
My legs give way and I drop on my elbows. "No, no,"
The eyes follow me. I am powerless to move so long
as they are there.
Then his hand slips slowly from his breast, only a
little bit, it sinks just a few inches, but this movement breaks the
power of the eyes. I bend forward, shake my head and whisper: "No,
no, no." I raise one hand, I must show him that I want to help him,
I stroke his forehead.
The eyes shrink back as the hand comes, then they
lose their stare, the eyelids droop lower, the tension is past. I
open his collar and place his head more comfortably upright.
His mouth stands half open, it tries to form words.
The lips are dry. My water bottle is not there. I have not brought
it with me. But there is water in the mud, down at the bottom of the
crater, I climb down, take out my handkerchief, spread it out, push
it under and scoop up the yellow water that strains through into the
hollow of my hand.
He gulps it down. I fetch some more. Then I unbutton
his tunic in order to bandage him if it is possible. In any case I
must do it, so that if the fellows over there capture me they will
see that I wanted to help him, and so will not shoot me. He tries to
resist, but his hand is too feeble. The shirt is stuck and will not
come away, it is buttoned at the back. So there is nothing for it
but to cut it off.
I look for the knife and find it again. But when I
begin to cut the shirt the eyes open once more and the cry is in
them again and the demented expression, so that I must close them,
press them shut and whisper: "I want to help you, comrade, camerade,
camerade, camerade" — eagerly repeating the word to make him
There are three stabs. My field dressing covers
them, the blood runs out under it, I press it tighter; there; he
That is all I can do. Now we must wait, wait.
These hours…. The gurgling starts again — but how
slowly a man dies! For this I know — he cannot be saved. Indeed, I
have tried to tell myself that he will be, but at noon this pretence
breaks down and melts before his groans. If only I had not lost my
revolver crawling about, I would shoot him. Stab him I cannot.
By noon I am groping on the outer limits of reason.
Hunger devours me, I could almost weep for something to eat, I
cannot struggle against it. Again and again I fetch water for the
dying man and drink some myself.
This is the first of many I have killed with my hands,
whom I can see close at hand, whose death was my doing. Kat and Kropp and Muller have experienced it already, when they have hit
someone; it happens to many, in hand-to-hand fighting especially—
But every gasp lays my heart bare. This dying man
has time with him, he has an invisible dagger with which he stabs
me: Time and my thoughts.
I would give so much if he would but stay alive. It
is hard to lie here and to have to see and hear him.
In the afternoon, about three, he is dead.
I breathe freely again. But only for a short time.
Soon the silence is more unbearable than the groans. I wish the
gurgling were there again, gasping, hoarse, now whistling softly and
again hoarse and loud.
…The silence spreads. I talk and must talk. So I
speak to him and say to him: "Comrade, I did not want to kill you.
If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be
sensible too. But you are only an idea to me before, an abstraction
that lived in my mind and called forth it appropriate response. It
was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see
you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your
bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our
fellowship. Forgive me comrade. We always see it too late. Why do
they never tell us that you are just poor devils like us, that your
mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear
of death, and the same dying, and the same agony — Forgive me,
comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles
and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert.
Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up — take more, for
I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now."
It is quiet, the front is still except for the crackle of
rifle-fire. The bullets rain over, they are not fired haphazard, but
shrewdly aimed from all sides. I cannot get out.