All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of Paul Bäumer,  a young German soldier serving in World War I. It is 1916, and Bäumer and some of his schoolmates are stationed near, and sometimes on, the front line against France. On the parade grounds of the training and recovery camps, the noncommissioned officer Himmelstoss tortures them with constant drilling and unusually harsh punishments. On the front line, they are given barely enough food and water to survive, and are incessantly shelled and fired upon by the French. Their regiment is whittled away by bombardment and starvation, and new, inexperienced recruits are brought in to replace the dead.

At the outset the young solders are going through a period of relative calm, although Bäumer admits that what they have already seen of the war has distanced them from their childhood; the “Iron Youth” are far removed from their younger days. But they find ways to deal with the stress of war when stationed behind the lines: they exact their revenge on the tyrannical Himmelstoss, they relax and play cards, they purloin food from nearby farms, and they even make a trip across the front to visit some flirtatious French girls. Their adventures behind the lines are juxtaposed with the madness of the trenches, where many lives are sacrificed to capture or defend tactically useless scraps of ground. 

Bäumer slowly descends into depression and drifts away from his childhood ideals and his hopes for the future. He wonders what will become of his generation: the older soldiers will return to their former ways, but the young are caught up in war in the prime of their lives: after such a gut-wrenching experience, Bäumer questions how anything in the civilian world can hold any real meaning. Bäumer’s confusion is brought into sharp focus when he returns home on leave: he spends time with his family and visits old haunts, but he feels alienated from it all and is pursued by the crushing fear that his pre-war life is lost forever.

As his friends are killed one after another, Bäumer rages against the pointlessness of the fighting: hundreds of thousands of young men forced to endure great suffering or death, pitted against people with whom they have no quarrel, all on the orders of a handful of men in some far-removed world of power. His hopelessness and confusion peak when his great friend and mentor, Stanislaus Kactzinsky, is severely wounded on the front.  Bäumer struggles to bring him to safety alive, but in vain.  Finally Bäumer too is killed, just one month before the end of the war.  On the day of his death, all the army has to report from the frontline is a single sentence: "All is quiet on the Western Front".