All Quiet on the Western Front is narrated by Paul Baumer, a young German soldier fighting in World War I. As the novel begins, he and his company are taking an afternoon rest five miles behind the front lines. They are enjoying uncharacteristically plentiful food and an abundance of cigars and cigarettes. The reason they are doing so well is a tragic one: they have just returned from a fourteen-day spell at the front, and on the last day, they lost seventy of their hundred-and-fifty strong company. Food for a full company had already been requisitioned.
Paul explains what happened at noon, when they went to the cook-house. He and his friends, Stanislaus Katczinsky, Albert Kropp, Muller, Leer, Tjaden, Haie Westhus, tried to persuade the cook, Ginger, to give them extra rations. Ginger refused, but then the company commander ordered him to distribute all the food, intended for a hundred and fifty, to the remaining eighty men.
After eating, Paul and his friends remember their schoolteacher, Kantorek, who persuaded them all to enlist. Paul recalls one of their number, Josef Behm, who was killed early in the war. Paul also reveals some bitterness toward the older generation that led them into this war.
The men then go and visit their comrade, Kemmerich, who is in the dressing-station. He has had his leg amputated, but he does not yet know it. Paul knows that Kemmerich will soon die. Muller covets his fine pair of boots.
Chapter 1 introduces the setting and the main characters. There is a lull in the fighting, at least for Paul's Second Company, but the terrible reality of the war is conveyed by the matter-of-fact report that Second Company lost nearly half its men in just one day of battle.
The discussion of Kantorek, which leads Paul into a reproach of the older generation, sets out the anti-war theme that will recur throughout the novel. Those who are most enthusiastic for the war are those who do not have to fight it. They do not have the remotest understanding of what this war is really like. One of the consequences of this is that the young soldiers have lost all confidence in authority. They no longer trust the older generation. This makes them feel very alone.