Although one soldier claims that they are no longer young because the war has made them old, the young soldiers reaction to events around them show that they are still young men. All Quiet on the Western Front is, ultimately, a novel about a group of soldiers and their attempts to show their maturity through the horrors that they face. War is awful, no one is going to argue about that, but the important part of the novel is that they are attempting to show their maturity, because they are not actually very mature. They try to pretend this, all of them, because they are frightened and try to convince each other that they are brave. This in itself is a very immature action, something that you would expect from a group of children who are watching a horror movie or something else that frightens them. They describe themselves as young throughout the novel as well as showing this in their actions, which are often those of young men who still have a lot of growing up to do. They have been pretending to be brave and mature for the sake of each other, and this can be seen particularly when Paul goes home on leave. It’s not that he is a different person on the frontlines, but rather that he is pretending to be a different person when he’s on the battlefield and he can finally return to who he truly is when his friends aren’t around.
The way that he and his old classmate mess with his teacher shows that he is still young and carefree and willing to participate in silly games. When his mother comes into his room at night, he also thinks “why have I always to be strong and self-controlled? I would like to weep and be comforted too, indeed I am little more than a child; in the wardrobe still hang short, boy’s trousers” on page 183. This quote shows that he feels that he has to be strong and brave on the frontlines and so he has to act mature but underneath it all, he is still weak and will cry over his mother and wish for her to protect him. These boys still see women as something that they don’t quite understand. This can be seen particularly during the scene where they go to see the French women. How they react while waiting for nightfall to see the girls is very youthful and as Paul says, “we drink punch and tell one another lying tales of our experience. Each man gladly believes the only man’s story, only waiting impatiently till he can cap it with a taller one” on page 146. They act immaturely here, like young boys still, and this is shown once again when Paul and the other two get to the house of the French women. They all sit around awkwardly and eat, but Paul says that he feels giddy and rather embarrassed and overwhelmed.
When thinking about leaving their boots outside, he remarks to himself that “now nothing remains to recall for me that assurance and self-confidence of the soldier; no rifle, no belt, no tunic, no cap. I let myself drop into the unknown, come what may – yet, in spite of all, I feel somewhat afraid” (149). He has been separated from the confidence that he feels on the frontlines, like how he was when he went on leave, and these are the times that he allows himself to admit that he feels afraid and still young. He is pretending to be mature and brave, but as soon as he is away from his friends and the comforts that his uniform provides, he allows himself to remember just how young he is. He truly is young. As he says on page 119 as he remembers standing in front of a church during a hard night on the frontlines, “… and wonder whether, when I am twenty, I shall have experienced the bewildering emotions of love.” He is frightened of dying and so he feels overwhelmed by this image and the possibility of life after the war and not having to pretend to be strong anymore and to be able to explore love like everyone should do while they are young.
The war started in 1914 when he was still young. He is young in age and in heart. The other side could argue that on page 87 and 88, Paul thinks “He is right. We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world, and we had to shoot it to pieces.” This doesn’t prove anything, though. Before this quote, they were talking about what they would do when they returned home and none of them knew. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t young. Paul believes they aren’t young, but they still are. Not knowing what they will do doesn’t make you mature, it tends to prove the opposite. Another of the quotes that they would use is on page 123, “We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial – I believe we are lost”, but it proves our point better than it proves theirs. They could try to say that this proves that Paul and the others are experienced and therefore mature but that’s not the point of the argument at all. Sure, they’re experienced. They’ve been fighting this war for four years so of course they would know what they’re doing. That doesn’t make them any thing other than young. Paul himself says it in the quote “I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow” (263). Of course they would try to prove to each other that they are strong and brave. They are soldiers and they want to pretend that they are old and powerful. But once Paul is away from the others, you can see how he really feels. They are still young. The war has changed them, but not like that.