The events of the book take place in the middle of the First World War. Germany is already at war with France, Russia, England and America. The narrator is Paul Bäumer, a young German soldier, fighting in trenches with his fellows and former classmates. He introduces to the reader all of them: schoolboys, peasants, fishermen, artisans - everyone of different ages and origins gathered there, on the frontline.
Their company has lost almost half of their people and nine kilometers of the territory after meeting the English machine guns they called “meat grinders”, but now everyone who survived is relatively safe and soldiers are standing in line waiting for their portion of food. Due to losses during the shelling and battle with English soldier they receive double portions - the same amount of supplies is now divided amongst the lesser amount of people.
Soldiers sleep, eat, play cards, talk and rest. They also read letters. One of them is greetings from Kantorek, their school teacher, whose influence and patriotic speeches were the main reason why these young men went to war. In the letter, he praises his former pupils and encourages them, way too dramatically though. Müller, Kropp and Paul - all from the same school class - discuss this a bit. Paul remembers Josef Behm, their another classmate who didn’t want to go to the war, but was afraid to be left alone and be seen as a coward. He volunteered and was one of the first victims killed. Due to eye wounds he got lost and was shot.
The friends then go to the hospital to visit their wounded classmate, Franz Kemmerich. He is dangerously wounded and there are signs of gangrene on his injured leg. Kemmerich’s mother asked Paul to look after him, because he was just a child, before they went to war. But now it is obvious that Franz won’t make it.
Franz worries about his watch. The watch was a precious gift and it was stolen while Kemmerich was unconscious. The classmates try to comfort him, lying that because of the wound Franz will soon be home. When the visit is over, Müller cynically tells the others that he is going to take Kemmerich’s boots when he dies. If it was even the slightest chance for Franz to survive, Müller would never ever think of this, but now their fatally wounded friend doesn’t need his footwear anymore.
Kemmerich finally understands he is dying and asks to give his boots to Müller. He dies after an hour of painful agony in front of his friends. The depressed soldiers go away from the hospital. Kropp is hysterical because of what he saw.
Paul thinks a lot about how harsh is a soldier’s life. He remembers Corporal Himmelstoss, who taught them and made them obey his utterly ridiculous orders that made no practical sense at all. Finally the patience of the soldiers ended and they poured on him the bucket full of latrine content.
Their company is replenished with the recruits. One of the young recruits says they were fed very poorly and the older soldier, Katczinsky, a man around his forties and Paul’s best friend feeds him with meat and beans. Kropp suggests that war would be a better thing if general fought amongst themselves and then declared the country of the winner victorious. He says that it would be fair, because nowadays the people who didn’t start the war and have absolutely no need in it, still die on it.
The former classmates count how many of them are left from the whole class. Seven of them have died, one ended in an asylum, four were wounded and sent to the hospital. Eight of them are still fighting. They light the candle and talk about what everyone would do if it were not for the war. Eventually they remember their torturer, Himmelstoss, who was a postman before joining the army and now he serves with them. Everyone holds a grudge on him, but they decide not to take revenge.
The company is sent to sapper work on the frontline. Kat (Katczinsky) as the most experienced one, teaches recruits how to recognize shots and when they are really dangerous to them. He listens attentively to what happen in the dense fog around, he ironically says that at night they might have some light.
Paul thinks of the behaviour of the soldier on the frontline and how they are all instinctively connected with the earth which everyone tries to cling to when shells whistle around. He describes earth in a somewhat motherly entity that is silent, reliable, accepting the frightened soldier with all his screams and fears and listening to his pain.
At night, as Kat predicted, the dense fire starts. The chemical bombs are falling and someone screams about gas. The soldiers put on their gas masks and hope that the tightness of them is enough to not let them inhale the poison. They need to go up from the trenches and covers, but there is shelling outside, so they have to wait.
It is impossible to deliver food to the soldiers because of the shelling, they are under siege. The French soldiers prepare for attack and rush to the trenches, pushing Germans back. Himmelstoss cowardly hides in a trench and Paul angrily forces him to attack. They counterattack and return with the trophies, canned food and alcohol. Mutual shelling continues, mutilating the ground on the battlefield. The corpses are placed in a large funnel where they lay in three layers already.
Again the company is almost decimated. The soldiers see nightmares and become cynical and sarcastic to save themselves from insanity. Finally, they return back to the barracks. Himmelstoss offers them to forget the old grudges and treats them with a good dinner. At night Katczinsky offers Paul and Kropp to swim across the river to the French village to buy some love from local women. They bring food to the hungry women and get sex in exchange.
Paul is offered a vacation to visit his family. He gets his travel documents and looks with excitement from the window while travelling home. But when he enters his house everything isn’t as he imagined. His mother is sick. His father is exceptionally proud of him and wants to show his son to his friends, but Paul doesn’t want to talk about war. He looks for solitude and prefers to sit alone in the quiet corners of restaurants or close in his room with beer, seeing it as a shelter, a well-known safe place.
His teacher calls him to the pub. He is pompous and patriotic praising Paul for “beating the Frenchmen”. His friends treat him with beer and cigars and proudly talk about invading Belgium, France and Russia.
Paul goes to the barracks they were taught and disciplined as newly enlisted soldiers. His classmate Mittelstaedt tells him the news: Kantorek is taken into training and now Mittelstaedt, as a training officer, enjoys punishing him for slightest error. He wants Kantorek to fully taste what he sent them into.
Paul visits Kimmerich’s mother and tells her about the instant death of her son from a heart wound. His story is very convincing and the poor woman believes.
He sees a large camp of Russian prisoners of war. He looks at the prisoners, describing them in his thoughts as people with children’s faces and saints’ beards and thinks of what turns these quiet and ordinary people into enemies. Paul breaks one of his cigarettes in two and passes it through the fence to the prisoners. He watches as they bury their deceased and sing requiems.
He spends the last night with his mother who can’t make herself to step away from the son’s bed. Paul regrets that he got that vacation.
Finally he returns to his unit and meets old friends. They are prepared for the Kaiser’s arrival, but he doesn’t make much of impression. They debate amongst themselves about who and why starts the war, and say that neither them nor some random French laborer doesn’t have the desire to kill. It’s all authorities fault.
There are rumors that their company will be sent to Russia, but instead they are sent into the most dangerous part of the front. They go to the reconnaissance at night, when rockets are shooting. Paul gets lost and now doesn’t know where allies are. He lies all the day in the mud of a shell crater, pretending to be dead, he lost his gun and can rely only on his knife in case of a danger. The wounded French soldiers crawls to him and frightened Paul stabs him several times. Later he finds a photo of the family of the killed soldier and is shocked. It was the first time he killed a man, who, actually, didn’t do anything to him. When the night comes, Paul returns to his trenches.
Later Paul and his friends are sent to guard the food warehouse. Six people are left alive except himself: Katczinsky, Kropp, Müller, Tjaden, Leer, and Detering. They find the strongest and most reliable concrete basement in the village, bringing every furniture they need from the abandoned houses. They even find a canopy made of blue silk and lace and enjoy the luxury. Paul and Kat investigate the village under a heavy fire and find two pigs there. The soldiers feast and relax, even though the village is in ruins and the warehouse is half-ruined also.
One month later, the good times with plenty of food and a silk canopy end and they are taken to the frontline again. Their column is caught in a heavy fire. Albert and Paul are wounded and transported to the monastery hospital. The local doctor experiments on the wounded. Albert gets his leg amputated, everyone expect Paul to die but he starts walking thanks to his sheer will to live. His roommate, Lewandowski, meets his wife who came to visit him and has sex with her right in the room, because he can’t go somewhere else. Every soldier in the room accepts and understands it.
After another short vacation Paul returnes to the frontline again. The situation seems to be hopeless. The American, British and French regiments are advancing on Germans. Müller is killed by a lightning rocket. Kat is wounded and dies even despite Paul takes him to the safe place from under the shelling. Detering sees blooming cherry and runs away home which he misses so much. Leer also dies from the wound. Paul remains the last one of his classmates on the frontline. Everyone is talking about the truce.
Paul was killed in October 1918. The military reports were brief that day: “All quiet on the Western front”.