Paul Bäumer, the narrator, and his fellow German soldiers of the Second Company recuperate behind the front in World War I. The last day of fighting thinned their ranks from 150 men to 80. Paul describes three 19-year-old boys from his class who also volunteered for the war: Albert Kropp, the "clearest thinker" among them; Müller, a physics-inclined academic; and Leer, sexually mature. Their friends include Tjaden, a 19-year-old locksmith; Haie Westhus, a large peat-digger, also 19; Detering, a married peasant; and Stanislaus Katczinsky ("Kat"), their wise 40-year-old leader.
The boys discuss Kantorek, their former schoolmaster, who used to bully his pupils into volunteering for the war. The boys feel betrayed by Kantorek and their other elders. The boys visit Kemmerich, a wounded soldier. Paul and the others see that Kemmerich, who is unaware that his leg has been amputated, will die here. The boys all want Kemmerich's expensive boots. Paul describes how the twenty boys from his class patriotically enlisted in the war. In training, the disciplinarian Corporal Himmelstoss immediately disliked and punished Paul and some of his friends, recognizing some defiance in them. Paul sits with Kemmerich, who tells Paul to give Müller his boots. He dies, and Paul runs home and gives Müller the boots.
Twenty-five younger men arrive as reinforcements. Paul believes Kat is the most resourceful soldier he knows, always able to scrounge up food. The men learn Himmelstoss is coming up to the front. Tjaden especially hates the Corporal because of his cruel punishment for Tjaden's bed-wetting problem. For vengeance, Paul and his friends ambushed and beat Himmelstoss before they left for the front.
The soldiers are sent to put up barbed wire at the front. At night, during an artillery bombardment, the soldier dive for cover. The men set up the wire. Soon the artillery attacks them. Several men are hit, as well as horses. The shells tear up the graveyard they are in, uprooting coffins. Gas shells are deployed, and the men scramble to put on their masks. After another bombardment, more men die and are wounded. Still, the losses are fewer than expected, and the soldiers climb into the trucks and ride home.
The men are preoccupied with the arrival of Himmelstoss, who was removed from his training post for his barbaric tactics and forced to go to the front. Himmelstoss shows up, and soon he and Tjaden insult each other. The men realize that out of their class of twenty, seven are dead, four are wounded, and one is insane. They reminisce about Kantorek. Kropp points out that the young soldiers who did not have jobs before will have difficulty getting used to a new one after having fought in the war. Tjaden is put on trial in the evening. The lieutenant lectures Himmelstoss for his inappropriate behavior in training, and metes out open arrest for Tjaden and Kropp (for insulting Himmelstoss earlier). The men visit Tjaden and Kropp at night. Later, Kat and Paul steal a goose. When they cook it together, Paul reflects how intimate he and Kat have become.
Rumors of an offensive recall the soldiers to the front. Rats invade the worn-down trenches and assault the men's bread. Days pass with no major attacks. Finally, the enemy launches an artillery bombardment one night and continues through to the next day, but no full attack commences. No one can get through the bombardment to bring back food. Several recruits throw insane fits. Finally, the bombardment stops and the attack begins. Paul stares into the eyes of a Frenchman on the ground and eventually throws a grenade at him. The Germans reach the enemy line and repel the French. More casualties pile up in the coming days; the men cannot always retrieve their wounded comrades in no-man's-land, and they die out there. The shelling renews its strength. New recruits are brought in, but they die at high rates from foolish mistakes. Haie is wounded in the back. In the end, the battle is a success for the Germans, who have yielded just a few hundred yards to the French. The men ride away and regroup. Second Company has thirty-two men left.
The men are given some time to rest. Himmelstoss wants to make amends with the boys, and Paul is willing to forgive him, since Himmelstoss helped Haie when he was hit in the back. One night while swimming nude, the men see three French women across the bank of the canal. They make plans to meet the women at their house at night when there are no guards. At night, with some food and gifts stowed in their boots, the boys swim across the canal. A small brunette takes a liking to Paul, though he leaves in an unhappy mood.
Paul receives seventeen days' leave, after which he is to report to a training camp away from the front for four more weeks. As Paul buys the men drinks at the canteen, he wonders if he will see them all again--Haie has died by now, too. Paul takes the train to his home. His mother lies in bed, sick with cancer. Paul feels uncomfortable at home and with others, feeling they do not understand him. He spends most of his time alone. A former classmate of Paul's in nearby barracks tells him that Kantorek has been called into the war in a low rank. His friend torments Kantorek in military exercises, much to Paul's amusement. Paul sees Kemmerich's mother and lies that Kemmerich died immediately. On Paul's last night, his mother gives him advice about how to handle the war.
Paul has previously been to the camp on the moors for training, but he hardly knows anyone there now. A Russian prison camp is adjacent to theirs, and Paul studies the enemy prisoners as they scavenge for food. He is kind to them and observes a funeral they hold. One Russian who speaks some German plays violin for Paul and the other prisoners. Before Paul leaves for the front, he learns his mother is in the hospital, and she will soon undergo an operation for cancer.
Paul returns to his company, where the men prepare for the arrival of the Kaiser, who turns out to be less intimidating than Paul had imagined. After, the men discuss nationalism; Kropp wonders if both sides can possibly be "in the right," and Tjaden is curious as to how a war gets started and what its purpose is. The company returns to the devastated front. Paul volunteers to go on a patrol to find out how strong the enemy is. He later gets lost and must crawl into a muddy hole. A man falls into the hole, and Paul stabs the body. The man convulses and, by the morning, is still barely alive. Paul tends to the man's wounds. This is the first time Paul has killed a man in hand-to-hand combat. Finally, the man dies. Paul apologizes to the dead man and asks for forgiveness. At night, Paul crawls toward his trench.
Paul and his friends guard an abandoned village and watch over a supply dump. They make the most of the village's possessions, decorating and stocking with food the concrete cellar in which they shelter. The men happily spend nearly two weeks there, relaxing as the shells continue to destroy the village; all the soldiers need to protect is the supply dump. The men are sent to help evacuate a village. On their way in, they pass by the fleeing inhabitants. Shells soon drop and knock down Paul and Kropp; Kropp is hit in the knee. They are brought to a dressing station. Kropp says that if his leg is amputated, he will commit suicide. Later, a surgeon removes a piece of shell from Paul's leg. Paul bribes the army medical sergeant-major to keep him and Kropp together. Paul and Kropp share a room in a Catholic Hospital. Paul bonds with the other patients, though many are taken to die in the "Dying Room," and others are operated on unnecessarily for surgery that ends up crippling them. Kropp's leg is amputated at the thigh, and he becomes sullen and suicidal. After a few weeks, Paul is able to move his leg again. Kropp's stump has healed, though he is even more solemn than before. Paul goes on convalescent leave, and his mother, sicker than before, does not want to let him go again. Paul is recalled to his regiment.
By spring, the men remain hardened and closed off, but occasionally their true desires burst free, as when Detering deserts the company. He is caught by the military police, and no one hears anymore from him. Müller is killed, and Paul gets Kemmerich's boots. During an attack, the company's commander and Leer die. The summer of 1918 further devastates the Germans, who are on the brink of losing the war. There are rumors of an armistice. Kat is heavily wounded in the leg one day, and Paul carries him back to the dressing station, though he dies on the way--part of the shell hit his head, as well.
By autumn, only six others besides Paul from his class are left. They hope for an armistice to bring peace. Paul is unsure if he has fully subdued all the life within him, but feels it will "seek its own way out" somehow. In third-person narration, we learn that Paul died in October, 1918, on a day otherwise so calm that the army report merely stated "All quite on the Western Front." Paul's face seemed calm, "as though almost glad the end had come."