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In Germany at the dawn of World War I, a military parade is followed by a rousing speech by a schoolmaster (Kantorek) convincing his young students to enlist in the Army and "save the Fatherland". The young enlistees are then seen in basic training, aching for "action" fighting in the war. Their training officer (Himmelstoss, a strict disciplinarian who is hated by all the recruits) tells them to forget everything they know; they are going to become soldiers. Rigorous training diminishes the recruits' enthusiasm some, but after little more than marching drills, suddenly the cadets are told they are "going up front".

The new soldiers arrive by train to the combat zone, which is mayhem, with soldiers everywhere, incoming shells, horse-drawn wagons racing around, and constant rain. One in the group is killed before the new recruits can reach their post, worrying one of the new soldiers (Behn). The new soldiers "fresh from the turnip patch" are assigned to a unit composed of older soldiers, who are not exactly accommodating. The young soldiers are shocked to find out there is no food available at their post, as they have not eaten since breakfast – but their new unit has not had food for two days. They have sent out a scrounger to locate something to eat and he returns with a slaughtered hog. The young soldiers have to "pay" for their dinner with cigarettes.

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