In war you learn your lessons, and they stay learned, but the tuition fees are high. – Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel
Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel provides readers with a graphic recounting of his service in the German Army during the First World War. An honest account of a young man’s thoughts, feelings and beliefs from a century ago, Jünger kept a private diary of his experiences, pulling no punches about what life was like for the common soldier in a time of bloodshed and chaos.
Through Jünger’s eyes, we see the way war strategies evolved and improved. In his early days, trench warfare was the standard. He provides detailed recollections of what a 24 hour cycle in trench duty was like, where scenes like this one were the norm:
A sentry collapses, streaming blood. Shot in the head. His comrades rip the bandage roll out of his tunic and get him bandaged up. ’There’s no point, Bill.’ ’Come on, he’s still breathing, isn’t he?’ Then the stretcher-bearers come along, to carry him to the dressing-station. The stretcher poles collide with the corners of the fire-bays. No sooner has the man disappeared than everything is back to the way it was before. Someone spreads a few shovelfuls of earth over the red puddle, and everyone goes back to whatever he was doing before.
As the war dragged on and new technologies emerged, Jünger was deployed as a shock trooper, rushing enemy trenches and fortifications. The later chapters, when Jünger describes the battles he took part in as a shock trooper are particularly powerful. Most stunning, perhaps, is his description of a shell explosion happening in his vicinity during the second Battle of Cambrai:
There was another whistle high up in the air. Everyone had the choking feeling: this one’s heading our way! Then there was a huge, stunning explosion – the shell had hit in our midst.
Half stunned I stood up. From the big crater, burning machine- gun belts spilled a coarse pinkish light. It lit the smouldering smoke of the explosion, where a pile of charred bodies were writhing, and the shadows of those still living were fleeing in all directions. Simultaneously, a grisly chorus of pain and cries for help went up. The rolling motion of the dark mass in the bottom of the smoking and glowing cauldron, like a hellish vision, for an instant tore open the extreme abysm of terror.
After a moment of paralysis, of rigid shock, I leaped up, and like all the others, raced blindly into the night. I tumbled head- first into a shell-hole, and only there did I finally grasp what had happened. Not to see or hear anything any more, out of this place, off into deep darkness! But the men! I had to tend to them, they were my responsibility. I forced myself to return to that terrible place. On the way, I saw Fusilier Haller, who had captured the machine-gun at Regnieville, and I took him with me.
The wounded men were still uttering their terrible cries. A few crawled up to me, and when they recognized my voice, wailed: ’Lieutenant, sir, Lieutenant!’ One of my best-loved recruits, Jasinski, whose thigh had been crumpled by a splinter, grabbed hold of my legs. Cursing my inability to be of assistance, I patted him feebly on the back. Moments like that are not easily shaken off.
Despite being surrounded by death and destruction, Jünger maintained a laudable perspective, always being mindful of the fact that his enemies were men just like him. As told from his point of view, there was cordial respect between the warring factions. It doesn’t seem to have been as dehumanizing a conflict as World War Two.
Throughout the war, it was always my endeavour to view my opponent without animus, and to form an opinion of him as a man on the basis of the courage he showed. I would always try and seek him out in combat and kill him, and I expected nothing else from him. But never did I entertain mean thoughts of him. When prisoners fell into my hands, later on, I felt responsible for their safety, and would always do everything in my power for them.
Jünger managed to survive the war, despite being injured 14 times, becoming a literary celebrity upon the release of his book. During the Second World War, he served mostly in Paris, but was careful to distance himself from the Nazi establishment, never endorsing them. He continued to write throughout his life, publishing more than 50 works. He traveled extensively. Towards the end of his life, he was recognized by world leaders, including Helmut Kohl and Franƒçois Mitterrand. He died in February 1998, aged 102.
This memoir is a poignant reminder of just how destructive war is. As we mark 100 years since the beginning of World War One, Storm of Steel is a frank look back on the carnage that was endured during that terrible conflict. I highly recommend this book.