The memoir widely viewed as the best account ever written of fighting in WW1
A memoir of astonishing power, savagery, and ashen lyricism, Storm of Steel illuminates not only the horrors but also the fascination of total war, seen through the eyes of an ordinary German soldier. Young, tough, patriotic, but also disturbingly self-aware, Jünger exulted in the Great War, which he saw not just as a great national conflict but—more importantly—as a unique personal struggle. Leading raiding parties, defending trenches against murderous British incursions, simply enduring as shells tore his comrades apart, Jünger kept testing himself, braced for the death that will mark his failure. Published shortly after the war’s end, Storm of Steel was a worldwide bestseller and can now be rediscovered through Michael Hofmann’s brilliant new translation.
“Storm of Steel” is hailed as the definitive account of WWI combat, pieced together from the diary of its author, Ernst Jünger. As most soldiers in modern warfare, Jünger signed up to fight as a young man of 19. Born March 29th, 1895, in Heidelberg, Germany, Ernst was the son of a successful and influential businessman and chemist. His father’s influence would later help him avoid trial after running away to join the French Foreign Legion in 1913, an illegal act in Germany at the time. In 1914, Ernst volunteered for the German army and served as an officer on the western front in some of the largest battles of the war including the Somme, Flanders, and Cambrai. During the war, he was wounded no less than 7 times, and depending on your definition of a wound, as many as 14 times. On 2 separate occasions, he took a bullet to the chest. In the second of these chest wounds, the bullet passed through his lung. Jünger’s survival of the first world war can be described as miraculous in light of the considerable risks he took. He was an exceptionally brave soldier. What determines one’s ability to survive under such circumstances is debatable and I am sure luck plays a major role. This is a theme we will return to later.
Ernst was described as a self aware soldier with a militaristic attitude as well as a strong sense of radical nationalism and a fondness of authoritarian government. Despite these attributes, he disapproved of the Nazi party and during Hitler’s chancellorship, authored an allegory about barbarian devastation of a peaceful land, “On the Marble Cliffs”, which somehow flew under the radar of government censorship and was published in 1939. Junger served briefly in WWII and was dismissed in 1944 after fellow officers implicated him in a plot to kill Hitler.
In the forward to “Storm of Steel” ex-Marine Karl Marlantes describes Jünger as a Born Soldier. When reading “Storm of Steel”, it is true that there was something about Ernst’s disposition that made him successful on the battlefield as a leader and a fighter. That being said, there is certainly more to the young man than just a desire to succeed in combat. The first thing one notices about Jünger’s writing is that for the most part, it is very matter of fact. Marlantes attributes this to Jünger’s age, pointing out that young men normally do not have developed political or philosophical viewpoints and tend to be more material in their assessment of the world. The caveat is that Jünger’s writing is punctuated from time to time by passages that read almost like poetry. This is almost certainly due to his affluent upbringing and allows him to provide a unique perspective on the experience of combat. Jünger writes of his thoughts immediately after receiving the first of his chest wounds:
“I supposed I’d been hit in the heart, but the prospect of death neither hurt nor frightened me. As I fell, I saw the smooth white pebbles in the muddy road; their arrangement made sense, it was as necessary as that of the stars, and certainly great wisdom was hidden in it. That concerned me, and mattered more than the slaughter that was going on all around me.”
Having never been there myself, I cannot account for what may go through one’s mind when they believe they are facing immanent death. The response to chemical reactions in the brain aside, I doubt I would have had such insight at that age. I am guessing a combination of fear and rage at a world gone mad would have been at the forefront of my young psyche. The point I am trying to make is that Jünger’s intellect afforded him a level of insight that allowed him to present a personal account of combat that is devoid of politics and emotion while still offering us moments of eloquent description of otherwise violent and frightening events. It is my opinion that the matter of fact writing style is due to what can be almost a scientific approach to the observation of, and participation in, war. The seeing of something for what it is in its raw form, without the trappings of politics and emotion. A purely academic pursuit, if you will, mixed with the intoxicating rush of adrenaline that combat provides.
Jünger was a bookworm at heart and gives numerous accounts of his reading addiction. In fact, he was oft to read during prolonged artillery bombardments, as shells were exploding literally yards away, crouched in a trench dugout as his comrades fell around him. It would be easy, from this description, to think that Ernst was shirking his responsibilities as a warrior and a leader, indulging in his literary pursuits as opposed to leading his men. In reality, this behavior actually helps to shed light on the nature of combat in the world’s first fully mechanized war. This now brings us to the real meat of “Storm of Steel”, fighting on the front.
A standard WWI battle almost certainly began with a bombardment. The shelling could last anywhere from 1 hour to several days. Creeping, or rolling bombardments, were often employed, gradually increasing the range of the bombardment in an attempt to push enemy soldiers back as your forces advanced. In one instance, Ernst and his men actually caught up to their own rolling bombardment and had to backtrack, but only after taking casualties. Friendly fire was very common in those times and many soldiers were lost to their own artillery and rifles. The bombardments were scheduled to run up to a certain time, growing in intensity. Jünger provides many vivid descriptions of the shelling:
“The watch hands moved round; we counted off the last few minutes. At last, it was five past five. The tempest was unleashed. A flaming curtain went up, followed by unprecedentedly brutal roaring. A wild thunder, capable of suppressing even the loudest detonations in its rolling, made the earth shake. The gigantic roaring of the innumerable guns behind us was so atrocious that even the greatest of the battles we had experienced seemed like a tea party in comparison.”
“Ahead of us rumbled and thundered artillery fire of a volume we had never dreamed of; a thousand quivering lightnings bathed the western horizon in a sea of flame.”
Jünger later elaborates on this “brutal roaring”, claiming that after a while there is no space between explosions. It becomes a kind of white noise that one learns to live with and will only hear if one listens for it. The shelling had to be one of the most terrifying aspects of the war. You could not predict where the shells would land. Shrapnel and debris killed as many as outright explosions and would often riddle a soldier with “splinters” leaving the man next to him unscathed. A surprising number of shells were duds. Jünger was one of countless soldiers who looked up only to see a shell heading straight for them, expecting the ordnance to bring the end along with it. In this case, the dud thudded into the dirt inches in front of him. Others were not so lucky when the grim trajectory of shells that failed to explode still found their mark. In these prolonged shellings, your continued survival was left to fate. Jünger gives us an analogy to describe the experience of being under bombardment:
“…you must imagine you are securely tied to a post, being threatened by a man swinging a heavy hammer. Now the hammer has been taken back over his head, ready to be swung, now it’s cleaving the air towards you, on the point of touching your skull, then it’s struck the post, and splinters are flying – that’s what it’s like to experience heavy shelling in an exposed position.”
By now, you should get the picture. Short of retreat, there was no way to guarantee one’s safety during a bombardment and it seems in the face of such hopeless reliance on fate, what is the difference if one chooses to cower, sob in fear, run around like mad, or to chill out and read a book? Of course, surviving the shelling was only the first step toward making it home alive. When the heavy mortars begin to fire, the soldiers in the trenches knew it would soon be time to go over the top. Foot soldiers of the great war were essentially clean up crews, there to finish what the artillery could not. Man on man combat in WWI was often chaotic and brutal while at the same time undisciplined and reckless. Again, friendly fire incidents were common. Often times a squad would advance behind enemy lines and approach the line of skirmish from their enemies back which often led to cases of mistaken identity. One of the times that Ernst was shot, he was wearing a British officer’s coat that he had donned in the heat of battle and was mistaken for an enemy combatant. Luckily, there was no harsh feelings toward his countryman who had wounded him. Just an apology and the suggestion that Jünger remove the coat before someone else finished the job. The use of grenades in WWI accurately captures the fighting methods of young men who were thrown into the heat of battle with minimal training. Jünger describes the tactics for dealing with an enemy counter attack:
“Small reverses can be a serious matter in trench fighting. A little troop makes its way to the van, shooting and throwing. As the grenade-throwers leap backwards and forwards to get out of the way of the lethal projectiles, they encounter the men coming up behind who have got too near. The result is confusion. Maybe some men will jump over the top, and get themselves picked off by snipers, which encourages the rest of the enemy like no one’s business.”
In today’s military engagements, grenades are used to clear rooms or remove enemy combatants from entrenched positions. In WWI, they were used as an offensive weapon no different than a gun or blade. What a sight to an outside observer. 2 groups of men, separated by a trench wall or shell crater, chucking hand held bombs at one another, dancing to and fro trying to avoid the explosions. It would almost be humorous if not for its lethal intent. The insanity did not stop there, as the use of guns was also an exercise in recklessness and chance. Per Jünger’s descriptions, most projectile weapons were fired from long range into the fog and smoke, with no specific target in sight. Death by bullet was for the most part random and unexpected. That is not to say close range gun battles did not happen, but they were rare. So much so that Jünger’s description of his first close range engagement makes it seem like a welcome diversion:
“With only twenty men, we had seen off a detachment several times larger, and attacking us from more than one side, and in spite of the fact we had orders to withdraw if we were outnumbered. It was precisely an engagement like this that I’d been dreaming of during the longueurs of positional warfare.”
It is obvious that Jünger was drawn to combat, but did not revel in killing. In one instance, as Jünger and his men advance on the enemy trenches during a route, he encounters a British officer. Immediately, he puts his pistol to the man’s temple. The officer reaches into his coat for what Jünger assumed would be a weapon. Instead, the young man reveals a picture of his family. According to Jünger:
“It was a plea from another world. Later, I thought it was blind chance that I let him go and plunged onward. That one man of all often appeared in my dreams. I hope that meant he got to see his homeland again.”
What I always found interesting about WWI was the relationships between enemy combatants. We have all heard the stories of soldiers emerging from their trenches on a Christmas eve to make peace if just for a night. “Storm of Steel” is full of events such as these. They may lack the poignancy or symbolism of a Christmas truce, but they still serve to show the nature of the war. Generally, there did not appear to be outright animosity or hatred towards one’s enemy as is the unfortunate case with many of today’s conflicts. Taking prisoners was common, and surrender equally so as the POW’s knew they would be treated fairly. Combatants taken prisoner by the Germans were afforded the same food and housing as their captors and were provided with paper and pens so they could write to their families, letting them know they were okay and would return home when the war was over. An example of the lack of animosity between combatants is summed up nicely in a letter received by Jünger, after the war ended. While describing his encounter with a battalion of Scotsmen:
“I took my turn behind one of the lead-spitters, and fired till my index finger was black with smoke. It might have been here that I hit the Scotsman who wrote me a nice letter from Glasgow afterwards, with an exact description of the location where he got his wound.”
Wow! I read a lot of first hand accounts of combat in the current wars we find ourselves mired in and I have yet to read an example of a fighter writing a “nice letter” to the enemy who almost took his life. This congeniality between enemies seems so far removed from how we tend to view warfare today, but offers insight into how at the time it was said this would be the war to end all wars. The feeling you get from Jüngers account is that for many WWI combatants, this was nothing more than a duty to be performed for God and country with a little preservation or possible expansion of territory thrown in for good measure. Animosity toward the enemy was not a given. Of course there were exceptions. There was one incident where Jünger and his men did find themselves in a fit of rage after losing several squad members, and engaged in an exuberant attack while pressing the advantage. Here, the idea of the enemy as someone like you, just doing their duty in circumstances beyond their control, is tossed aside in favor of vengeance.
“As we advanced, we were in the grip of a berserk rage. The overwhelming desire to kill lent wings to my stride. Rage squeezed bitter tears from my eyes. The immense desire to destroy that overhung the battlefield precipitated a red mist in our brains. We called out sobbing and stammering fragments of sentences to one another, and an impartial observer might have concluded that we were all ecstatically happy.”
In this passage, Jünger has taken us to the other side of his merciful sparing of a British officer’s life to the state of mind that can spread through a fighting group when their breaking point has been reached and the tides of fortune have been turned in their favor. This is a grim reminder that even the most collected and rational person can be swept up in the intoxicating grip of violent revenge.
So far, we have explored what made Jünger a successful soldier as well as the conditions of combat in WWI. While these are the essential themes of “Storm of Steel”, I would like to return to the subject of luck, as promised at the beginning of this review. What struck me about this book is how it came to be in the first place. Not only do we have a soldier who survived an infinite of chance encounters with death, but an educated and well spoken soldier at that. On top of this, he managed to keep a journal during the entire ordeal. This journal also survived the war. Remember the incident where Ernst was hit by friendly fire while wearing a British officer’s coat? Turns out that his diary was in the pocket of said coat. If Jünger’s comrade who had helped him off the field of battle had not thought to take the coat along with his other personal effects, the diary may have been left behind and one of the most robust accounts of fighting on the western front would have been lost.
“Storm of Steel” is the result of the perfect storm of courage under fire and pure luck. The first hand account it offers of WWI combat as well as the life and attitudes of the soldiers who fought is an essential work for history buffs and action junkies alike. Its often poetic prose shows us equally the horrors and the grim beauty of war on a massive scale.
Ernst Jünger died, 1998, in Riedlingen, Germany.
If you enjoy “Storm of Steel” and want to read more of Jünger’s writing, you can find the following books in our collection:
For some more from Jünger’s diary, click to link to historian Chris Gherz’s blog, where in his post “A War of Words“, he provides images and passages from Jünger’s diary as well as a critique of “Storm of Steel” against Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”.
The memoir widely viewed as the best account ever written of fighting in WW1