Ernst Junger writes about his experiences in the trenches of World War 1. It covers events of epic drama in a hyper-descriptive, unemotional fashion, which creates a weird, ambient feel of both drama and dread over time. What struck me most was how small the difference was between a victory and defeat for Junger.
History buffs, and anyone needing to see a contrast between our times of excessive virtuality and something very, very different.
Over time, and maybe not on purpose, but Storm of Steel presented a very broad view of the human experience by detailing a very narrow view of a very broad event – such is life in the trenches. Junger is pretty much one of a kind, and made to thrive on trench warfare – pretty much a German Sargent York, Audie Murphy, Captain America and Sargent Rock all rolled into one. The Great War was a transcendent experience for him, who knows how.
Maybe this is just what autism looks like in German people.
The Battle of Eparges was my first. It was very different from what I expected. I had been in a major combat operation, without having an opportunity to directly face an opponent. Only much later, I experienced that confrontation.
The security of a position is based on the freshness and the inexhaustible courage of its defenders, not on its construction and approaches, or on the depth of its trenches.
Old men crept along, slumped over by the new order of things. The war alienated them with brutal ruthlessness from the place where they had spent all their lives.
We interacted with the French locals only if we brought them our laundry for cleaning, or wanted to buy butter and eggs. Intimate relations among the sexes were extremely rare. Eroticism found no place in the dry, disrupted order of things.
was dubbed “Bellevue,” or “Beautiful View,” because of its wide-ranging vista of the battlefront.
Large pits were in the ground, strangely beckoning with their mysterious darkness. They sometimes revealed a cellar of a leveled house. Perhaps down below, the skeletons of unfortunate former residents were being gnawed by very busy swarms of rats.
However, we had in our company commander, Lieutenant d. R. Brecht, an officer who was the right man for defending such a place. A former German emigrant to America, he had hurried back over at the beginning of the war. His bold nature sought danger and brought him, in the end, a death full of glory.
Some cats are drawn from the destroyed villages into the trenches. They like to be close to the people. A large white cat, with a gunshot through the front paw, often haunts us, and seems to frequent both sides of the front.
The trench makes thousands of construction requests daily to us. We dig deep tunnels; build bomb shelters and concrete blockhouses; and prepare barbed-wire obstacles. We also create drainage systems; put down floor boarding and supports; level, increase, and slope off the earth; pour out latrines; and so on.
Thus our days passed in stressful monotony.
The only consolation was that the opposing Englishman fared no better. Our troops saw how energetically water was pumped from his trenches. Since we are somewhat on higher ground, we pumped downstream to him our abundance of water and mud.
The cascading water eroded trench walls. A number of buried bodies were exposed from the fighting of the previous autumn.
The local inhabitants (French civilians) were under strict discipline. Transgressions and offenses were punished by the local commander with prompt justice, e.g., painful fines and imprisonment. As much as I am in favor of the logic of the power concept, i.e., might makes right, its excesses were, in my view, too repugnant and embarrassing, even at that time.
For example, it was the duty of every inhabitant, even the women, to salute the German officers they encountered on the street. Such arrangements are pointless, degrading, and harmful. Yet we generated a lot of this animosity throughout the war. We were “smart” in little things, but weak in opposing severe harm to the heart of our cause.
However, I am tempted to say that we conversed more in a manner like a sportsman’s mutual respect, than as enemies. At the end of our talk, we even would have liked to exchange a gift as a souvenir. It has always been my ideal in war, to look at the enemy as opponents only in battle. I eliminate any personal feeling of hatred, and consider the courage of the man. I have learned that many English officers had similar feelings. As regards to our truce that day, we restored normal relations: The English officer and I solemnly agreed to return to war within three minutes after breaking off the negotiations.
In this and similar ways, we all had moments of losses due to carelessness that occurred with the constant handling of explosives. One unsettling neighbor in this respect was Lieutenant Pook. He lived in a lonely dugout in an intricate confusion of trenches behind the left flank. He had dragged there a number of huge artillery duds and busied himself by unscrewing the fuses and studying their design. If my duties led me near his place, I made a big detour around this eerie abode every time.
With all my energy, I had provided for the defense of my 200 meters (220 yards) of combat trenches, and for the welfare of my 60 men.
They had lit a roaring log fire and bent over the purifying flame to escape the effects of the chlorine. I joined them in this activity, until the shell fire had subsided, and then went forward through runner-trench Number 6.
We had endured an open air “blister” attack of pure chlorine, a poison gas that works by etching and burning the lungs.
Only a single Englishman climbed over and got through the obstacle. Our Lieutenant Brecht grabbed the man by the throat and greeted him in English with “Come here, you son of a bitch!” (Lieutenant Brecht had been a planter in America before the war.)
I only realized later that this patrol experience had gone to my nerves. That night, I lay with chattering teeth on a cot in the dugout and could not sleep despite the exhaustion. The next morning, I could barely walk, because out of one of my knees I extracted a long broken wire, and in the other, a piece of shrapnel protruded from the grenade thrown by Bartels.
You could tell that the man had tasted every horror until he despaired, and then had learned to despise it all. Nothing seemed left in him except a great and manly indifference.
Because of violent headaches and ear pains, we could communicate only by fragmentary, shouted words. The ability for logical thought and the sense of gravity seemed suspended.
Finally, our guide found the way again to reach the rendezvous point to deliver his promised squads of living corpses.
Behind me there was a persistent, unpleasant sound. I had a remarkable lack of emotion when I realized what it was. The noise came from a gigantic, decomposing corpse that was slowly merging into the surrounding soil. (The sound was the hissing outgas of rotting flesh.)
The excited, misplaced grasp of a single man, Sergeant H., had triggered our whole mighty war machine. He was, and remained, a man of misfortune. That same night, while loading his pistol, he even fired a flare into the legging of his boot. He had to be carried back with severe burns.
The doctor congratulated me for being so lucky, because the lead ball passed cleanly between the tibia and fibula, without injuring any bones. “Habent sua fata libelli et balli,” (“Books and bullets have their own destinies”) said the old Medical Corps student in Latin.
The days of Guillemont made known to me for the first time the devastating effects of the battle of materiel, the battle against things. We had to adapt to completely new forms of war.
Above all, there fell the flower of our disciplined youth into the dust. The lofty values that had made great the German people, shone there again in dazzling splendor. Yet, slowly those same values perished in a sea of mud and
Such small observations gave me a comforting assurance: In France, national pride is also not a characteristic of the general public. After the war, this realization helped me endure the remarkable reception which some of our comrades received upon returning to Germany, after four honorable years of hard combat. “Il y a des cochons partout.” (French for “There are pigs everywhere.”)―
stopped in my tracks. On the modern battlefield, unpopulated areas are always suspicious.
There were only five men remaining in the 2nd Company who had also celebrated the previous Christmas with me in the trenches of Monchy.
In war, everything is determined by unintended effects. From that probably also came the preference of field troops for alcohol in its concentrated forms. Sexual relations with the opposing civilian population was, in part, unwanted intimacy. Venus, the mythical goddess of love, deprived Mars, the god of war, of some of his servants.
We later learned that the whole position was undermined by the enemy (tunneling underneath to plant explosives).
Note:That is where that word originates
As for the English sergeant, he had both legs all but torn off by shrapnel from hand grenades. Yet with a stoic peace, he clenched his short pipe in his teeth up to the moment of death.
Soon, the land that awaited the advancing enemy, was transformed into a most desolate wasteland. The moral justification for this destruction is much disputed. However, it seems to me that the chauvinistic howls of rage then supporting it, is best interpreted as the satisfied cheers of armchair soldiers and newspaper writers. When thousands of peaceful people living in these areas were robbed of their homes, one has to mention the selfish pleasure of power.
As a necessity of fact, I am, as a Prussian officer, naturally without a moment of doubt (and follow orders). The conduct of war calls for seeking to destroy the opponent by varied uses of power without regards to consequences. War is the hardest of crafts; its master may be humane morality only so long as the heart is open to it, and as long as that heart itself cannot be hurt in the war.
This was the sole, but very important, message that I passed on to my superiors during the three weeks of my stay in Fresnoy. By itself, it justified my large organization devoted solely to the collection of intelligence. Alas, now, when my men were of greatest value, artillery fire knocked out of action almost all of my installations.This was the consequence of over-centralization, i.e., basing too many assets in a small area.
The frontline officer in war must sometimes commit tactical mistakes for reasons of a subjective nature (i.e., accept personal risk so as to maintain the respect of the men).
The respect for this commander raises every chivalrous-minded man in the ranks above himself, and spurs him on to ever greater achievements. As such, commander and men kindle within each other powerful manifestations of energy. The morale factor is the most important element of war.
I could say with satisfaction, that through mastery of the situation and personal influence on my people, I gave the enemy leader a bad disappointment and an early grave.
What did Nietzsche say about a warrior people? “You may only have enemies which are to be hated, but not enemies to be held in contempt. You must be proud of your enemy, then the achievements of the enemy are also your achievements (when you defeat him).”
To be a leader with a clear head, is in itself the finest reward a man can have, just as cowardice is its own punishment. I have always pitied the coward. For him, a battle becomes a series of hellish torments. By contrast, the courageous man is filled with great vigor, and views battle only as a chain of more exciting events.
This shows above all the consequences of an arcane system of promotion. Based solely on their seniority, i.e., years of service, officers of obscure military specialties are given command of infantry companies engaged in combat. Yet, in their previous service, they have not once ordered “Guns at the ready! Prepare to fire!” (The above company commander formerly belonged to the horse cavalry.) One may prefer such ancient traditions as seniority, if you believe you cannot manage without it. However, it should only be used where men’s lives are not at risk. O
Following the principle of old soldiers: “A good breakfast holds body and soul together,” my first action was to eat heartily. I then lit my pipe, and looked at what was going on outside our house.
The hours we just experienced were without a doubt the most dreadful of the whole war. You cower alone, scrunched up in your foxhole, and feel abandoned to a relentless, blind force of destruction. With horror, you sense that all your intelligence, skills, spiritual and physical abilities, have become trivial, laughable things. Already, while you are thinking this, iron projectiles could have begun their whining path through the sky to smash you into a formless nothing. Your anxiety focuses on your sense of hearing: You try to pick out the approaching flutter of the “Bringer of Death” from the clutter of background noise. For
Yet you are observed by someone. The symbolic man of morals may unconsciously work in you. He confines you to this place because of two powerful forces: Duty and Honor. You know you are placed in this piece of trench to fight, and a whole nation trusts that you will do your job. The feeling is that if I leave my position, I am a coward in my own eyes, a villain who must later blush at every word of praise. Hence, you clench your teeth and remain where you are, standing your ground.
The limestone was a reddish-white rock and crawling with fossils. After every time I walked through the trench, I came back to my dugout with pockets full of fossilized mussel shells, starfish, and Ammon horns.
The division commander greeted me very kindly and soon soothed my discontent. At lunch I sat next to him in a ragged field coat with a bandaged hand. I remembered the old saying, “Only bums are modest!”, and endeavored to depict our actions of the morning in the best light.
I jumped on this pathetic soldier, a product of a failed military training. By holding a pistol under his nose, I forced information from him. If since then, the man has not yet been killed or deserted, he will certainly have bolstered the antiwar activists of the German Spartacus League as a worthy member.
It is not good to send two sons to war in the same regiment. We had four pairs of brothers in the officer corps of the regiment. Of these eight young people, five fell in battle, and two, including my brother, took severe injuries back to their homes. I am the only one who has come out in some measure unharmed. This small example illustrates the losses of the Fusiliers Regiment.
His first words demonstrated that I had a man in front of me: “We were surrounded.” He was compelled to declare to his opponent why his company had so quickly yielded. We chatted in French about different topics.
Even modern industrial war has its moments of glory. One hears so often the mistaken view that infantry combat has sunk to a dull mass slaughter. On the contrary, today more than ever, the individual soldier decides the outcome. This is known by everyone who has seen them in their kingdom: Soldiers are princes of the trench, and rule with hard, determined faces. They are daring and fluid, gracefully jumping back and forth with sharp, bloodthirsty eyes. They are the heroes that no official report ever cites by name.
One time, a gunner in my company tested his light machine gun and accidentally shot the commander of a regiment of foreign allies. The latter was on a saddle-horse in the midst of a parade review. Fortunately, the wound was slight, and our involvement not clearly proven.
Every midday at exactly 12 noon, a black ball was lowered from our observation balloons, and then disappeared at 12:10 p.m. This was apparently done to provide the troops with more exact hourly time.
Someday, after the passage of many years, the waves of hatred against us will fade; history will then recognize that we fought like a people never before us.
Yet immediately retorted the other voice, “Man, you’re the company commander!” Exactly so. I do not say it to boast. I would rather say: To whom God gives a position of authority, God also gives the wisdom to do it.
I reached the end of my mental rope with this last observation. I threw myself to the ground and burst into convulsive sobs. My people stood around me in a dark mood.
Also in the bomb shelter were the advanced scouts who had gotten us lost in the first place. Since that day, whenever we moved into a new position, I have always personally made the selection of the advanced scouts, and with the greatest care. War is a great teacher of fundamental lessons, but the tuition is expensive.
Our joy was disturbed by tears and the burning of our mucous membranes. The wind was blowing back the toxic vapors of our own gas-filled shells! The unpleasant effects of “Blue Cross” gas (hydrogen cyanide)—gagging and coughing—forced many people to tear off their gas masks. I was very worried about the gas, but I firmly trusted our leaders. They could not possibly have made a miscalculation that would be our undoing. Still, by summoning all my energy, I forced back my first coughs, so as to avoid increasing attention to the problem.
Note:So mny expressions came from ww1
The immense desire for destruction dominated our thinking and behavior. It weighed heavily upon the battlefield, and concentrated itself in the brain. This was not unique in history. The men of the Renaissance were in the grip of passion. Cellini, the Florentine artist, wanted to be full of fury. Werewolves, on the other hand, rushed howling through the night to drink blood.
A bullet hit him in the eye, and he fell dead at the bottom of the trench. The man had been the last man alive in Lieutenant Wedelstädt’s company. When Wedelstädt saw him fall, he leaned his head on the trench wall and wept. The lieutenant would also not survive the day. I
As I learned later, the artillery had orders to fire continuously at maximum range into the enemy’s rear. This incomprehensible arrangement tore from our grasp the most beautiful fruits of victory. Grudgingly gnashing our teeth, we had to call a halt to our advance in front of the fiery wall of artillery blasts.
However, my escort claimed that he could not see my brains coming out. So, I pulled myself up and ran on with him.
There this sixth double-wounding healed as well as the previous ones.
Then we had to one more time to retreat to the main defensive trench in the rear, because our relief battalion had been nearly wiped out by the Spanish disease (a world-wide flu epidemic). Also in our own company, several men daily reported sick. In the neighboring division the flu also raged strongly.
I attempted to stop the “friendly fire.” I sent one protest after another to the artillery command posts. I urgently called for a cease fire, or for the presence of artillery officers, or spotters, in the trench. Instead of answering me, a heavy mortar began to again fire on us, and, in my opinion, completely made the trench into a slaughterhouse.
Note:Friendly Fire way higher than thought
The bright full moon of the nights favored frequent visits by enemy aircraft. They gave us an idea of the overwhelming material superiority of the opposite side. Night after night, multiple squadrons floated and zoomed
The discipline of drilling, e.g., practice marching in formation, is a means to an end. No army can do without it. Neither formal education, nor athletic training, can entirely replace strict drilling. A man who has doubtful self-esteem in a crisis, must learn to obey orders, even in a dull stupor. His instincts to run from danger must be curbed by the spirited demands of his commander, even in the most terrifying moments.
found it quite smart for the English to bomb the German mind with poems, and also quite flattering for us. A war where you fight through poetic verses would be a quite blessed invention.
A bullet had pierced his steel helmet and struck him in the temple. This brave man sealed his loyalty to his commander with death. He was a teacher’s son from Letter, a town near Hanover. I later visited his family, and hold his memory sacred.
Although I have not been an enemy of women, their feminine nature irritated me every time when my fate after battle was thrown into the bed of a sick ward. From the masculine, goal-oriented, and practical actions of war, I was immersed in an atmosphere of indefinable, emotional outpourings. A pleasant exception was the down-to-earth practicality of the Catholic order of sisters.
However, at age 23, author Ernst Jünger finished the war as one of the most decorated soldiers on either side. He survived being wounded on seven occasions, and never fought troops from his cherished American West. See
A “Fusilier” was an 18th-cenetury soldier armed with a light flintlock musket, or “fusil.”]
No less than Hitler himself admired Mr. Jünger’s war memoir, and the Nazis actively courted Mr. Jünger. Mr. Jünger, though, politely, but firmly, refused to join the Nazi Party.
Mr. Jünger also distanced himself from rising antisemitism. He and his brother both resigned in protest from their veterans’ organization, after its Jewish members were expelled.
wing organizations associated with Mr. Jünger. On the eve of the Second World War, the author published On Marble Cliffs, a thinly veiled, anti-Hitler allegory.
Mr. Jünger ultimately published around 50 books. In 1982, he won the much-coveted Goethe Prize of the City of Frankfurt. However, passionate left-wing protesters raged through the streets, denouncing his alleged militarism.
In 1992, captured Nazi archives from the collapsed Soviet Union became available. A stunning 1944 memo confirmed the planned arrest by the Nazis of one Captain Ernst Jünger for disloyalty. Surprisingly, the German dictator Adolf Hitler abruptly halted the proceedings, without comment, and much to the disappointment of his henchmen.