Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel chronicles his experiences on the Western Front in the First World War. It is widely considered one of the finest portrayals of mechanized warfare in all of literature. Its textual history reveals the intense feelings regarding his service in World War I that Jünger carried with him all his life: first published privately in 1920 as excerpts from Jünger’s diary, the text was revised eight times; the last iteration was the 1961 version for Jünger’s Collected Works. Jünger perversely stated in the preface to the 1929 English edition that "Time only strengthens my conviction that it was a good and strenuous life, and that the war, for all its destructiveness, was an incomparable schooling of the heart." Such observations earned him the reputation of a writer who glorified war, even the mindless, mechanized mass slaughter of trench warfare in W.W. I. Yet Jünger’s mimetic gifts persuade us that he saw not just the glory but also the cruelty and stupidity of the war, and catalogued with total precision the impressions the war left on his heart and psyche. Often dismissed as a conservative reactionary or an unrepentant militarist, Jünger’s portrayal of the absurd and senseless aspects of the daily life of a soldier in the Great War earns Storm of Steel a place next to Louis Ferdinand-Céline’s brilliant Journey to the End of the Night.
Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel
For the fallen
In the Chalk Trenches of Champagne
The train stopped at Bazancourt, a small town in Champagne, and we got out. Full of awe and incredulity, we listened to the slow grinding pulse of the front, a rhythm we were to become mightily familiar with over the years. The white ball of a shrapnel shell melted far off, suffusing the grey December sky. The breath of battle blew across to us, and we shuddered. Did we sense that almost all of us — some sooner, some later — were to be consumed by it, on days when the dark grumbling yonder would crash over our heads like an incessant thunder?
We had come from lecture halls, school desks and factory workbenches, and over the brief weeks of training, we had bonded together into one large and enthusiastic group. Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war. We had set out in a rain of flowers, in a drunken atmosphere of blood and roses. Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted; the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience. We thought of it as manly, as action, a merry duelling party on flowered, blood-bedewed meadows. ‘No finer death in all the world than …’ Anything to participate, not to have to stay at home!
‘Form up by platoon!’ Our heated fantasies cooled down on the march through the claggy soil of Champagne. Knapsacks, munition belts and rifles hung round our necks like lead weights. ‘Ease up! Keep up at the back!’
Finally we reached Orainville, one of the typical hamlets of the region, and the designated base for the 73rd Rifles, a group of fifty brick and limestone houses, grouped round a chateau in parkland.
Used as we were to the order of cities, the higgledy-piggledy life on the village streets struck us as exotic. We saw only a few, ragged, shy civilians; everywhere else soldiers in worn and tattered tunics, with faces weather-beaten and often with a heavy growth of beard, strolling along at a slow pace, or standing in little clusters in doorways, watching our arrival with ribald remarks. In a gateway there was a glowing field kitchen, smelling of pea soup, surrounded by men jingling their mess-tins as they waited to eat. It seemed that, if anything, life was a little slower and duller here, an impression strengthened by the evidence of dilapidation in the village.
We spent our first night in a vast barn, and in the morning were paraded before the regimental adjutant, First Lieutenant von Brixen, in the courtyard of the chateau. I was assigned to the 9th Company.
Our first day of war was not to pass without making a decisive impression upon us. We were sitting over breakfast in the school where we were quartered. Suddenly there was a series of dull concussions, and all the soldiers rushed out of the houses towards the entrance of the village. We followed suit, not really knowing why. Again, there was a curious fluttering and whooshing sound over our heads, followed by a sudden, violent explosion. I was amazed at the way the men around me seemed to cower while running at full pelt, as though under some frightful threat. The whole thing struck me as faintly ridiculous, in the way of seeing people doing things one doesn’t properly understand.
Immediately afterwards, groups of dark figures emerged on to the empty village street, carrying black bundles on canvas stretchers or fireman’s lifts of their folded hands. I stared, with a queasy feeling of unreality, at a blood-spattered form with a strangely contorted leg hanging loosely down, wailing ‘Help! Help!’ as if sudden death still had him by the throat. He was carried into a building with a Red Cross flag draped over the doorway.
What was that about? War had shown its claws, and stripped off its mask of cosiness. It was all so strange, so impersonal. We had barely begun to think about the enemy, that mysterious, treacherous being somewhere. This event, so far beyond anything we had experienced, made such a powerful impression on us that it was difficult to understand what had happened. It was like a ghostly manifestation in broad daylight.
A shell had burst high up over the chateau entrance, and had hurled a cloud of stone and debris into the gateway, just as the occupants, alerted by the first shots, were rushing out. There were thirteen fatalities, including Gebhard the music master, whom I remembered well from the promenade concerts in Hanover. A tethered horse had had a keener sense of the approaching danger than the men, and had broken free a few seconds before, and galloped into the courtyard, where it remained unhurt.
Even though the shelling could recommence at any moment, I felt irresistibly drawn to the site of the calamity. Next to the spot where the shell had hit dangled a little sign where some wag had written ‘Ordnance this way’. The castle was clearly felt to be a dangerous place. The road was reddened with pools of gore; riddled helmets and sword belts lay around. The heavy iron chateau gate was shredded and pierced by the impact of the explosive; the kerbstone was spattered with blood. My eyes were drawn to the place as if by a magnet; and a profound change went through me.
Talking to my comrades, I saw that the incident had rather blunted their enthusiasm for war. That it had also had an effect on me was instanced by numerous auditory hallucinations, so that I would mistake the trundling of a passing cart, say, for the ominous whirring of the deadly shell.
This was something that was to accompany us all through the war, that habit of jumping at any sudden and unexpected noise. Whether it was a train clattering past, a book falling to the floor, or a shout in the night — on each occasion, the heart would stop with a sense of mortal dread. It bore out the fact that for four years we lived in the shadow of death. The experience hit so hard in that dark country beyond consciousness, that every time there was a break with the usual, the porter Death would leap to the gates with hand upraised, like the figure above the dial on certain clock towers, who appears at the striking of the hour, with scythe and hourglass.
The evening of that same day brought the long-awaited moment of our moving, with full pack, up to battle stations. The road took us through the ruins of the village of Betricourt, looming spectrally out of the half-dark, to the so-called ‘Pheasantry’, an isolated forester’s house, buried in some pine woods, where the regimental reserve was housed, of which, to this point, the 9th Company had formed a part. Their commander was Lieutenant Brahms.
We were welcomed, divided up into platoons, and before long found ourselves in the society of bearded, mud-daubed fellows, who greeted us with a kind of ironic benevolence. They asked us how things were back in Hanover, and whether the war might not be over soon. Then the conversation turned, with us all listening avidly, to short statements about earthworks, field kitchens, stretches of trench, shell bombardment, and other aspects of stationary warfare.
After a little while, a shout rang out in front of our cottage-like billet to ‘Turn out!’ We formed up into our platoons, and on the order ‘Load and safety!’ we felt a little twinge of arousal as we rammed clips of live ammunition into our magazines.
Then silent progress, in Indian file, through the landscape dobbed with dark patches of forest to the front. Isolated shots rang out from time to time, or a rocket flared up with a hiss to leave us in deeper darkness following its short spectral flash. Monotonous clink of rifles and field shovels, punctuated by the warning cry: ‘Watch it, barbed wire!’
Then a sudden jingling crash and a man swearing: ‘Dammit, why couldn’t you tell me there’s a crater!’ A corporal shuts him up: ‘Pipe down, for Christ’s sake, do you think the French are wearing earplugs?’ More rapid progress. The uncertain night, the flickering of flares and the slow crackling of rifle fire produce a kind of subdued excitement that keeps us strangely on our toes. From time to time, a stray bullet whines past chilly into the distance. How often since that first time I’ve gone up the line through dead scenery in that strange mood of melancholy exaltation!
At last we dropped into one of the communication trenches that wound their way through the night like white snakes to the front. There I found myself standing between a couple of traverses, lonely and shivering, staring hard into a line of pines in front of the trench, where my imagination conjured up all sorts of shadowy figures, while the occasional stray bullet slapped into the boughs and somersaulted down with a whistle. The only diversion in this seemingly endless time was being collected by an older comrade, and trotting off together down a long, narrow passage to an advance sentry post, where, once again, it was our job to gaze out into the terrain in front. I was given a couple of hours to try to find an exhausted sleep in a bare chalk dugout. When the sky lightened, I was pale and clay-daubed, and so was everyone else; I felt I had lived this sort of mole’s life for many months already.
The regiment had taken up a position winding through the chalky Champagne soil, facing the village of Le Godat. On the right, it abutted a tattered area of woodland, the so-called ‘Shell Wood’, and from there it zigzagged across vast sugar-beet fields, where we could see the luminous red trousers of dead French attackers dotted about, to the course of a stream, across which communications with the 74th Regiment were kept open by patrols at night. The stream poured over the weir of a destroyed mill ringed by brooding trees. For months, its water had been laving the black parchment faces of the dead of a French colonial regiment. An eerie place, especially at night, when the moon cast moving shadows through breaks in the clouds, and the sounds of the rushes and the murmuring water were joined by others less easily accounted for.
The regimen was taxing, beginning at dusk, for which the entire complement was made to stand to in the trench. Between ten at night and six in the morning, only two men out of each platoon were allowed to sleep at a time, which meant that we got two hours a night each, though they were eaten into by being woken early, having to fetch straw, and other occupations, so that there were only a few minutes left as a rule.
Guard duty was either in the trench or else in one of the numerous forward posts that were connected to the line by long, buried saps; a type of insurance that was later given up, because of their exposed position.
The endless, exhausting spells of sentry duty were bearable so long as the weather happened to be fine, or even frosty; but it became torture once the rain set in in January. Once the wet had saturated the canvas sheeting overhead, and your coat and uniform, and trickled down your body for hours on end, you got into a mood that nothing could lighten, not even the sound of the splashing feet of the man coming towards you to relieve you. Dawn lit exhausted, clay-smeared figures who, pale and teeth chattering, flung themselves down on the mouldy straw of their dripping dugouts.
Those dugouts! They were holes hacked into the chalk, facing the trench, roofed over with boards and a few shovelfuls of earth. If it had been raining, they would drip for days afterwards; a desperate waggishness kitted them out with names like ‘Stalactite Cavern’, ‘Men’s Public Baths’, and other such. If several men wanted to rest at the same time, they had no option but to stick their legs out into the trench, where anyone passing was bound to trip over them. In the circumstances, there was not much chance of sleep in the daytime either. Besides, we had two hours of sentry duty in the day too, as well as having to make running repairs to the trench, go for food, coffee, water, and whatever else.
Clearly, this unaccustomed type of existence hit us hard, especially since most of us had had only a nodding acquaintance with real work. Furthermore, we were not received out here with open arms, as we’d expected. The old-stagers took every opportunity to pull our legs, and every tedious or unexpected assignment was put the way of us ‘war-wantons’. That instinct, which had survived the switch from barracks yard to war, and which did nothing to improve our mood, ceased after the first battle we fought in side by side, after which we saw ourselves as ‘old-stagers’.
The period in which the company lay in reserve was not much cosier. We dwelt in fir-branch camouflaged earth huts round the ‘Pheasantry’ or in the Hiller Copse, whose dungy floors at least gave off a pleasant, fermenting warmth. Sometimes, though, you would wake up lying in several inches of water. Although ‘roomy-dizzy’ was just a name to me, after only a few nights of this involuntary immersion I felt pain in every one of my joints. I dreamed of iron balls trundling up and down my limbs. Nights here were not for sleeping either, but were used to deepen the many communication trenches. In total darkness, if the French flares happened not to be lighting us up, we had to stick to the heels of the man in front with somnambulistic confidence if we weren’t to lose ourselves altogether, and spent hours traipsing around the labyrinthine network of trenches. At least the digging was easy; only a thin layer of clay or loam covered the mighty thicknesses of chalk, which was easily cut by the pickaxe. Sometimes green sparks would fly up if the steel had encountered one of the fist-sized iron pyrite crystals that were sprinkled throughout the soft stone. These consisted of many little cubes clustered together, and, cut open, had a streakily goldy gleam.
A little ray of sunshine in all this monotony was the nightly arrival of the field kitchen in the corner of the Hiller Copse. When the cauldron was opened, it would release a delicious aroma of peas with ham, or some other wonder. Even here, though, there was a dark side: the dried vegetables, dubbed ‘wire entanglements’ or ‘damaged crops’ by disappointed gourmets.
In my diary entry for 6 January, I even find the irate note: ‘In the evening, the field kitchen comes teetering up, with some god-awful pigswill, probably frozen beets boiled up.’ On the 14th, by contrast: ‘Delicious pea soup, four heavenly portions, till we groaned with satisfaction. We staged eating contests, and argued about the most favourable position. I contended that it was standing up.’
There were liberal helpings of a pale-red brandy, which had a strong taste of methylated spirits, but wasn’t to be sneezed at in the cold wet weather. We drank it out of our mess-tin lids. The tobacco was similarly strong, and also plentiful. The image of the soldier that remains with me from those days is that of the sentry with his spiked, grey helmet, fists buried in the pockets of his greatcoat, standing behind the shooting-slit, blowing pipe smoke over his rifle butt.
Most pleasant were days off in Orainville, which were spent catching up on sleep, cleaning our clothes and gear, and drilling. The company was put in a vast barn that had only a couple of hen-roost ladders to facilitate entrances and exits. Although it was still full of straw, there were braziers lit in it. One night I rolled up against one, and was woken only by the efforts of several comrades pouring water over me. I was horrified to see that the back of my uniform was badly charred, and for some time to come I had to go around in what bore a passing resemblance to a pair of tails.
After only a short time with the regiment, we had become thoroughly disillusioned. Instead of the danger we’d hoped for, we had been given dirt, work and sleepless nights, getting through which required heroism of a sort, but hardly what we had in mind. Worse still was the boredom, which is still more enervating for the soldier than the proximity of death.
We pinned our hopes on an attack; but we had picked a most unfavourable moment to join the front, because all movement had stopped. Even small-scale tactical initiatives were laid to rest as the trenches became more elaborate and the defensive fire more destructive. Only a few weeks before our arrival, a single company had risked one of these localized attacks over a few hundred yards, following a perfunctory artillery barrage. The French had simply picked them off, as on a shooting-range, and only a handful hadgot as far as the enemy wire; the few survivors spent the rest of the day lying low, till darkness fell and they were able to crawl back to their starting-point.
A contributory factor in the chronic overtiring of the troops was the way that trench warfare, which demanded a different way of keeping one’s strength up, was still a novel and unexpected phenomenon as far as the officer corps was concerned. The great number of sentries and the incessant trench-digging were largely unnecessary, and even deleterious. It’s not a question of the scale of the earthworks, but of the courage and condition of the men behind them. The ever-deeper trenches might protect against the odd head wound, but it also made for a defensive and security-conscious type of thinking, which we were loath to abandon later. Moreover, the demands made by the maintenance of the trenches were becoming ever-more exorbitant. The most disagreeable contingency was the onset of thaw, which caused the frost-cracked chalk facings of the trenches to disintegrate into a sludgy mess.
Of course we heard bullets whistling past our trench, and sometimes we got a few shells from the forts at Rheims, but these little trifling reminders of war came a long way below our expectations. Even so, we were occasionally reminded of the deadly earnest that lurked behind this seemingly aimless business. On 8 July, for instance, a shell struck the ‘Pheasantry’, and killed our battalion adjutant, Lieutenant Schmidt. The officer in command of the French artillery was, apparently, also the owner of that hunting lodge.
The artillery was still in an advanced position, just behind the front; there was even a field gun incorporated in the front line, rather inadequately concealed under tarpaulins. During a conversation I was having with the ‘powderheads’, I was surprised to notice that the whistling of rifle bullets bothered them much more than the crumps. That’s just the way it is; the hazards of one’s own line of service always seem more rational and less terrifying.
On the stroke of midnight, on 27 January [The birthday of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941).],we gave the Kaiser three cheers, and all along the front sang ‘Heil dir im Siegerkranz’ [‘Hail thee mid the conquerors’ round’]. The French responded with rifle fire.
Some time round about then, I had a disagreeable experience which might have brought my military career to a premature and somewhat inglorious end. The company was on the left of the line, and towards dawn, following a night on duty, a comrade and I were detailed to go on double sentry duty by the stream bed. On account of the cold, I had, in breach of regulations, wrapped a blanket round my head, and was leaning against a tree, having set my rifle down in a bush next to me. On hearing a sudden noise behind me, I reached for my weapon — only to find it had disappeared! The duty officer had snuck up on me and taken it without my noticing. By way of punishment, he sent me, armed only with a pickaxe, towards the French posts about a hundred yards away — a cowboys-and-Indians notion that almost did for me. For, during my bizarre punishment watch, a troop of three volunteers ventured forward through the wide reed bed, creating so much rustling that they were spotted right away by the French, and came under fire. One of them, a man called Lang, was hit and never seen again. Since I was standing hard by, I got my share of the then-fashionable platoon salvoes, so that the twigs of the willow tree I was standing next to were whipping round my ears. I gritted my teeth and, out of sheer cussedness, remained standing. As dusk fell, I was brought back to my unit. We were all mightily pleased when we learned that we would finally leave this position, and we celebrated our departure from Orainville with a beery evening in the big barn. On 4 February, we marched back to Bazancourt, and a regiment of Saxons took our place.