Storm of Steel is Ernst Jünger’s memoir of his time fighting in World War I. No memoir can adequately capture what it feels like to fight in a war. By their nature, memoirs capture the most interesting moments of life, but most of war is boring. Nonetheless, this book does do something few other war memoirs do, it captures part of something we find impolite to acknowledge: some men like to fight.
On respecting your enemy:
In our talks in the trenches, in the dugout, or on the fire-step, we often talked of the ‘Tommy’; and, as any genuine soldier will easily understand, we spoke of him very much more respectfully than was commonly the case with the newspapers of those days. There is no one less likely to disparage the lion than the lion-hunter.
On the British in particular:
Of all the troops who were opposed to the Germans on the great battlefields the English were not only the most formidable but the manliest and the most chivalrous. I rejoice, therefore, to have an opportunity of expressing in time of peace the sincere admiration which I have never failed to make clear during the war whenever I came across a wounded man or a prisoner belonging to the British force.
The experience curve of soldiering:
The notion that a soldier becomes hardier and bolder as war proceeds is mistaken. What he gains in the science and art of attacking his enemy he loses in strength of nerve. The only dam against this loss is a sense of honour so resolute that few attain to it. For this reason I consider that troops composed of boys of twenty, under experienced leadership, are the most formidable.
Short wars vs. long wars:
In a short war of movement the officer both can and must take it out of his men without regard; but in a war that drags on, this leads to physical collapse. The immense number of posts and the continual digging were for the most part unnecessary and even harmful. Trenches are not the first thing, but the courage and freshness of the men behind them. ‘Battles are won by iron hearts in wooden ships.’
Kindness vs. dignity:
It is in a war more important than may perhaps be thought that the men should sometimes have beds to sleep in. And when no beds are empty, then some must be emptied. The soldier must have the first consideration. We sometimes make ourselves ridiculous with our misplaced human kindness, and might have taken more care of our dignity.
Jünger subscribes to the cyclical theory of history:
Although I made up my mind to omit all comments from this book, I should like all the same to say a word or two about this first glimpse of horrors. It is a moment so important in the experience of war. The horrible was undoubtedly a part of that irresistible attraction that drew us into the war. A long period of law and order, such as our generation has behind it, produces a real craving for the abnormal, a craving that literature stimulates. Among other questions that occupied us was this: what does it look like when there are dead lying about? And we never for a moment dreamt that in this war the dead would be left month after month to the mercy of wind and weather, as once the bodies in the gallows were.
How to treat your enemies:
It has always been my ideal in war to eliminate all feelings of hatred and to treat my enemy as an enemy only in battle and to honour him as a man according to his courage. It is exactly in this that I have found many kindred souls among British officers. It depends, of course, on not letting oneself by blinded by an excessive national feeling, as the case generally is between the French and the Germans. The consciousness of the importance of one’s own nation ought to reside as a matter of course and unobtrusively in everybody, just as an unconditional sense of honour does in a gentleman. Without this it is impossible to give others their due.
On soldiers' affinity for alcohol:
Everything in wartime goes without reckoning, and hence came the preferences of the soldier at the front for alcohol in its most concentrated forms. Our relations with the civilian population, too, were, to a great extent, of an undesirable familiarity; Venus deprived Mars of many servants.
An encounter with the English:
Next morning, the English, after a short artillery preparation, attacked the front of the company, commanded by Lieutenant Reinhardt, with fifty men. The enemy crept up to the wire. Then one of them, who had a striker attached to his cuff, made a light-signal in order to silence the English machine-guns, and the whole party threw their last bombs and advanced on the trench. The men received them in such a masterful fashion that only one of them got into the trench. He ran straight through to the second line, and there, when he made no reply to summons to give himself up, he was shot. Only a lieutenant and a sergeant got through the wire. The officer, though he wore a steel shirt under his uniform, was accounted for by a bullet point-black from Reinhardt’s revolver that drove the whole steel plate into his body. The sergeant had both legs nearly torn off by a bomb; nevertheless, he clenched his short pipe between his teeth with stoical calm until he died. Here, as always, whenever we encountered the English we encountered brave men.
One of the things he likes about battle:
To be in command at such moments and to have a clear head is its own supreme reward, just as cowardice is its own punishment. I have always pitied the coward, in whom battle arouses a series of hellish tortures, while the spirit of the brave man merely rises the higher to meet a chain of exciting experiences.
Jünger believes in a natural aristocracy:
This sparse living, which left us always half-fed, brought about a most unpleasant state of affairs. The men often suffered literally from hunger, and this led to pilfering of rations. It surprised me to find that I, though used to good and plentiful food, seemed to bear the privation much better than the men. Cabbage soup was their only thought. When it comes to food, the good manners that in Europe are mostly whitewash are soon scratched off. A man shows his real superiority when hunger is part of the meal, not at festive tables. Privation and danger tear away all that has been acquired, and then good form survives only in those in whom it is born.
On the following day we were most rudely interrupted at lunch by a few shells planted right in front of the door. Descending fountains of soil beat long tattoos on our tarred roof. There was a rush for the door. I fled to a farm close at hand, and as it was raining I went inside. In the evening the same performance was repeated; only this time, as it was fine, I stood outside the farmhouse. The next shell fell right in the middle of it. Such are the chances of war. Here more than anywhere it is a case of little causes and great effects. Seconds and millimeters make the difference.
This is a sentiment echoed throughout war memoirs, that the best men of the generation were lost.
Our losses in young officers were again frightfully heavy during those days. Every time afterwards that I heard prejudice and depreciation on the lips of the mob, I thought of these men who saw it out to the bitter end with so little parade and with so fine an ardour. But after all—what is the mob? It sees in everything nothing but the reflection of its own manners. It is quite clear to me that these men were our best. However cleverly people may talk and write, there is nothing to set against self-sacrifice that is not pale, insipid, and miserable.
The individual infantryman still matters:
Every modern battle has its great moments. One hears it said very often and very mistakenly that the infantry battle had denigrated to an uninteresting butchery. On the contrary, today more than ever it is the individual that counts. Everyone knows that who has seen them in their own realm, these princes of the trenches, with their hard, set faces, brave to madness, tough and agile to leap forward or back, with keen bloodthirsty nerves, whom no despatch ever mentions. Trench warfare is the bloodiest, wildest, and most brutal of all warfare, yet it too has had its men, men whom the call of the hour has raised up, unknown foolhardy fighters. Of all the nerve-racking moments of the war none is so formidable as the meeting of two storm-troop leaders between the narrow walls of the trench. There is no retreat and no mercy then. Blood sounds in the shrill cry that is wrung like a nightmare from the breast.
Jünger's judgement of the German Army:
If the aim the higher command had in view was not attained, it was certainly not the fault of the officers and the men. After forty-four months of hard fighting they threw themselves upon the enemy with all the enthusiasm of August 1914. No wonder it needed a world in arms to bring such a storm-flood to a standstill. In the course of time, when the waves of hatred have subsided, history will recognize that we fought as no people ever fought before.
“The course of nations... rises and falls with the destiny of war.”
I looked to the left and right. The distribution of the host presented a strange spectacle. In shellholes in front of the enemy lines, churned and churned again by the utmost pitch of shellfire, the attacking battalions were waiting massed in companies, as far as the eye could see. When I saw this massed might piled up, the break-through seemed to me a certainty. But was there strength in us to smash the enemy’s reserves and hurl them to destruction? I was confident of it. The decisive battle, the final advance, had begun. The destiny of the nations drew its iron conclusion, and the stake was the possession of the world. I was conscious, if only in feeling, of the significance of that hour; and I believe that on this occasion every man felt his personality fade away in the face of a crisis in which he had his part to play and by which history would be made. No one who has lived through moments like these can doubt that the course of nations in the last resort rises and falls with the destiny of war.
Feeling fury during battle:
The turmoil of our feelings was called forth by rage, alcohol, and the thirst for blood as we stepped out, heavily and yet irresistibly, for the enemy’s lines. And therewith beat the pulse of heroism—the godlike and the bestial inextricably mingled. I was far in front of the company, followed by my batman and a man of one year’s service called Haake. In my right hand I gripped my revolver, in my left a bamboo riding-cane. I was boiling with a fury now utterly inconceivable to me. The overpowering desire to kill winged my feet. Rage squeezed bitter tears from my eyes.
Irritation towards nurses:
Next day began the usual journey by stages to the rear. The terrible journey by car to the war hospital brought me to the edge of the grave. Then I was in nurses’ hands. Though I am no misogynist, I was always irritated by the presence of women every time that the fate of battle threw me into the bed of a hospital ward. One sank, after the manly and purposeful activities of the war, into a vague atmosphere of warmth. The clear objectivity of the Catholic nursing sisterhoods afforded a welcome exception. I found with them and atmosphere very congenial to soldiering.
Cataloguing his wounds:
I amused myself once during the monotonous hours on my back by counting the number of times I had been hit. I found that I had been hit in all fourteen times: six times by rifle-bullets, once by a shrapnel bullet, once by a shell splinter, three times by bomb splinters, and twice by splinters of rifle bullets. Counting the ins and outs, this made precisely twenty punctures, so that I might confidently, with that Roman centurion, Holkschen Reiter, take my place in every warlike circle. Certainly I could at any time assert my claim to belong to one order at least, namely that of the gold wound-stripes. This honour did in fact come to me at this very time, though the gold, certainly, was only yellow-lacquered metal. Yet I must confess I had it sewn on my coat with a certain pleasure, for if doctors and professors, for all their correctness, do not look askance upon the stamp of an official title, why should the soldier refuse a visible sign of his gallantry. The worth of an order, as of everything else, lies not on but beneath the surface; and who would grudge a heart that has so often beaten fast in the excitement of battle for country’s sake the adornment of a bit of enamel as the outward sign? In huckstering times, indeed, when everything turns on money, these things lose their value, for it rests solely with the ideal with which they are bound up.
Was it worth it?
Now I looked back: four years of development in the midst of a generation predestined to death, spent in caves, smoke-filled trenches, and shell-illuminated wastes; years enlivened only by the pleasures of a mercenary, and nights of guard after guard in an endless perspective; in short, a monotonous calendar full of hardships and privation, divided by the red-letter days of battles. And almost without any thought of mine, the idea of the Fatherland has been distilled from all these afflictions in a clearer and brighter essence. That was the final winnings in a game on which so often all had been staked: the nation was no longer for me an empty thought veiled in symbols; and how could it have been otherwise when I had seen so many die for its sake, and been schooled myself to stake my life for its credit every minute, day and night, without second thought? And so, strange as it may sound, I learned from this very four years’ schooling in force and in all the fantastic extravagance of material warfare that life has no depth of meaning except when it is pledged for an ideal, and that there are ideals in comparison with which the life of an individual and even of a people has no weight. And though the aim for which I fought as an individual, as an atom in the whole body of the army, was not to be achieved, though material force cast us, apparently, to the earth, yet we learned once and for all to stand for a cause and if necessary to fall as befitted men.