In 1920 Ernst Junger published his first-person memoir of his experience fighting in the Great War for Germany on the Western Front in the appropriately named Storm of Steel. At the age of nineteen years old Junger ran away from school and enlisted in the German army and was soon sent to the trenches of Champagne and fought both French and British troops across the Western Front where he was wounded multiple times including a bullet wound to the chest that not only ended his military career but earned him the Pour le Merite, the highest award in the German army for valor. Throughout his memoir, Junger shows the reader a more realistic view of the war and the daily life in the trenches and in battle, and his lack of emotions and comments on the politics of the war leads the audience to read his non-fiction work more objectively and somewhat trust his interpretation of the war. Junger removes himself from the social issues and politics of the war and simply presents the reader with his reality which was shared among most of the soldiers fighting in the war regardless of which country they fought for.
Background About the Author
Ernst Junger was born in 1895 in Heidelberg, Germany but moved to Hannover in 1901 to attend boarding school, and by 1911 Junger was already gaining a reputation as a writer and poet. In 1913 Junger joined the French Foreign Legion, but ran away while in training and was captured and returned to his training camp only to be dismissed by his father who worked for the German Foreign Office because he was still a minor. Junger was sent back to school but ran away again in 1914 to enlist in the German Army and was assigned to the 73rd Infantry Regiment. He would go on to be one of Germany's most extraordinary soldier in the war and received the Pour le Merite, the highest German award for valor. Junger would continue his literary career after the war by publishing his memoirs in Storm of Steel as well as publishing other famous works such as his metaphorical criticism of Nazi Germany On the Marble Cliffs.
Junger begins his book without any mention of himself or his life prior to the war, unlike many memoirs which often begin with a brief background of the author that usually includes their childhood or how they became involved with the war. Instead, Junger’s first sentence is “The train stopped at Bazancourt, a small town in Champagne, and we got out”. By immediately beginning the book with his first steps in the war, Junger removes all political or social agendas that readers often find in memoirs. The reader is immediately under the impression that Junger simply wants to tell his readers how life in the war was. Junger then goes into describing how the first day of war was for the new soldiers; enthusiastic to fight and possibly die for their country yet so frightened that any loud noise would send the men diving for cover. The men would soon become used to the sound of artillery shells exploding as they became the “old-stagers” and death was a routine part of their day. Junger is sent to a course which caused him to miss the battle of Perthes which he became envious of the soldiers who were there and when artillery bombardments began he would ask his fellow soldiers if it was similar to the battle. The soldiers would move from trench to trench and city to city to keep up with the front lines after French defeats. Junger himself was wounded by shrapnel and sent home to recover, during which he attended an officer’s course and returned to his unit as an ensign. Junger then pauses the action of the war to describe the daily life in the trenches, which involved mostly guard duty, and the lay out and operation of the trench system.
In April 1916 Junger attends an officer training school and is then sent to what would become the Battle of Somme to prepare a defense against a British attack. Junger focuses a large portion of his book on this battle in which he is eventually wounded again causing him to miss the final large British assault that captured the town of Guillemont and cost the lives of most of his platoon. He continues to fight in battles such as Arras and Ypres until March of 1918 when he was leading a group of Storm Troopers during the German offensive he was shot in the chest thus ending his military career.
The Horror of Daily Life in the Trenches
Junger does an amazing job in describing the daily life in the war and in the trenches. By not including his emotions he is able to accurately describe the conditions of the war for the reader. World War I was a very gruesome and devastating war, which Junger portrays in detail, yet mentions the carnage and gore as if it was an average day for the soldiers. On multiple occasions, Junger finds the mutilated body of a French or British soldier who was killed defending their trench. Junger dedicates passages up to one or two paragraphs detailing the mutilated body so vividly that the reader can actually have disturbing mental pictures of the gore, yet Junger mentions it as if it is a normal part of the soldier’s day. While Junger’s emotionless descriptions give the reader a vivid image of the actual battlefield and war, it also shows the mindset of the soldiers who had to witness the carnage first hand. Whether the soldiers are passing bodies tangled in barbed wire, half destroyed by artillery or other explosives, or simply shooting into the dark hoping their bullets hit an enemy show how desensitized the soldiers have become. Death does not affect them as it would an average civilian, and they have no problem with seeing a man with half of his head missing, or even being the one to inflict such injuries on their enemy. They developed a sense of dark humor about what they saw or did in the war. When the trenches were close, and they could hear the British sentry and distinguish who he was based on his cough or whistle, they would talk and joke to one another. Once the bullets and artillery started flying, however, they would curse and damn the enemy they were just joking with. Their sense of humor was necessary, however, because in a situation where you face death every minute you need something to keep you sane such as joking about the dead or acting like friends with the person you just tried to kill or who was just trying to kill you. This emotionless description of war along with the humor all combat veterans develop may cause some to believe that Junger is glorifying the war and he enjoys death and killing, but in reality, he is only trying to do his duty to his country and keep his sanity in the hell of trench warfare.
Insight Into the War and Time
Aside from the gore of the war, Junger does an excellent job in describing the daily life and tasks of a soldier living in the trenches. Much can be learned from Junger’s memoirs not only because of his studious note taking that led to this book but also because he devotes entire sections and even a chapter to life in the trenches. Junger is able to vividly describe the daily routine of a soldier including all of the activities he partakes in: security details, improving the trenches, eating, and more security or sentry duties. Junger also describes the layout of the trenches and the different functions each area perform. He gives a detailed account of the three different trenches that house the reserves, communications, and the front line soldiers and how they are all connected. Different structures, layouts, and shapes allow for various defenses such as mortar pits, machine gun nests, or slits for riflemen to fire from.
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Junger also gives an insight into the civilians’ perspectives at some points. One example being early on when Junger and a fellow soldier are getting a haircut and shave at a local barber in the French countryside. A local tells the barber in French that he should slit the German soldiers’ throats, to which Junger’s friend replied in fluent French that he would rather keep his throat and that the barber should cut the Frenchman’s instead. Aside from a humorous story, this provides the reader with an insight on how the German soldiers interacted with the local populations. When they would occupy a village, they would do what was necessary to sustain their soldiers, but then their focus would be on building relations. The soldiers were encouraged to conversate with the locals and help their economy by going to their stores and businesses, which is why many of the Germans on the Western Front were able to speak more or less fluent French.
A simpler example of how Junger’s memoir shows the reader what the time period was like was simply by describing the things in his life that were commonplace. Ambulances were wagons drawn by horse, bedding is straw laid across the floor, and many things were made out of wood. While this may all see common knowledge, Junger’s descriptions show how the people of the time interacted with things that we today deem as obsolete, old-fashioned, or take for granted.
The only thing Junger does not do so well in his memoir is portray or explain the social or political emotions to the war. Junger purposely leaves these details out of his descriptions in order to provide the best objective narrative of the common soldier’s life in war as he can, and he also does not seem to care about politics concerning the war either. Despite his seemingly emotionless accounts, some emotion can be found in between the lines of this memoir. By his lack of reaction to his comrades deaths, the reader can interpret that either he is hurt too much to talk more about it, or he has accepted that death is a part of the soldiers’ life and he may soon face death himself. This seems to be a common theme among the soldiers; they are enthusiastic and ready to fight for their country, but scared about the thought of death until they see so much death it becomes a part of their average day.
In conclusion, Ernst Junger’s memoir Storm of Steel shows the detailed life of the average soldier living, fighting, and dying in the trenches of World War I. Devoid of personal emotions or political agendas, Junger is able to accurately describe the horrors of war as well as the average life of the soldier and operations of the German army on the Western Front. Much can be learned about the war, the operations of the militaries, the construction of the trenches, the tactics of battle, and everything the average soldier goes through; from eagerness to see combat to not blinking an eye at a mutilated body to dreading having security duties. Junger not only provides an objective insight into the mind and day of the soldier unlike no other memoir, but he also provides historians with a better understanding of every aspect of the war such as how the trenches were set up or how the food, loved or hated by soldiers, was supplied. Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel should be read by anyone interested in learning not only about the war but also about the experiences the soldiers fighting the war went through.
Daniel White (author) on May 17, 2016:
Thanks, I'm glad you like it! This is definitely a book I would recommend for any history enthusiast or anyone who simply wants a view of the daily life of soldiers.
CJ Kelly from the PNW on May 17, 2016:
Great review. I'm getting the book tonight. Shared.