Storm of Steel had a curious finish. It’s the story of the First World War, of course, and I’ve read many historical accounts of that story. But most of them were historical accounts that focussed on the geopolitics, brief films that depicted the war through more conventional narratives, or through a lens of satire that eventually couldn’t maintain its bite in the light of the war’s final horror.
The best was the first. Ernst Jünger, and the pummelling repetitions of bomb after bomb, shell after shell, after shell after shell after shell.
|The first lesson in how to survive a war is not to fight.|
Jünger lived this pummelling for nearly four years, and his diaries, adapted into the loose narrative of Storm of Steel, best depict the terror and madness of the entire affair. So here are my thoughts, as I put the book down, of the most striking parts of the work itself and what may become its most important influences as my Utopias manuscript comes together over the following years.
The last major sequence of Storm of Steel happens during the Ludendorff Offensive, the final German push of the war, a desperate attempt, in 1918, to turn the tide. It was an offensive based on stormtroopers, the most experienced infantry fighters leading a mass charge against British lines.
The attack had to succeed absolutely in one gesture to avoid being rolled back as soon as the troops stopped moving, which Jünger’s unit did because the Germans’ own artillery wouldn’t stop pounding British positions, even after the German army had occupied them. Although these further details aren’t mentioned in the book, since it’s based only on Jünger’s diaries of the time and place, German supply deliveries couldn’t keep up with the troops’ advance, and mass strikes by merchant navy sailors in Germany itself were crippling the country’s ability to move material to the front.
The human toll from the mass movement of the Ludendorff Offensive was unsustainable if it hadn’t resulted in the immediate and total defeat of the Britain-led alliance. Enormous numbers of German soldiers died in one last, insane rush at all the encampments and artillery stations of the British lines. Jünger takes nearly two full lines of text to list all his friends and comrades who, despite having survived the last four years of brutal war, would be dead by the end of this offensive.
Jünger himself nearly died during the assault, taking his worst wound of the entire war. Over the last four years, he had been lacerated with shrapnel, shot in the leg, had his head grazed by bullets and shrapnel splinters, and shot in the chest already. As he’s jumping over a New Zealander trench, during the German retreat from its counter-attack, he gets his worst wound of the war.
Insanity doesn’t invalidate you from combat. If anything, you have to be crazy to go into this kind of combat, where your entire physical presence is dwarfed by explosions and artillery barrages beyond your control. Jünger describes, after what’s left of his unit reaches the British machine gun dugouts, a Lt. Breyer, calmly striding through the mud and flesh of the battlefield, swinging a riding crop, smoking his pipe, taking the occasional potshot at a retreating British soldier with the rifle he carries slung over his back.
That’s the more colloquial definition of insanity: behaviour that’s utterly disconnected from your real-world circumstances. Jünger himself eventually embodies a different kind of insanity, the dissolution of his personality into a pure force of will through the trauma of that last push. The push toward enemy lines in which the infantry itself isn’t made of men, but is an organic wave. The soldiers are ground-based shells, a mass meant to overwhelm through their sheer weight and number.
Among the shouts and war cries of the German soldiers before this mass attack is the scream “I don’t care what happens to me anymore!” Individuality disappears from your own conception of who and what you are.
Jünger himself doesn’t engage in much philosophy throughout the book. The meaning of his images and descriptions comes from the reader trying to make sense of them. They aren’t philosophy themselves, as much as provocations for the reader to start thinking philosophically.
Soldiers throw themselves at the enemy until the enemy is overwhelmed or they can no longer move. After four years of faithful service, this is the culmination of Jünger’s life, and his book. The book was almost never written, because in his last moments as an active duty soldier, he’s almost killed.
|Storm of Steel ends on a note of strange|
validation: the honour of the Kaiser.
But the drive to destroy appears in his actions again. He doesn’t know how long he was unconscious after falling into the trench he was leaping over, a bullet having blasted into his chest and out through his lung. Each time a fellow soldier picks him up, whether on a stretcher or on his shoulders, he’s soon shot down, sprawling Jünger on the filthy earth again.
As he lies there, his position is surrounded by UK-allied troops. His entire regiment is surrendering around him. Yet he still gets up and gathers a few soldiers to attack a British machine gun nest. He isn’t shot again, though everyone around him falls dead. A German medical officer rolls him in tarpaulin and finally puts him on a horse-drawn cart bound for a field hospital.
He had become the will to destruction itself. And the end of the book comes with his reward. Invalidated for the next few months of hostilities thanks to his wounds, he receives official notice on 22 September 1918 that he’s received the Pour le Mérite medal, the highest honour in the Kaiser’s military.
He was one of its last recipients, and the last living holder of the military version of the award when he died in 1998 at the age of 102.