Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the
Spring that you’ll never forget.
– Siegfried Sassoon, Aftermath (1919)
WHILST continuing to be well-respected in Germany for his deeply philosophical novels, as well as his important role in the Conservative Revolutionary tendency alongside Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), Arthur Moeller van den Bruck (1876-1925), Ernst von Salomon (1902-1972), Carl Schmitt (1888-1985, Ernst Niekisch (1889-1967) and various others, Jünger’s most popular and accessible work remains In Stahlgewittern or, to use the contemporary English title, The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front. The book, first issued privately in 1920 by the family gardener, Robert Meier, as a collection of wartime memoirs, was eventually re-written in 1924 with a stronger emphasis on nationalism in order to accord with the wave of patriotic fervour that was beginning to spread throughout Germany. In fact, between 1920 and 1961 the book went through no less than seven major revisions, with the most well-known English translations being those published by Basil Creighton in 1924 and Michael Hoffman in 2003.
As Thomas Nevin tells us, the book is a personal narrative and is
necessarily limited to the immediate and contingent realm of war’s hazards. Jünger provides no objective overview of the war or its causes or aims.
Like the ancient Aryans of the Kshatriya caste, Ernst Jünger was a born warrior. In 1913, the year prior to the outbreak of the First World War, this adventurous German teenager – who had spent much of his youth in the popular Wandervogel movement – had run away from home to join the French Foreign Legion and briefly served in North Africa. However, after the assassination of Archbishop Ferdinand (1863-1914) in Sarajevo saw Germany plunged into the abyss of the Great War, a nineteen year-old Jünger volunteered to join the 73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers and, by December that same year, had been made a lieutenant and was proudly leading his regiment in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France. At the small town of Bazancourt, just twenty kilometres north-east of Reims, Jünger and his comrades found themselves at the very heart of the Western Front which followed the lengthy banks of the River Suippe.
After weeks of strenuous training, both mental and physical, the company had travelled to Bazancourt by train and Jünger was immediately confronted with the tragically aesthetic and romantic dimension of the war:
We had grown up in a material age, and in each one of us there was a yearning for great experience, such as we had never known. The war had entered into us like wine. We had set out in a rain of flowers to seek the death of heroes. The war was our dream of greatness, power, and glory. It was a man’s work, a duel on fields whose flowers would be stained with blood. There is no lovelier death in the world…
After a long march to Orainville, Jünger was confronted with the harsher realities of early twentieth-century warfare, spending his first night in a dilapidated barn and then finding himself assigned to the 9th Company. His first day on the frontline was spent in the midst of raining bombs and the alarming scenes happening around him:
A feeling of unreality oppressed me as I stared at a figure streaming with blood whose limbs hung loose and who unceasingly gave a hoarse cry for help, as though death had him already by the throat. He was carried into a cottage with the Red Cross flag over the door. What was all this, then? The war had shown its claws and torn off its pleasant mask. It was so mysterious, so impersonal. One had scarcely given a thought to the enemy carrying on his secret and malignant existence somewhere behind. The impression of something arising entirely from beyond the pale of experience was so strange that it was difficult to see the connection of things. It was like a ghost at noon.
Jünger’s graphic observations and attention to detail make The Storm of Steel a fascinating and absorbing read, which is why the book itself remains so popular and well-respected throughout the world.
The 9th Company advanced through the ruins of Betricourt and the German soldiers picked their way through the Fasanerie woods at dusk. This was the first time that Jünger had found himself in the trenches and his first task was to spend the entire night acting as look-out, trying to spot the French soldiers who faced them across the darkness. Apart from the occasional stray bullet and a few wayward shells, however, no direct combat took place. The following morning, after a sleepless and exhausting night, he was charged with clearing out some of the trenches and fetching food, coffee and water for his comrades. But it wasn’t always as grim as it sounds. On 14th January, 1914, he made the following entry in his diary:
Wonderful bean soup, four rations, pangs of satiety. We had an eating competition and disputed which position was the best for putting it down. I was for standing to it.
Jünger enjoyed the restful periods, once lying down on some straw in the Company’s huge barn and accidentally rolling up against one of the old cooking stoves and catching himself alight. His compatriots were forced to beat out the flames, but apart from a heavily charred uniform Jünger himself was uninjured.
The emotions of Jünger and his comrades fluctuated constantly, as you would expect in such an unpredictable and uncertain environment. On 7th January, for example, his Lieutenant was killed when a shell landed in the woods, but several days later, on 14th January, the men were again in buoyant mood and were yelling ‘three hurrahs’ for Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) and singing German songs to the accompaniment of enemy gunfire.
Meanwhile, during a double-bout of sentry duty, Jünger found himself in hot water with one of the officers. He had fallen asleep against a tree with a blanket over his head, whilst the officer concerned had managed to sneak up on him unobserved. Hearing a sound and attempting to grab his rifle, Jünger found that the officer had taken it. As a result, he was ordered to grab a pick-axe and advance towards the French posts, one hundred metres away, but found himself completely immobilised when enemy bullets began whistling all around him:
I have never been able to forgive this N.C.O. – who soon after was severely wounded and got his discharge – for this dirty trick.
On 4th February, 1915, two months after the famous Christmas Truce between British and German soldiers, the 9th Company was relieved of it duties in Oraineville by a Saxon regiment and Jünger – who later admitted that it had been the toughest experience of the entire war – and his fellow combatants were marched to Bazancourt. Once there, Jünger was garrisoned at a local school but soon had a chance to escape the basic drill and other menial duties when he was chosen by Lieutenant Hoppe to attend a course for the Officer Training Corp (O.T.C.) at the remote village of Recouvrence:
A certain number of the more youthful of us were sent there from the division to receive a thorough military training from a staff of officers and N.C.Os. detailed by each regiment.
This was where Jünger was taught how to fight and command, although he also enjoyed scrambled eggs and potatoes for supper and drinking large amounts of beer with the military instructors during the long evenings.
By mid-February, 1915, Jünger heard the news that many of his old comrades in the 73rd regiment had suffered heavy losses at Perthes. On 21st March he was transferred back to Bazancourt and, just three days later, was taken to Brussels where his regiment joined those of the 76th and 164th as part of the 111th Infantry Division. Jünger was stationed at the small town of Hérinnes (Flemish: Herne), where he had to sleep in a draught-ridden barn and endure the strong sea-winds which made their way across the Flemish countryside from the coast. This was his first introduction to Belgian life:
The population, half Flemish and half Walloon, was very friendly towards us. I had many talks with the owner of an estaminet, a keen socialist and freethinker, who invited me to celebrate Easter Sunday with him, and even refused payment for what I drank. Such encounters are almost unbelievably welcome and beneficial after the rough companionship of the ranks.
On 12th April, 1915, Jünger took a train to Hal and travelled across the northern section of the front and close to the battlefield at Mars-la-Tour. This is very close to the German border and Jünger often enjoyed crossing the adjacent boundary during the evenings, just to re-acquaint himself with the soil of the Fatherland. From Gravelotte the regiment marched to the railway station at Chamblay and was taken by train to Pagny-sur-Moselle, where Jünger was impressed with the beautiful village of Prény and the ruins of a local castle. On 22nd April – a year to the day after German troops had fired poison gas at their French adversaries in Ypres – the men camped in a forest beside La Grande Tranchée, where Jünger fell into a deep sleep and experienced a curious dream
in which a death’s-head played the leading part. Priepke, to whom I told it in the morning, hoped the skull was a French one.
The role of Jünger’s company was to support the initial advance of the 76th Regiment in the battle of Les Eparges, which involved sending a huge artillery bombardment towards the enemy troops. The result was the capture of three French lines and six guns, with the enemy now in full retreat. This was Jünger’s first real involvement in military combat and, almost immediately, he had to watch one of the young German fusiliers bleed to death in front of him after his carotid artery had been severed by flying shrapnel.
Soon afterwards, crawling through the shell-shocked mire, Jünger came face to face with the rotting bodies of French soldiers:
All round lay dozens of corpses, putrefied, calcined, mummified, fixed in a ghostly dance of death. The French must have carried on for months without burying their fallen comrades.
Many of the dead had been relieved of their money and other valuables, too. Experiences of this kind inevitably have a deep psychological impact on the individual, as Jünger conceded in his memoirs, and whilst The Storm of Steel was chiefly designed to focus on Jünger’s actual experiences of warfare, in 1922 E. S. Mittler and Son published his lengthy essay, Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis (‘War As Inward Experience’). This was followed, in 1925, by Feuer und Blut (‘Fire and Blood’). Jünger was to remember those discarded French cadavers for the rest of his life.
The events at La Grande Tranchée led to hundreds of casualties on both sides, although the nearest Jünger came to being killed was running through a series of trenches with bombs falling all around him and then suffering a flesh-wound when a paper-thin splinter of shrapnel entered his left thigh. Jünger was taken by ambulance to the village church of St. Maurice, followed by a journey to Heidelberg on a hospital train. The wound took fourteen days to heal, after which he joined the reserve battalion at Hanover as a cadet, underwent another course at Doberitz and was subsequently promoted.
In September 1915, as French troops were attacking the German Army at the River Aisne, Jünger rejoined the 73rd regiment at their headquarters in Douchy. This was a small village in the Artois region and provided a safe haven where Jünger and other wounded soldiers were able to recuperate:
There were numerous canteens well provided with eatables and drinks. There was a reading-room, a café, and later even a cinema in a large barn most skilfully converted. The officers had a splendidly-equipped casino and a skittle-alley in the vicarage garden. Often companies held festive evenings at which officers and men vied with each other in drinking in the good old German style.
The village contained an orchard and a pleasure-garden, with the soldiers also being able to make use of the local barber and dentist. There were no boundaries and no possessions, all of which led Jünger to compare this militaristic idyll to a primitive exercise in communist economics. In theory, at least.
The area had witnessed fierce fighting the previous year and was now in German hands. Before long, however, the call of battle sounded once again and Ernst Jünger was taken to the front to fight against the English. The line was divided into two sections – Monchy South and Monchy West – and six company zones running from A to F. Jünger joined the 6th Company in C sector and, as N.C.O, was expected to help boost the morale of his fellow officers. In that respect, he became a welcome sight for any down-hearted officer in need of a few comforting words over a cup of steaming coffee.
Jünger’s note-book, compiled at the end of each day, provides a valuable insight into the events taking place. Between October and December 1915 he reports that a comrade’s hat was rendered in two by an enemy bullet, despite leaving the man completely unharmed. He mentions a soldier being shot through both cheek-bones, another through the ear and one in both legs. Fusilier Hohn had an arm torn off, Heidotting was wounded in the thigh and August Kettler was hit by a bullet as he went to fetch Jünger’s rations. Elsewhere, comrades such as Gutschmidt and Schafer were shot through both hands and in the knee, respectively. Landsturmsman Wiegman was wounded in the pelvis at the Altenburg Redoubt and Landsturmsman Diener was shot through the skull:
He was married and had four children. His comrades lay in wait a long while behind the parapet to take vengeance. They sobbed with rage. It is remarkable how little they grasp the war as an objective thing. They seem to regard the Englishman who fired the fatal shot as a personal enemy. I can understand it.
On 11th December, Jünger had a ‘sportsmanlike’ exchange with an officer from the French side, after their respective companies had withdrawn to their trenches during a brief exchange of gunfire. The encounter shaped Jünger’s thoughts in relation to the nature of mutual respect in times of war:
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 be blinded by excessive national feeling, as the case generally is between the French and 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 the gentleman. Without this it is impossible to give others their due.
In February, 1916, as the British were ordering forced conscription and their German opponents were beginning the Verdun Offensive, Ernst Jünger was back in Douchy and was almost killed when a huge shell hit the side of his billet and forced him to dive into the cellar: As the cellar was half above ground and separated from the garden only by a thin wall, we all crowded into the short, cramped neck of the shaft. My sheep-dog crept whimpering between our tightly-packed bodies with an animal’s instinctive desire for the darkest corner.
The English battery was incessant and, between 3rd and 8th February it claimed three dead, three severely injured and a further three slightly injured. During the first half of March there was something of a respite, but on 14th March more deaths and injuries were caused by 15-centimetre shell. This continued into April, although one evening an inebriated Jünger took a wrong turn ‘over the top’ and ended up in a large mine-crater close to the English troops. After throwing a few bombs in their general direction he made a dash towards the German trenches and ended up falling foul of one of the company’s own spiked foot-angles.
In mid-April, 1916, Jünger attended another officer’s training course at Croisilles. This is a small village is the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France and the course was led by Major-General Sontag. Lessons included how to conduct tactics on horseback and the men were given an extensive tour of the slaughterhouses, sawmills, pig farms, the dairy, aviation park and bakery; all of which demonstrated the immense organisation that supported the war effort from behind the scenes.
But there were times when Jünger was able to escape from military life. Whilst at Croisilles, he had made the acquaintance of a young girl after asking for directions at a local cottage. A short time afterwards, Jünger went in search of the girl again and she treated him to a hearty meal. However, on the way back to his camp he was stopped by a military policeman and eventually hauled before the ‘King of Q.’ after failing to produce the relevant documentation and verify his identity. This led to a further adventure, as Jünger found himself welcomed by the King and the two of them soon became engrossed in a lengthy conversation about tropical forests and other natural havens. For Jünger, this was a perfect distraction from his military duties.
On 20th June, Jünger was ordered to find out whether the English were laying mines by getting as close to their trench as possible. Crawling on his stomach through the mud and barbed wire, he was able to observe the enemy troops at close quarters, although the English had heard both he and his comrades and came within several feet of them. Luckily, they simply repaired the fence and went back to their trench without having detected the Germans at all:
Death, after towering up between the two parties in eager expectation, took himself off in disgust.
The following night, Jünger and his men tried to approach the enemy trench once again, but were forced to flee under a hail of machine gun fire. The company also had to endure regular gas attacks and trench-mortar bombardments, too, thought to have been used as a diversion. On 1st July, 1916, Jünger and his men lowered thirty-nine coffins into the soil:
The great value of ceremonial observances was made clear to me on this affecting occasion. We have often, one time and another, left ten times the number of dead on the field and not been so deeply touched by the loss as we were that day beside the open graves.
Jünger believed that the men of Lower Saxony, in particular, had a strong resolve and that the bravery of these ‘fair-haired’ soldiers knew no bounds.
On 12th August, after several weeks of fierce combat, Jünger was finally granted leave and took a train home. Almost as soon as he had arrived and begun to make himself comfortable, however, a telegram arrived and demanded that he return to the front immediately. The Somme Offensive, initiated by the Anglo-French forces the previous month, was now in full swing. By 23rd August, Jünger was transported by lorry to Le Mesnil, the setting for one of the largest and most brutal battles of the First World War.
At dusk, Jünger and his platoon were marched off to the small French village of Sailly-Saillisel:
Artillery fire of a hitherto unimagined intensity rolled and thundered on our front. Thousands of twitching flashes turned the western horizon into a sea of flowers. All the while the wounded came trailing back with white dejected faces, huddled into the ditches by the gun and ammunition columns that rattled past.
Jünger was assigned a military guide and informed that the notorious Combles battlefield he was now facing was possibly the most horrific and demoralising along the entire Western front. He was taken to a battle-scarred building, where he managed to get some sleep before being woken at 4am and provided with a steel helmet. As dawn broke the men could see the dead bodies of many French citizens who had been caught up in the conflict, including the body of a little girl.
The Allied bombardment was like nothing Jünger had experienced before and seemed incessant. He and his comrades were gathered in a cellar, sitting on silk-covered armchairs and trying to cope with the ceaseless din of battle. They eventually had to march through the battlefield in single file, but their guide lost his way and they were forced to re-trace their steps. Jünger eventually relieved a Bavarian sergeant-major and spent the night in a huge shell-hole. The following morning, an English aircraft made sure that the Germans stayed there, as well as relaying their position and causing yet another bombardment to rain down upon them. The platoon eventually had to march back towards Sailly-Saillisel and then onwards to the forest of Hennois. Three days later, however, they returned to Combles and occupied a series of house cellars, as before, making good use of the vegetable gardens and treating themselves to a welcome diet of hot stew and cold salad. But when an explosion rocked the house in which they had been sheltering, a piece of shrapnel tore into Jünger’s left calf:
There was a ragged hole in my putties, from which blood ran onto the ground. On the other side there was a round swelling of a shrapnel bullet under the skin. The men bound me up and took me under fire to the catacombs, where our surgeon-major-general took me in hand. Lieutenant Wetje, who happened to be passing by, held my head while the bullet was cut out with knife and scissors. The surgeon congratulated me, for the bullet had passed between the shin and the fibula without any injury to the bone.
Jünger was put into the back of a Red Cross wagon and driven to the village of Fins, where he was taken to the local church. No less than 30,000 wounded German soldiers had passed through Fins in a matter of days and Jünger was transferred to St. Quentin and then by train to Gera, where he was attended to in the garrison hospital. His condition later ensured that he managed to avoid certain death when an entire German force – with whom he would have been fighting – was wiped out by the English at Guillemont, with fellow comrades such as Vogel and Sievers, both lieutenants, as well as Fahnrich and Little Schmidt, killed in action. Jünger notes in his memoirs that he would gladly have fought side by side with his men during this terrible slaughter, but a miraculous twist of fate had taken him from the battle at a crucial time:
The names of the tiniest Picardy hamlets are memorials of heroic battles to which the history of the world can find no parallel. There it was that the dusk first drank the blood of our trained and disciplined youth. Those fine qualities which had raised the German race to greatness leapt up once more in dazzling flame and then slowly went out in a sea of mud and blood.
In total, Jünger spent fourteen days in the military hospital before returning to his regiment near the Grande Tranchée. After two days, however, he travelled to the mountain settlement of Hattonchâtel and from there to Mars-la-Tour in the Somme region by train. He was stationed at Bran court, an agricultural village specialising in home-made textiles, where he took a dim view of the local inhabitants for their dirty appearence and apparent lack of morals. The 2nd Company was now under the command of Lieutenant Boje, but his days were spent eating and drinking with his fellow officers in a welcome respite from the conflict itself.
On 8th November, 1916, Jünger and his men were transferred to Gonnelieu and placed under the command of Captain Bockelmann. Jünger was one of four scout officers and together they shared the house of a local priest. His job was to ensure that communication along the frontline, close to the wood at St. Pierre Vaast, functioned effectively. At one point he almost drowned whilst crossing a marsh and was also affected by a deadly cloud of phosgene shell-gas and forced to retreat. On 13th November, near the village of Rancourt, Jünger found himself dangerous close to the French line and was shot in both legs by a sniper. The bullet had passed through his right calf and grazed his left. Having forgot his field-dressing, Jünger bound the injury with a handkerchief. After dark, he was taken by stretcher to Nurlu and put into the back of Captain Bockelmann’s car. From there he was taken to the Villeret field hospital and, later that evening, to the war hospital at Valenciennes.
Fourteen days later, Jünger was again back at the front. He was still limping heavily, so was assigned the role of observation officer, charged with keeping an eye on the area that ran between Nurlu and Moislaines:
All day long I crouched freezing on a chair behind the glasses in the November mist, with nothing to vary the monotony except an occasional call to test the wires. If the wire had been broken I had to have it mended by my breakdown squad. Apart from this I had nothing to do but wait for the moment of an attack.
On 18th November, Jünger rejoined his regiment at Fresnoy-le-Grand. He also replaced Lieutenant Boje as commander of the 2nd Company, although they were able to enjoy a four-week period of rest and relaxation. Jünger was stationed at a house belonging to a married couple, which he also shared with Fahnrich Gornick and his brother, Fritz. During a victory parade to celebrate the triumph at St. Pierre Vaast, Jünger heard Colonel von Oppen make a few favourable comments about him and he was subsequently awarded the Iron Cross of the 1st Class. On 17th January, 1917, one month after Lloyd George had become British Prime Minister, Jünger left Fresnoy-le-Grand and attended a four-week company commanders’ course at Sisonne, although he found the catering extremely unpleasant and soon became tired of the daily diet of boiled swedes.
Once again Jünger rejoined his regiment, this time at Villers-Carbonnel, assuming temporary command of the 8th Company. At this time, the Germans were in the process of retreating from the Somme, although the English continued their bombardment of the area throughout the early spring of 1917. On 5th March, when an English patrol was chased off with bombs and sniper-fire, Jünger found himself feeling rather sorry for a young English sergeant from the Royal Munster Fusiliers, who had been found dead with a pocket book containing the names and addresses of several of his friends in London. Jünger and his men buried the young man behind their trench. More skirmishes with these English patrols followed, resulting in much face-to-face combat and casualties on both sides.
On 13th March, Jünger was entrusted by Colonel von Oppen with the task of overseeing the retreat of the entire regiment from the Somme. There were four sectors in total, the other commanding officers being Reinhardt, Fischa and Lorek. The companies themselves then set about destroying the entire area around the Siegfried line and making it completely uninhabitable for the English troops, something that was achieved by felling the trees, mining the roads, fouling the wells, blowing up the cellars and booby-trapping the houses. Jünger, for one, certainly had no qualms or regrets about this necessary procedure:
As for the necessity, I have of course, as a Prussian officer, no doubt whatever. War means the destruction of the enemy without scruple and by any means. War is the harshest of all trades, and the masters of it can only entertain humane feelings so long as they do no harm. It makes no difference that these operations which the situation demanded were not very pretty.
On 17th March the English attacked in numbers, but were soon dispersed under fire from their German adversaries. The latter booby-trapped their trench and withdrew, crossing the nearby river and employing specialist engineers to blow up the bridges and thus prevent the enemy from advancing further. On reaching the village of Lehaucourt on the St. Quentin Canal, Jünger occupied a small cottage, was granted fourteen days’ leave and had a chance to enjoy the company of his fellow officers. This resulted in the following entry being added to his diary:
Leave spent very happily. Need have no reproaches on that score after my death.
By 9th April, 1917, three days after America had declared war on Germany and shortly before the French began using tanks for the first time, Jünger was back with the 2nd Company at the village of Merignies, near Douai, sitting astride the company charger and leading a column of military vehicles along one of the more treacherous roads in the area. The following day, his battalion marched to Fresnoy and set up an observation post. Most of that April was spent setting up lines of communication and dodging enemy artillery, but at midnight on 27th April the Company was informed by telephone that an attack was due to take place at 5am. As Jünger tried to get some sleep in readiness for the activity due to take place five hours later, a shell hit the house in which he was stationed and several men were buried in the ruins:
Catching hold of the limbs that stuck out from the wreckage, we pulled out the dead bodies. One had the head struck off, and the neck on the stump was like a great sponge of blood. From the arm stump of another the broken bones projected, and the uniform was saturated by a large wound in the chest. The entrails of the third poured out from a wound in the belly. As we pulled out the last a splintered board caught in the ghastly wound with a hideous noise.
At 5.15am the bombardment of Fresnoy recommenced and, by 7am, news reached them that the English had captured both Arleux and Arleux Park. The losses were incalculable.
Jünger was finally relieved on 30th April, making his way to Flers and the 1st Battalion. On discovering that the room which had been allotted to him contained a group of staff sergeant-majors, who claimed they were saving it for a local baron, Jünger had his men break down the door and throw them out. After a night spent in the luxurious confines of a warm bed, Jünger went on to Douai station and took the train to Busigny. From there he walked to the village of Serain and enjoyed several days’ rest. It was there that he received the news that he was to take command of the 4th Company.
Jünger’s leadership role on the Siegfried line lasted until 30th May, when Lieutenant Vogeley returned from hospital and re-assumed his position as commander. On 20th June, however, just days before American troops were set to arrive in France, something rather unexpected happened when Jünger and twenty of his men occupied a company outpost on the front and found themselves engaged in combat with the enemy:
I decided to survey the field of battle. Strange sounds and cries of pain came from the meadow where we had routed the enemy with our rifle-fire. We found a number of dead in the long grass and three wounded who begged for mercy. They were convinced we would massacre them. When I asked ‘Quelle nation?’ one of them answered, ‘Pauvre Rajput!'
The men were Indians who had enlisted in the British Army and a large number of injured were captured by Jünger’s company and became prisoners-of-war. They compensated for their lack of German by speaking excellent French. Back at the cabin, the Hanoverian Fusiliers celebrated their hard-won victory over this Anglo-Indian foe with poached eggs. On 18th June, however, there were further clashes with Indian troops and the Germans suffered a number of casualties.
Jünger was then stationed at the ‘bourgeois’ village of Cambrai, in northern France, where he took a billet in the house of a local jeweller called Plancot-Bourlon and spent most of that July, 1917. The villagers were friendly and Jünger retained some happy memories of his time there, although he was soon back in the thick of it and immersed in heavy fighting on the blood-drenched fields of Flanders. Jünger was wounded in the lung and shoulder, forced to crawl back to his own lines in agony. Luckily, two men found him and took him to a small hut where his wounds were dressed. This led to a chance meeting:
Suddenly a young officer smeared in mud from his boots to his helmet, with the Iron Cross of the 1st Class on his breast, rushed in. It was my brother, who days before, down the line, was said to be dead. We greeted each other, smiling rather awkwardly in the stress of our feelings. After a minute or two he left me and came back with the last five men of his company. I was put in a ground-sheet and carried from the battlefield to the thunder of guns.
By 17th October, after a period spent at Labry, one of the many villages of Lorraine, a rejuvenated Jünger was again back at Flanders and found himself stationed in the small town of Iseghem. Just days earlier, the British had launched the notorious Passchendaele offensive. Jünger then marched to the Flemish district of Rouselaere, which came under heavy bombing and forced the inhabitants – many of them women and children – to take shelter underground in their cellars. Again, the Germans suffered heavy casualties, although on 3rd November the regiment had some well-deserved rest at Tourcoing:
For the first time and the last during the war, every man of the 7th Company slept on a feather-bed. I occupied a magnificently furnished room in the house of an industrial magnate in the Rue de Lille. The first evening, with an open fire, the indispensable marble mantelpiece, and an armchair, was unspeakably delightful.
On 29th November, Jünger and the 7th Company – under the command of Lieutenant Hoppenrath – took part in the Battle of Cambrai, where he had been stationed several months earlier. Some notable victories were scored against the English, including one incident during which Jünger was able to watch the opposing troops as they scurried through the trenches below where he was standing. Naturally, of course, a few bombs were thrown in their direction and this resulted in many deaths. Meanwhile, after a huge explosion Jünger was thrown to the ground and removed his helmet to discover two large holes. A bullet had completely passed through the helmet itself and grazed his skull. His head was bound and he was led from the battlefield in a daze. On another occasion he was thrown to the ground by another blast, this time on the forehead, and found himself blinded by the torrent of blood that was streaming from the wound. Thankfully, however, he only suffered two small flesh-wounds that ran along his hairline:
As a plaster for my fifth wound I was given fourteen days’ Christmas leave, and in the course of it the Knight’s Cross of the House of Hohenzollern with swords was sent to me at home.
By 9th December, after his rest period, Jünger relieved the 10th Company at Vis-en-Artois along the stretch of line that ran beside the Cojeul river. A hill separated the two armies, with Jünger spending his days occupying a freezing dugout and reading books to take his mind off the war.
In late-January, 1918, amid the snows of winter, Colonel von Oppen – much respected by Jünger – died as a result of plague and was buried on foreign soil. February was spent constructing various roads and dugouts, whilst in March the Company were in Brunemont for the Great Offensive. After signing the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with Russia, the Germans had withdrawn their troops from the Eastern Front and now used them as reinforcements to bolster their long-suffering forces along the Western Front. The task of Jünger and his men, now part of a much larger army, was to force their way through the villages of Ecoust-St.-Mein and Noruil. Jünger describes the advance:
In shell-holes in front of the enemy lines, churned and churned again by the utmost pitch of shell-fire, the attacking battalions were waiting massed in companies, as far as the eye could see. When I saw this mass 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 to its iron conclusion, and the stake was the possession of the world.
As the opening skirmishes began, Jünger threw his cloak to the floor and strode forward, consumed with the heat of battle. On this occasion the English were completely routed and fled in confusion, but the battle raged on and the Germans continued to advance and dispatch the foe. Trenches were captured and provisions were hungrily devoured, with Jünger noting in his diary that the English were considerably better fed and clothed than their German adversaries. He also took possession of a coat from one of the English soldiers. Arriving back at Noreuil, Jünger reported the success to Major-General Hobel at the Brigade headquarters, and was taken along the Noreuil-Quént road and as far as the field hospital at Souchy-Coucy in the back of an ammunition wagon.
On 4th June, 1918, Jünger re-joined his regiment at Vraucourt, some distance from the frontline. He was re-instated as commander of the 7th Company by Major von Luttichau and his men warmly welcomed him back into their ranks. Before long, they were back at the front and taking up a position along the line at Puisieux-au-Mont. From nearby Achiet-le-Grand they marched along the embankment of the Bapaume railway line and then out into the countryside. Jünger was given a small, isolated hut in a collapsed trench and came to enjoy the tranquillity of solitude that it offered:
At such moments there crept over me a mood I had never known before: a certain falling-off of the fighting spirit, a war-weariness occasioned by the length of time I had been exposed to the war’s excitements. Nothing but war and danger; not a night that was not convulsed with shells.
Throughout July, 1918, the Germans were continuously bombarded by artillery fire and their losses soon began to accumulate. The course of the war was finally beginning to turn and the English were making significant gains. Jünger lost a great many of his comrades, but was finally relieved on 27th July by a company of the 164th Regiment. According to a letter of recommendation from Von Busse, Major-General and commander of the 111th Infantry Division, which Jünger includes in a later edition of The Storm of Steel, the 73rd Fusilier Regiment
has added in the most brilliant fashion to its high reputation as a brave and war-tried unit in the severe fighting which was renewed against an enemy much superior in numbers […] Lieutenant Jünger earned fresh recognition. Already six times wounded, he was on this occasion, as always, a shining example to both officers and men.
By 30th July, ten days after the German retreat at the Marne, Ernst Jünger was enjoying some hard-earned rest in an artisan’s house at Sauchy Lestrée in the Artois region. Despite having to survive on nothing but gherkins, or what some of the men described as ‘gardener’s sausage’, he was able to spend his time reading, shooting, riding, bathing and cycling. On 23rd August, Jünger marched through Cambrai to Marquion in the early hours of the morning, and was told to expect an attack from enemy tanks.
He also gave a speech to his assembled troops, in which he attempted to revive their flagging spirits amid news that Germany was clearly losing the war:
It was also my principle not to raise their courage by big words nor to threaten the coward. I spoke rather to this effect: – I know well enough that no one will leave me in the lurch. We are all afraid, but we must fight against it. To be overcome by one’s weakness is only human. At such a moment look at your leader and your fellows.
The men advanced towards enemy lines from the western edge of Favreuil, although they were soon in the midst of more carnage as the English shelled them incessantly. Jünger was fired upon from a machine-gun and took a hit to the chest. Stretcher-bearers were called for and it was discovered that he had two circular wounds on his chest and was finding it difficult to breathe. Realising that the enemy were about to surround them, he pulled himself to his feet, grabbed a revolver and returned to the fray:
The scene became more and more lively. We were surrounded by a circle of Germans and English and called upon to throw down our weapons. I urged those nearest me in a weak voice to fight it out to the death. Friend and foe were fired on alike. Some who surrounded our little band were shouting, some were dumb. On the left two gigantic Englishmen were using their bayonets in a length of trench from which hands were held up imploring mercy.
But still Jünger refused to give in and he shot one of the men dead, before limping across the mud with blood cascading from his chest. He eventually reached his trench and an N.C.O. from the Medical Corps tore off his tunic and attempted to stem the flow of blood by wrapping Jünger in a ground-sheet. He was taken to a dressing-station and soon put to sleep with a dose of morphine. The following day he was driven to the field hospital and placed in the care of the Catholic nuns that made up the nursing staff. During his recuperation, Jünger amused himself by counting the injuries on his body, which included six rifle wounds, one shrapnel wound, one shell-splinter wound, three bomb-splinter wounds, two rifle bullet-splinter wounds and various other scars, all of which amounted to twenty punctures.
After fourteen days, Jünger was heading back to the Fatherland on a hospital train, secure in the knowledge that he had done his bit for his country. Arriving at Hanover, he was taken to the Clementine Infirmary, where, on 22nd September, 1918, he received a telegram from General von Busse:
His Majesty the Kaiser has bestowed on you the order Pour le Mérite. I congratulate you in the name of the whole Division.
Curiously, throughout his memoirs Jünger never questions why he was fighting on the vicious battlefields that staged Europe’s greatest tragedy, but ends his war diary with the following words:
We stand in the memory of the dead who are holy to us, and we believe ourselves entrusted with the true and spiritual welfare of our people. We stand for what will be and for what has been. Though force without and barbarity within conglomerate in sombre clouds, yet so long as the blade of a sword will strike a spark in the night it may be said: Germany lives and Germany shall never go under!
According to Thomas Nevin, on the other hand, who compares Jünger’s narrative approach with that of Ancient Greek mythology:
Objectively considered, every war is its own spectacle, but the Homeric scenario informed Jünger to a fateful degree because his experience of the Great War had an objective correlation in the Greek epic. In Homer, the waging of war overwhelms the purported goal itself. There is no promise of eventual peace or an eventual dominion for the victors. Like the warriors before Troy, Jünger was engaged in fighting for its sake.
However, for those who believe that Jünger’s memoirs are little more than an expression of brutal militarism and the ethics of the machine gun, I would contend that The Storm of Steel itself is a representation of basic survival against all the odds. Jünger is not justifying the brutalities of modern warfare, he simply recognises that it is inextricably bound up with human nature and is therefore showing us how to deal with it. His ability to face up to the hardships of life are certainly far superior to the insipid pacifism contained in ridiculously naïve and unrealistic novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front.
Finally, unlike the many German critics of the war, Jünger never sought to lay the blame for his country’s defeat at the door of those who had seemingly betrayed her interests by first surrendering and then, on 28th June, 1919, signing the hated Treaty of Versailles. As an epitome of the warrior-philosopher, Jünger knew – ironically, perhaps – that much good can arise from defeat and that the lessons that had been learnt had the potential to sow the seeds for a new German nation. Needless to say, if he had foreseen the coming of Hitler and the Nazis he may well have revised that opinion.
1. Thomas Nevin; Ernst Jünger and Germany: Into the Abyss 1914-1945 (Constable, 1997), p.42.
2. Ernst Jünger; The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front (Howard Fertig, 1996), p.1.
3. Ibid., p.3.
4. Ibid., pp.8-9.
5. Ibid., p.10.
6. Ibid., p12.
7. Ibid., p.16.
8. Ibid., p.18.
9. Ibid., p.22.
10. Ibid., p.32.
11. Ibid., pp.48-9.
12. Ibid., p.52.
13. Ibid., p.57.
14. Ibid., p.70.
15. Ibid., p.86.
16. Ibid., p.92.
17. Ibid., p.106.
18. Ibid., p.110.
19. Ibid., pp.117-8.
20. Ibid., pp.126-7.
21. Ibid., p.130.
22. Ibid., pp.135-6.
23. Ibid., p.152.
24. Ibid., p.189.
25. Ibid., p.220.
26. Ibid., p.237.
27. Ibid., pp.253-4.
28. Ibid., pp.285-6.
29. Ibid., pp.298-9.
30. Ibid., p.304.
31. Ibid., pp.310-1.
32. Ibid., p.318.
33. Ibid., pp.318-9.
34. Thomas Nevin; Ernst Jünger and Germany: Into the Abyss 1914-1945, op. cit., p.41.
Hervier, Julian; The Details of time: Conversations with Ernst Jünger (Marsilio Publishing, 1995).
Huyssens, Andreas; Fortifying the Heart: Ernst Jünger’s Armoured Texts in New German Critique, No. 59 (Spring/ Summer 1993).
Jünger, Ernst; The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front (Howard Fertig, 1996).
Jünger, Ernst; Copse 125: A Chronicle from the Trench Warfare of 1918 (Howard Fertig, 2003).
Jünger, Ernst; On Pain (Telos Press, 2008).
Nevin, Thomas; Ernst Jünger and Germany: Into the Abyss 1914-1945 (Constable, 1997).
Southgate, Troy; Jünger: Thoughts & Perspectives, Volume Eleven (Black Front Press, 2012).
Southgate, Troy (Ed.); Eye of the Storm: The Conservative Revolutionaries of 1920s, 1930s and 1940s Germany – Volume One (Black Front Press, 2017).
Southgate, Troy (Ed.); Eye of the Storm: The Conservative Revolutionaries of 1920s, 1930s and 1940s Germany – Volume Two (Black Front Press, 2017).
Southgate, Troy (Ed.); Soldiers, Anarchs and Ideologues: Heroes of the Conservative Revolution (Black Front Press, 2020).
Stern, J. P.; Ernst Jünger (Bowes and Bowes, 1953).