Life and Death in the Trenches

Without a doubt Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front has created an indelible image of the First World War in the popular mind. Ernst Jünger’s memoir Storm of Steel does not fundamentally alter that tortured landscape. If anything, his account is even more harrowing. Yet there is a difference, which is highlighted in the following anecdote:

During one stop on the way, a driver split his thumb in the course of crank-starting his lorry. The sight of the wound almost made me ill, I have always been sensitive to such things. I mention this because it seems virtually unaccountable as I witnessed such terrible mutilation in the course of the following days. It’s an example of the way in which one’s response to an experience is actually largely determined by its context.

The last sentence is key. What makes Storm of Steel so impressive is not just the sheer volume of violence it conveys, but that it is does so without exhibitionism, cynicism or cant. It is worth noting that Remarque’s rather preachy work was a novel, whereas Jünger’s was a first-hand account by a man much decorated and wounded no less than a dozen times.

In one unforgettable scene Jünger is leading his men in an attack and stumbles on a British soldier. He puts a pistol to the man’s head. The foe reaches for something. It is not a weapon but a picture of his family. Jünger spares the enemy combatant. The author seems amazingly thick-skinned in the face of mechanized horror, yet his unwavering sense of decency renders an otherwise dreary tale full of hope and occasional humor. Jünger is not a pacifist like Remarque, nor is he a swaggering Nietzschean. His description of an unlikely fellow officer is a case in point. The man is plump, awkward and short-sighted, yet totally reliable and courageous: “brave puny men are always to be preferred to strong cowards.” Jünger brings real artistry to his chronicle of the Western Front. In one description of the battlefield he writes:

With weeping eyes, I stumbled back to the Vaux woods, plunging from one crater to the next, as I was unable to see anything through the misted visor of my gas mask. With the extent and inhospitableness of its spaces, it was a night of eerie solitude. Each time I blundered into sentries or troops who had lost their way, I had the icy sensation of conversing not with people, but demons. We were all roving around in an enormous dump somewhere off the edge of the charted world.

No other war in recent history can be compared to the 1914-18 conflict for the suffering endured by ordinary soldiers. Mangling and bloodletting on such a vast scale numbs the senses. Yet Jünger reminds us that it is possible to both live and die with dignity even in the worst circumstances.

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