As the First World War centenary approaches, there has been excessive attention paid to Britain’s role in the conflict. There has also been a tendency to take sides about whether it need have been fought at all – witness last week’s spirited set-to on the BBC between Max Hastings and Niall Ferguson.
Both of these emphases are only natural, but it does not make sense to talk about the first total war in history as if it was just Tommy vs Fritz. Nor is history best understood by arguing about who was right. The most difficult and fascinating thing is to grasp what history was like for the people who lived it. This is never truer than of war, an experience so extreme that even those who have known one struggle to make sense of what they encountered.
So I propose in this column to review, for the centenary, a few works which make us see the Great War with different eyes. I start with Storm of Steel. Although Ernst Jünger’s book has been famous in Germany for many years – Hitler was an admirer – and is widely praised, I find that few people in Britain know it. It is undoubtedly the most powerful memoir of any war I have ever read.
Jünger volunteered on August 1 1914, got off the train to the front on December 27 that year, and fought right through in France and Flanders until September 1918, when he was hit in the chest by a British bullet. In the course of the war, he was wounded at least 14 times. He lived to attend the extraordinary occasion at Verdun in 1984 when the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and the French president, François Mitterrand, held hands in reconciliation. He died in 1998, aged 102.
Storm of Steel is based on Jünger’s diary, which he worked – and frequently re-edited – into a piece of continuous prose. It combines the most astonishing literary gifts with absorption with war in every detail. It has German loyalties and a German sensibility, but not a trace of propaganda. It is particular, yet universal.
The book has little background. It barely touches on politics, home life or human love (except comradeship). It is about what war is, for a soldier. On Jünger’s very first day, shells fall near his quarters: “I was amazed at the way the men around me seemed to cower while running at full pelt, as though under some frightful threat. The whole thing struck me as faintly ridiculous, in the way of seeing people doing things one doesn’t properly understand.” By September 1918, he does properly understand; the reader almost feels that he does too.
Here are a couple of scenes and images: “From the meadow arose exotic calls and cries for help. The voices were like those that frogs make in the grass after a rainstorm. In the tall grass we discovered a line of dead and three wounded who threw themselves at our feet and begged us for mercy. They seemed to be convinced that we would massacre them. In answer to my question 'Quelle nation?’ one replied: 'Pauvre Rajput’ [ie, Indian].” Charging forward: “The exchange of hand grenades reminded me of fencing with foils; you needed to jump and stretch, almost as in a ballet… In those moments, I was capable of seeing the dead – I jumped over them with every stride – without horror. They lay there in the relaxed and softly spilled attitude that characterises those moments in which life takes its leave.”
Jünger does not weep at death, but at the unexpected. In one terrible attack, in which a direct hit kills about 20 men, a baby-faced soldier, who a few days earlier had been laughed at for breaking down under the weight of munitions boxes, now, unasked, picks them out of the crater and lugs them along: “I threw myself to the ground, and sobbed hysterically, while my men stood grimly about.” He spares a British officer whom he is about to shoot because the man reaches into his pocket and produces a photograph of his family. But he kills a very young British soldier and contemplates his “quite relaxed” body: “I often thought back on him; and more with the passing of the years. The state, which relieves us of our responsibility, cannot take away our remorse; and we must exercise it.”
Rarely, but effectively, he makes general statements: “In war you learn your lessons, and they stay learned, but the tuition fees are high.” Or “battle brings men together, whereas inactivity separates them”.
The finest set-pieces, which build up as frighteningly as a great storm, describe the moments of greatest danger. One concerns Guillemont, in the Battle of the Somme. Jünger and his men see and hear the battle from afar. They march towards it: “What gave the scene a particularly sinister aspect was the way the roads were clearly visible, like a network of white veins in the moonlight, and there was no living being on them. We marched as on the gleaming paths of a midnight cemetery.”
The last is of the start of the Ludendorff offensive, which almost broke the allies in March 1918. Jünger describes how “the immense desire to destroy… precipitated a red mist in our brains. We called out sobbing and stammering fragments of sentences to one another, and an impartial observer might have concluded that we were all ecstatically happy.” He reaches a British embankment, and looks back: “As if in a waking dream, I saw German steel helmets approaching through the craters. They seemed to sprout from the fire-harrowed soil like some iron harvest.”
What Jünger saw and recorded was, to use his own word, “primordial”. It takes great art to convey that appalling simplicity.
Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger translated by Michael Hofmann (Penguin)