Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger is a book written from the point of view of a German Infantry soldier serving in the Imperial German Army’s 11th Infantry Division, 73rd Hanoverian Regiment during World War I. Junger’s book is compiled chronologically, and encompasses his time in combat on the Western Front. Ernst Junger used 14 different notebooks to record his experiences and thoughts during his nearly four years in combat. His writing style is both brutally honest and introspective, relaying his concern for the soldiers under his care as he rose through the enlisted ranks, eventually rising to the rank of a Lieutenant.
Storm of Steel is the antithesis of the famous World War I novel, All Quite on the Western Front, by Erich Remarque. Storm of Steel doesn’t dig into any of the classic feelings and regret that one might expect from an author who’s nation had just been defeated. It does the exact opposite, stressing the bonds formed by the men of the 73rd Hanoverian Regiment, in spite of their staggering losses. This comradery is further strengthened later in the book, once they become painfully aware of the eventual outcome of the conflict.
The book opens on 27 December 1914, with the author being a 19 year old inexperienced replacement soldier. Within minutes he is ushered into the war experience when his unit comes under attack by British artillery. Amidst the chaos and destruction of men, materials, and animals Junger takes the time to note the details and personal change that was to come.
The Road was reddened with pools of gore; riddled helmets and sword belts lay around. The heavy iron chateau gate was shredded and pierced by the impact of the explosive, the kerbstone was spattered with blood. My eyes were drawn to the place as if by a magnet; and a profound change went through me (7 Junger).
Through the first thirty pages of the book there are several accounts of daily life in the trenches consisting of guard duty, scrounging for food, and practicing the art of soldiering. What is mentioned on page 25 is different. This is the first time the author comes face t0 face with what is to become a common site in trench warfare, the rotting corpse of a fallen enemy.
A sweetish smell and a bundle hanging in the wire caught my attention. In the rising mist, I leaped out of the trench and found a shrunken French corpse. Flesh like a mouldering fish gleamed greenishly through splits in the shredded uniform (25 Junger).
Consistent with the highly descriptive style he uses, Junger goes into great detail when relaying the sights and smells of the encounter. So much so, that you feel like you are there with him in the trench as everything unfolds. The way he notes all the subtleties, the condition of the soldier’s field gear and the amount of decay to the French corpse, instills both a sense of horror and of fascination. This combination of horror and fascination with death is a recurring theme in his works.
Another theme becomes apparent in the author’s writings at this time, the onset of what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Junger starts to manifest early signs of PTSD on the 14th of November, 1915. Junger writes that following days of heavy bombardment and poor weather, he repeatedly had dreams of being wounded. Around this time he also alludes to the drop in morale following the mounting casualties and supply troubles. While dealing with these difficulties, Junger also battles with the loss of his personal batsman, August Kettler. The changes in his personality, due to these impacting events, are evident in his writing.
Battle of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme, of all the military actions described by the author, appears to have had the largest impact on his attitude and personality. By his own accounts before the Battle of the Somme, Junger describes himself as mild mannered and not judgmental of his enemy, the British. In the pages prior to the chapter covering the Battle of the Somme, Junger also repeatedly describes the allure of battle with mixed feelings of fear and adrenaline, but this time it’s different. He considered himself hardened and distant by the end of the Somme.
In order to comprehend the enormity of the Battle of the Somme there are two major factors to consider, one is the length of the battle and the other is the number of troops and casualties.
Battle of the Somme by the numbers
- Duration: 141 Days (1 July 1916 -18 November 1916)
- Imperial German Army: 50 Divisions involved
- Imperial German Army killed in action: 164,000
- Imperial German Army wounded: 465,000
- Allied Forces: 51 British Divisions , 48 French Divisions
- Allied Forces killed in action: 146,000
- Allied Forces wounded: 624,000
1.2 million troops became casualties during the Battle of the Somme. This fact was not lost on Junger, as he describes how close he came to death from machine gun fire while in the area between the trenches known as “No Man’s Land”. Another time he relates how a faulty artillery round landed just five meters from him, only moments after surviving a chlorine and phosgene gas attack. His luck ran low, as he found himself wounded twice during the battle, but not serious enough to keep him out of the fight.
Through it all, the author is aware of his growing skill, and his reputation amongst his troops as a leader who leads from the front. He is also aware of the toll war is taking on him. This is seen in the description of his feelings after a late night raid on a trench, having killed men in close quarters.
It was only afterwards that I noticed that the experience had taken its toll on my nerves, when I was lying on my pallet in my dugout with my teeth chattering, and quite unable to sleep. Rather I had the sensation of a sort of supreme awakeness – as if I had a little electric bell going off somewhere in my body (88 Junger).
In summary, this is a book about one man’s growth and change from a boy to a leader. Storm of Steel is 289 pages highlighting the life, and dangers, of an Infantryman in World War One. I will admit, it isn’t a book for everyone. There are segments where it is long and a bit tedious. Anyone reading this book has to remember that it is compiled from journals, and not written in a traditional prose. It’s his notes and memories, things that were very import or dear to him. If you are a fan of military history, then this book will appeal to you.
Why Did I choose this particular book?
There are several reasons I chose this particular book. The first being that very little is wrote about World War One, and anything on the conflict interests me. Another reason I chose to read Storm of Steel, is a family connection. My Great Grandfather served in World War One with the 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division and was wounded three times in France. His family was of German ancestry, hailed from the town of Grevesmuhlen, Germany. I often wondered whether or not he attacked cousins or relatives without knowing it. The idea of an extended family member shooting you, stabbing you with a bayonet, then trying to kill you with poisonous gas (all of which my Great Grandfather experienced) is hard to fully grasp.
Prior to research for this article and reading the book, I had come across the name of Ernst Junger. While reading I was aware that the author was wounded more than once, and ended the war in a hospital instead of the front lines. It wasn’t until the end of the book when the author explains his medals and injuries that I fully understood how prestigious his short military career was. At the age of 23 he was the youngest person ever to be awarded the Pour le Merite. The “Blue Max” as it was nicknamed was the highest military awarded that could be earned by a German or Prussian military member and was presented by the King of Prussia himself.
When World War One ended in November 1919, Ernst Junger had been wounded 14 times, and had received four medals for bravery and valor. He fought against both the French Regular Army, and the French Moroccan Divisions, as well as three distinctly different groups of the British Army. The British Lancashire Fusiliers, British Colonial 7th Hariana Lancers (Calvary) of India, and the South African (Composite) Regiment which had several battalions of Scotsmen attached to it to bolster it’s strength.
Unfortunately, there are no living veterans of World War One, so we’ve lost all the first hand sources and tales of the western front. Books like Storm of Steel cut through the Hollywood romanticized versions of World War One and show us that being a soldier in 1915 is very similar to a soldier in 2015. It shows us that War, no matter what time period, at its very core is a savage and unrelenting experience.
Storm of Steel is available for purchase on Amazon.