Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger

Written by

Peter Jennings

“The night was still wilder than the last. In particular, one concentration of fire at quarter past two outdid anything there had been up to that point. A hail of heavy shells struck all round my dugout. We stood fully armed on the shelter steps, while the light of our little candle stumps reflected glitteringly off the wet, mildewed walls. Blue smoke streamed in through the entrances, and earth crumbled off the ceiling. ‘Boom!’ ‘Good God!’ ‘A light, a light! ‘Get everything ready.’ Everyone’s hearts were in their mouths. Hands darted to release the pins on bombs. ‘That was the last of them!’ ‘Let’s go!’.”

First published in its original German in 1920 Ernst Jünger’s In Stahlgewittern, Storm of Steel, is surely the best account of trench warfare along the western front in the First World War. Based on his diary of the time, the book covers Jünger’s experience from recruitment in 1914 through to the allied offensive in the Spring of 1918 and Germany’s ultimate defeat. Jünger cannot write a dull sentence and the Penguin translation by Michael Hoffman conveys the experience of war with a sharp, at times perhaps too poetic, acuity.

Arriving at the front in late 1914 Jünger writes: “We listened to the slow, grinding pulse of the front, a rhythm we were to become mighty familiar with over the years. The white ball of a shrapnel shell melted far off, suffusing the grey December sky.” At the very end of the book, Jünger contemplated his twentieth battlefield wound: “I felt the bullet taking away my life. … As I came down heavily on the bottom of the trench, I was convinced it was all over. … I understood, as in a flash of lightning, the true inner purpose and form of my life.”

Jünger survived. He served as a German Army officer in occupied France, maintained a distance from the Nazis (an ‘inner immigrant’ from the regime) and became a respected literary figure in the post war era, dying in 1998 age 103. Storm of Steel is by no means a celebration of war. It is an unflinching account of the artillery bombardments and savage hand to hand trench fighting, including against New Zealand infantry in 1918. Unlike All Quite on the Western Front, the 1928 novel by the German novelist Erich Maria Remarque, Storm of Steel not an anti-war account. It almost completely avoids comment on the strategic aims of the combatant powers, concentrating on the experience of fighting. The result is unsettling and engrossing, combining humour, courage, fear, disorientation, death and survival.

As we see Ukrainian and Russian soldiers digging trenches in eastern Ukraine, Storm of Steel is a disturbing reminder that total war is not necessarily far removed from our modern experience. The First World War is now beyond the reach of direct knowledge. Family connections have passed. Jünger’s book makes the experience of trench warfare more alive than any of us could bear to face it.