Most books, movies, and stories about the First World War are defeatist in tone. Whether that be because of the mass slaughter in the muddy, worthless land between the trenches, the seeming incompetence of the generals and their staffs, the fact that unelected monarchs drove the nations into the meatgrinder, or something else, most every book you read about that titanic conflict is hard to read because the tone is so dismal. Even objective histories about the Great War can’t get by without remarking, to some extent or another, on the meaningless and/or futility of it all.
Perhaps that’s understandable. I wasn’t in the trenches and, had I been, I doubt I would have made it through with a cheery attitude. When reading the stories of horror from the Somme, Passchendaele, and Verdun, it’s hard to imagine anyone survived living in a muddy, rat-infested hell where the water was soaked through with poison gas and rotting flesh and whatever miserable hole you found to cower in was raked over constantly with the Maxim gun and high-explosives. Such a hellish environment is almost beyond comprehension and it’s no wonder that almost all of those that went through it were left embittered, disillusioned, and defeatist.
But still, it’s so disappointing to read tale after tale from that war and realize that the great European spirit that drove a few specks of land to conquer most of the world was murdered on the killing fields of the Western Front. Every time I read of the Great War, no matter how horrible the stories are, I hope without hope that among some souls that spirit persevered. On the allied side, Winston Churchill, as is recounted in The Last Lion, went about his service with a smile, enjoying the adventure despite the horror of it all and preserving that heroic spirit of a better age.
And on the side of the Central Powers, we have Ernst Junger, a German infantry officer that, in his book The Storm of Steel, manages to describe the war while also preserving and showing that classical European spirit.
Somehow, Junger managed to survive almost the entirety of the war on the Western Front and then write about it in The Storm of Steel. Despite fighting in campaign after campaign while watching hundreds of his fellows perish around him in a storm of artillery barrages and machine-gun fire, Junger survived. He fought with great bravery, winning the Knight’s Cross First Class and many other medals for leading his men through the sheer hell that they lived in for year after year.
And while many around him fell, either physically due to white-hot shards of metal or mentally due to the decay in spirit that accompanied the conflict and Germany’s defeat, Junger remained strong both physically and mentally. He was gassed, shot, and struck with shrapnel, but never, in The Storm of Steel, drifts from that European mentality that those of us that have read about and love the Victorian Age know and cherish.
A few passages from The Storm of Steel will illuminate that better than I ever could:
“Time only strengthens my conviction that it was a good and strenuous life, and that the war, for all its destructiveness, was an incomparable schooling of the heart. The front-line soldier whose foot came down on the earth so grimly and harshly may claim this at least, that it came down cleanly. Warlike achievements are enhanced by the inherent worth of the enemy. Of all the troops who were opposed to the Germans on the great battlefields the English were not only the most formidable but the manliest and the most chivalrous. I rejoice, therefore, tho have an opportunity of expressing in time of peace the sincere admiration which I have never failed to make clear during the war whenever I came across a wounded man or a prisoner belonging to the British force.”
“All of us held on that evening, all who lay along the dark Flanders road. Officers and men alike showed what they were made of. Duty and Honour must be the corner-stones of every army, And a heightened sense of duty and honour must be inculcated in the officer who fights in the forefront of the battle.”
“We had grown up in a material age, an in each one of us there was a yearning for a great experience, such as we hand 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…anything rather than stay at home, anyting to make one with the rest…”
Despite it all he remained himself: a chivalrous European gentleman. Between battles, he’d swim, ride horses, and share bottles of wine with his fellow officers. During battles, he and his men fought with distinction, valor, and honor. And, when defeated, he didn’t become a sniveling, hate-filled man like a certain other German, but rather spends time remarking upon the nobility of his English opponents!
To be sure, brutality is a constant in The Storm of Steel. There were times when Junder’s unit took no prisoners. He thought less respect should have been paid to the Belgians. When he fought, it was like a lion.
But it’s important that there’s more to The Storm of Steel than brutality. Just as the defeatist attitude of the West after the Great War was a great evil, so was the spirit of unrestrained barbarism that rose with the Nazis as a result of the war. Both were wrong; the middle ground that Junger struck and remained true to was the proper course.
The Storm of Steel is an important book. It reminds the reader both that there is glory in battle and how a gentleman should conduct himself. Courage and honor are the two virtues present within its pages in droves and are the two virtues modern man must recover.