Friday, May 31, 2019

German Guy: "Storm of Steel" by Ernst Junger

German Guy: The Storm of Steel: from the diary of a German storm-trooper officer on the Western Front by Ernst Junger, 1961 reprint of the 1929 translation of the 1920 German book, 0865273103.

Junger survived all four years in the Western Front fighting against the British and French. A final chest wound sent him to the rear in mid-2018 (or so) and he did not return to the front by war's end. At the end of the book he tallies that he was wounded 14 times (not all separate occasions) for 20 punctures.

Surviving 4 years of slaughter is fairly amazing. He outlived most every pal and fellow soldier. And what a grind survival was. Junger writes well about the endless artillery attacks. The English would send shells throughout the day every day. That the Germans would assemble and travel on foot through those maelstroms is amazing. That anyone survives shelling at all is amazing. Junger was at the Somme and one passage has him describing being caught by an attack and sheltering in an old trench. The only safe(ish) spot is a slight recess in the trench wall. Junger is crouched down, his face in the dirt, just trying not to go nuts.

And that's a lot of the story. Junger hiding from artillery. Junger surviving near blasts. Junger picking up the human pieces after artillery explosions. Junger and others being buried by the dirt thrown by explosions. Near misses that Junger survived by a the difference of a few seconds. Shells that land among a group of soldiers and kill 20. Shell splinters that wound. Shell splinters that kill. Explosions that atomize bodies.

Troops spent a lot of time waiting to die. Danger is everywhere and normal. You start to ignore some basic safety procedures and precautions. But, if you've stayed alive that long you do many things automatically and without thinking. Troops hearing a shell headed their way immediately know the the shell's size and trajectory. They are constantly aware of the nearest shell hole or dug out to hunker down.

In case you did not already know: not all bodies were recovered or removed for burial elsewhere. The Unknown Soldier is solidly a WW1 thing. Corpses were EVERYWHERE. Dead bodies were regularly exposed by artillery blasts and crumbling craters. More bodies are revealed by the rain and flooding. Junger would come to a new position in 1917 or '18 and the accidentally dig up remains from 1914.

A few years ago when I learned that rotting bodies were a normal wartime occurrence I was aghast. A soldier would be cutting a shelf into a trench wall and discover a rotting body part. When I read about that now it is gross but not a shock. So, it makes sense that a soldier would be desensitized even further and just shrug. Or even start using skulls as ashtrays or candle holders.

Junger wrote about many head and neck injuries as men peek above a trench line or just bob their head over. French and English snipers sit on their rifle sights and just wait for a target. Junger writes of taking a head shot at an Englishman who is 600 meters off in the far back in the 3rd English trench. Junger gives the walking Englishman a lead off the tip of the man's nose and says he makes a hit.  Hitting a human silhouette with iron sights at 600 is doable but he implies he made a head shot after he grabbed the nearest rifle and set the sights for distance. That seems really far-fetched to me. But, I am not a skilled rifle marksman.

I am happy to say I have never been in a war zone but read plenty of memoirs where soldiers gripe about shaving and haircuts and details of regular daily life. The argument I have read is that daily discipline forces people to recall regular life and that the the rules of daily life are enforced. People don't backslide and get away with more and more infractions that may lead to a landslide of bad decisions and animal behavior.

The German units seemed to rotate out of the front lines frequently enough. Junger does not dwell as much on the field conditions as in the English and American memoirs I have read. When Junger writes about the trenches he always seemed to have a bunker or underground slot to shelter in. He always had a servant at hand. They flooded in low lands but he does not talk about pumps running 24 hours. He also never had to do countermining against English troops.

This is the first WW1 German memoir I've read. I never much thought of the Germans having a hard time. Reading about all the tragedies of trench warfare suffered by English, French and American troops means I was thinking the opposite of the Krauts. Figuring that the Germans were on the high ground without flooded trenches, inside concrete bunkers, hanging out, singing songs, and drinking beer.

And there is lots of drinking. Booze (and other drugs) are a universal wartime pastime. Especially when off the line. Beer, brandy, schnapps, and wine. Officers would booze it up during parties. Drinking the trench was regular as long as nobody gets drunk.

Other details:
1. The killing of surrendering troops.
2. Multiple gas attacks. Running through a gas cloud without a mask on to get back to the trench line.
3. Only 3 men of his company are left after one year.
4. Few references to women: I presume the rear areas had plenty of prostitutes but he only writes about a couple younger French women he gawked at. He - of course - is a gallant and kind young soldier.
5. Many patrols into no man's land. Junger, as the subtitle says, was a storm trooper. He was involved in a raid that was planned and prepped for weeks. He was in the vanguard of attacking troops during the Spring 1918 offensive.


Todd Mason said...

Grim stuff. War, odd it should go that way.

Speaking of grim, what became of ATLANTA DEATHWATCH?

Gerard Saylor said...

I was taking notes on DEATHWATCH and hit publish rather than save them took it down latr. I have 3 or 4 other books I need to finish notes on.

Todd Mason said...

Also, in re the lack of fun department for the WWI Germans, consider ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT...

Anonymous said...

Junger lived to be more than a hundred years old. His A German Officer in Occupied Paris, about WWII was recently translated.

Gerard Saylor said...

I looked Junger up only after finishing the book. I was surprised he was - according to the article - so anti-Nazi. Much of this book has him thoroughly invested and believing in the war. ALL QUIET was a "what was I thinking, this is insane, stop it all". Junger was more "press the attack, kill kill kill" guy.