A Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger is a book so opposite to All Quiet on the Western Front so thoroughly as to be hardly discussing the same war. And in a sense, they are. Storm of Steel is essentially a diary, a recitation of facts and occurrences, held together by the observer. All Quiet, is a novel, which, however much it draws from Remarque’s real life experiences, has the ambition of a social novel: to put the cast of characters as shadows of their social obligation, and make note of who suffers and who profits. Since we’re talking about German soldiers in the Trenches of WWI, it’s mostly suffering. All Quiet, like Siegfried Sassoon’s poems, are less a story than a dirge.
Which is what makes Storm of Steel so bracing. Junger dispenses with being shocked that war is horrible and does what most soldiers in that war did, i.e., gets on with it. Death is not ignored, nor randomness, nor folly, but they are treated with concision and immediacy. Junger’s prose, while evocative, is never purple.
Several times, I murmurd a phrase of Ariosto’s:
“A great heart feels no dread of approaching death, whenever it may come, so long as it e honorable.”
That produced a pleasant kind of intoxication of the sort that one experiences, maybe, on a rollercoaster.
It bears far closer resemblance to a book long forgotten, Over the Top by Arthur Guy Empey. Published while the war was still going on, by an American discharged from the British Army, it has more than a few touches of propaganda, clanging lines about “this great war for civilization” (After being wounded during the Somme, Empey was discharged from the British Army, and served as a propaganda officer in the U.S. Army until he made a speech critical of draftees and was withdrawn. He later had a career writing and directing in Silent-Era Hollywood). But the bulk of the novel is comic, casting the mud and the blood and the bombs in wry terms. It even includes “Tommy’s Dictionary of the Trenches” which takes precisely the Biercean tone it should:
Bayonet. A sort of knife-like contrivance which fits on the end of your rifle. The Government issues it to stab Germans. Tommy uses it to toast bread.
Empey does not cast himself in the hero’s role, but more as a comedic sojourner lucky to come out alive. He does not spare the generals, or pretend that things like shooting deserters by firing squad is not unpleasant business (one gets the overall sense that Empey has little interest in, or respect for, authority, and regards them as a necessary evil). His book gives wonderfully specific details about life in a front-line trench, and the routine of surviving it.
Both of these longer works remind me of C.S. Lewis’ discussion of his time in the trenches in his memoir. Lewis largely preferred the wartime army to public school, largely because one was not obligated to feign enjoyment of one’s time in the first. But his perspective was summed up in his reaction to the first time he heard a bullet crack the air near him. “Oh,” he thought, “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.”