At three in the afternoon my sentries came to me from the left and stated that they were unable to hold out where they were any longer, as their holes had been shot away. I had to display my full authority to get them back to their stations.
The sentence of the day:
We might be crushed, but surely we could not be conquered.
The long-drawn cry went up: “Gas attack! Gas attack! Gas! Gas! Gaaaas!”
By the light of the flares, a dazzling flow of gas billowed over the black jags of masonry. Since there was a heavy smell of chlorine in the quarry as well, we lit large straw fires at the entrances, whose acrid smoke almost drove us out of our refuge, and forced us to try and cleanse the air by waving coats and tarpaulins.
The next day, we were able to marvel at the traces the gas had left. A large proportion of the plants had withered, snails and moles lay dead . . . The shells and ammunition splinters that lay all over the place had a fetching green patina.
The following day, the whole process is repeated: “Gas attack!”
There was a sweetish smell in the air . . . In the ring around Monchy, powerful drumfire was raging, but that ebbed away before long . . . The British had set off clouds of gas and smoke at five in the morning . . .
Self is enjoying Storm of Steel a lot, which is saying something. Junger is such a keen cataloguer of his emotions. Solipsistic? Maybe. There is a reason André Gide called this the best work on war that he had ever read.
On p. 80, he describes the experience of being shelled:
Light and heavy ‘toffee-apples,’ Stokes bombs, shrapnels, rattles, shells of all kinds — I could no longer identify everything that was buzzing and whizzing and crashing around me. . . It’s an easier matter to describe these sounds than to endure them, because one cannot but associate every single sound of flying steel with the idea of death, and so I huddled in my hole in the ground with my hand in front of my face, imagining all the possible variants of being hit.
Junger and three companions venture into No Man’s Land and wait. The goal: to take a British prisoner.
After a while, some British came out, dragging a role of wire after them. They stopped close in front of us, put the roll down, snipped at it with wire-cutters, and talked in whispers. We sidled together and had a hasty discussion: “Toss a hand grenade in there, and pick up the pieces!” “Come on, there’s four of them!” “Don’t talk rubbish!” “Quiet! Quiet down!” My warning came too late; as I looked up, the British were darting lizard-like under their wires, and disappeared into their trench. The feeling now got a little clammy.
On 28 December, I was back in command of the Altenburg Redoubt. On that day, rifleman Hohn, one of my best men, lost his arm to a shell fragment. Heidotting received a bad thigh wound from one of the many bullets that were whizzing around our earthworks in the hollow. And my faithful August Kettler, the first of many servants to die in my service, fell victim to a shrapnel that passed through his windpipe as he was on his way to Monchy to get my lunch. As he was setting off with the mess-tins, I had called out to him: “August, mind how you go, won’t you.” “I’ll be fine, Lieutenant!” And then I was summoned and found him lying on the ground close to the dugout, gurgling as the air passed through the wind into his chest with every breath he took. I had him carried back; he died a few days later in hospital. It was a feature of his case, as it was of quite a few others, that his inability to speak made him even more pathetic, as he stared at the nurses in bewilderment like a tormented animal.
— Storm of Steel, p. 59
This must be what my professors meant when they said, “this author demonstrates a complete mastery of his material.”
We’re back with the 19-year-old Ernst Junger, who signed up on the first day of the War, August 1, 1914. It’s now December 27, and the first entry in the diary: Junger detrains in Champagne.
“No finer death in all the world than . . . ” Anything to participate, not to have to stay at home!
Finally we reached Orainville, one of the typical hamlets of the region, and the designated base for the 73rd Rifles, a group of fifty brick and limestone houses, grouped round a chateau in parkland.
Used as we were to the order of cities, the higgledy-piggledy life on the village streets struck us as exotic.
There is such a knowing air to this passage! Sure this was written when Junger was just 19? Maybe some bits were added later? I’m thinking, in particular, about that last sentence, the one about “the order of cities . . . It seemed that, if anything, life was a little slower and duller here, an impression strengthened by the evidence of dilapidation in the village.“
This concept (Depth of Focus) is so beautifully described (still on the Introduction to Storm of Steel — if this book is full of the ‘blood lust,’ this Introduction may be as close as I get to Ernst Junger) by Michael Hofmann:
“While the most characteristic depth of focus of the book is maybe ten yards or so — the interiors, the trenches and dugouts, the cars and lorries, the ruined houses, the beautiful, cultivated catalogues of war junk (like the one on p. 94) — still, there are also equally memorable distance shots, repeatedly of the sky, and of the colors and sounds of various ordnance, moments of eerie contemplation, like the background of a Renaissance portrait, and with just that in-and-out effect . . . “
Whew! I was expecting to spend at least two more days reading Spies, Lies, and Algorithms (fascinating book!) but today I discovered that the Acknowledgment section is about a third of the book (and I skipped that).
So, it’s on to her next, Storm of Steel, by Ernst Junger:
Ernst Junger is a very interesting writer. I’ve heard him described as a “right-wing, conservative” German author, which nearly put me off from reading him permanently, but I decided to read recent reviews from goodreads. One reviewer contrasted him with World War I English writers. At Stanford, self took a course called Literature of World War I, taught by the late, great Albert J. Guerard (prior to this, I knew nothing about either Guerard or World War I Literature). Required reading: The Great War and Modern Memory, by Paul Fussell, and the following authors: Siegfried Sassoon, Ford Madox Ford, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Vera Brittain. I crammed, and retained most of what I read.
Which brings me to this article in the Wall Street Journal (March 3), which I clipped because I was interested in Babi Yar. Ernst Junger is one of the authors mentioned, which led me to Storm of Steel.
Reading the introduction (more carefully than normal, because I do not want to spend the next week reading a book written by a Nazi), I learn that his memoir of World War I sold in the six figures, he was twice offered a seat in the Reichstag (but turned it down), and never joined the Nazi Party. He volunteered on 1 August 1917, the first day of the war, when he was 19. The writer of the Introduction, Michael J. Hofmann, struggling to describe him, tries out the word “solipsistic” (I have to look it up). I agree that any man who fills up 16 notebooks while fighting in a war is probably (at the very least) solipsistic!
His gifts as a writer are primarily those of a diarist: descriptiveness and an ear for speech, intellectual stamina and disjunctiveness, at his best over medium distances, as a writer of passages rather than of books or sentences.
Hofmann points out that Junger has a “particularly devoted following in France.” Andre Gide wrote, in his diary, in 1942: “Storm of Steel is, without question, the finest book on war that I know: utterly honest, truthful, in good faith.”
(Just read a one-paragraph excerpt quoted by Hofmann in the Introduction. Umm . . . umm . . . WOW! Pray it’s not all like this: “My first victim was an Englishman whom I shot between two Germans at 150 metres. He snapped shut like the blade of a knife and lay still.” If untenable, the next book on my reading list is Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews. Stay tuned)
In the wee hours, self was wallowing through a book about the history of disinformation, starting with the Russians in the 1920s. Chapter 2 was about a Japanese “Mein Kampf” which turned out to be a fake, but which correctly predicted Pearl Harbor, 12 years before it happened. At that point, everything got too “Wall of Mirrors” for her, and she decided to tackle the book at a later date.
Now, she’s in the trenches of World War I, which are indeed an awful place to be, even without the bullets and the barbed wire, because the smell of decaying corpses is everywhere. And men are getting shot in the face!
Self took a peek at the accompanying photographs and — Gulp! Bullets really do a job on the human face! Just sayin’
p. 6 of The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon’s Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I, by Lindsey Fitzharris:
From the moment that the first machine gun rang out over the Western Front, one thing was clear: Europe’s military technology had wildly surpassed its medical capabilities.
As Fitzharris explains, “the nature of trench warfare led to high rates of facial injuries. Many combatants were shot in the face because . . . they seemed to think they could pop their heads up over a trench and move quickly enough to dodge the the hail of machine-gun bullets.”