Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Storm of Steel
I read my first military history book when I was 12 and have not stopped reading in this genre since. Over the years, I've gone through many phases - Roman, Napoleonics, American Civil War, World War II/East Front and Vietnam, just to name a few. I generally avoid the World War I era based on the mayhem, stupidity and scope of slaughter that dwarfs everything before and after it. So it was with some hesitation that I picked up "Storm of Steel" by Ernst Junger.
Junger was a German soldier who saw action mostly against the British from 1914-18. First published in 1920, "Storm of Steel" is a personal narrative based on the diaries Junger kept during the war. He relates the day-to-day life of a German soldier without lecture, philosophy or musing. His experience could be described as war of two halves. From 1914-16, his unit was engaged off and on, sometimes in reserve and rotated to the rear frequently. In August of 1916, he's posted to the battle of Somme where the slaughter reaches a monstrous efficiency that continues unabated until Germany surrenders.
Junger describes his experiences matter-of-factly: "The earth shook, the sky seemed like a boiling cauldron. Hundreds of heavy batteries were crashing away at and around Combles, innumerable shells crisscrossed hissing and howling over our heads. Because of wracking pain in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by shouted words. The ability to think logically and the feeling of gravity, both seem to have been removed."
At the front, he discovers the trench his company is posted to reduced to a series of enormous craters full of uniforms, weapons and dead bodies. "When we dug foxholes, we realized that they were stacked in layers. One company after another, pressed together in the drumfire, had been mown down, then the bodies had been buried under showers of dirt sent up by shells and then the relief company had taken the predecessor's place. And now it was our turn."
At one point, Junger's company of 150 men is mustering to the front when an artillery shell lands in their midst. The 63 stunned survivors are given mere hours to recuperate before going over the top to attack. By war's end, the author had been wounded 6 times and it's safe to say that these wounds may have saved his life by taking him out of the meat grinder.
I find the stories of ordinary men operating in extraordinary circumstances very compelling and that was true here. When I got to the the Battle of Somme, I put aside my chores for the day so I could finish the book in a single sitting. It was an afternoon well spent as this book a fascinating read on a subject I generally avoid.