Ernst Jünger was born in Heidelberg, Germany, on 25 March 1895 to a middle-class family. He ran away from his Hanover home in 1913 and joined the French Foreign Legion, serving in Algeria before his father brought him back. When war broke out he immediately volunteered in the Imperial German army, enlisting on 1 August 1914, at age 19. He was assigned to the 73rd Hanoverian Fusilier Regiment.
The German army was a formidable opponent – and so, it turned out, was Ernst Jünger. Jünger was a cool, courageous and ruthlessly efficient soldier. Wounded 14 times, and twice decorated for bravery, he fought at the forefront of his regiment’s battles for the entire war. These included Les Éparges, 1915; Guillemont, 1916; Passchendaele, 1917; March Offensive, 1918; Rossignol Wood, 1918; and Cambrai, 1918.
In December 1914, Jünger was deployed to a quiet sector of the Western Front at Gauda, Champagne. After front-line garrison duty, on 23 April 1915, Jünger and the 73rd attacked the French at Les Éparges. In The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front, Jünger recounts the moment that he first confronted battlefield dead:
At our first glance of horror … we stare[d] again and again at these things that we had never seen before, without being able to give them any meaning. It was too entirely unfamiliar. We looked at these dead with dislocated limbs, distorted faces, and hideous colours of decay, as though we walked in a dream through a garden full of strange plants, and we could not realise at first what we had all round us.
Jünger was promoted to ensign in September 1915 and commissioned lieutenant on 29 November 1915. In late 1915–early 1916, shortly before the Anzacs arrived on the Western Front, he and the 73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers were stationed on the German side of the front line near the French village of Monchy.
Listen to Jünger describe trench life.
On the Western Front, both sides were subjected to the lethal horrors of modern warfare. Foremost among these were gas, machine-gun fire and artillery shelling. Artillery fire was to kill more men in the war than any other weapon.
Listen to Jünger, in the front line at the village of Monchy, describe surviving gas and shell-fire during the week-long preliminary bombardment to the 1916 British Somme offensive:
Jünger and the 73rd Regiment fought twice at the Third Battle of Ypres. At Langemarck in late July 1917, he was lucky to survive. His regiment endured the allies’ preliminary bombardment and helped halt their advance, but in so doing was largely destroyed. In October his reinforced unit was in action again north of Passchendaele, not far from the 6th Battalion, AIF, to the south. Mud was all-pervasive:
Now and then one of us sank in mud above the hips and would certainly have drowned but for rifle-butts that the others stretched out to help … a wound would drown one for certainty in a shell-hole. A suffusion of blood on the surface … here and there showed that many a man had vanished thus.
In March 1918, Jünger and the 73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers took part in the massive German Spring Offensive. They were assigned to break through the allied line between the villages of Ecoust-St.-Mein and Noreuil. On March 19–20, Jünger lost two thirds of his company to shell-fire while approaching the line. Jünger’s nerves were shaken. Nevertheless, their spirits were revived by the massive German bombardment that preceded the 21 March attack, which he vividly described:
At once a hurricane broke loose. A curtain of flames was let down, followed by a sudden tumult such as was never heard, a raging thunder that swallowed up reports of even the heaviest guns … and made the earth tremble. This gigantic roar of annihilation from countless guns behind was so terrific that, compared with it, all preceding battles were child’s play. What we had dared hope came true. The enemy artillery was silenced, put out of action by one giant blow … We looked with wonder at the wall of fire towering over the English lines and the blood-red clouds that hung above it… In front stood a blind wall of smoke, dust and gas… The very laws of nature seemed to have lost their validity. The air shimmered as though on a day of summer heat … objects danced to and fro … One could scarcely hear the thousands of machine guns in our rear that swept the blue sky with swarm upon swam of lead.
The significance of what was to be Germany’s last major offensive of the war did not escape him as they waited:
I climbed out on top after a few minutes followed by the men. ‘Now we’ll show what the 7th Company can do! … We drew our revolvers and crossed our wire … I looked to the left and right. … in shell-holes in front of the enemy lines … the attacking battalions were waiting massed in companies, as far as the eye could see … The decisive battle, the final advance, had begun. The destiny of nations drew to its iron conclusion, and the stake was the possession of the world. I was conscious, if only in feeling, of the significance of that hour; and I believe that on this occasion every man felt … he had his part to play by which history would be made.
Nerves stretched to fever pitch, the attack finally began:
The great moment had come. The fire lifted over the first trenches. We advanced. The turmoil of our feelings was called forth by rage, alcohol, and thirst for blood as we stepped out, heavily and yet irresistibly, for the enemy’s lines … I was far in front of the company … In my right hand I gripped my revolver, in my left a bamboo riding cane. I was boiling with a fury now utterly inconceivable to me. The overpowering desire to kill winged my feet. Rage squeezed bitter tears from my eyes.
The opposing British offered resistance but were shattered by the massive bombardment and the scale and intensity of the attack. According to Jünger:
The English jumped out of their trenches and fled by battalions across the open. They stumbled over each other as they fled, and in a few seconds the ground was strewn with dead. Only a few got away … one cry was on everybody’s lips: “On!” Every man went straight ahead.
On 22 March, pushing on to the Vraucourt Line, near Noreuil, the regiment was strongly opposed by Scottish troops. Pinned down by heavy fire and feeling cold in the exposed trench, Jünger donned a British great coat. Eventually the Scots were overwhelmed but in a final attack, Jünger was shot at close range through the chest above the heart, probably by his own troops, mistaking him for the enemy. Taking off the coat and retiring back along the trench he was shot again in the head but survived. He was assisted by two wounded British prisoners, the three managing to obtain a lift to the rear in an empty ammunition wagon. Along the way he had sharp words with the commander of the ammunition column, who wanted to toss the two British prisoners out of the wagon. After stays in several field hospitals he was eventually hospitalised in Berlin.
Jünger returned to the 73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers on 4 June, 1918. They were posted to the front line at Puisieux-au-Mont. In late July 1918, Jünger and the 73rd engaged in days of fierce fighting, unsuccessfully resisting ‘English’ (Otago Regiment, NZEF) attacks, at Rossignol Wood near Hébuterne, France. Jünger described a failed counter-attack:
With heads bent we made jumps from one traverse to the next … The English fled to a line behind leaving one dead … When passing the mouth of a trench to the left … [I] found myself faced by a powerfully built Englishman lobbing a bomb … Shouts rose on all sides. They were coming over the top to cut us off. I drew forth my bomb, my only weapon, and dropped it at the feet of the Tommy. Then I took to my heels in the direction of our lines.
Jünger, an outstanding company commander, fought at the forefront of his regiment’s battles for the entire war. He experienced the worst horrors and dangers of trench warfare and was decorated for outstanding service and bravery. In January 1917, after the Somme, he received the Iron Cross, 1st Class. Later that year, following his company’s success in the German counter-offensive at Cambrai, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the House Order of Hohenzollern with Crossed Swords. On 22 September 1918, the Kaiser awarded Jünger the German army’s highest award for outstanding valour, the Pour le Mérite (‘the Blue Max’) for leading an undermanned attack at Favreuil on 25 August. Jünger was shot twice through the chest in this attack, the last of many serious wounds he suffered during the war. He described his last attack as follows:
It was our last storm … Again the carnival of carnage beckoned. We left the sunken road … [and I] suddenly found myself far in front of the first wave.
Isolated rifle-shots rang out in front of us. My cane in my right hand and revolver in the left, I tramped on ahead … A machine gun spat out its bullets at us. A sense of aimlessness took hold of me. Nevertheless, we began to charge at the double. In mid-jump over a piece of trench a piercing shock through the chest took away my breath. I spun head over heels with a loud cry and fell stunned to the ground.
I awoke with a sense of great misfortune. I was pinned between narrow walls of earth, and along a row of crouching figures the cry was taken up: ‘Stretcher-bearers! The company commander is wounded.’
An elderly man of another company was leaning over me with a kind expression, loosening my belt and opening my tunic. Two blood-red circular marks shone out on the middle of my right breast and on my back. I was crippled and chained to the earth, and the close air of the narrow trench bathed me in sweat. My good Samaritan revived me by fanning me with my map-case. My hope as I struggled for breath was for darkness to come soon, so that I could be carried back … I had a clear consciousness that I was done.
Above rose a cry of horror and ran from mouth to mouth: ‘they’re through on the left! We’re surrounded!’ This gave me back my old strength again. I … pulled myself to my feet, while blood poured from my mouth. With bare head and open coat I stared, revolver in hand, into the fight.
From the rear there were men coming forward with their hands up … We were surrounded by a circle of Germans and English and called upon to throw down our weapons. I urged those nearest me in a weak voice to fight it out to the death … Among us there was heard a tumult of voices. ‘It’s all up! Throw away your rifle! Don’t shoot, Kameraden!’
There was left only the choice of being taken or being shot. And now the moment had come to show [that] … the fighting spirit was more than empty phrases. I crawled out of the trench and staggered off …Two Englishmen who were taking a haul of prisoners … barred my way. I shot the nearest one … he collapsed like a dummy figure. The other blazed his rifle at me and missed. These quick movements caused the blood to be driven clear of the lung in deep pulsations. I could breathe more freely, and set off at a run over the open beside the trench … The continuous loss of blood gave me the lightness and airiness of intoxication. One thing only bothered me – that I might collapse soon. At last we reached a half-moon shaped earth work … whence half a dozen heavy machine guns were pumping lead on friend and foe … A NCO of the Medical Corps … tore off my tunic and advised me to lie down at once, otherwise I might bleed to death in a very few minutes.
The men of Jünger’s company attempted to carry him under intense fire to the rear, during which two were killed. He was eventually rescued from bullet swept open ground by Sergeant Strichalsky of the Medical Corps, who carried him on his back to safety. For Jünger, the war was over.
In 1920 Jünger wrote a graphic account of his wartime experiences in his famous book, The Storm of Steel. He remained in the German army until 1923. From 1923 to 1926 he studied zoology, geology and botany in Leipzig, but chose to pursue a writing career. In 1925 he married Gretha von Jeinsen and had two children.
In the Second World War Jünger again served in the German army. In occupied France, he helped plan the aborted invasion of Britain, Operation Sea Lion, and after 1942 served on the Russian Front. After the war he resumed a successful writing career. He published more than 50 books and in 1982 was awarded the Goethe Prize for Literature. He died on 17 February 1998, in Riedlingen, Upper Swabia, Germany, aged 102.
Godshall, K 2010, http://modernism.research.yale.edu/wiki/index.php/Storm_of_Steel
The German Army Handbook of 1918 2008, Frontline Books, London
Jünger, E 1985 (1920), The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front, Zimmerman and Zimmerman, New York
Nevin, T 1996, Ernst Jünger and Germany: Into the Abyss, 1914-1945, Duke University Press, Durham