This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.
Thus begins Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, perhaps the most influential piece of media depicting the First World War. The book describes in brutal detail the trenches, corpses, rats, mud, and every other horrific feature of the infamous Western Front.
Remarque’s book, as well as thematically similar works such as the melancholy poetry of Wilfred Owen, the disturbing paintings of Ernst Kirchner, or modern films like War Horse or 1917, all tell the same story about the Western Front. Much like Remarque’s dedication, they show the war snatching up young men and turning them into haunted victims, broken either physically or mentally. I have no doubt that the upcoming Netflix adaptation of Remarque’s book will tread the same ground.
Erich and Ernst
Yet we often forget that Remarque and company don’t speak for everybody who fought on the Western Front. In fact, they may not even represent the majority. For an interesting contrast to Remarque, I direct the reader’s attention to a German author and veteran with a vastly different perspective.
Ernst Jünger was a German soldier who wrote a book about his experiences on the Western front. His book, Storm of Steel, describes the awful details of the war with just as much detail as Remarque, yet Jünger came to the opposite conclusion. While Remarque’s book sees the war as a horrific waste of life, Jünger took a kind of perverse fascination in the danger and random violence.
Nor should we discount Jünger’s perspective. For all Remarque’s poignancy and accuracy, he saw relatively little of the Western Front, spending about a month near the front lines in the summer of 1917 before being seriously wounded by shrapnel. He spent the rest of the war in a hospital. What’s more, he only wrote the manuscript for All Quiet on the Western Front in 1927, when postwar economic and political chaos had embittered many Germans. Jünger, on the other hand, served on the front lines from 1915 to 1918, and published his memoir in 1920, while memories were still fresh.
The two men endured the same hazards, but emerged with radically different perspectives. Take, for instance, the way the two authors describe the experience of being shelled. For Remarque, the ordeal shattered the humanity of all who endured it.
At the sound of the first droning of the shells we rush back, in one part of our being, a thousand years. By the animal instinct that is awakened in us we are led and protected…. We march up, moody or good-tempered soldiers — we reach the zone where the front begins and become on the instant human animals.Erich Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Jünger, on the other hand, writes with almost comical practicality and self-restraint.
Imagine you are securely tied to a post, being menaced by a man swinging a heavy hammer. Now the hammer has been taken back over his head, ready to be swung, now it’s cleaving the air towards you, on the point of touching your skull, then it’s struck the post, and the splinters are flying – that’s what it’s like to experience heavy shelling in an exposed position. Luckily, I still had a bit of that subliminal feeling of optimism, ‘it’ll be all right’, that you feel during a game, say, and which, while it may be quite unfounded, still has a soothing effect on you. And indeed even this shelling came to an end, and I could go on my way once more, and, this time, with some urgency.Ernst Jünger, STorm of steel
Jünger saw the war, with all its horrors, as a kind of spiritual cleanse, a force that both destroyed and created. He even found a morbid pleasure in moments of the war. Here is his description of the front lines:
The uncertain night, the flickering of flares and the slow crackling of rifle fire produce a kind of subdued excitement that keeps us strangely on our toes. From time to time, a stray bullet whines past chilly into the distance. How often since that first time I’ve gone up the line through dead scenery in that strange mood of melancholy exaltation!
These are not the words of some romantic who idealizes war without experiencing it. These are the words of a man who saw as much of the war as anyone, but somehow felt enriched by it. We might not approve of Jünger’s unapologetic fascination with violence, but we can’t ignore his perspective.
Of course, I don’t claim that Jünger’s version of the war is the definitive one, any more than Remarque’s is. The point is that even an experience as brutal and overpowering as the Western Front affects people in fundamentally different ways. Nor was Jünger alone in finding something worthwhile in the whole business.
Memories of Other Veterans
Any authentic piece of history dealing with WW1 eventually encounters people who don’t fit squarely into Remarque’s archetype. Take Peter Jackson’s brilliant documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, which uses audio taken from recordings of British veterans. A few sample lines:
“I can only say one thing, I wouldn’t have missed it. It was terrible at times, but I wouldn’t have missed it.”
“Oh, yes, if I could have my time again, I’d go through it all over again because I enjoyed the service life.”
“It would be a fallacy to say that one enjoyed it, but one got afterwards a nice, warm inner feeling that one had been some use.”
“I don’t think I should have ever been the man I am if it hadn’t been for having to serve.”
One fascinating source for the opinions of WWI veterans is a survey implemented by the state of Virginia, which solicited opinions from every Virginian to have served in the war. As with most opinion surveys, most veterans refused to answer most of the questions, but the answers we do have offer tantalizing glimpses into the past. The respondent at the top of the alphabet, one Lieutenant Harry Bertram Aaron, replied simply “Sherman expressed my views” when asked about his experience of combat. Yet at the same time, Aaron said that his experiences in the war resulted in “A more settled condition of mind, a broader and keener method of reasoning, and a radical change in my method of living for the better.” Here was a person who could believe that, as Sherman said, “war is hell” but also view the war as a positive development for his own life. Aaron, to be clear, was a combat veteran, having first gone into action in the vicious battle of St. Mihiel.
Show me the modern book or movie that has its protagonist return from the First World War in a “more settled condition of mind.” Of course, Aaron speaks only for himself, so I strongly encourage the reader to take a look at the archive and read the diverse perspectives of other men.
Or take the opinion of Charles Carrington, an English gentleman who served through all four years of the war, surviving numerous engagements. Carrington held a special distaste for poets like Wilfred Owen, who used poems like Dulce et Decorum Est to lament the suffering caused by the war.
When I meet some clever young scholar from Queen’s or Keble who has written on WWI and say to him, as politely as I can, ‘My dear chap, I was there at the time and it wasn’t at all as you describe,’ the shade of disbelief that I know so well passes over his features as he says to himself ‘the old boy’s growing soft. He’s losing his memory.’ Does anybody care any longer about the silent millions who did not want the war, did not cause the war, did not shirk the war, and did not lose the war … who had never heard of these lugubrious poets … with their self-pitying introversion?Charles Carrington
Of course, the plural of anecdote is not evidence. Out of millions of veterans, it isn’t hard to find a few who saw something good in the war. Yet the evidence goes far beyond a few quotations.
Consider the legacy of Douglas Haig, the most important British general of the war. While today Haig is remembered as a “butcher” who threw away the flower of England’s youth in pointless battles, Haig was a national hero in the years after the war. When he died in 1928, he received an enormous state funeral, and thousands of his former soldiers assembled to mourn. Only later did historians and the public take a more critical look at Haig’s many costly mistakes.
After all, if everyone who participated in the First World War became fervent pacifists like Remarque, they might have been less eager to jump into the second one.
I don’t presume to understand why so many soldiers endured the horrors of the Western Front but walked away feeling they had achieved something meaningful and enriched themselves. I would never claim that Jünger or Aaron were somehow braver or stronger than Remarque.
Often, commentators will say that the Western Front was “unimaginable,” yet go on to imagine just what impact that experience would leave on a person. Perhaps the only rational result of unimaginable ordeals are unimaginable responses from those involved.
Every generation has the right to pick which historical voices it finds most resonant. I take no issue with our veneration of Remarque and his brilliant book. I daresay the world is a better place because we collectively selected All Quiet on the Western Front over Storm of Steel. Yet our near universal admiration for Remarque has drowned out the voices of the millions with different experiences. Ernst Jünger, Harry Aaron, and Charles Carrington all represent an under-discussed perspective, one that does not cleanly fit with our preconceptions. Yet in a way, their more positive recollections of the war are a heartening reminder of human resilience. They remind us that no matter how awful the event, no generation can be fully destroyed. There are always people who face the worst the world has to offer and somehow emerge intact.
Personal Update: I am still with Peace Corps in Madagascar, but hope to find time to blog once every few months. Because of a lack of internet, discussions of House of the Dragon or Rings of Power will unfortunately have to wait until my return.