I’ve read many accounts of war over the years: campaign map style histories where individuals hardly feature; swashbuckling adventures ala Sharpe; Antony Beevor’s awestruck reconstruction of the Battle of Stalingrad; the intimate realism of Svetlana Alexievitch.
Never have I seen death described as in this excerpt from Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel. Jünger served at the front for all four years of the First World War, and his war diaries were the basis for the book.
In the ripped-up no man’s land lay the victims of the attack, still facing the enemy; their grey tunics barely stood out from the ground… A young man tossed in a shell-crater, his features already yellow with his impending death. He seemed not to want to be look at; he gave us a cross shrug and pulled his coat over his head, and lay still
From a book of nearly three hundred pages, this single paragraph haunts me.
What was that young man experiencing? Shame? Despair? Did he want a final moment of solitude? Was he angry at his powerlessness, at the uncaring god that had left him alone in a shell hole to die? Was he exhausted? Did he want to avoid pitying looks and empty words?
We’ll never know. Jünger moves on past him, never to return.
Stoicism, fear, acceptance, and rage. They are the forms we are comfortable arranging the dying in. But there is something about this young man, all those years ago, alone in a shell hole, curling away from the sight of others, that breaks my heart.
2 thoughts on “He pulled his coat over his head, and lay still”
On p.125 he mentions that he was attacked in the night by a raiding party and they killed a young lieutenant: “From the officer’s papers, it appears that his name was Stokes, and that he was with the Royal Munster Fusiliers. He was extremely well dressed, and his features, though a little twisted in death, were intelligent and energetic. In his notebook, I came upon a lot of addresses of girls in London, and was rather moved.”
With a few internet searches you get a few more details about the dead young lieutenant – he was 2nd Lt Oliver Chetwode Stokes of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. There’s a photo too – he doesn’t look to be more than twenty.
Interestingly, Junger’s Wikipedia page says “Throughout his life he had experimented with drugs such as ether, cocaine, and hashish; and later in life he used mescaline and LSD…”He met with LSD inventor Albert Hofmann and they took LSD together several times.”
For more on WW1 I recommend ”Six Weeks – The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War” by John Lewis-Stempel.
Thanks for that extra detail Alan, I just googled Stokes as you recommended, it’s hard to believe someone who looks so young could be sent off to kill – let along kill himself.
Junger’s career was quite incredible. From the introduction of my edition I learnt he was a favorite author of both Gerhard Schröder and Francois Mitterand, and was invited to join them at a ceremony commemorating the war in 1986.