Graves and Juenger – Seeds of the Next War

Graves and Juenger – Seeds the Next War

Robert Graves and Ernst Juenger, two young men from what would be named “the lost generation”, went to war in 1914 and were irreparably changed. Careful reading of their memoirs tells us much about the nature of trench warfare in World War I. More importantly, it provides insights into how the war altered their respective societies and laid the foundation for the world war that would follow in 1939.

Robert Graves was born into the privileges of upper-middle-class Britain. He spent his youth in the artificial environment familiar to his social group – with expectations of structured class distinctions, access to servants, and deference by the “lower orders” (G, p. 14-16). Class assured Graves an education at a “public” school, where he entered at a young age. Private boarding school entailed early isolation from his family and immersion in a single-sex world where he would read and re-read the classics, experience intense bullying, and struggle to fit into adolescent power hierarchies (G, p. 41-46). Perhaps it is no wonder that Graves would choose to avoid the boredom of further inbred university life by enlisting in the army. It seems that escape and adventure, not patriotism, drove his decision.

While Graves began his wartime experience with expectations of high adventure, it appears that he also anticipated writing a memoir from the beginning, as evidenced by his journal. In fact, his memoir reads in the style of a nineteenth-century Victorian novel, which requires opening with extensive early childhood memories and family history. An alternative interpretation is that Graves includes these seemingly unimportant details in order to pinpoint specifically what he believes is being destroyed by the war. For example, his mention of George Mallory’s mountaineering leadership could be a very subtle indictment of the lack of leadership by British senior officers (G, p. 35). He might mean to imply that the petty age hierarchies of public school are a prelude to the petty behaviors of British officers during the war. If this is his intent, he camouflages it.

The tone of Good-bye to All That is aloof and analytical. One must read between Graves’ studied lines to capture his emotions. His sardonic approach presents horror in a matter-of-fact manner. It laughs at any feelings of patriotism and lets the absurd behavior of officers speak for itself without interpretation. We must deduce if he actually finds sudden death and military pettiness equally ridiculous, or if he needs emotional distance in order to deal with the war. For instance, he will report the suicide of a nameless soldier and the comic posing of a dead man’s body (G, p. 103, 113) as ironic rather than tragic. To further complicate our interpretation, Graves tells us in his preface and early chapters that he has invented (or inherited) certain parts of his narrative, and indeed, the sheer weight of improbable events seems to support this assertion. He has a gift for theatrical presentation and will later write popular histories and fiction. “I deliberately mixed all the ingredients (of) other popular books”, he says in the introduction (G, p. viii). Nevertheless, we never doubt that these incidents represent the reality of battle experience, and we read a strong trait of personal courage beneath his nonchalance.

Graves is wounded multiple times. He even insists that he takes risks calculated to earn non-lethal wounds so that he can escape the trenches. The great majority of his age-group has been eaten up by 1917, yet he survives. We learn that chance and dumb luck are important elements of survival in the trenches. There comes a day when he looks back on “those early days of trench warfare” with something like nostalgia, implying that despite high losses, they were less perilous (G, p. 95). As the war draws on, the benefits of experience begin to come into play and we observe through Graves’ eyes the fate of green replacements. We also note that most senior officers are out of touch (in presence, emotion and judgment) with the reality of the battlefront. Rarely visiting the trenches, and harping on petty details of class respect and dress, they will repeatedly order foolhardy attacks, and care little for the cost of their mistakes (G, p. 143-147).

Graves cannot escape the expectations of his class. Despite his callow age and inexperience, he is given command of older and more experienced men, who accept his role as naturally as he does. Likewise, he is given a “batman”, who is nearly identical to a hand servant. Especially during the first year, he speaks disparagingly of navvies, “territorials”, the Welch, and troops from working-class regions. He pokes fun at the language and “base” humor of the lower class. Because reputation is extremely important to class, Graves’ school-boy outlook even colors his choice of regiment. History and breeding even apply to military units. Graves feels lucky to land in a unit that was not disgraced in the distant past (G, p. 82). Over time, however, we follow a slow evolution of respect for his fellow survivors. Graves’ initial pride in the history and esprit of his regiment do not immediately give him perceptible empathy with its members, as he reports horrendous casualty figures without emotion (G, p. 89). As the war progresses, first-hand experience with men under fire deepens his respect and he learns to acknowledge the performance of other units who distinguish themselves in battle. The focus of his feelings narrows, moving from regiment, to company, to “section”. The immediate unit becomes more of a family than the formality he grew up with. This sense of identification intensifies when Graves returns home on furlough. The home front seems more artificial to him than the battle front (G, p. 199-202). Civilians do not understand the reality of battle and the sacrifices of their soldiers. Graves cannot wait until he returns to his unit. We will read similar feelings of alienation from his German contemporary.

Ernst Juenger does not set out to write a nineteenth-century novel. In The Storm of Steel, he drops us right into the middle of battle on page one and he keeps us immersed in the action for the remainder of his account. Where Graves is often sardonic, Juenger is matter-of-fact in his reporting. Death is not where one finds comedy. Instead, death is the regrettable cost of serving the Fatherland, because Juenger is patriotic in a way that Graves might scoff at. Although his style is more analytical than that of Graves, when he chooses to be poetic he often surpasses the Brits’ prose. “Trenches that wind like white serpents through the night…” drops the reader right in the mud with the 73rd Fusiliers (J, p. 5). The image of a panic-stricken horse “galloping against the drifting smoke of the bursting shells” burns much colder than one of Graves’ invented ghost stories (J, p. 271). He is poetic, but not romantic.

We learn more about the privation and physical suffering of the trenches from Juenger. His trenches are full of rats, lice and blood. More importantly, he thinks more deeply – or expresses painful thoughts easier – than his British contemporary. For this German, war is about killing the enemy “without scruple and by any means” (J, p. 127). Heroism and “good form” are not his objective. He is a loyal soldier performing his assigned task for the Fatherland. He is more direct than Graves in stating the human cost of the war. “It is quite clear to me that these men were our best”, he says (J, p. 220). One must infer this sentiment from the title of Graves’ work.

Although they have contrasting approaches and styles, Juenger will share many attitudes and experiences with Graves. He also avoids university life to enlist, although his quest for adventure is more endearing than Graves’ schoolboy lark. He too will survive multiple wounds and will repeatedly escape certain death, although he will not seek wounds as an escape. His contemporaries will disappear just as fast. He, too, will develop a begrudging respect for the gallantry of his opponents. Juenger will also reveal contempt for stupid officers, but we will not see him mock them as Graves does (J, p. 270).

Both men share a low opinion of French civilians. “Baths appear to be unknown”, says Juenger, and “I cannot help thinking this is… characteristic” (J, p. 205). Behind their parallel comments about the unclean ways and deceitfulness of the French lies some deeper sentiment that never gets articulated. Perhaps it is their unconscious resentment of non-combatant status, or a way of avoiding the reality of people who are helpless in a different way than the soldier. Both men are classically trained and are articulate, yet we see both of them grasp at words to describe the terrible carnage of trench combat. We know that what they have written is a pale image of the terrible actuality of battle. Both men provide unflinching descriptions. Juenger describes deaths by friendly fire (J, p269). He describes bodies ripped to shreds and “putrid flesh, like the flesh of fishes, (gleaming) greenish-white”. Very soon such sights become no more noteworthy than “a stone or a tree”. Graves counters with a matter-of-fact look at how prisoners are killed rather than brought back for questioning, and draws attention to the importance of alcohol in deadening the senses to brutality (G, p. 183-185).

Juenger will describe British troops caught in crossfire and shot down “like game in a battue” (J, p. 233). Juenger also gives us insight into the bloodlust that occurs when a favorite comrade is killed and troops run amok in a frenzy of butchery (J, p. 253-258). We may guess that Graves also saw situations where the rules of “civilized war” were ignored, but it does not fit his studied style to describe that sort of unbridled emotion. The closest we get to angst is in Graves’ straightforward reports of night patrols (G, p. 129-134). In contrast, Juenger’s report of a night patrol captures the mixture of fear, adrenaline and anticipation that both men must have felt (J, p. 68-75). When Juenger describes the homicidal impulse we see “the godlike and the bestial inextricably mingled” and we know that he embraces it as an acknowledged ingredient of the storm-troopers’ role. When he tells us that under some circumstances “no quarter was given” and that “(a soldier) does not want to take prisoners but to kill”, we appreciate his fury (J, p. 262). Graves will only ascribe these sorts of feelings to others (G, p. 184-185). When he is not trying to be ironic – as when he describes his own misreported “death in combat” – Graves will always appear to be dispassionate and aloof.

Juenger also comes from the upper-middle-class. Where Graves inherits immediate command responsibility by nature of his birth, Juenger starts as a common soldier and learns to fight before he earns command. Graves becomes a captain through social class and attrition. Juenger, just as experienced and perhaps a better leader, will finish the war as a lieutenant. This illustrates the contrasting views of German and British military to the importance of merit versus birth when it comes to officer training and selection. Graves sees his military service as a break from his real life – an unfortunate accident. Juenger defines himself as a soldier. Despite numerous wounds, he is never reluctant to return to battle.

Nothing better illustrates the difference between these two men than their attitudes about why they are at the front. Robert Graves kept a journal of his experiences because if he survived, he expected to write his memoirs and embark upon a literary career. Ernst Juenger remained in the trenches after “every man knew that victory could no longer be ours” because it was his duty to the Fatherland (J, p. 304). For him it was essential that the enemy should know that “he fought against men of honour” (J, p. 304). Defeated, Juenger will feel “more closely bound to my country because of the blood shed for her greatness” (J, p. 315). One hears echoes of the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause”. He will tell his countrymen that “life has no depth of meaning except when it is pledged for an ideal”, and that ideal will be the Fatherland (J, p. 316). Sentiments such as these will propel the next generation of young Germans to sacrifice for the Fatherland.

Graves summarizes his feelings in the title of his work, “Good-bye to all that”. Good-bye to false illusions of heroic death and to the very kind of ideals to which Juenger pledges himself. Good-bye to a prewar way of life and privilege that is swept away with the lost generations of “The Grand Illusion”. Juenger concludes with a vision of the “dim light” of a future war from which the youth of his land “will not shrink” (J, p. 318). Graves concludes with no grace notes of patriotism. Instead, his narrative slides from wartime into peacetime so smoothly that we hardly notice. He continues his memoir in Victorian style with a detailed description of his post-war career and the break-up of his marriage, as if these events were as important as his years avoiding momentary death. Rather than return to England, he chooses voluntary exile, first in Egypt and then in Majorca. It is as if Graves wants to forget the trenches as fervently as Juenger wants to hold onto them.