26 Feb 2008

How Jünger's dugout shaped the collective image of the Great War

"The steps leading down to a huge German underground shelter at Bernafay Wood, near Montauban, 3 July 1916. The picture gives a good idea of the size and depth of many German dugouts on the Somme." *

Photo and caption from the Imperial War Museum web site IWM (neg no: Q4307).

[Notice: The dugout at the picture is not Jünger's.]

It is difficult to overestimate the influence Paul Fussell’s book, which made him famous, The Great War and Modern Memory, from 1975, has had on the popular memory as well as the academic construction of the First World War in the English-reading world. Fussell is now professor emeritus (born 1924) in English literature, and his book is still sold and used by English-literature students as well as students of the World War One - all over the world.

But Fussell has also been heavily criticized. In this context it is particularly interesting that contemporary historians criticize him for constructing “dichotomous oppositions” and making “sweeping statements about the Great War”. In his now classic book, Fussell writes for example that the “French trenches were nasty, cynical, efficient, and temporary […] The English were amateur, vague, ad hoc, and temporary. The German were efficient, clean, pedantic, and permanent.” (p. 45.) Fussell uses a quotation from Ernst Jünger's Copse 125 to make his point about these what he calls “national styles” of the trenches on the Western Front:
“At Monchy […] I was master of an underground dwelling approached by forty steps hewn in the solid chalk, so that even the heaviest shells at this depth made no more than a pleasant rumble when we sat there over an interminable game of cards, In one wall I had a bed hewn out […] At its head hung an electric light so that I could read in comfort till I was sleepy. […] The whole was shut off from the outer world by a dark-red curtain with rod and rings […].
The same historians who criticize Fussell do however agree on that Fussell's sweeping statements and dichotomous oppositions have had a profound effect on the general collective image of the Great War, correct or not. Consequently, Jünger’s description of his dugout at Monchy has, due to Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, been taking part in the forming of the image of the Great War into contrasting pairs, the Allied amateur and the German professional – a historical significance which was most probably unintended by Jünger himself.

German photograph of the same deep dugout at Montauban,
about 3 kilometers west of Guillemont (25 kilometres south of Monchy).

Robin Prior & Trevor Wilson, “Paul Fussell at War”, War in History, no. 1 (1994); Leonard V. Smith, “Paul Fussell's 'The Great War and Modern Memory’: Twenty-Five Years Later”, History and Theory, no. 40 (2001).

* An example of military history rhetorics. The size and depth of the dugout at the photo was of course an exception, not a rule.