Book Review: The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

As some of you may remember, The Guns of August was part of the Great War | Great Read celebration held this past summer and fall, in time for the 100th anniversary of the events described in Barbara Tuchman’s award-winning book.

There are still celebrations and events going on at the Kansas City Public Library, the National World War I Museum, and elsewhere in Kansas City throughout the 100 year anniversary of the Great War. And so, over the course of this year I’ll be looking at 12 books (well, 11 books and a graphic novel collection) of items either written during World War I, or about that terrible war.

The war itself was a terrible revelation. It was unlike any war that had preceded it, in that advances in technology allowed for much greater damage and tremendous casualties, while at the same time improved medical technology and practice allowed many who, in previous wars, would have died from their injuries or infections, to continue living as a bitter indictment of that terrible conflict.

Unlike previous wars, WWI was an unraveling of the social contract and the expectations of civilized behavior, an erosion of the ideas of what combatants may do in war. At the outbreak of the war, Europe had been at peace, at least within its boundaries, for more than 40 years, and the thought of a European War seemed incredible.

The end of the 19th and start of the 20th c. was a time of increased prosperity and comfort and culture. The bourgeois world of material well-being and manners was everywhere in evidence throughout Europe. In addition, many of the noble families in Europe were related through marriage to one another. So the idea of civilized man going to war against civilized man was doubly negated by the idea of cousin going to war against cousin. Economic considerations made the idea of any continued war unfeasible because a long war would be too costly; besides, most thought that the balance of power in place would keep everyone secure and desirous of maintaining that balance. All of those illusions were crushed by the realities of the Great War.

Tuchman herself witnessed a part of the war, the escape of the German battleship Goeben into Turkish territorial waters (which action helped to bring Turkey into the war). She was a toddler at the time, and her maternal grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, was Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. This brush with the great conflict, which no doubt became a family story told and retold through the years, inspired Tuchman to set her sights on World War I. She had already written a couple of books about WWI – Bible and Sword, a book about British involvement in the Middle East, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and The Zimmerman Telegram, about the German telegram to Mexico, aimed at starting a war between Mexico and the United States, one of the justifications for US entry into WWI.

After Guns, she would write The Proud Tower that looked at Europe in the decade prior to WWI. She chose, for this work, to focus sharply on the conditions that allowed the war to break out, and perhaps even forced its outbreak. Her account begins at the funeral of King Edward VII of Great Britain on 20 May 1910, a funeral attended by those who later would be involved in the Great War. She ends with the decision by the French, British and German forces to fight at the Marne in September of 1914. That great battle brought to a halt Germany’s juggernaut, which had barreled through Belgium and into France and came very close to taking Paris. In choosing to engage the French and British forces at the Marne, in order to wipe out any real opposition to its advance, the Germans made a fatal error. In sidestepping Paris, the Germans gave the French forces and their British allies a brief respite, and a chance to flank the German forces. Neither side really won the Battle of the Marne, but in stopping German forces there, the French and British ensured that Germany would not win a quick victory (a key part of Germany’s Schlieffen plan), but be forced into a war of attrition, which did not favor. The German forces advanced no further into France, but their advances in the first weeks of the war gave Germany access to sufficient material resources to continue the fight for some time.

Tuchman does not address the Turkish campaign, in which the Allied forces would suffer a tremendous defeat at Gallipoli, or the war in the Middle East, where T.E. Lawrence would win fame as Lawrence of Arabia. Nor does she address the United States’ entry into the war, still a few years away, nor the campaigns that took place among the colonial holdings in Africa.

Her goal is to look at the start of the war, at the conditions that made that war largely inevitable (the concern of the centrally located Germany about its being encircled, a concern furthered by the unlikely alliance between democratic France and autocratic Russia, and the tight system of alliances which had been aimed at maintaining a balance of power in Europe in order to prevent war, but which turned out, instead, to be a house of cards built on a powder keg, so that the political assassination of one leader led to a rush to war by much of Europe).

Tuchman spends quite a bit of time on Germany’s plan of action in the event of war – the Schlieffen plan, developed by Count Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905. This plan, assuming a war on two fronts called for an immediate and all-out attack on France, seen as the greater and more immediate threat, with only six weeks allotted to defeat France, Germany’s most immediate and biggest threat.

Following France’s expected defeat, Germany could turn her attention to Russia, a weaker but larger power needing much more time to mobilize. To make the Schlieffen plan feasible, Germany had to attack France through the north, which involved going through neutral Belgium. Belgian refusal to allow the German army safe passage to France’s border prompted Germany to invade and to employ harsh measures to force Belgian compliance. The brutal march through Belgium, with incredibly harsh reprisals against any resistance, and a willingness to destroy the city of Louvain, renowned for its University, resulted in a general condemnation of German brutality. It was the attack on “poor little Belgium” by the Hun that spurred Britain into the fight, and made it more likely that the Schlieffen plan timetable would not be met.

As Tuchman tells the story, though, poor relations between the British commander and his French allies served to help German advances, but impromptu military decisions by the French leaders in the field, and political pressure in Britain and a change in British military leadership in France made it possible to halt the German advance at the Marne. Without a quick end to the war, Germany’s hopes for victory would fade over time, though they had the equipment and personnel to keep the fight going.

Tuchman is a masterful storyteller, and a fine prose stylist. The work is scholarly, but accessible for a general audience. I must say that some of her snarky remarks about the Germans (e.g. the German “need” to comply and follow the leader) bothered me. Such comments perhaps reveal more of Tuchman’s prejudice than she intended to show. There is also a documentary film called The Guns of August which has great archival footage, but which lacks Tuchman’s intelligent presentation and analysis of the data.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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