The Guns Of August, by Barbara W. Tuchman
Given that this book is such a well-recognized classic of the history of the first month of World War I, it is hard to say anything new about it, and so I must content myself with saying things that are true about it. Even for readers who are likely to have read a great deal of history about World War I, this book manages the difficult and impressive feat of filling the early days of World War I with suspense, where even though one knows about the four years of mostly indecisive trench warfare and the way that the war was a disaster for many of its participants, the book makes one feel as if one is reading the reports of the advances and on the edge of one’s seat wondering what will happen. Keeping up that level of suspense is an impressive achievement for a book about a very familiar war, but a great deal of that suspense comes from the author’s command of detail and her interest in the personal struggles of the various leaders of the armies and nations involved at the beginning of World War I, dealing with the repercussions as to how they got involved in the war to begin with.
After a foreword, preface, author’s notes, and various notes about the illustrations and maps in this book, the author’s account of World War I begins with the funeral of Edward VII, one of those moments that is all the more poignant when one looks at the disastrous twentieth century that was soon to erupt upon the world (1). After that the author spends four chapters talking about various war plans, including the right hook planned by the Germans that required the violation of Belgium’s borders, which Prussia had sworn by covenant to protect (2), the French efforts to recover their pride and dignity and honor in the shadow of Sedan (3), the secret commitments going on between England and France unknown by the ordinary people in England (4), and the fears and hopes of the Russian steamroller that would fall upon East Prussia and Galicia at the outbreak of war (5). After this the author examines the outbreak of war first in Berlin (6), and then in Paris and London (7) dealing with the ultimatum in Brussels (8), and the mistaken belief among many that soldiers would be home before the leaves fell (9). Finally, the author gives us a riveting account of the first month of the war in the first French advance (10), the German invasion of Belgium (11), the initial movement of the BEF to the continent (12), the German advance despite fierce Belgian resistance (13), the debacle for the French at the battle of the frontiers that gave Germany control of much of France and Belgium’s industrial areas (14), the fears in Germany about the coming of the Russians (15), the battle of Tannenberg (16), German atrocities in Louvain and elsewhere (17), the question of the blockade and the importance of the United States to the calculations of the Allies and Central Powers (18), the slow and grudging retreat of the French, English, and Belgians (19), the arrival of the front at Paris (20), Von Kluck’s turn that saved Paris and that presented the Allies with a chance to attack the German flank (21), and the Battle of the Marne that repulsed the Germans from the outskirts of Paris (22), followed by an afterword.
There are at least a few qualities that make this book particularly exciting. As might be expected, many of these come in small details. The author, for example, is a bit character in her own history as a witness of the dramatic escape of a couple of German ships to the Ottoman Empire, which helped lead to the entry of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Central Powers thanks in large part to English indifference or hostility and lack of interest in pursuing diplomacy. In general, a lot of the author’s pointed comments deal with the question of diplomacy, and why in particular the Germans were so bad at it. This seems to be a running theme throughout many of the books by the author I have read so far, where the author’s interest in diplomatic history provides insights into the behavior of nations and the people who run them, and demonstrate the blind spots that exist in nations that neglect the importance of good diplomacy. Given that the author herself comes from a family of diplomats and court Jews, this insight likely comes from such experience, but it certainly gives her a particular excellence as a diplomatic historian.