Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Book Review - The Guns of August: the Outbreak of World War I



The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I

I prepared this review for a men's book club I belong to. Our meetings reflect the COVID era in that it took place on Zoom. The general topic of this meeting was "war."

Barbara Tuchman (January 30, 1912 – February 6, 1989) was an American historian and author. She won the Pulitzer Prize twice – the first time for this book – a bestselling history of the prelude to and the first month of World War I.

I read The Guns of August some years ago, and it had quite an impact on me. In it, Tuchman brings to life the people and events that led up to World War I. With great attention to detail and an astonishing knowledge of her subject and its characters, she explains how the war started, why, and how it could have been stopped but wasn’t. It’s a great survey of a time and a war that had a huge impact on the western world – one which was, for example, a prelude to World War Two and the Holocaust.

The book has a simple aim, brilliantly delivered. It explains the political events leading up to the first World War and the terrible first 30 days of that War.

It begins with the pompous, colourful funeral of The Britain’s King Edward VII in May 1910—which was to prove the end of the old European order. This part of the story reaches back into the growing competitive situation between England and Germany. It examines briefly but carefully the changes since Queen Victoria’s time—changes which included such power intrigues as Germany’s thirst for power and Britain’s efforts to constrain it.

The assassination of Bulgaria’s King Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914 set the stage for war. What followed was the carnage which has characterized war ever. Tuchman shows how Germany planned its Belgian campaign, how General Foch developed a whole new military “mystique” to meet it, how Turkey, Russia, and Japan became involved, and how men began to die on the Western Front between Germany and France by the tens of thousands. Such great historical figures as Generals Molke, Joffre, Foch, and Hindenburg move through the pages. So do the UK’s Winston Churchill, Lord Kitchener, Admirals Jellico and von Tirpitz, and many others. The book concludes with the Battle of the Marne, which saved Paris and turned the Germans back.

The Guns of August may read like a novel, but it is history firmly based in fact and evidence. It is a long book but gripping from its very first sentence: “So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration.” She then proceeds to describe the procession, which included heirs apparent, queens, empresses, and princes; scarlet, blue, green, and purple uniforms; gold braid and plumes flying on helmets. “The sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again,” she wrote.

She’s funny. Prime Minister Asquith’s innermost mind was “a region difficult to penetrate under the best of circumstances.” Austria-Hungary was determined to wage war on Serbia “with the bellicose frivolity of senile empires.” Joseph Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, “looked like Santa Claus and gave an impression of benevolence and naivety – two qualities not noticeably part of his character.” His German counterpart, General Helmut von Moltke, was full of self-doubt, weighed down by the burden of bearing the name of his uncle, who had been a hero in the wars of German unification. Sir John French, who commanded the British Expeditionary Force to France and was “a serial adulterer,” dithered as the Germans advanced south. He was later removed from command.

In the House of Commons on August 4th, Asquith read to the members an ultimatum that London had telegraphed to Berlin, saying the two countries would be at war unless Germany agreed to its terms. Although by 10 pm GMT an intercepted but uncoded telegram from Berlin made it clear that Germany already considered itself at war, Asquith called a meeting of Cabinet, but waited until Big Ben struck midnight before declaring war.

This military history involves far more than to-do about the calibre of guns in the field and the movements of regiments. Rather, Tuchman gives a sense of what it was like to be caught up in dust and sweat during that hot August. You can almost see the long lines of Germans plodding down towards Paris through Belgium and northern France and the pathetic refugees with their possessions piled on carts and wheelbarrows.

Following is a passage from the books Afterword, paragraph two. It's a good note to end on, I think.

So close had the Germans come to victory, so near the French to disaster, so great, in the preceding days, had been the astonished dismay of the world a it watched the relentless of the Germans and the retreat of the Allies on Paris that the battle that turned the tide came to be known as the Miracle of the Marne.  Henri Ibsen, who had once formulated for France the mystique of “will,” saw in it something that had happened once before: “Joan of Arc won the Battle of the Marne” was his verdict. The enemy, suddenly halted as if by a stone wall springing up overnight, felt it too. “French √©lan, just when it is on the point of being extinguished, flames up powerfully,” wrote Moltke sorrowfully to his wife during the battle. The basic reason for German failure at the Marne, “the reason that transcends all others,” said Kluck afterward, was “the extraordinary and peculiar aptitude of the French soldier to recover quickly. That men will let themselves be killed where they stand, that is a well-known thing and counted on in every plan of battle. Bet that men who have retreated for ten days, sleeping on the ground and half dead with fatigue, should be able to take up their rifles and attack when the bugle sounds, is a thing upon which we never counted. It was a possibility not studied in our war academy.”


Thursday, April 22, 2021

Letters about Coal Mining to Alberta's Kenney


The good news is that, since I sent these letters, the Calgary Herald reported a grassroots rebellion in the government caucus against the premier. 

Ms. Whitney Issik


Dear Ms. Issik

The disclosure of the Terms of Reference of the Coal Consultation Committee has unsurprisingly caused outrage across Alberta. The dishonesty of the actions of the Minister of Energy were stunning in their efforts to deceive the public. To defuse the broad surge of pushback against her actions on coal mining, she announced the consultation, promising it would be wide-ranging.

Then what happened? She announced that the Committee's work would exclude virtually all the issues on which Albertans want to provide feedback: water use, the environmental risk of water pollution, the damage to landscape this would inevitably lead to, and so on. If you find this as disturbing as I do, I hope you will call for the Minister's resignation and a complete re-thinking of the coal mining issue. Such an appalling betrayal of public trust requires no less.

The UCP government has been in office two years. The government has picked numerous unproductive fights with public-interest groups over policies which have little or no positive bearing on the long-term health of the province – for example, the now apparently withdrawn proposal to close 160 provincial parks. During that time, UCP policies have enabled COVID to reach into the stratosphere; the tragic third wave in this province is leading to the worst per capita death toll since the post-WWI Spanish flu.

I could go on at great length, but will instead bring this missive to an end. I am deeply concerned that the UCP government seems unable to develop a strategy to deal with big issues – to a large degree, it seems to me, because it is distracted by small ones. My fond (but fading) hope is that the government will turn decisively to the big issues – dealing with COVID with sensible policies, rather than putting the blame on Ottawa. Seeking ways to put the province's finances on a sustainable basis would also be of interest – but would include acknowledgement of UCP’s blunder of investing $1.5 billion (plus loan guarantees) in the Keystone XL pipeline.

Below is a copy of my letter to the Premier and the Minister of Energy.

Yours truly



Peter McKenzie-Brown


Dear Premier Kenney (premier@gov.ab.ca) and Minister Savage (minister.energy@gov.ab.ca)

I recently reviewed your government’s Terms of Reference for the Coal Policy Committee. These represent a cynical betrayal of the public’s trust in the Government’s actions on this issue.

During the winter, many Albertans expressed outrage at your Government’s actions on coal mining (for example: repealing the Coal Policy without any consultation, granting numerous exploration leases without consultation or environmental review, and paving the way for Australian speculators to start their destructive exploration activities in Alberta’s mountains). Essentially, the Albertans protesting were asking your Government to consult with them on the question of whether coal mining in the mountains should take place at all. Instead, what you have announced is a Committee which will look only at how coal mining will be undertaken. This ignores the protests.

The Terms of Reference are entirely contrary to what Minister Savage said on March 29 when she was seeking to defuse the considerable pushback from Albertans in response to her actions to date. She talked then about an open conversation and a willingness to get the views of all Albertans.  Foolishly we took her at her word. What she has implemented is the opposite of her declamation. The Terms of Reference instruct the Committee to “focus only on matters related to coal that are under the administration of the Minister of Energy.” This seems deliberately designed to exclude Albertans’ concerns which centre largely on the important issues of preservation of landscape and water supply. In a feature article, The Globe and Mail recently confirmed the broad details of this story.

Taken together, these events illustrate a disturbing inclination toward dishonesty and deception through the actions of the UCP government. I would strongly suggest the Minister of Energy reconsider the Terms of Reference, allowing the Committee to consider the vital broader issues associated with coal mining in the mountains. The Committee should hear from representatives of the many  stakeholders concerned about these issues.

Yours truly



Peter McKenzie-Brown