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."
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 élan, 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.”