The Guns of August
© 1962 Barbara Tuchman
The Guns of August, like Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is work I’ve heard much of in my years as a history student. Used in my freshman textbook, quoted by a number of my professors, cited by Doris Kearns Goodwin as her inspiration for becoming a historian — a lot speaks for the book. I used it a year or so ago when writing a paper for a French history class and made a mental note to return to the book to give a proper reading later on — and this week, I have.
The Guns of August, while being “about” the Great War, focuses more on its beginning: the political maneuverings and stumbles that led to the war and the opening moves of the war itself in August of 1914, hence “the guns of August”. I’ve been actively studying the Great War specifically for a few years now. It seems to me to be the essence of War in its wastefulness and horror. I wish when people thought of war they thought of this one, instead of the easily romanticized World War* that followed it. The book can be divided into two general parts: the first part concerns the political build-up to the war following the death of King Edward VII of England, called “Uncle of Europe” owing to his families’ blood ties to the various royal families of Europe. If the late British king represented a unity of sorts, the first part of the book concerns the disintegration of the various European powers. This began before his death, of course, but perhaps accelerated following it.
Tuchman details why the alliances fell into place the way they did, and does it well — although I don’t recall reading about the Moroccan crises or the Italian-Austrian naval build-up. Much attention, deservedly, is put on Imperial Germany’s diplomatic blunders after the dismissal of Chancellor Bismarck. As the countries of Europe trap themselves in the quicksand of belligerance and mobilization, Tuchman switches to military history. She writes well, and for those interested in military matters the second half of the book probably reads as well as the former. Despite my disinterest in military accounts, I found the second part more informative than expected. I’d forgotten completely, for instance, about the Battle of the Mons: my perception of the war tends to regard the Marne as the first “real” battle, with the month of preceding conflicts mere unnamed brush-ups.
The book is quite readable, I think, and detailed enough to give a student of the period such as myself new information.I didn’t know, for instance, that leading intellectuals of the period predicted that extended wars of the past were far too expensive to carry on in the modern day, and consequently the next war would have to be sort. The Great War was of course not short and it was very expensive, undermining the economies of Europe for quite some time. It’s interesting that this happened despite the warnings. If I had to criticize the book, I found the abcense of air power’s role curious. Granted, few people are aware of the role of the British and French air forces in spotting the movements of the German army in August and helping to move the Entente armies into positions they might use to their advantage. I’ve used this lack of knowledge to my benefit as most of my student papers in university history classes have addressed the air forces of the European powers and the majority of those papers have included sections of aerial influence in the build-up to the Marne.
* Typically people refer to the two wars as World War I and World War 2, but I avoid using “World War 1”. Such a label makes it seem like the simple prologue to World War 2 instead of a great horror in its own right. It also seems a bit inaccurate to me, as the war was only fought (as far as I know) in Europe and the areas surrounding the Mediterranean. Regardless of that sea’s name, though, I don’t think the war qualifies as a “world” war.