Book Review: The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman


The Guns of AugustThe Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Phenomenal Slog

It took me months to push my way through this 440 pages detailing the first, pivotal month of the First World War. While Tuchman’s prose drew me through and, in places, was utterly delightful, the military detail – what’s a corps vs an army and how can there be so many armies? – and military philosophy were sometimes beyond my ability to comprehend. Clearly, the issue is the reader and not the book itself and there were days when this reader had only the prose to go on because the battles were outside my scope.

I suspect a better working knowledge of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the Battle of Sedan in particular would have been a great aid to the thematic trends reaching forward into this war. Without them, the Germans are portrayed (because they were?) as the sole provokers of all the events – warmongering using the excuse of envelopment. I’m afraid that learning about the Franco-Prussian War would only require going back further and further, though.

The Germans were also portrayed here in horrific light – killing townsfolk, burning cities and libraries, invading neutral countries. Tuchman doesn’t pull any punches in her description of their wartime activities. It makes one think that the Treaty of Versailles was almost deserved.

The personalities of the generals – and there were so.many.generals and aides-de-camp to keep track of – became more important to the story: decisions base in hubris or fear, power grabs, decisions to appease or favor one general or front over another. Few saw clearly or completely and if they did so, like Old Testament prophets, were disbelieved, removed, or replaced. Not one comes out looking like they had any idea what they were doing, and that many lives were lost because of it.

Careful planning and execution of that plan were seen as losses here. Optimism was disillusioned for people and nations. Tuchman shows the backdrop to all of the decisions in the game of chess and how small decisions here led to huge results there, and how those either won or lost battles, and battles won in the moment were long-term losses. The style of war, a clear precursor to Blitzkrieg, yet relying on a marching, exhausted infantry – the military philosophy outran its technology and machine ability in many ways.

I can see why, in 1962, this would have been a bestseller and won the Pulitzer. West Germany and East Germany were separate, the Berlin wall under construction. The Cold War raging. The President of the US was a war veteran – most of the government, as well, indeed. It was a time when many of these issues were still at the fore of foreign policy and the Second War a close memory.

Nearly six decades later, we’re less conversant with the characters, actions, events, and ways of thought of the combatants; the Guns of August began to change the tenor of society as known. My own grandfather was scheduled to be shipped to France in 1918 as a donkey cart driver, but Armistice kept him home. Can you even imagine 20 years later a donkey cart in the Second War? War changed here and Tuchman gives some glimpses of that change.

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