Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman - a book review


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

Barbara Tuchman never disappoints. The Guns of August, first published in 1962, reissued as a paperback in 1994 with a forward by historian Robert K Massie, remains one of the most readable histories of the events leading to and the first month of the Western Front. The author herself was witness to the brief naval battle in the Mediterranean on August 8, as the British tried unsuccessfully to halt German ships Goeben and Breslau, headed for Istanbul which eventually brought the Ottoman Empire in on Germany's side. Tuchman's writing style draws the reader into the story and her personality sketches of the leading characters are sharp and to the point, as Massie illustrates with "the Kaiser: 'possessor of the most uninhibited tongue in Europe'"

Her opening paragraph which took her eight hours to write became the most famous in all her works. It begins "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". And ends "The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the dock as the cortege left the palace, but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

Germany is itching for a fight to settle France once and for all time. The Schleiffen Plan, created several years earlier, envisions the German army holding the French at their eastern border while a massive attack through neutral Belgium envelops the French army and seizes Paris all in six weeks. The Plan is based on overwhelming strength of their right and Belgian acquiescence to the German army crossing its territory.

The French remember the bitter humiliating defeat of 1870-71 and are determined that they will get revenge and recover Alsace and Loraine. They expect the Germans to attack as they did before, between Switzerland and Luxembourg, and have prepared Plan 17 which is all attack and no defense. They discounted an attack through Belgium as it would certainly bring Britain into the war on side of France.

Britain is determined to stay out of European Wars though the French desperately need their support and Britain knows if Europe falls to the Germans their own position is in danger. The ONLY thing that will bring them into the war is if Belgium's neutrality is violated. The flat plains of Belgium, ideal for the movement of armies, had been the scene of so many battles over the centuries including Waterloo, that in 1830 Britain created and jealously guarded a neutral Belgium.

Russian nobility from the Kaiser on down, with its head firmly up its rear as to events unfolding at home, was most worried, and rightly so, about clashes with Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, leading to war with Austria and automatically then with Germany that they had signed an agreement of support with France. The Germans plan to attack France first because it will take several weeks to mobilize the Russian army by which time they will have disposed of France and therefore avoid fighting on two fronts. France expected this and has a promise from Russia to attack Germany with all speed ready or not.

Thus the stage is set for another "shot heard round the world" which triggers the war. The events of the first month Were to set the stage for the war of attrition which followed and that would exhaust all Europe and extinguish a generation of men. So many IFs.

If Moltke had stuck with the Schleiffen Plan and not been tempted by a double envelopment. If Joffre has listened to Lanrezac who warned him over and over of the huge German army approaching through Belgium. If Belgium had not resisted the Germans so bravely and foolhardily, disrupting both their schedule and their supply lines. If Jilinsky had been able to coordinate his two armies against the German 8th Army at Tannenburg or even understood that the 8th Army was not retreating but reforming to face the Russian Second Army. If Moltke had not been frightened into sending two divisions from his left wing to the Eastern Front. If Moltke had recognized two days earlier that the French 6th Army and the BEF were a serious threat to his right flank. If Joffre had not held the French Army together during the retreat to the Marne. And on and on.

Most of the history books of the war itself that I read were written by English and focus on the English and Allied contribution to the point where you think the BEF saved France and the British did all the fighting. I am still looking for a book that covers the French in the war in detail. Tuchman makes it clear that in the first month, the French army did the fighting, losing 300,000 men, most in teh first four days of fighting. After their initial defeat at Mons, the BEF under Sir John French simply retreated and could hardly be induced to fight. It took personal intervention by Joffre to get French to agree to participate in the Battle of the Marne.

The Guns of August is a must read for anyone seeking an understanding of why WWI unfolded as it did.

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2 comments:

  1. Sounds like a fascinating read. I developed an interest in WW1 at an early age when I started reading the novels of Donald Jack. His blundering protagonist, Canadian Bartholomew Bandy, is fictional, but Jack weaves the narrative into the events of the war so well that I didn't even realize I was learning history 'way back then. ;-)

    If you're interested, the first book in the series is here: www.amazon.com/Three-Cheers-Me-Bandy-Papers/dp/0771043805/

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    1. I will have to see if I can find it as an eBook. Reviews sound awesome

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