REVIEW: The Guns of August (1962)

by Barbara Tuchman

This 1962 book is a beloved classic and appears of just about every list of “top World War I books” you will find on the internet. I nearly bought this book whilst visiting the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, MO, but purchased The First World War which was not all that great (in my opinion). I truly wish I would have picked this instead! I’m sure that many will say that the book has been surpassed by modern scholarship, but as a book that concentrates on one small section of a war once referred to as “The War to end all War”, it has a special place on those lists for a VERY big reason. Most World War I books try to summarize four full years of the war in an in-depth manner, a book such as The World Undone was my personal favorite of this type. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman instead goes into insane detail summarizing the events that happened in August of 1914. As you will see, it’s not a perfect book, but it is still pretty solid.

“War pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no use . . .Barbara Tuchman’s universally acclaimed, Pulitzer prize-winning account of how the first thirty days of battle determined the course of the First World War is to this day revered as the classic account of the conflict’s opening. From the precipitous plunge into war and the brutal and bloody battles of August 1914, Tuchman shows how events were propelled by a horrific logic which swept all sides up in its unstoppable momentum.”

It was interesting that this book started in a different place than most World War I books that I’ve read, opting to drop back to 1910 with the funeral of King Edward VII of England vs starting at the lead up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. This is a great thing to look at because many would be surprised to know that most of the European Monarchs of the time were, in fact, related by blood to each other, and frequently corresponded in a carefree, almost childish manner. The biggest example being the relationship between Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Willhem II, who even wrote near love letters to each other while their subordinates pushed their subjects into a human meatgrinder against in each other in their names.

While not wholly to blame, this background highlights the thirst for recognition of the German ruler who felt he was overshadowed by his cousins, and especially felt as if France was unfairly revered by everyone else. Wilhelm comes across like a jealous child in this, and the fact that he had millions of soldiers at his disposal for a tantrum is terrifying indeed. Historical chapters like this makes the old joke of referring to any war before WWII “rich dudes beefing for territory” that much more on the nose. You could make a case that there are people that should be blamed far more than Wilhelm, perhaps the Austrian general Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (who in my opinion is one of histories biggest idiots), but with this being a much older book the emphasis lies on the place where the propaganda centered on – Germany being bastards.

Speaking of the actual start of the war, the assignation of Franz Ferdinand is not wholly concentrated on at all, instead with the author opting for a lengthy look at the various military hiccups, miscalculations, and messy battles that dominated the first month of the war including the “Rape of Belgium”. Most of the information on what happened in Serbia and Austria-Hungary is largely absent which is weird to me. Most of the book is about France, Germany, Britain, and a dash of information on sea battles and other small asides. The lead up to the stalemate in France is definitely the main focus, and it rarely strays from that. It would be interesting to see other contemporary works at the time to see if scholarship largely ignored The Balkans and Austria-Hungary as well, or if this just wasn’t the author’s wheelhouse.

Overall, This was a solid book, albeit a flawed one. The information presented is very well detailed, elaborated on and fleshed out. The author even goes to great pains to try to get into the minds of some of the notable people, including talking about their mannerisms, and appearances. In some ways, certain passages are narrated almost like a crime noir book that just happens to be about war generals trying to “big dog” each other. That said, the omissions I spoke about are pretty glaring, and most World War I aficionados will wonder if they missed a chapter or if their books are defective as BIG events are just briefly mentioned then passed over. As I stated, however, this book does not try to be an all-encompassing look at the war, and the theme usually swings back to the numerous moments of incompetence, blunders, misconceptions, miscalculations, and mistakes that the author believed resulted in the tragedy of trench warfare grinding everything to a halt for four long years. With that in mind, this is a solid book that does what it sets out to do and nothing more.

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