This is a massive historical novel about the Russian campaign against the Germans in the first month of the First World War.
A large cast of characters shows the great-hearted Russian troops undermined by incompetence behind the lines and lying, cowardly generals. It's a depressingly familiar story, but Solzhenitsyn's ability to fire your sympathy for individual characters, despite their flaws, still had me biting my fist and begging that the inevitable didn't happen, and outraged by the hypocrisy in high places which betrayed the sacrifice of the men at the front line.
A narrative which moves from one part of the scattered Russian armies to another is united by the figure of Colonel Vorotyntsev, an idealistic young officer who tries against the odds to co-ordinate Russian efforts against the German forces, superior in strategy, communications and modern weaponry. The war story requires some poring over maps of Germany and Poland, but more than repays the effort.
Since the book is set in 1914, there's no direct comment on the Communist regime which followed so swiftly afterwards. But scenes from rural life and in student bars are nostalgic for the history of a country which would soon change so enormously. Through this, as well as the narrative of the war, this book forcefully brings home the impact of politics on individual lives.
From teenage onwards we're fed the futility and despair of the massacre of young British men in World War One, and for me at least, it's taken Pat Barker's novels to allow me to absorb those emotions freshly. August 1914 did the same while awakening me to the fact that it wasn't just Western Europe that suffered this tragic fate.