on 27 July 1999
Barbara Tuchman's account of the 30 days of August 1914 can be viewed as a prism of events before and after this pivotal month at the start of the WW1. There are many views as to whether this War was an inevitable manifestation of tottering monarchies, deadly new technology, colonial rivalry and and the still very prevalent romance and chivalry associated with War. WW1 forever debased that latter notion, but sadly did not put an end to war. Although this can be read as a stand alone piece it is better put in the perspective of it's precedent, the war itself and its aftermath. John Keegan's new study 'World War One' is highly recommended, and perhaps Clausewitz's classic study of causes and tactics 'On War'. Tuchman does not present an ideological or chauvinistic perspective. Her strength is in her objective narrative rendering, and her character insights, including the llumination of some lesser known figures who played a key roll in events. Excellent, readable history with the drama and immediacy of a novel. You'll have trouble putting it down.
on 10 April 1998
Focusing on the period immediately prior to the beginning of World War I, Ms. Tuchman has written an engrossing account of the events and characters which combined to propel the world into a bloody, disasterous, and wasteful conflict. The people who participated in these events -- from Kaiser Wilhelm and his adviser the odious Holstein, to Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wilson, and many less well-known individuals -- reveal themselves in excerpts from personal diaries as well as in published reports and state papers. The events themselves, leading as they did to the most horrible and all-encompassing war the world had known up to that point, are related in such a way as to make the reader keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. But one of the most interesting results of reading about this time period, is noticing how incidents which occurred in the early part of the 20th century resonate even now in news reports from Eastern Europe (Bosnia, Serbia, Greece and Turkey) and North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, and Ethiopia). At the time I read this book, I knew very little about World War I, and the book prompted me to go on and read more about that era. Ms. Tuchman's carefully researched book is a classic, and belongs on every discerning reader's bookshelf.
on 18 June 1998
The Guns of August is the fourth Barbara Tuchman book I have read and is a masterwork of historical writing. I learned in school that the Archduke Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo and then all these countries went to war because they had secret treaties. Tuchman tells the real story from the opening chapter of the Funeral of Edward VII (with the array of kings and princes, such as have never been assembled since) through the incredible stupidity of the war planners (on all sides of the conflict) to the final days of the first month of the war. The personal and political and familial and military relationships are so clearly defined that the scenes described take on a vivid life. This is an excllent book, a great undertaking that has awakened me to the fact that war itself made a drastic and horrible turn in 1914 from which the world has not yet recovered. There had always been horror associated with war, despite the language of honor, but the technology changed and the tactics that made the massacre of civilians a shocking event that resonated around the world are now accepted procedures for all combatants, including US troops. The well of melancholy that lies beneath the military history is almost underplayed in Tuchman's treatise. But it is there and painfully real - we have yet to withdraw from the savagery that once humans could not imagine. This book is as relevant today as it was when it was written and as the story was when it happened.
on 17 April 2003
Like another review I stumbled across this book having read Robert Kennedy's account of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 13 Days. JFK was reading The Guns of August at the time (it being published in 1962/63). Having read both one can see why JFK 'recommended' it. With remarkable yet accessible detail Tuchman constructs the events leading up to the outbreak of War and the chaotic first month. Where she succeeds (to my ill educated view) is in capturing the political and geopolitical issues surrounding the decisions to go to War- the Gronau's dash to include Turkey on the Axis side, the school playground posturing of the then Superpowers, the French persuading Russia to mobilise despite the latter being hopelessly ill prepared for operations. Writing about war should never be a trivialised undertaking and Tuchman triumphs in the information delivery and tone of her writing. It reads like a novel but the final pages, listing the abominable waste of life brings stark and saddening reality crashing home. I think JFK saw how possible it would have been to bring the world to war- as in 1914 and how escalation follows escalation until there is no other option available. It is fitting that the seminal BBC documentary series The Great War was, in part, inspired by this book.
on 19 October 2013
With the centenary of the start of WW1 less than a year away, Barbara Tuchman's account of the lead-in to and first month of the War, published originally in 1962, provides a wide-ranging and insightful study of the events and personalities that led to the catastrophe that would determine the course of the Twentieth Century. Given the UK Government's £50m investment in 'commemoration', much of the book is a sobering reminder of many of the realities: the comparatively minor, and reluctant, part played by the BEF, sent by a vacillating British Government only when its treaty obligations to Belgium could not be dodged and then lumbered with conflicting aims that led to its virtual betrayal of the French army; the scale of German atrocities in Belgium, obscured by the larger-scale horrors to come, that might pose a few problems for a 'neutral' approach to blame in the commemorations; the general failure of political leaders to act with integrity and decisiveness - only King Albert of Belgium emerges with any credit. As, most of the time, does the ordinary soldier, as usual paying the price.
If history is to teach us anything, there are lessons aplenty in this masterly work. Not least that countries are always preparing to fight the last war. There are uneasy echoes in this book of attitudes to the current US brinkmanship over their budget and 'small problems' in the Balkans: economic rather than military issues though ones that evoke similar human weaknesses and might have consequences as unimagined as those of that summer a hundred years ago.
This book covers the first month of WWI, when the sides had not yet settled into the quagmire of trench warfare. It was a time when things seemed possible, when the illusions of the traditional ways of war - where honor, valor, and elan were supposed to get men through - were giving way to the first wholly realized industrial methods of killing. Tuchman's book is a remarkable reconstruction from the point of view of the principal protagonists, i.e. the politicians, royalty, and military men. She explains how they saw the world, what they were thinking and why, and what they did.
Germany, Tuchman says, was in a kind of imperial fever since her victory over France in 1870, led by a megalomaniacal Emperor (Wilhelm II) whose grip on reality was tenuous. He wanted to dismember France, take Britain's place as the maintainer of the global order (forging an alliance between fellow "Germanics" in the process), and establish suzerainty over Russia; to do so, he was ready to start a war on 2 fronts. French leaders wanted vengeance for the past defeat, to protect itself, and teach Germany a "lesson". Great Britain wanted to maintain the balance of power, which worked in favor of its vast empire. Russia feared Germany, but its Emperor was insouciant of just about everything and the recent war lost to Japan was taken as proof of Russia's weakness. These points of view were so entrenched, according to Tuchman, that no negotiation to avoid war (or stop it once started) appeared possible. At any rate, everyone was convinced that war could not last longer than "a few months", due to cost, the need to encourage international trade, the certainty of victory, or what have you. The Sarajevo assassination provided the spark for the entire rickety system of alliances to explode.
Imperial Germany had a plan to crush France in a pincher movement, like Hannibal at Cannae, in an early form of blitzkrieg, over about a month. The trouble was, Germany would have to attack France through neutral Belgium, which would engage Great Britain to entangle itself in European affairs. Russia would be dragged in too, as an ally to France. To make matters worse, Germany adopted a strict policy of terror in the occupied territories, retaliating with extreme brutality to any resistance, which set world opinion against it; among other things, Louvain was burned to the ground, an irreplaceable loss in addition to countless civilian lives. Germany's only ally was Turkey, which signed on in the last minute.
At first, all went well for Germany, though Belgian resistance was surprisingly strong, causing a slowdown. Then, Russia mobilized for war sooner than anticipated, entering East Prussia in 2 weeks and not 6. To counter this, Germany pulled a few divisions out of France, again slowing its progress; a mistake was made stretching German lines with long gaps, which the Brits and French attacked after much infighting. Paris was saved in the battle of the Marne, and the forces dug themselves in in accordance with Gallieni's system of trenches. This set the stage for the massive, unprecedented war of attrition we all know.
Tuchman portrays all the personalities involved in wonderful yet not excessive academic detail. The French Maréchal Joffre was unwaveringly optimistic, pursuing an ineffective counter-attack plan, but his attitude held France together at the right moment. His German counterpart Moltke obsessively stuck to the plan, even when his lines were depleted, over-extended, and exhausted from a superhuman effort. The field Marshall John French, though reluctant and attempting to preserve the best British units (3/4 of which were to be killed in the coming months), was convinced finally to join the effort at the Marne. There are scores of other characters, all equally rich in the telling.
If there is one thing I would criticize, it is that the Germans are not given as full a portrait as the others. Tuchman clearly disliked them, which is a bias that detracts from the picture. But this truly is the only shortcoming.
This is a fantastically engaging narrative, with plenty of analysis thrown in. Warmly recommended. It deserves its status as a classic.
on 21 August 1998
Initially referred to as 'The Great War' and then later as 'World War I', I have concluded that the 1914-1918 War should be called 'The Unnecessary War' after reading "The Guns of August". Mrs. Tuchman is clearly one of the most talented authors to ever put pen to paper. She takes the events that most history text books have reduced to boring drivel and makes them very real and very relevant to modern times.
Mrs. Tuchman's accounts of German inflexibility and Allied complacency lead one to the inescapable conclusion that not only was the war entirely avoidable, but once started needn't have been nearly as long and bloody as it turned out to be: The German refusal to halt war preparations once they began simply because it was too inconvenient. The French failing to anticipate the German sweep around their left flank. The naive Belgian insistence on nuetrality even in the face of imminent attack. The British refusal to commit enough troops to make a real difference. The failure to update tactics to match the new technology on all sides, but particularly the Allied side. It all adds up to a colossal failure of both political and military leadership that would ultimately cost millions of lives.
One other effect of this book on my thinking is that I felt much less sympathy for the Allies than I had before reading it. The arrogance and incompetence of the French in particular make it very difficult to feel sorry for them. I now question whether this was a war in which the U.S. should ever have become involved. After all, our entry was instrumental in the defeat of Germany and the subsequent Versailles Treaty. As we all know, the seeds of the Second World War were sown with that ill conceived document.
At the very least, this book will make you think critically about the monumental events of the time. It is most enlightening and, I must say, as entertaining as any fiction novel I have ever read. This book is a must for all well informed citizens of any country.
on 19 December 1998
Tuchman paints a frightening picture of the political climate in Europe at the beginning of this century. This book will likely change the way you perceive political leaders and history as presented in most high school text books. John F. Kennedy had this book firmly on his mind during the Cuban missile crisis. His fear was that he would lead the U.S. into war as foolishly as Barbara Tuchman asserts world leaders did in 1914. If you are a student of military and/or political history you will likely enjoy this book a great deal. If you do read it please e-mail me and tell me what you thought of it and let me know of any other books you have read that I might enjoy. Thanks.
on 25 May 2005
Rightly considered one of the greatest books on the beginning of World War I, this book won Barbara Tuchman (1912-89) her first Pulitzer Prize. Beginning with the funeral of the British King, Edward VII (1841-1910), the author unfolds European events that led to the Great War and shows how it happened and why. Containing many black-and-white pictures, the storytelling is handled in a wonderfully engrossing manner, almost reading like a novel. The story continues, with all of its horrible mistakes and miscalculations, to the Battle of the Marne, which stopped the German march to Paris.
Overall, I found this to be a great history book, certainly the best I have ever read on World War I. It's easy to see why this book is so respected. Indeed, I believe that for many generations into the future, this book will be considered a classic on that war.
So, if you are interested in the First World War, and want to read a great book on it, then I highly recommend this book to you. I give it my highest recommendations.
I got this without being sure I'd enjoy it. I've listened to hours of it, riveted by the account of how the First World War began. We're familiar with the major events of the Second World War, but the Schlieffen plan and the rape of Belgium is not so well remembered. Tuchman is brilliant at dramatising the war and the characters involved: Sir John French, von Kluck, the Kaiser, Gallieni, Joffre, Poincarre, Kitchener, they're all brought to life by her pen. I didn't realise how much of the action was packed into the first month of the war. I didn't realise that the Germans did some outrageous things to terrorise the populace, and that ruined their international reputation.
While reading it I've been following the collapse of the Euro. I reckon that the incompetence of European leaders has not changed at all, but the difference is that the EU now has a colossally wasteful bureaucracy, which has at least replaced colosally wasteful military conflicts.