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A masterly work whose relevance is again topical
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.