The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

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Reviewed by Terence Jagger

This is a famous and fascinating book, and I think anyone interested in the Great War, or the wider question of how wars begin, would find it of huge interest, although I gather it is not recommended reading at one of England’s top centres for the study of military history. That is undoubtedly because, for all its virtues, it is a very idiosyncratic book, and if you only read one book on the origins and outbreak of the 1914-18 war, this should not be it – it gives too partial, too narrow a view, stimulating though that view is. It was published in 1962, won a Pulitzer, and has been reissued for the centenary of the conflict. According to a novel I have just read, William Nicholson’s Reckless, Mountbatten insisted on his staff reading The Guns of August in the run up to the Cuba crisis so they understood how taking precautions against war can, especially when misinterpreted by a nervous enemy, be the one thing that is needed to precipitate it. (I wouldn’t bother with Reckless, by the way, unless you like three different novels tangled up in one – war, religion and romance).

I prepared for reading the Tuchman by re-reading A J P Taylor’s famous War By Timetable: How the First World War Began, published in 1969. It is a powerful antidote to Tuchman, and although it doesn’t reference her work, published some seven years earlier, it has picked up a strong theme of hers, that so much was pre-planned that the military machine was in charge at critical moments before the war when politicians and diplomatists should have been more flexible. You should read him too, because he concentrates, in 128 pithy, punchy pages, on exactly what she leaves out – the flurry of diplomatic activity between the murder of the Archduke in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 and the beginning of August, to which Barbara Tuchman devotes a single page out of nearly 500!

This is not an account of the origins of the conflict – it does not cover the imperial rivalries of the previous decades, or the economic pressures building up in Germany – although it does develop, with great élan, the themes of burning French anger over Alsace-Lorraine and the German fear of encirclement. Nor, as I have hinted, does it deal with the breathtaking confusion and muddle and misunderstandings of the diplomatic efforts in July. What it does do very well – in prose which is sometimes mannered but always engaging – is set out the attitudes of Russia, Germany, France and Britain in the first decade of the century, and describe the last day or two before the declarations of war in August – all of which takes less than a third of the book. The rest is an account of the war itself until early September, by which time the original conflict had spread, and both the German and French master plans had failed – and we were stuck with the familiar, bloody, muddy and horrible war of the trenches.

Where the book is excellent is explaining why this war took the shape it did – the German armies coming through Belgium in an effort to encircle Paris quickly, while the French were obsessed with attacking Germany on the other flank, through Alsace. It also explains why the military on both sides convinced themselves of the absolute rightness of their plans, and of the inability of the other to carry out its plan effectively. So her account of the planning process – with its supposed, but not real, unchangeability locked onto railway timetables – is impressive and compelling – and she has a nice line in pithy summaries: of those who turned the Schlieffen plan into detailed timetables, she writes “the best brains produced by the War College, it was said, went into the railway section and ended up in lunatic asylums”.

Her writing is one of the most noticeable things about this book. Another American historian, Samuel R Williamson, has a telling story about this:

…as a young graduate student, I visited Professor Sidney Fay of Harvard, the doyen of historians about July 1914. His daughter had just finished reading The Guns of August to Fay, who was well into his eighties and nearly blind. His comments to me were simple and direct: “she has got the history wrong, but historians need to write like Tuchman or we will be out of business.”

Barbara Tuchman

There is no question her writing is compelling and powerful, though sometimes idiosyncratic and affected: of Edward VII’s funeral she says it was “..the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and of its kind the last”. And she can ride a stereotype to death; the Germans have a “relentless talent for the tactless”, cannot alter plans, are bound by timetables and hierarchies, while the British are full of muddle, taking weekends bird watching while war brews, and are more concerned about Cabinet politics than about the fate of Europe.

There are more serious criticisms too. Her account of the opening naval engagement of the war – the ineffective British pursuit of the German battle cruiser Goeben through the Mediterranean, and their pusillanimous decision not to force the Dardanelles in pursuit, which brought Turkey into the war at incalculable cost – is enormously entertaining, but it is a little bit like John Buchan. And she deliberately leaves out of her account of the first month anything that happened in the east; she says in her preface that:

I must explain that the omission of Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and the Russo-Austrian and Serbo-Austrian fronts was not entirely arbitrary. The inexhaustible problem of the Balkans divides itself naturally from the rest of the war. Moreover, operations on the Austrian front during the first thirty-one days were purely preliminary.

This is an astonishing judgement, and one she has been criticised for ever since; this was a war born in the Balkans, and the first movers were Serbia and then Austria-Hungary; German military strategy and tactics must have been influenced by the eastern theatres; and German strategy was built around avoiding a two front war, undermined continuously by fears of Austria’s ineffectiveness. That their doubts in this last regard were not misplaced is brilliantly clear in Joseph Roth’s wonderful Radetsky March, a four generation family novel which movingly and tragically mirrors the empire’s military decline from 1859 to 1916.

But back to Barbara Tuchman and The Guns of August. She has written a wonderful story and it’s a tremendous read, and it explains a great deal which is often puzzling and obscure. You will be caught up in the human drama and the global forces that shaped the Great War, but you will only see part of the story, albeit a crucial one, and from a perspective of most interest to those us in western Europe.

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Terence Jagger sat – distantly – at the feet of the great A J P Taylor at Magdalen, and remembers one of his warnings against over-analysis, that “the only safe explanation in history is that things happen because they happen”.

Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (Penguin: London 2014). 978-0-241-96821-5, 483 pp., paperback.

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