The Guns of August, a Century After the Battles

“There was an aura about 1914 that caused those who sensed it to shiver for mankind.” –Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August, ch. 15

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. In remembrance of this, I took the opportunity to re-read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. The “Great War” has been overshadowed in our collective memory by World War II, but for the people of 1914, it was truly a massive conflict, and people hoped it would be the “war to end all wars.”

When we hear about World War I, we often picture the trench warfare that became a symbol of the dug-in, brutal fighting in which thousands and ultimately millions of lives were traded to gain small advances in the deadlock of Europe’s Western Front. However, in the opening weeks of the war, daring maneuvers and grand strategies were tested while armies struggled to gain the upper hand. Winston Churchill later said that it was “a drama never surpassed,” and this drama is the essence of what Tuchman was able to present through her narrative. In the foreword of the edition I read, Robert K. Massie points out that “Mrs. Tuchman’s triumph is that she makes the events of August, 1914, as suspenseful on the page as they were to the people living through them.”

When the book was published in 1962, many people still remembered World War I quite well, but even to them, Tuchman was able to make it exciting. Now more than ever, readers have all the more reason to be on the edge of their seats waiting to see what happens. By the way, President John F. Kennedy read this book shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It greatly affected how he viewed the possibility of world war looming before him, and he could see with even more clarity the consequences of bad decisions made on the brink of conflict.

What Tuchman was able to do in this book is show very effectively how men can proudly bumble their way into war. We don’t often see the full extent of our thoughts, behaviors, and decisions, but especially world leaders must remember that sometimes the cat cannot be put back into the bag, and new wars bring new terrors.

World War I was a shocking example of old ways meeting new technologies. The brave bayonet charge by gallant men in red pants can be mown down quite efficiently by a well-placed machine gun. A mighty fortress can be destroyed in mere hours if you only have a gun that is big enough. A good example of old meeting new is an account quoted by Tuchman in chapter 11 of a German siege mortar entering a Belgian town:

“…a piece of artillery so colossal that we could not believe our eyes… The monster advanced in two parts, pulled by 36 horses. The pavement trembled. The crowd remained mute with consternation at the appearance of this phenomenal apparatus. Slowly it…[moved]… along the Boulevards de la Sauveniere and d’Avroy attracting crowds of curious onlookers along its slow and heavy passage. Hannibal’s elephants could not have astonished the Romans more! The soldiers who accompanied it marched stiffly with an almost religious solemnity. It was the Belial of cannons! …In the Parc d’Avroy it was carefully mounted and scrupulously aimed. Then came the frightful explosion; the crowd was flung back, the earth shook like an earthquake and all the window panes in the vicinity were shattered…”

French General Gallieni noted, “with the Germans one must always expect the gigantic.” Sadly, despite their grand history, impressive abilities, and grim determination, the Germans were greatly lacking in morals in the way they chose to fight the war. Their invasion of neutral Belgium was inexcusable and heartbreaking to read about, yet it was a fundamental aspect of their strategy to win the war quickly. The French were determined to win back territories they lost to Germany in the War of 1870, but they trusted too much in their élan, or “will to win,” which although helpful and even crucial at certain moments, could not decisively overpower German steel. Thankfully for the French, the British were brought in against Germany by Belgium’s invaded neutrality, but they were a relatively small expeditionary force with less-than-enthusiastic leadership. Russia’s involvement aiding the Allies against Germany was interesting, with their sheer strength in manpower greatly hindered by their sheer size of territory… not to mention their corrupt and somewhat backwards ways. They did manage to be helpful, albeit sometimes humorous: “At sight of an airplane, the first they had ever seen, Russian soldiers, regardless of its identity, blazed away with their rifles, convinced that such a clever invention as a flying machine could only be German.” –Tuchman, Guns of August ch. 15.

Tuchman’s research was exhaustive, and it shows in the way she was able to relate battle plans, the drama of deliberating governments, the reasoning and decision-making of field commanders, and the effect of war’s collateral damage on civilians. She was very good with her descriptions of the characters involved.

I think it’s important for people to remember how World War I started, because in many ways it was typical human pettiness and greed played out on an epic scale on a massive stage. War can be avoided in most cases, with a little extra foresight and (dare I say) Christian perspective. It may be a brilliantly discreet feminine touch on the part of the author, but I cannot walk away from reading this book in the belief that there was any good excuse for World War I. Pope Benedict XV called it “the suicide of Europe.” German general Moltke, who was largely responsible for carrying out the aggressive German war plans, seemed contemplative enough in 1914 to see the coming war as “the struggle that will decide the course of history for the next hundred years.”

And in many ways it has. I recommend picking up a copy of Barbara Tuchman’s book. A hundred years later, we should remember the guns of August.

-Ben 6/29/14

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6 Comments on “The Guns of August, a Century After the Battles”

  1. Dale says:

    Great post, Ben! I admit that as the century mark rolled around I realized how little I knew about WWI as compared to WWII.

    • Ben says:

      Thanks Dale! If you end up doing some reading on the subject, feel free to share your thoughts. It would be great to see people share some WWI reading recommendations this year.
      -Ben

  2. This has to be one of the classic books on WWI. And Tuchman is such a fabulous author. We forget, indeed, that the era of trench warfare was bracketed by two very fast-moving campaigns that began and ended that conflict.