In The Guns of August Barbara Tuchman offers a narrative account of the fateful first month of World War I, a war that had been planned for and rehearsed by the two main European continental powers–France and Germany–practically ever since the end of their last war, the Franco-Prussian War, 44 years earlier in 1870. Although the book is primarily concerned with military matters–differing philosophies of warfare; military strategy, doctrine, and education; logistics; proper martial spirit; and command structure–the author writes so well and organizes her material so skillfully that the book has the narrative flow of a superior novel instead of a musty tome of military and diplomatic history of a bygone era. Mrs. Tuchman also provides enough background information to explain how and why Europe allowed itself to fall into this war.
What animates the author’s narrative is the human element of the major actors–the senior diplomats, government officials, rulers, and generals–who conceived, made, implemented, or reacted to the policies and events of their time. She is superb in her thumbnail portraits of all the leading figures, and she has the knack of describing each of them with a few telling words. Of General Ferdinand Foch, who was the molder of French military theory leading up to the war, she writes “His mind, like a heart, contained two valves: one pumped spirit into strategy; the other circulated common sense.” However, what strikes Mrs. Tuchman most strongly is the level of stupidity, malevolence, self-deception, cruelty, and wishful thinking that appeared in varying degrees in almost every actor on the scene. France and Germany had 42 years to think about and prepare for this war and yet from the beginning hardly anything went according to plan.
One of the unintended ironies of the book is that it was published in 1962, just as the United States was beginning its involvement in Vietnam. Within a few years every unlearned lesson from World War I was repeated by us in Vietnam. It seems that the military and the supporting civilian mindsets are universal and are doomed to repeat themselves. And 40 years later the same human failings surfaced again in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Guns of August, read this way, becomes a meditation on human nature.
The book also gives insight into the German military psyche and its civilian component that goes far to explain the Nazi barbarism of World War II. Germany felt it had the moral right to ignore all international conventions of war and conduct war anyway it wanted because in the years leading up to World War I it felt itself to be the aggrieved party. Its eventual defeat in that war just magnified its grievances after the war.
One note of caution: the maps in The Library of America edition of The Guns of August (which also contains the author’s The Proud Tower) are superior to those I have seen in other editions.
Check the WRL catalog for The Guns of August