Review – The Guns of August by Barbara W.Tuchman

If there is a History books canon, this book must be in it. If there is a WWI books canon, it surely is in the top ranks of it. It was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in the Essay category given the restrictive specifications that Mr. Pulitzer himself gave to the History category (awarded only to American- in the US meaning- related themes: it seems that USA share in WWI was not big enough or that, after all the bloodshed, after Sargent York and “Over there”, the conflict was still considered mainly an European event in the time of the publication) it sold as if written by Ken Follet and gave her author, Barbara W. Tuchman, a well deserved prestige as both Historian and writer. The book is called The guns of August.

Front book cover, Spanish edition.
Front book cover, Spanish edition.

And, yes, its time span is short. A month or so. A little more in fact. But it was just between that precious time when war could had been avoided, and that horrible time when everyone realised that this war in particular was not going to be as they thought it would.. Sometimes a very little time is needed to create conditions for tragedy.

Two things stand out of this book: first, the close approach Tuchman gives to the main figures such as prominent generals and politicians. Or Emperors. We can learn about Moltke’s inexhaustible doubts, about the Santa Claus-like looks and bearing of “Papa” Joffre (the soubriquet is very appealing here), about some weasel politicians and some haughty generals. We can breath with them, feel their humanity and fallibility, been awed by their heroism or annoyed by their stubbornness and, sometimes, sheer stupidity. We can see they are like us. They could have been us. And that is a very important thing to have in mind, specially when reviewing past events with the usual criticism and detachment that time freely gives. This is fundamental to the understanding of why war was somewhat unavoidable.

The other outstanding point is the depiction of events as a chain of not so unavoidable acts. While telling us that war was probably unavoidable, Tuchman explains how could it have been avoided. Or better: war itself was possibly unavoidable, but the way war was fought, the ongoing carnage, the ever-growing conflict that we all know, that could have been avoided.

There were clear misapprehensions on either side of the fence. There were unwise moves. There was a flagrant unsteadiness in the Triple Entente armies alike (Tuchman makes a point of stressing the folly of going to war in the flamboyant uniforms of the French Army, or the inadequacy of Russian troops and matériel, not talking about the size of British forces). Why assuming that Britain was not going to honour its promise to defend Belgium? Why attacking was the one and only view among French high ranks and military books? Why, if promise was to be honoured, were the British top brass so reluctant to engage? There is a feeling, pervading the whole work, that war was, in the end, the result of human failure not in the sense of Mankind, but of human being. Individuals, and their actions, appear as responsible for the waging and sustaining of war more than political conditions or economic circumstances.

So, as individuals are depicted here with great accuracy and vividness, their actions are shown in a somewhat new perspective, and the start of the conflict appears in a way that helps to explain the long, exhausting years still to come. Somme and Passchendaele are prefigured in the Battle of the Nations: all the not useful killing, the primacy of the new weapons, the absurd tactics, the lack of insight about how much war had evolved from the technical point of view and how much that would influence the outcome of combats. WWI could have not been as it actually was, providing some specific individuals would have behave in a different way. Or at least that is a shadow I can see all along the reading. Maybe it is just me. But then there is this last paragraph when she writes : once concluded this (the Marne battle), there was no going back. Nations fell in a trap, an elaborated trap set during the first thirty days of battles which were not decisive, a trap from there was not- and never had been- a possible escape.

From a literary point of view, the book is really delightful, the prose is smart and runs smoothly for more than five hundred pages (in the Spanish edition), without getting tiresome and, in quite a fair amount of sections, becoming a thriller. The attention to detail is overwhelming and, as expressed by Robert K. Massie in his 1994 preface, her biggest merit is to coat the August 1914 events with such an extent of suspense as experienced by the actual participants.

You will end up agonizing about the extents of hesitation in the British Government, claiming for action. You will loath and despise some characters because of their decisions or their lack of decisiveness, both costing thousands of lives, and you will love some others, gallant, brilliant leaders overwhelmed by the tide of stubbornness, nationalism and militarism. As in a novel, you will suffer with the sad fate of the murdered, even when described with the utmost sensitivity and discretion, running away from sensationalism, and smile with the witty comments that, splashed here and there, with some aristocratic detachment (but the kind of enlightened, ironic, elegant detachment one expects to find in the Academic, which she was not) or maybe just with a quite skeptical approach bring light on the personalities of the individuals involved. All the while, she would not let herself leaving a point of view which is not fueled by moral judgement but by the need of bringing light to events.

In the end, if you are looking to understand WWI, this is your book. More than four gruesome, grueling years of a world deprived of reason condensed in a month or so. Or in little more than five hundred pages. We could have spared ourselves the grief if dear Mrs. Tuchman would have been there, writing with all her insight and wits about what everyone seemed to have expected would be a brief, almost festive war. Unfortunately, she was still too young. In fact, she was traveling with her family to Constantinople and was a regrettably unconscious witness of the chase of the Goeben, one of those hidden details that lately she will wonderfully unveil in her book. A pity.

At least she was there, fifty years later, to expose in her writing the madness and futility of war, although her admitted aim was to express her view that 1914 was the expiring date of 19th Century and the beginning of a new, terrible era. Target accomplished, Madam.

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