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.

Visual Media: A Historian’s Black Sheep

Today I am going to share something very dear for me with you all. As you may know we are starting this month with our Cultural Studies theme. This means that I am allowed to be overenthusiastic about my research- HISTORY AND THE VISUAL MEDIA!

Lately I have been developing work and research on how we as a society represent the past- my case study is the Vikings, and particularly Old Norse Women- in our visual culture. By this I mean any image, in any way, shape or form, although my preferred sources are comic books and TV series. Why is this? Well, apart from the fact that I am a big fan of these media, I find fascinating how much information these sources provide about our own society as well as the one that is being evoked in them.

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Classic Art Revivals

September is here, and we all come back to our routines. Some of us will be back to work, some to University, or school…No more holidays folks, just our normal repetitive life. Nonetheless, here in Nu History we have been thinking that if everything comes back, does history do it as well? There is this eternal debate in the historiographical area about history working in cycles, always working in the same place…History that happens and later on returns again. I am not talking here about an isolated thing that happened once and then it reappeared with no much glory. I am actually talking about a trend that has been carried out through time. Because of this reason, my topic for this post is the eternal revival of the classical art.

Let’s see. The Greeks were the first to create this magnificent artistic style. Even though there were some changes and improvements made through the different periods of Greek classical history, the basic characteristics remain pretty much the same, and could be summarised in the following. Both in architecture as in the pictorial arts geometry and proportion was a key factor. The Greeks developed their own ‘canon’ by which they judged the perfection of their master pieces. They worked with tough, long-lasting materials, such as stone or marble, so their structures would remain through the ages. They had integrated in their philosophy that idea of eternity, of history, and it was clearly reflected on their art work. Also, despite the perfection they tried to achieve, all their work seem to have certain degree of idealism: the figures seem apathetic, or if not in a state of eternal nirvana. In general, all is pure, magnificent and, very importantly, human-focussed. (this is just a brief sumary…of course they are other key points but these are the one I would like you to focus on)

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10/2/2011 “British History in the New Age of Austeriry” by Pr.M.Taylor

On Thursday the 10th of February, we attended a talk hosted by the Modern Research Center (University of Winchester) given by Professor miles  Taylor, current director of the I.H.R (Institute of Historical Research) and previously a professor at both Southampton and York universities. The title of the lecture; British history in the new age of austerity…

The talk began with a discussion of modern history and when does it actually begin, which is a very good question.  Oxford has the modern period starting at the end of the middle ages, Scotland with the act of union in 1707, or is it in the 18th century with the rise of industry leading in Britain to the industrial revolution.  But the question perhaps is what do you consider as modern is it the growth of industry or the rise in democracy. This makes dating in history  both a help and a hinderance which professor Taylor demonstrated in his talk. I suppose to an extent post modernism is true in that it is perhaps the memory of the event that is more important and therefore dates don’t really matter, a radical concept for you to think about.

Also  in his talk Professor Taylor discussed how changes in politics and ideology have impacted on the study and the writings of history. A modern example of this can be found under the 18 consecutive years of conservatism led by Margaret Thatcher in Britain.  Historians leaving for America where there was more money and better opportunities for research, where a degree was useful in its own sake and not had to have a use or purpose as in Britain.

 Wider changes to the historiography can be found in the growth of patriotic and revisionist history and also a rise in the role and workings of politics in a more general sense in order to understand why events turned out the way they did, this was without hindsight. British historiographical studies also experimented the re-emergence of the 18th century as an important period in English history. In addition, gender studies in history and a re-evaluation of women’s role within the historical framework began to be explored. Also, the issue of populism appears. It looks at wider political movements that have influenced the politics and of course history , i.e . the suffragettes and fascism and also there was a disappearance of a the focus being on the history within the classes, both separately and on a wider scale.

Cool Britannia? Under new labour, lots of members of the cabinet have a history degree and background. The party itself becomes self-conscious and used its own history to promote what ‘new labour’ was about in the modern world, moving away to an extent from its more socialist roots for example the dropping clause 4. There was also a re-assessment of the second world war, with the focus on the home front, and an interest in race and immigration as well as patriotism. Finally, religious studies, have perhaps become more important given todays  multicultural society. For example, the use of ‘jihad’ by some people to refer to Islamic attacks on the western world, which  originally means holy war/crusade, therefore referencing to the  original crusades. Thus showing how history has a definite impact on the present.

Lastly professor Taylor brought his talk right up to the modern-day by telling the audience how David Cameron, Prime Minister, wants to be remembered  for the coalition. Well… time only can tell if this is will be true. Nonetheless, we have to consider that we are, once again, in a new period of austerity, with  cuts to the humanities… I wonder  if current and future historians will remember him in the way he wants. We shall see as professor Taylor said “we are in different times”

Finally, quite timidly, we found the courage to go down the auditorium after the lecture was finished and asked Professor Taylor a couple of questions concerning his talk and history in general. This is what we got:

Does politics has a significant impact on history and is this a positive or negative thing ?

Politics has a big impact in the study of history. In the last 30 years there have been long and several periods in which one political party have been in power (not only in England, but in the rest of the world i.e George Bush and the Republicans in the United State). This is important considering the new studies on the very recent past as it’s all marked by politics and international relationships. Professor Taylor considers this is a good thing as it brings to the study of history new areas of interest, but also he thinks that this can be a disadvantage as it will deeply influence historical thinking and writing, and we all know it is extremely difficult to write good history without being totally biased, there is not such a thing as absolute detachment. He also stated that the past is the prelude for the modern times, and so we should learn from the mistakes made in the past, especially politicians as many political scandals and disasters have taken place and could be, unfortunately, repeated.

Why does history matter?

Professor Taylor truly believes that history matters, as we can learn lessons from it. It provides us with an identity and helps us know how we understand the world and how it works.  There few countries that have continuous evidences of history ( America just became a nation about 300 years ago, and some other places in the world do not even have a traceable history of their past and community). He thinks people need to get interested in the subject, or then we will have something else to add to the so-called ‘dead subjects’ like Latin or Greek. To create a general interest in history, Professor Taylor criticizes his own environment and world by saying that we as historians need to communicate better about our own area of knowledge…We have to develop those social skills the politicians have (and the scientists in their very clear explanations on what they do and how they do it…although to be fair they have shiny moving things to attract people…we just have lots of archaeological remains…and books)

What is the future for historians?

Professor Taylor seem to fear that the new generations of historians will get distant from what is history itself. History is tactile, and there is the danger that we would lose our contact with the material culture. Hopefully we would not assume that everything we need is on the Web and save us from destruction.

We hope you enjoy this, and thank you Professor Miles Taylor for your time!

Sophie and Lillian