August, 2014 marked the 100th Anniversary of the First World War , the perfect stimulus to read or reread Barbara Tuchman’s  The Guns of August.


While the French high command argued over whether to eliminate the crimson of their soldiers trousers, the Germans had already converted to olive-green and were building a mighty force and a thirty-six day offensive plan to bring France to a quick and tidy surrender and to regain German losses to both Russia and France from the war of 1870.  Barbara Tuchman in her Pulitzer Prize winning The Guns of August uncovers in great detail the misguided decisions and confusion among the French, German and British military and civilian leadership that led to the disastrous four years of carnage following the August 1914 outbreak of the First World War.

Tuchman’s meticulous research focuses upon the incredible errors made by all parties to the war by their failing to comprehend that warfare in the 20th Century had changed forever. Looking back on the  war’s 100th anniversary, the reader will be astonished to learn of the self-serving decisions and the indecisiveness  of politicians, generals, czars, prime ministers and presidents costing millions of lives on the battlefields of Belgium, France, Germany and Prussia . ” You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees, the Kaiser told departing troops in early August 1914.”

Tuchman leaves no stone unturned in the chronological detail leading up to the outbreak of the war. and its raging first month of battle. The Guns of August carries the reader through the German invasion of Belgium to the standoff on the outskirts of Paris and the Marne as the German Army, by only inches,  missed its opportunity to complete their 36 day plan for certain victory over France.

The French Army by mid-August had been in retreat since defeat at the Battle of the Frontiers on the Belgium border.  The Germans  army brutally pushed through Belgium, slaughtering civilians in their wake and then moved almost at will  into Northern France capturing not only territory but the rich natural resources that would help fuel its stamina through what would become four years of trench warfare. Meanwhile the British remained reluctant and confused in their commitment to both Belgium and France.  So much for French ” Élan” as their armies retreated in a desperate attempt to regroup before Paris fell.

Then occurred what German General Kluck termed a ” French miracle. ” Just four days before the Germans completed their 36 day schedule for decisive victory, the Battle of the Marne ended  with Germany in a startling reversal at the hands of a re-grouped French Army.  Said  Kluck, ” That men who have retreated for ten days , sleeping on the ground and half dead with fatigue, should be able to take up their rifles and attack when the bugle sounds is a thing upon which we never counted. It was a possibility not studied in our war academy.”

The Guns of August sets the stage for  what became The Western Front,  four years ( 1914-1918) of the most horrendous fighting in the history of the modern world.  Casualties at one point reached 50,000 per day.

Tuchman’s narrative style allows for assimilation of a trove of information and detail of an event the enormity of which forever changed the world.  Tuchman retains a rightful honored place among the great historians of her time. The Guns of August was published in 1962. She won a second Pulitzer in 1971  for ‘Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45.  Also by Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower, a look at the quarter century leading up to World War I, the clash between Olympian luxury of the wealthy and the uprising of the underclass. Additionally, The Zimmermann Telegram, the story of the German promises made to Mexico  to entice them to enter the First World War.  Her last book  The First Salute,  published in 1988, sets the American Revolution in international perspective and was on the New York Times best-seller list for 17 weeks.

Barbara Tuchman died in 1989 at age 77 after suffering a stroke at her home in Cos Cob, Connecticut. The cabin in which she wrote her prized works remains on a rocky rise overlooking the meadows of the family property.

David McCullough- Thirty Seven Years Later- A NYT Best Seller !

Yes, hundreds of other kindred spirits did the same as me!  On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal we were reminded of  David McCullough’s  The Path Between The Seas  and rushed out to purchase this acclaimed historical work.  As a testament to its relevance,  the book again appeared on the New York Times Best Seller List on Sunday, September 7th, 2014,  37 years after its original publication in 1977!


The epic story of the building of the Panama Canal, started by the French, completed by the Americans, could not have been better told than through a David McCullough narrative.  The Path Between The Seas details every nuance of this unprecedented enterprise in world history.

Despite the enormity of the subject, McCullough’s story telling never gets bogged down in detail but rather enlightens  and educates the reader into understanding the complexities of the entire undertaking.  Meet the fascinating Frenchman Ferdinand deLesseps, the promoter of the Suez Canal, whose failure at Panama, ensured the ultimate completion by America of an enterprise the scale of which had never before been attempted by mankind. It literally required a revolution to reorganize the geography and power structure of the world.

McCullough masterfully tells the story of the canal. The politics, money, ego’s, intrigue and with great insight to the racial issues surrounding 45,000 West Indian black men and women whose manual labor made the building of the canal possible. The development of  the engineering skills and construction knowledge previously unknown and untested became miracles in their application.  ” We are facing a proposition greater than was ever undertaken in engineering history. ”

Combined with the enormity of the engineering and logistical challenge was the understanding the once the American’s bought out the failed French effort, the first priority would be ridding the Canal Zone of Yellow Fever and Malaria which had heretofore devastated the work force. The resulting benefit to medical research, while at the same time overcoming skeptical pedestrian medical views , would benefit populations worldwide for decades.  No single construction effort in American History had exacted a comparable  price in human lives and dollars and yet the scientific, social and economic rewards would ultimately dwarf the investment costs.

Just as in Truman, John Adams and Mornings on Horseback,  McCullough combines his skills as historian with those of a storyteller resulting in a thrilling journey during an American  era when anything seemed possible.