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.