The Guns of August

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Original 1962 cover of The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

The Guns of August (1962) (also published as August 1914) is a military history book by Barbara Tuchman describing the crisis and events of the first 30 days of World War I. Beginning on July 28, 1914, The Guns of August plays out the cataclysm of events that lead to Continental War, as well as the strategies behind the war which would lead to inevitable stalemate.

In the early days of August 1914 Germany was in a state of massive mobilisation. Their plan, years in the making, was to sweep in a giant arc across Europe and, by the end of the month, descend on Paris, the heart of their longtime enemy. It is this single month that would spell out the future of Humanity.

Tuchman covers the two major theatres of war, the Western Front and the Russian Eastern Front. Some events covered include the search for the German battlecruiser Goeben by Allied forces in the Mediterranean. The Goeben finally took refuge in the Dardanelles while Turkey was still neutral and thus precipitated its entry into the War on the side of Germany.


Battle on the French Border

As they crossed the Belgium frontier into France, the German armies were engaged by 7 French armies and 4 British divisions known as the British Expeditionary Force. The Battle of the Borders was brutal, and the Allies were forced to slowly retreat under the German onslaught until finally the Germans were within 40 miles of Paris. The city was preparing for siege and possibly complete destruction, the government had fled south, and when 2 divisions of reserves arrived they were rushed to the front by the city's fleet of 600 taxi cabs. Tuchman carefully introduces us to all the key players, the Allied commanders of the French and British and the German commanders. With her characteristic attention to detail we learn of their personalities, strengths and weaknesses. Many of the names are unfamiliar: Joseph Joffre was the French General, Lord Kitchener the British War Minister, and von Kluck led the final sweep of the German forces towards Paris. But some of the names are more familiar: a young soldier named Charles de Gaulle fought for France, and Winston Churchill was Lord of the British Admiralty.

War in France

As the German armies marched towards Paris, a gap developed as one flank moved swiftly, while the other was bogged down with French resistance. The Allies saw an opportunity to counter attack and started to muster all available troops. The British BEF, sensing a catastrophe, promptly began retreating, with the intention of reaching the channel ports and going home. It took pleas from both the French and British to convince Field Marshal Sir John French to return his troops to battle in France's darkest hour. He agreed with tears streaming down his face. In the subsequent attack, the Germans were forced back north to the line of the river Somme, with both sides suffering terrible losses, and the BEF was virtually annihilated. While Paris had been saved, the war took a new image and both sides settled into a defensive trench system that cut across France west to east along the Somme. This became known as the Western Front and was to consume a generation of young men over the next 4 years.


Tuchman tells all this in well researched detail, and avoids drawing conclusions. She focuses on key moments - as when Joffre convinces Field Marshal Sir John French to return the BEF to battle, or the state of Paris preparing for siege. She describes the conditions of the soldiers under forced march - dirty, tired, bloody and hungry. She describes the Generals dining on quail and taking tea while conducting the business of war - issuing orders, tracking troop movements and even hiring and firing field commanders. Tuchman humanizes the events, and therefore helps us understand them. Wisely, she offers very little analysis, following the Iceberg principle of giving you the 10% of the book, the cold hard facts. You must interpret the other 90% and use your own imagination to perceive the effects and reasons of how a war, planned so well, could fail so horribly.

Cultural Effects

The book was an immediate bestseller. The Pulitzer Prize nomination committee was unable to award it the prize for outstanding history because Joseph Pulitzer's will specifically stated that the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for history must be a book on American history. Instead, Tuchman was given the prize for general non-fiction.

President John F. Kennedy read the book during the Cuban Missile Crisis and is said to have played a part in some of his decision-making. After the crisis was over, Kennedy gave a copy of the book to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and commented that the Western world had something to learn from the lessons of August 1914.


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