Written in 1962, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Though not for everyone, in my opinion this book deserves the accolades that it has received. The work covers both the events leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, as well as the early months of the conflict.
The early chapters in the book cover the diplomatic and political situation prior to the war’s outbreak. In some ways, this book is a character-based history, as it focuses on various members of the European Royalty, politicians and generals. A clear but selective picture of the diplomatic and political maneuverings prior to the war is presented. The later chapters are an account of the military and political developments that occurred during the first months of the conflict. Though the book covers action in both the Mediterranean and along the eastern front, the majority of its words are dedicated to events that occurred on the western front.
This book is full of information and is extremely interesting to read. Yet, there seems to be gaps in the picture that Tuchman presents. I would not classify this as a comprehensive history of the outbreak of the First World War. Tuchman tends to focus on certain aspects of important events and omit others. This seems to be the result of her trying to illustrate particular themes that she deems important. Thus, this book is best viewed as the examination of particular events and themes.
For instance, regarding the causes and events leading up to the Ottoman Empire’s entry into the war, Tuchman devotes many pages to the German Warships’ Goeben and Breslau’s voyage and diplomatic/military mission to the Ottoman Empire in 1914. This event is extremely interesting, and it is of great historical importance. It played a key role relating to the Ottoman’s entry into the war. Yet, the author provides scant information on the political events within the Ottoman government beyond that relating to the German ships and their mission. An understanding of these political maneuverings seems instrumental in understanding how and why the Ottomans entered the conflict. Such omissions exist elsewhere in this history.
It is clear that instead of a comprehensive history, Tuchman is attempting to highlight particular points that are both interesting and important. With all of that, she accomplished her goal brilliantly.
A good example of the many exceptional points in the narrative is highlighted in the account of one small incident that occurred at the war’s onset. When the German ambassador delivered his country’s declaration of war to the Russian minister, both men initially traded angry words. However, they both quickly came to the realization that monumental and terrible events were beginning and attempted to comfort one another.
“The curses of the nations will be upon you!” Sazonov exclaimed. “We are defending our honor,” the German ambassador replied. “Your honor was not involved. But there is a divine justice.” “That’s true,” and muttering, “a divine justice, a divine justice,” Pourtalès staggered to the window, leaned against it, and burst into tears. “So this is the end of my mission,” he said when he could speak. Sazonov patted him on the shoulder, they embraced, and Pourtalès stumbled to the door, which he could hardly open with a trembling hand, and went out, murmuring, “Goodbye, goodbye.””
Another significant point about this book is that it is approximately half military history. I read a lot of this sort of history book when I was younger. Though I generally stay away from such works these days, I found these parts to be interesting and, at times, riveting. The fact that they were well written and understandable helped a lot. With that, if the movements of armies and ships are the kind of history that one would rather stay away from, this book may not be the best choice.
The writing is often suburb. This high quality prose melds very well with the themes that Tuchman chooses to highlight. In the book’s opening lines, she describes the last gathering of European Royalty before the war at the funeral of Edward VII. This assembly was symbolic of the end of the era that the war brought.
“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens— four dowager and three regnant— and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and of its kind the last. “
This is a great history book. It is reflective of the author’s view of events. Her view is illustrated with insight, intelligence and in a convincing way. It paints a strong and coherent picture of many events that set the stage for this terrible conflict. If one does not mind a good chunk of military history mixed with a general history, this will be an informative and enjoyable read for anyone interested in this subject.
I also read Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century which I found to be excellent. My commentary on that book is here.