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Why You Need to Read The Guns of August

I first published the review below on my brother’s blog 11 years ago. As I watch the unrest in the United States, I marvel at how we (civilized societies) fail to learn the lessons of history. In this vein, my mind was drawn to the Guns of August by historian and Pulitzer-prize winner, Barbara Tuchman. It’s easily one of the most important books of the 20th century. Sadly, few Americans will ever be exposed to it via a high school or college history course. So here’s my effort to put it on a few more radars. Please read it, and if you have kids, have them read it also.

In summer 1914, an uneasiness enveloped Europe.

Just four years prior, Englishman Norman Angell’s book The Great Illusion achieved resounding success. Angell’s work, translated into 11 languages, offered impressive reasons why war had become unnecessary and equally harmful to both victor and vanquished.

The hindsight of history, however, reveals an equally influential book published one year later in 1911 by German General von Bernhardi entitled Germany in the Next War. Bernhardi’s work demonstrated an insatiable appetite within Germany for recognition. This unfortunate characteristic, coupled with Germany’s paranoid, autocratic government hurtled Europe and soon Asia and America into a devastating world war that stole millions of lives.

Historian Barbara Tuchman chronicles these events brilliantly in The Guns of Augusta book which had a profound impact on President John F. Kennedy. Tuchman’s classic influenced Kennedy’s foreign policy, from his disastrous management of the Bay of Pigs to his exceptional handling of the Cuban Missile Crises.

In The Guns of August, Tuchman tells the fascinating background of the events leading up to the Great War and the pivotal first thirty days that ultimately shaped the outcome.

One of the more fascinating pieces of the book is Tuchman’s explanation of how the Goeben, a German cruiser, outraced the British navy in the Mediterranean and ultimately brought the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers. Shortly after Germany violated Belgian neutrality, Britain declared war on Germany and immediately positioned its fleet to hunt and destroy German warships.

British naval leaders, tracking the Goeben, made a critical error by assuming the Goeben would sail west toward France or her colonies along the African coast. The notion that the Goeben could be on a political mission never occurred to the British. Consequently, the Germans strong-armed the Ottoman Empire into an alliance through the most daring and cunning of military and political maneuvers and forced the Allies to pay a heavy price.

While Germany’s initial operational plan was bold and sound, the German government’s blunder to invade France via neutral Belgium earned the Kaiser two additional enemies (eventually three in the United States) and tied up resources and manpower. Had the Germans attacked through France instead of bypassing her fortresses, the outcome of the war may have been very different. Germany unleashed new weaponry against Belgium’s fortifications that effectively rendered the fortress defense system obsolete.

Tuchman recounts multiple international law violations committed by the Germans. Prior to the war, the German government, trying to convince the Belgian government to acquiesce to the German army upon its movement through Belgium to attack France, claimed the French had repeatedly bombed Nuremburg. The government ran this ridiculous lie in headlines and extras within Germany, apparently with enough believability that Nuremburg residents kept glancing nervously toward the sky waiting for the French to suddenly appear.

On another occasion, German soldiers changed into British uniforms and attempted to assassinate a Belgian general.

A German warship, violating the Hague convention forbidding the use of disguise in enemy colors, ran up the Russian flag before proceeding to shell the Algerian coast. German atrocities against the Belgium populace are arguably the most tragic of its war violations.

In the first few weeks of the war, the Germans secured resounding victories. The French were consistently on the retreat. The British forces arrived to find themselves party to a failing war strategy. Britain’s focus shifted from a quick victory over the Germans to a survival strategy. The French, retrograding to the outskirts of Paris, pleaded with the British for cooperation.

At the battle of the Marne, thirty days into the war, the reeling Allies finally made a united, powerful stand and repelled the German onslaught. Although the Russians launched an attack on eastern Prussia with negative results, its invasion tied up German troops and resources that greatly contributed to the Allied victory at the Marne in the West.

The lessons of The Guns of August are vast. Before the war, Belgium’s army was scorned by its socialist population, could not attract its best and brightest sons and lacked the weaponry and leadership it needed to modernize. The French and British militaries were similarly negatively impacted by naïve and socialist, anti-war dominated governments.

As a result, they were ill-prepared for the Germans in 1914. Russia’s officer corps was riddled with incompetent and lazy favorites. Russia’s infrastructure and resources could not keep pace with its armies, all of which led to its premature defeat and early withdrawal from the war.

The initial French war plan was fundamentally flawed. While the Germans invested in advanced weaponry, the French spent precious resources investing in obsolete fortifications. The French failed to adapt and modernize until later in the war. Its soldiers, ridiculously outfitted in traditional red pants, made themselves easy targets for their grey-clad opponents.

Every American should read this book. The lessons, particularly to military personnel, are powerful, fresh and relevant. So much of the tragedy of the First World War could have been at least mitigated with stronger foreign policy, stronger militaries and stronger cooperation on the part of the Allies. Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Guns of August captivates her audience and offers a complete and exhaustive account from both the Allied and German commands.

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