The Guns of August

My intention in reading The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman was to understand why World War I began in 1914.  This has been on my mind since viewing the spectacular display of 888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London in August 2014.  Each poppy represented a British soldier killed in the war that destroyed a generation.  Eighteen million persons in military and civilian life died in that dreadful war; 23 million more were wounded. It seemed to me impossible that such consequences could flow simply from the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by a Serbian terrorist (or patriot, depending on one’s loyalties), but that was all I retained from a world history survey course 50 years ago.

This is not an essay about the causes of World War I.  Suffice it to say, that the network of alliances and ententes that crisscrossed borders and continents from 1870 – a somewhat arbitrary starting point – to 1914 is confounding. Ms. Tuchman doesn’t purport to explore all of them, or to mine all of the history of the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Balkans – I should stop there, for the list of all of the nations engulfed in this conflagration is almost the entire world.  What she does is dissect the conduct of the first month of battles in August 1914 that set the course for the following four years of death and destruction.  I am not the first to observe that it is a brilliant day-by-day reconstruction of the key actors’ strategies, decisions and behavior.

It is difficult to absorb the details of the attacks, counterattacks, retreats and other actions of those 31 days.  I found it impossible to master Tuchman’s maps of troop movements (which my Kindle didn’t facilitate).  I found myself re-reading sections to be sure I had correctly connected a particular General and his army, and had to do some peripheral research about brigades, corps and divisions to appreciate the significance of some events.  I was overwhelmed by detail and can’t recite the chronology with confidence.  Even the names of some of the key players at key moments are a bit muddled.

Nevertheless, after finishing the book, from prologue to epilogue, I felt vastly better educated about how it all came about.  Further, as I distance myself more from the particular pages, I feel that I’ve learned or been reminded of some important basics about the affairs of men (they were all men at the time, of course).  Perhaps I knew some of these things before reading The Guns of August, but I write them down now because I don’t want to lose sight of them again. They are not unique to me or especially profound observations, but they help me find relevance in a time that otherwise feels very distant.

Langfollow’s List of Lessons from The Guns of August

People looking for a fight will find it.  And may drag in people who aren’t.

Plans based on how things used to be are doomed.

Human behavior can be worse than imaginable.

People crave inspiration.

People tell barefaced lies to create their own narrative.

Fake news is not new.

Glorious reputations may disguise incompetence.

Knowing when to be flexible is a critical skill of discernment.

Paying close attention avoids mistakes.

People rise above their limits to achieve a goal that matters to them.


That, in short, is both the good news and the bad news from 31 days of August 1914.


2 Comments on “The Guns of August”

  1. Stephen Lang says:

    Great post.

    Phil Ochs said it: “It’s always the old who lead us to the war, it’s always the young who fall”.

    This past spring I viewed the new and very detailed Gallipoli exhibit at the Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, which either explicitly or implicitly states every one of Langfollow’s Lessons. As far as futility and sheer incompetence, well, you can take your pick from any number of actions from any number of wars, but it would be difficult to find one more damning than Gallipoli. The leadership from above was the definition of ‘vainglorious’, and thousands of Aussies and Kiwi’s were reduced to “food for powder”, while achieving absolutely nothing. Not forgetting the Turks, also suffering massive losses, who at least had the reasonable rationale of defending their land. It’s a moving exhibition, displaying many fine qualities of those who went through it, but really leaves you shaking your head in disgusted disbelief, and with a bitter taste in your mouth.

    Now, if you want a really amazing read, try A DISTANT MIRROR, Tuchman’s narrative of the 14th century.

    Sent from my iPad



    • janelang2015 says:

      It would be hard to find a military assault with consequences more horrific than Gallipoli, though there are a few other candidates. It appears that some of these lessons were taken to heart before Normandy. But the atrocities committed in August in Belgium upon the civilian population leave me speechless. I’ll continue on my quest to understand WW I with more reading before attempting the 14th century.
      As it is said, so many books, so little time!

      Liked by 1 person

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