Books Guns of AugustIt is a mark of Barbara Tuchman’s power as a writer that her ground breaking narrative history of the first month of WW I, The Guns of August, (1962) seizes and holds the reader’s interest even though curiosity or aptitude for military matters may not have been previously apparent.  It is a history, primarily, of the military strategy and tactics of the French, German, Russian and British armies during that month: right wing and left, sweeps, envelopment, encirclement, pincers, hussars, Uhlans, Major Generals, Lt. Generals, staff officers, cavalry, active infantry, reserves, Armies, Corps, Division, Regiments. Already, the war-averse are rolling their eyes. Yet she brings in the dubious if they’ll only start.  Woven through all the left feints and forced marches she tells of confusion, ignorance, pride and stubbornness, of senior officers being unflappable under tremendous stress and of others in whom flapping completely takes over. There is indecision, stupefying doubling down on wrong decisions, tears of emotion and at least one suicide.  In every single army, and between armies and governments (elected or royal), at the highest levels, there is miscommunication – deliberate and accidental; men who fought or trained together cannot stand one another, and do not trust each others judgment, as this, with the stakes being Paris itself, shows:

Aware that Joffre [French Commander in Chief’] resisted and resented his influence, Gallieni [Military Governor of Paris] counted less on persuading him than on forcing his hand. To that end he had already called [President] Poincaré in Bordeaux to say he thought there was a “good opening” for resuming the offensive at once. At 9: 45 he put through a call to GQG [Grand Quartier Général], the first of a series of which he was later to say, “ The real battle of the Marne was fought on the telephone.” General Clergerie conducted the conversation with Colonel Pont, Chief of Operations, as Gallieni would not talk to anyone less than Joffre and Joffre would not come to the phone. He had an aversion to the instrument and used to pretend he “did not understand the mechanism.” His real reason was that, like all men in high position, he had an eye on history and was afraid that things said over the telephone would be taken down without his being able to control the record.

Rumors, ridiculous on their face, affect decisions made. Vacillation rules as conflicting reports come in. It’s not so much a fog of war as a bedlam of war from which which no patterns emerge, rumor can not be distinguished from the real.  There is disobedience of orders, pretense of not receiving them, refusal to cover the flanks of retreating troops, carrying out one’s own tactics regardless of the effect on others. The British, under command of General John French, can not be ordered, but only asked by French Commander in Chief Joffre; he is worried about losing his whole army, less for their sake than that of his reputation.  He repeatedly refuses French requests, does not trust the basic strategy.  High ranking officers are relieved of command; others, for fear of adding to confusion and despair, are left to command further in failure.

The hundreds of thousands of men and horses — pursued and pursuers– encountered heat, exhaustion, sleeplessness, hunger and not knowing where they are going or why they are  marching –in some cases jogging, in full gear– for 18, 20 miles a day, in at least one case 40.

“Our men are done up,” wrote a German officer of Kluck’s Army in his diary of September 2. “They stagger forward, their faces coated with dust, their uniforms in rags. They look like living scarecrows. … they march with eyes closed, singing in chorus so as not to fall asleep.…

Some have claimed that Tuchman had an anti-German bias. At times her verbal zingers do seem sharper for the Germans than the others, though she is acerbic throughout.   But the records show, including their own, that terror was part of German strategy [see for example] — inherited in part from Clausewitz in his Kriegbrauch.


“Through France as through Belgium the Germans left a blackened and defiled path as they passed . Villages were burned, civilians shot, homes looted and torn, horses ridden through rooms , artillery wagons dragged across gardens, latrines dug in the family burial plot of the Poincarés at Nubécourt. Kluck’s IInd Corps passing through Senlis, twenty-five miles from Paris, on September 2, shot the Mayor and six other civilian hostages.”

The Village of Dinant, Belgium, August, 1914

The Village of Dinant, Belgium, August, 1914

Tuchman, who was mother to two children at the time she researched and wrote the Guns of August, combed the archives, assembled then known reports and data, assimilated it, decided what was necessary to tell the story, and what had to be left out.  She finds quotes from a 1904 meeting between Kaiser Wilhelm and King Leopold, she tracks down Tsar Nicholas once referring to the English as Jews, she scours military communiques and diplomatic documents.  To all of this she applies her own marvelous turns of phrase and glistening images.

“Of the two classes of Prussian officer, the bullnecked and the wasp-waisted, [Schielffen] belonged to the second. Monocled and effete in appearance, cold and distant in manner, he concentrated with such single-mindedness on his profession that when an aide, at the end of an all-night staff ride in East Prussia, pointed out to him the beauty of the river Pregel sparkling in the rising sun, the General gave a brief, hard look and replied, “An unimportant obstacle.” So too, he decided, was Belgian neutrality.


“Joffre was adept at taking advice, and submitted more or less consciously to the reigning doctrinaires of the Operations Bureau. They formed what a French military critic called “a church outside which there was no salvation and which could never pardon those who revealed the falsity of its doctrine.”


“It was a “severe” disappointment to Henry Wilson who laid it all at the door of Kitchener and the Cabinet for having sent only four divisions instead of six. Had all six been present, he said with that marvelous incapacity to admit error that was to make him ultimately a Field Marshal, “this retreat would have been an advance and defeat would have been a victory.”


Two chapters tighten the telling of history into gripping thrillers. Halfway through we read of a failed sea chase in the Mediterranean that enormously changed the course of the war.  At the end, the Germans close in on Paris which everyone, French and German, assume will fall.  Not only are lives, and future years of war, at stake in events, both turn on errors of judgment and incomplete knowledge.  Both chapters convey the torments of fear, not only of live ammunition but of precisely that lack of knowledge, of being in error.  It’s gripping stuff.

In the first of these, chapter 10, Tuchman gives a quick background of German-Turkish-Russian-British maneuvering and jockeying, to  set the stage for the flight of the German battle cruiser, Goeben, from the British and it’s eventual escape to Constantinople.  “No other single exploit of the war,” she says “cast so long a shadow upon the world.”

As July closed and Austria was marching into Serbia, the French fleet, the biggest in the Mediterranean, was busy trying to transport its French Colonial Corps (80,000 men) from North Africa to France, there to be moved north to meet the on-marching Germans.  The Goeben and the Breslau, two fast, new, German ships which had been ranging the Mediterranean — anticipating,  since 1913, a war and the need to interdict such a  predicted French maneuver– were in Pola, on the Istrian Peninsula, for repairs.  The British had 21 ships in the Mediterranean, in good part to assist the French.  Three were the equal of the Goeben in speed, size and armaments.

With German armies crossing into Russia [the Eastern Front] and Belgium [the Western Front] on August 4, the Goeben received a wire to get to Constantinople at all possible speed and seal a just completed treaty-by-telegram.  No sooner were the ships underway than the Turkish “Committee” got cold fingers and wouldn’t sign. The German commodore was told to do what he thought best.  Bolting for the straights of the Gibraltar and the open Atlantic seemed the most likely option to everyone.  There was no radar.  Telegraph messaging by wireless was spotty. Coding and decoding took hours.  Visibility at sea, even from large ships on clear days, is barely 15 miles — unless a column of smoke from bad coal is being thrown.  The hunt was on, which Tuchman tells very taughtly, the Germans heading first to North Africa and the embarking French troops, the British in pursuit, the French frantically moving men, the Germans reversing course, the English losing contact and then, splitting up, getting ever so close.  Close enough to exchange gun fire on one afternoon which Tuchman, herself, saw as a two and a half year old child, traveling between Venice and Constantinople with her sisters and mother and father, Robert Morganthau, all on the way to visit his father, the American Ambassador to Turkey, among the few to call attention to the catastrophe of the Armenian slaughters in Turkey a few years later.

It won’t be revealing any secrets to say that the Goeben did reach Constantinople and, by devious means, the Germans and Enver Pasha pulled Turkey into the war, without which any number of enormous events would likely not have come to pass, and the war shortened by years.


The last chapter, just for starters, has president, prime minister, parliament and cabinet being told to evacuate Paris to Bayonne — where decisions could continue to be made (and to be out of the hair of the generals trying to defend the city).  The German armies are coming on. French units are told to fight as long as they can and, in retreat blow up the bridges across the Seine (the same we have all walked on) to impeded German pursuit.  But wait! Perhaps fortunes will turn and the bridges will be needed to mount a counter-attack!  Engineers of the Paris camp guarding the bridges were beset by conflicting orders.

“A disaster is preparing,” reported an officer of Engineers to General Hirschauer.

At the last hour the enormous German army of the right, instead of sweeping around Paris to the west, as the Schliefflen Plan called for –The French are routed!  Here is an opportunity! thought General von Kluck– changed direction, leaving the city to its left, on its flank.  One of France’s least plan-bound  generals, Gallieni, “instantly saw his opportunity” and set in motion a daring, if desperate, attack on that flank which, when the week was over and the Germans driven back some 45 miles, came to be called “The Miracle on the Marne.”  The image that settled into the hearts of all Frenchmen was of the continuous caravan of some 600 black taxis rushing 6,000 reserves to join the battle. [Where’s the movie, directors, producers?]

Taxies at the Battle of the Marne, August, 1914

Taxis at the Battle of the Marne, August, 1914

The German advance was halted. The French re-grouped. More British came and the war began, predicted by almost no one, of 4 years of mutual slaughter.


My list of books which every war-concerned person should read begins here, with The Guns of August, followed closely (sometimes taking the lead)  by the more recent To End All Wars, by Adam Hochschild.  His interests takes him not to the military strategies of the war but to the events in England at the time, including militant feminists agitating for the vote, enormous Trade Union and Socialist led anti-war efforts, the home-rule rebellion in Ireland and near civil war there, all tied into the major events of the war.  Fascinatingly the Commander in Chief of the British armies, General John French and one of the militant anti-war leaders, Charlotte Despard, were brother and sister, and quite close, until they weren’t.


Charlotte Despard

Charlotte Despard


For more on the “July Crisis,” the month between the assassination of the Archduke and the invasion of Serbia by Austria-Hungary — which is where the war might have been stopped, or at lease ‘localized’ to the Balkans– other, more recent histories are available.   Thomas Otte‘s July Crisis: The World’s Descent Into War, Summer 1914 argues against theories of underlying social or psychological forces bringing about the war, or of Germans as proto-nazis, to show in detail how fallible, and not very thoughtful, leaders by trying to grasp opportunity in crisis and to maintain allegiances against their own perceived weakness, didn’t so much sleep walk as recklessly blunder into the war.

Christopher Clark’s, even more detailed The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, may be the most praised recent history, not of the war itself, but the structural make-up of the European powers and the choices, decisions and events that led to the armies marching.

“This superb account of the causes of the first world war begins in 1903 with the murder of Alexander I of Serbia by a secretive terrorist network called the Black Hand.”  The Guardian: Pindar

“The distinctive achievement of “The Sleepwalkers” is Clark’s single-volume survey of European history leading up to the war. That may sound dull. Quite the contrary. It is as if a light had been turned on a half-darkened stage of shadowy characters cursing among themselves without reason.”  NY Times: Evans

“Christopher Clark’s breathtakingly good book is, much more self-consciously than Tuchman’s, also a history for its – that is, our – times.”  The London Review of Books: Laqueur

These are merely drops on the bucket of WW I history, now exceeding some 25,000 volumes.  For more reviews of recent work see here, Five Best, Three More,  and Six.


Finally, if you’re in the read-to-me camp of readers, the Audible/Tantor reading by John Lee is superb.  He manages French and German tinged English to help keep straight who is being quoted throughout.  Another version in the library is read by Nadia May, which I haven’t heard.  I get the whispersync version so that I can listen, makes oral notes while listening and then go to the Kindle version, read the same notes, make more and do the highlighting that helps keep it all straight, and in mind.  It’s a great way to share a book with others on a long ride and what better time than this 100th year since the Great [Awful] War Began?


It needs hardly to be said how much current events have the scent of the years before WW I.  The great ice-berg confrontation of the Cold War has broken up.  Multiple actors, regions shuddering like buildings in an earthquake, assassination by suicide and by drone promise sparks to the right tinder, armies invade across borders, who knows what secret agreements have been made?  Perhaps the fact of established, more or less adhered to, institutions of diplomacy provide more stability than the unspoken manners and morals of the world’s elites in 1914, but perhaps not.

Not one military man with any power understood in 1914 how the machine gun and barbed wire changed how war was waged.  What is in plain sight today, unrecognized, that could have a similar w0rld changing effect?

All heads of state agreed, early on, that there would be no negotiations with the perfidious enemy. Offers by President Wilson of the United States were turned down.  Even after the horrific losses at the Somme, in July 1916, the watchword was: no negotiation… It took 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded to get them talking….