How To - Understand World War I

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

In the early days of August 1914 Germany mobilized seven armies. 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. The events of August 1914 were the opening salvos of what that generation called The Great War, and what the next had reason to rename World War I.

It it this single month that Barbara Tuchman treats in her Pulitzer Prize winning book The Guns of August (1962). Tuchman is a master of detail, and lays the ground rules for her readers in an Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, "All condition of weather, thoughts or feelings, and states of mind public or private, in the following pages have documentary support.."

The result is a 440pp narrative that at times can be frustrating, with extensive descriptions of generals and geography, but which paints a vivid picture of a cataclysmic event that erased a generation of young men. It is worth reading.

Tuchman covers the two major theatres of war, the European (or Western) front and the Russian (or Eastern) front. She omits the war in the Balkans, centered around Turkey, except that she devotes an interesting chapter to the pursuit of the German battleship Goeben by Allied forces in the Mediterranean.

The Goeben finally took refuge in the Turkish Dardenelles while Turkey was still neutral and thus precipitated its entry into the War on the side of Germany. The subsequent Allied fighting in the Balkans against Turkey included the ill fated Gallipoli campaign where so many British troops died.

Tuchman carefully analyzes the events which led to the outbreak of war, and we are left with a picture of inevitability. Germany, imagining itself betrayed and enveloped by European alliances, had been preparing war plans for over 10 years.

France was always Germany’s target. When the Archduke Ferdinand (an Austrian) was assassinated by a Serbian, a compex web of alliances were triggered, but the net result was that Germany marched on France. Moving 7 armies within the tight confines of Europe required plenty of space, and Germany planned to violate Belgium neutrality to move its troops towards Paris.

It therefore came about that the opening battles of the war were on Belgium soil against Belgium cities. Tuchman describes the battle of Liege, where the Germans used their huge siege guns against the city’s forts, and then the march through Belgium. The Germans did not expect the Belgiums to resist, but when they came under sniper fire in village after village the Germans instituted a policy of reprisals against the civilian population. Reports of mass executions in village squares became common, but the event that shocked the world was the burning of Louvain, where the Germans laid waste to the entire city. This event was a wake up call to the world and signaled the beginning of a long brutal war.

As they crossed the Belgium frontier into France, the German armies were engaged by 7 French armies and 2 British divisions known as the BEF (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 town 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 commandeered for the purpose!

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. And here perhaps more than anywhere in the book we come to realize just how world events can be shaped by personal foibles. Many of the names are unfamiliar: Joffre was the French General, Lord Kitchener the British War Minister, and Kluck led the final sweep of the German forces towards Paris.

But some of the names are more familiar: a young soldier named De Gaulle fought for France, and Winston Churchill was Lord of the British Admiralty, but was to see his finest hour many years later in 1940.

When the Germans made a detour to chase one of the French armies north of Paris, 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 ceasing to exist. But nothing was decisive, the enemy was not vanquished, 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 (of both sides) in 4 years of fighting.

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 hiring and firing field commanders. Tuchman humanizes the events, and therefore helps us understand them.

Wisely, Tuchman offers little analysis, except to say that World War I was a terrible loss of an entire generation and left no winners but simply a profound sense of disillusionment. She quotes D. H. Lawrence, “All the great words were cancelled out for that generation” and she keeps us mindful of a sober fact: those who survived The Great War were to see their sons march in the next.

This is dedicated to my father William Abbott, who marched in the next.

Content written and posted by Ken Abbott abbottsystems@gmail.com