Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

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.


46 comments:

Fred said...

I have read both works and agree fully. They are excellent works, and both are on my reread list.

Suko said...

This is not my "normal" type of book, but it does sound compelling. (I'll bet we have a copy of this around the house.) Excellent review, Brian Joseph!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred - Tuchman is such a good writer of history.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - This one is different even for me. Even those who are accustomed to reading history might find the military history different.

James said...

Thanks for another great review. I share your view of Tuchman and consider her book about the 14th century one of my favorites among history books.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James.

A Distant Mirror was a phenomenal book.

Fred said...

Brian Joseph,

I've been thinking about dusting off A Distant Mirror for another read.

JoAnn said...

I bought the audio version of this book not too long ago thinking it might be one my husband and I would both enjoy on our drive to FL. Turns out he read it years ago, but said he'd be happy to listen anyway. Great review, Brian.

So many books, so little time said...

Excellent review as always Brian, I really do want to read more about the wars and actual history but I always gravitate towards fiction. May well keep an eye out for this one, not a fan of politics in my books though.

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred - I read it about two years ago. I learned so much about the 14th Century.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks JoAnn.

If you enjoy history, I think that you will like this.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy.

There is a lot of politics in this book. It is the politics of 1914 however.

Fred said...

Brian Joseph,

I had read it a number of years ago. I had just finished a grad course in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and found the 14th century fascinating because of the Tales. So, I heard about A Distant Mirror and read it. Fascinating.

HKatz said...

Tuchman is on my to-read list. In terms of reading about army/navy movements I love when a book also supplies maps. The visual representation helps a lot.

Jillian said...

I'm hoping to explore the First World War a bit in literature next year. This one definitely needs to be added to my to-read list. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I found using a map to be indispensable for this book. My Ebook came with maps but they were difficult to read.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Jillian.

There are so many great fiction and non - fiction books on The First World War. There were a lot of reviews up in 2014 for the 100th anniversary of the conflict's beginning.

Violet said...

I've been studying historiography for the past several months. I never really thought of history as being fiction prior to this, but I do now. It seems to me that "history" is part imagination and part interpretation, and unless a historian directly cites primary documents, I'm sceptical of everything they write. I always wonder about the historian's agenda - what political position they're favouring, what they choose to write about and what they choose to leave out. I wonder why this particular book won a Pulitzer prize, and what those on the Other side of the war might have said about Tuchman's interpretation of events. As Churchill said, history is wriiten by the victors.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet.


I think a healthy skepticism of history is a good thing for the reasons that you mentioned. I think that much of the bias lays in emphasis. As you point out, what is left in and what is left out can have a great impact.

Wondering what folks on the other side of the war thought is exactly the direction one should take if trying to understand this conflict. I think that the best solution to bias is to listen or read various alternate views.

The Reader's Tales said...

Hello Brian! Oh sorry dear, this is not my cup of tea.... Your review is brilliant as usual. Have a great week :)

JaneGS said...

I agree that this is a great book--well-written and insightful in so many ways. I think the opening chapter, from which you quoted, is one of the best pieces of writing ever. Really powerful. Excellent review.

Stefanie said...

I've heard lots of good things about this book and it is on my tbr. I thought it was comprehensive so I am glad for your review and will keep what you said in mind should I ever get to reading it!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Reader's Tales. There are always categories of books that one is just not into.

Thanks for stopping by!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane.

That really is a phenomenal passage.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie.

I would love to know what you thought if you read this.

thecuecard said...

I'm a fan of Tuchman's although I only have read one of her books: Practicing History: Selected Essays from 1981. I liked her "literary approach" to writing history which seemed accessible & interesting to me. But I realize as you say: she left gaps in the history and her book is not a comprehensive guide to the War. Still I would like to read more of her works. Nice review.

Sharon Henning said...

I have not read the Guns of August but I intend to. It sounds like the military history will be worth reading and, even though you say there are gaps, I'm sure this book would be good as one source among many to read about WWI.

Thanks for the review!

PS I'm curious why you don't like to read military history now?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon.

This is great book. I would be curious to know what you think,

I do not dislike military history. In fact, the military history in this book as well as in the recent Benedict Arnold biography that I read was a guilty pleasure for me. I just read a lot of it when I was younger. I found that it is such a big an all consuming subject that it tends to get in the way of other substantive topics.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Susan.

That work of essays sounds good. I would like to read more of Tuchman.

Unruly Reader said...

This book keeps popping up, and someday it will appear on my shelf. Great review -- your description of her writing makes me really want to read her work. She sounds like the type of author who could make a topic fascinating, even if a person wasn't immediately interested in the subject at the beginning.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Unruly - Tuchman is such a good writer.

f you read this I would love to know what you thought of it.

CyberKitten said...

A good, though understandably flawed, work. Tuchman had a heavy bias against the Germans, again understandably, but I though more than once she let her prejudice get in the way too much which diminished the potential power of her narrative.

As always with such things the best way to find out the facts regarding a historical event or period is to read as many points of view as possible to get a fully rounded picture.

Hibernators Library said...

This looks like a great book. I'm going to have to ask if one of my patients has read it. I'm always trying to find books to talk to him about, but he only reads war history books, which I do not read (I'm more interested in famine and plague, myself).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - One good thing about this book is that it covers not just the details of the fighting, but also the politics and diplomacy.

Books about plagues are also interesting in a dark way. For a while I was very intrigued in The Black Death.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - Thanks for stopping by. I sensed the anti - Germain bias that you mention. I need to read more on the events to really grasp it however.

Reading multiple sources is so important.


CyberKitten said...

I check out your site regularly but I think this is one of (if not the only) books we've had in common so far.... [grin]

I'll definitely be back!

Maria Behar said...

Brilliant commentary as usual, Brian!

This sounds like a very compelling read. Even as I state that, it's not one that would be on my TBR, simply because of the tragedy of war.

The passage you quoted, in which the German ambassador and the Russian minister met regarding Germany's declaration of war against Russia, is so poignant. Their meeting started out in a belligerent manner, and then the enormity of what was going to happen hit the German ambassador, and he burst into tears. The irony of these two men attempting to comfort each other is incredible. And this clearly indicates the futility and madness of war.

For some reason, I am better able to read about battles in fiction, whether fantasy or science fiction. On the other hand, I remember being totally fascinated, a couple of years back, while watching a PBS documentary about the Allied landing at Normandy, toward the end of WWII. I was riveted to the TV screen! I think that might have been due to the fact that the second world war seems to have been more "justified", because of the Nazi threat. Those Nazis HAD to be stopped!

This brings me to a very uncomfortable, although hardly new, realization: that even if one is peace-loving, sometimes one has to defend oneself against a bully or bullies. This is also the case, sadly enough, with countries and international politics.

I think I would be very much interested in reading a history of a war in which the psychological and philosophical ramifications thereof were thoroughly explored. Does Tuchman go into these things at all in "Guns of August"? If not, and you know of such a book, please send me the title.

Thanks for another GREAT review!! Hope you're having a WONDERFUL Sunday!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

That passage describing the ambassadors' reaction to the outbreak of war was so moving that I felt the need to quote it.

This book does not go too deeply into the psychological or philosophical implications of war. I do not think that I have read very good source for this. I have read a lot of individual accounts relating to psychology but they usually are disturbing.

I also need to explore these topics further.


Personally I would like to be a pacifist. Unfortunately as a last resort, certain nations and movements must be met with force. The Nazis are indeed the ultimate example. With that, as you know I am a fan of Steven Pinker. His writings have convinced me that we are moving towards a world where war will be a thing of the past.

Have a great Sunday!

vb said...

excellent review as always..Im reading the book too loved the book as it opened up with the current air of the time slowly moving to the sequence of events..The book appealed to me in not being dry as often historical books tends to be other the other hand just being very compelling read ,,though i havent read the other book of his. Im also reading guns germs and steel along with 1776.This is becoming a rewarding historical read for me so far

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks VB.


I thought that Guns, Germs and Steel was a great book. I feel that it helped me understand the qorld better.

Though IO liked 1776 I was a tad disappointed in it. I found that it was a little too general and did not break much new ground. I like McCullough's John Adams a lot better.

Tracy Terry said...

Despite the gaps this still sounds like a powerful and considered book. As always, a great review. Thanks.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I think the gaps were acceptable as long as one does not consider this a comprehensive history.

The Bookworm said...

Glad you enjoyed this one. I love it when the writing is really good like that.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - And such writing is fairly uncommon in a history book.

ebookclassics said...

My father-in-law loves to read about WWI and military history, so I gave him this book because it won a Pulitzer and received a lot of recognition. But you post makes me realize I never asked him what he thought of the book! I don't know if I will ever get around to reading it, but to a certain degree I also enjoy learning about the history of war.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CJ - I have gotten a few books as gifts, read them years later, and never told the giver what I thought. I think that it is time to go and tell them!