The Guns of August

Before this summer the sum total of my knowledge of The Great War could be contained in a dozen words: assasination, Archduke, Ferdinand, Sarajevo, France, Germany, England, America, trench, doughboy, western, front. 

It was an ignorance which niggled and gnawed.  Not that I’ve had any occasion to answer the question, What was World War One about? – but I knew I didn’t know.  Now I have the opposite problem: I’m steeped in WWI and want to talk about what I’m learning, but it is a bit socially awkward to open conversations with discussions of lice in the trenches or the debacle of Gallipoli.

Reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August was my first autodidactic step.  Tuchman limited her narrative to the events surrounding August 1914, the first month of the war.  Her first paragraph was dazzling, holding promise not only for education but for delight.  The pulse of her prose was so strong that it felt like reading a current event.  The subject is wretched, but the writing is rewarding.

One rudimentary fact I learned from The Guns of August is how much the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 influenced the Great War.  Both France and Germany had been preparing for a re-match for decades.  France wanted the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine back; Germany expected France to attack and decided the best defense was to take the offense.

Here is a sparkling necklace of sentences and phrases from this superlative book.   

•   He knew how material success could gain public opinion; he forgot how moral failure could lose it, which too can be a hazard of war.

•   In the interim two men formed a trans-Channel friendship which was to serve as the first cable for the building of a bridge.

•   The new Czar, now forty-six, had learned nothing in the interval, and the impression of imperturbability he conveyed was in reality apathy – the indifference of a mind so shallow as to be all surface.

•   …with the bellicose frivolity of senile empires…

•   With their relentless talent for the tactless…

•   He must convince the present, measure up to the past, and speak to posterity.

•   Again and again the Germans returned to the assault, spending lives like bullets in the knowledge of plentiful reserves to make up the losses.

•   During August, under the terrible test of live ammunition, Joffre was to scatter generals like chaff at the first sign of what he considered imcompetence or insufficient élan. 

•   The vexing problem of war presented by the refusal of the enemy to behave as expected in his own best interest beset them.

•   In appearance a sharp, alert bantam, alive with energy…

•   With a rear commander’s contempt for a front commander’s caution…

•   Mr. Whitlock was to hear so often the story of one or another German general being shot by the son or sometimes the daughter of a burgomaster that it seemed to him the Belgians must have bred a special race of burgomasters’ children like the Assassins of Syria. 

•   Joffre arrived early in the morning … to lend him sangfroid out of his own bottomless supply.

•   Each with its burden of soldiers … the taxis drove off, as evening fell — the last gallantry of 1914, the last crusade of the old world.


5 thoughts on “The Guns of August

  1. Dear friend-  Tell me more!!  As I was teaching about medieval Europe this year, the land/empire business became more clear and I couldn’t help but make correlations to WWI. Did your son show you the picture from the book I loaned him?

  2. Carol,Last year I’ve been translating into Spanish an English drama based on WWI: “Journey’s End”. It has been written in the twenties but successfully played nowadays (look here, for instance). It doesn’t talk about “Big history” but of the terrible life in the trenches, with a very human approach. The playwright (Robert Cedric Sherriff) fought himself in the WWI with the British Army and tried to show how the life in the front was.I highly recomend this drama, especially for young men (it is an only male play and deals with war, friendship, youth, sacrifice, authority…).It doesn’t explain the WWI but helps to know how it was.

  3. Carol,I am reading Goodbye to All That right now and it is a terribly personal book about the author’s life in the trenches. It is a very easy read, interesting and at times disturbing.  In a recent chapter an old French woman describes life in her village during the 1870 conflict.

  4. Up until reading your posts this summer, the only book I had read related to WWI was All Quiet on the Western Front — I loved reading and teaching that book with focus on the emotional / mental complexities. Now, because of your recommendation, I have been reading Guns of August — what I love is how Tuchman makes history so accessible to the ignorant student like me through subtle wit. For instance, I will definitely keep reading when an author writes sentences like:”to be held by only nine divisions was hard to accept, but Frederick the Great had said, “…” and nothing so comforts the military mind as the maxim of a great but dead general.””His officers remember him bellowing, ‘Attack! Attack!’ with furious, sweeping gestures while he dashed about in short rushes as if charged by an electric battery.”

  5. Thank you for your comments.  I truly appreciate them.Btolly – Collin mentioned the book, but I haven’t yet seen it.  I’m delighted to have all day at home and expect to look through it this morning.  I’m eager to talk with you: about this, about that, just talk, talk, talk…Alfonso – Thank you for your recommendation.  You have a 100% track record so far!  Our local library has a book, The Best Plays of 1928-29, which has “Journey’s End” in it.  I will check it out.  Again, thanks.Cindy.  CINDY.  It’s a bit spooky how our reading parallels.  On the board in my kitchen are the words “Goodbye To All That” as a reminder to borrow, swap, or buy it.  So, of course you are reading it.  I’m reading a book called Back to the Front written by a man (Stephen O’Shea) our age who walks the 500 miles of the Western Front and revisits battle scenes.  It’s a combo travel memoir/historical commentary.  He has this great section in the back called Further Reading.  Laurie – The next book on my list is AQOTWF.  I’m glad that you are reading Tuchman and enjoying her too.  How could one not enjoy Tuchman?  If this book is representative of her level of writing, I plan to read through all her works.  I have three on the shelf waiting.  Thanks for sharing more great sentences.  She is a marvel.

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