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.