History Thread: Barbara W. Tuchman’s The Guns of August (1962)

In October 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis poised the world on the cusp of nuclear oblivion, President John F. Kennedy encouraged his staff and military leaders to read The Guns of August, Barbara W. Tuchman’s chronicle of the outbreak of World War I. Already a best-seller (and soon a Pulitzer Prize winner), Tuchman’s became a generation’s cautionary tale for how seemingly minor or ephemeral disputes can escalate into full-scale conflict; how rigid thinking, personality clashes and miscommunication can lead to world-historical catastrophe. The book served Kennedy well, and continues to be read today as one of the most popular works on the First World War.

If Barbara W. Tuchman wasn’t a trained historian, she certainly possessed a formidable background. Born to a well-connected Jewish family in 1912, Tuchman was the niece to Henry Morgenthau, the financier and diplomat who served as Woodrow Wilson’s emissary to the Ottoman Empire, protesting the Armenian Genocide. (He also had a front-row seat to the Goeben Affair, recounted in Guns.) After marrying a successful doctor, she embarked on a career as a journalist and travel writer. She covered the Spanish Civil War, worked for the Office of War Information in World War II, contributed columns to The Nation and American Heritage. By the 1950s, she decided to focus on history full-time.

Academic historians sniffed at Tuchman’s lack of credentials, levying critiques that often dripped in thinly veiled sexism. More substantial critics doubted her historical judgment. Historian Martin Duberman panned The Proud Tower, her history of prewar Europe, as ”random brush strokes, leaving a canvas unoccupied by any ruling vision.” Jonathan Yardley condemned her as “given to rather conventional limousine-liberal political and ideological convictions and occasionally to oracular pronouncements thereof.” Her history of medieval Europe, A Distant Mirror, was almost universally trashed by specialists as “a readable fourteenth-century version of the Fuzz n’ Wuz (cops and corpses) that dominates the evening news on television.”

Tuchman seemed unconcerned with such brickbats, playfully asserting that “if I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled any writing capacity.” Certainly she took her work seriously, scouring secondary literature and primary documents with all the disciplined thoroughness of an Oxford professor. Her success bore out her approach: only Guns but The Proud Tower, A Distant Mirror and Stilwell and the American Experience in China were all best-sellers, along with two Pulitzer Prizes.

Barbara Tuchman

Modern readers can spy the shortcomings of Tuchman’s popular approach. She paid little attention to minority groups and sniffed at radical movements;1 she was more concerned with statesmen and military leaders than ordinary men and women. Tuchman writes not to challenge the reader but to entertain them; “the writer’s object is, or should be, to hold the reader’s attention” she once commented. In Tuchman’s hands, this approach results in highly readable work; but how many hack writers lacking her gifts followed her lead, glutting with marginally readable, poorly researched tomes that reduce history to a rush of Great Men, Big Battles and Heroic Achievements?

Guns begins with the 1910 funeral of Edward VII, England’s jovial King whose reign came to symbolize a carefree world gone by. Tuchman stresses the intermarriage of Europe’s royal families, the mutual jealousies and resentments boiling under the surface. In many ways, this chapter embodies the same Edwardian nostalgia that Tuchman’s later work, The Proud Tower, ruthlessly deconstructs. Yet it’s also useful introducing its major players in her story, including the odious villain of the piece, Germany’s quick-tempered, megalomaniac Kaiser Wilhelm II (6-7):

Envy of the older nations gnawed at him. He complained to Theodore Roosevelt that the English nobility on continental tours never visited Berlin but always went to Paris. He felt unappreciated. “All the long years of my reign,” he told the King of Italy, “my colleagues, the Monarchs of Europe, have paid no attention to what I have to say. Soon, with my great Navy to endorse my words, they will be more respectful.” The same sentiments ran through his whole nation, which suffered…from a terrible need for recognition. Pulsing with energy and ambition, conscious of strength, fed upon Nietzsche and Treitschke, the felt entitled to rule, and cheated that the world did not acknowledge their title.

Only recently emerged as a unified nation, born amidst the Franco-Prussian War, Germany’s insecurities drove its expansive policy. Spurning Bismarck’s warnings against colonial adventures, Wilhelm constructed a High Seas Fleet to challenge England, built a jerry-rigged empire in Africa and the Far East and forced repeated confrontations with England, France and Russia. These longtime rivals, protecting their own colonial interests and continental strategy, formed an unlikely alliance against a power they neither trusted nor understood.

Kaiser Wilhelm, wannabe warlord

Thus the Schlieffen Plan. The product of Alfred von Schlieffen, the German chief of staff, it envisioned a massive double envelopment modeled on Hannibal’s victory at Cannae. The French would penetrate into Alsace, while German troops moved through the Ardennes into neutral Belgium. This latter strategy was the main risk, as it threatened to bring Britain into the war. German commanders reckoned the benefits of a quick victory as outpacing risks of British involvement. When the July Crisis erupted, sparked by Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia, Wilhelm had the excuse to launch his eagerly-awaited war.

Tuchman frames the resultant campaign, where the Germans scored incredible victories before bogging down just short of Paris, as a compound of failures and misjudgments. Belgian resistance proves stiffer than expected. German General Ludendorff, reacting to an unexpected Russian invasion of East Prussia (which culminated in the Battle of Tannenberg), panics and requests reinforcements. German General Helmuth Von Moltke strips Schlieffen’s killer right wing of much-needed troop, depleting its punch at a crucial moment. In light of these missteps, it’s amazing that the Germans came so close to success as they did.

Here, Tuchman simplifies history to fit her narrative. There’s considerable debate among modern historians whether the Schlieffen Plan even constituted a cohesive strategy, or if it became a post facto explanation for German failures. Nor is Tuchman’s assertion that everyone expected a short conflict. Despite the Kaiser’s boast that the war would end “before the leaves fall,” Von Moltke had no illusions about what a war against an Anglo-French alliance entailed. The next war “will not be settled by a decisive battle before a long, wearisome struggle with a country that will not be overcome until its whole national force is broken,” he had written in 1912.

Lord Kitchener at Gallipoli

Lord Kitchener, Britain’s leading military strategist, expressed similar skepticism. “We must be prepared to put armies of millions in the field and maintain them for several years,” he pronounced  (195). Britain’s reluctance to intervene hinged on its limited resources; though Britain could call upon a vast empire, they expected to deploy no more than four divisions in the short term, barely enough to prevent a German victory. Britain also had to defend its colonial empire against the Ottoman Empire (hence the importance of the warships Goeben and Breslau escaping British vessels to Constantinople, which Tuchman details in a breakneck chapter). Some generals, at least, weren’t fooled by expectations of swift victory.

Among them weren’t the French, who viewed the war both as a grudge match against the Prussians who’d occupied their capital forty years ago and redeem their honor lost in the Dreyfus Affair. As German troops crossed its frontier, France’s generals launched their long-imagined Plan XVII, an invasion of the Alsace-Lorraine, so painfully lost to Germany forty years earlier. Their generals preferred blind, bullheaded offensiveness to reasoned strategy. Tuchman’s portrait incorporates their telling, if trivial attachment to traditional, conspicuous dress (37-38):

Army pride was as intransigent about giving up its read trousers as it was about adopting heavy guns. Army prestige was once again felt to be at sake. To clothe the French soldier in some muddy, inglorious color…would be to realize the fondest hopes of Dreyfusards and Freemasons. To banish “all that is colorful, all that gives the soldier his vivid aspect,” wrote the Echo de Paris, “i to go contrary both to French taste and military function.”… At a parliamentary hearing a former War Minister, M. Etienne, spoke for France.  

“Eliminate the red trousers?” he cried. “Never! Le pantalon rouge c’est la France!

In fairness to M. Etienne, the French Army’s boneheaded tactics played a bigger role in their atrocious casualties during the Battle of the Frontiers than colorful uniforms. Here, Tuchman presents a symbol of conservatism more striking than important. The French conservatives who defended the red pants merely ensured that their doomed men became well-dressed corpses as they hurled themselves into trenches at Mulhouse, Morhange and other clashes in the war’s opening weeks.

French poilus, gallantly wasted

Elsewhere, Tuchman’s critiques are far more substantial and revealing. She recounts the massacre of French troops in an early battle at Morhange, where the French high command discovers that their bayonets, élan and beautiful uniforms were no match for repeating rifles, artillery and machine guns (p. 233):

Although the French did not yet know it, the slaughter at Morhange snuffed out the bright flame of the doctrine of the offensive. It died on a field in Lorraine where at the end of the day nothing was visible but corpses strewn in rows and sprawled in the awkward attitudes of sudden death as if the place had been swept by a malignant hurricane. It was one of those lessons, a survivor realized afterward, “by which God teaches the law to kings.”

It took hundreds of thousands of casualties for either side to appreciate the effects of modern weapons. They had no excuse after the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, Britain’s fight against the Boers and recent conflicts in Manchuria and the Balkans; all demonstrated the ineffectuality of traditional tactics against trenches, modern rifles and machine guns. Somehow, British generals viewed the Russo-Japanese War, where the Japanese incurred catastrophic casualties in blind frontal assaults at Port Arthur, as vindicating such tactics; Douglas Haig, famously, insisted that the machine gun was “a much overrated weapon” as late as 1915. It’s damning that military leaders had to learn these same lessons time and again.

One especially jarring aspect of Guns is Tuchman’s certainty of the Allies’ moral righteousness. Most writers already viewed the First World War as a symbol of political futility and military obtuseness in the 1960s,2 yet Tuchman, educated by the horrors of the sequel, frames the Kaiser and his army as precursors to Hitler and his SS. She recounts German summary executions, hostage taking, aerial bombardment and the destruction of Louvain and Rheims, capturing the Hun in all his pickelhaube-tipped horror. Referring to Louvain’s grim fate, Tuchman writes that it “convinced large numbers of people that here was an enemy with whom there could be no settlement and no compromise” (321).

The German as Beast: French propaganda

It’s easy to grow swept up in Tuchman’s vivid descriptions of war crimes, but readers should keep them in perspective. Where German atrocities in the Second World War topped ten million civilian deaths, the Kaiser’s troops killed barely 5,000 Belgian and French citizens. Indeed, Tuchman’s accounts don’t reckon for the outsized Allied propaganda campaign, which accused German troops of mass rapes, hand-mutilations and bayoneting infants with little or no factual basis, nor does she ponder (for instance) Russian atrocities in East Prussia, though she devotes a chapter to Tannenberg.3 Such sensationalism contributed, in no small part, to the reluctance of Allied leaders to accept more substantial reports of genocide two decades later.

But German leaders and thinkers damn themselves from their own mouth, with constant, bellicose assertions of moral right. Thomas Mann showed few signs of his later antifascism in proclaiming, “The German soul…is opposed to the pacifist ideal of civilization for is not peace an element of civil corruption?” (311). Admittedly, such sentiments weren’t the sole province of Germans, in an era where Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, among other celebrated figures, espoused imperialist bloodletting as a rite of passage. Countries responsible for Boer concentration camps or genocidal regimes in Senegal and the Congo couldn’t lecture the Kaiser on human decency.

What’s striking is their marriage of war’s necessity to an assumption of cultural superiority, that Germany had not only the right but the duty to impose its will on the world. Mann’s postulations are chillingly echoed by the German general staff, who argued that “war cannot be conducted merely against the combatants of an enemy state but must seek to destroy the total material and intellectual resources of the enemy” (321). German atrocities in Belgium and occupied France were not incidental but policy, justified under the banners of German kultur and expansionism.

The German as War Criminal: executing Belgian hostages

It’s grossly unfair to draw a straight line from Louvain to Auschwitz,4 but in some respects Tuchman’s account remains more convincing than revisionists claiming that the Kaiser was justified in screaming about “encirclement.” It was Wilhelm whose saber-rattling and brinksmanship repeatedly brought the world to blows, from Morocco and Agadir to the construction of his High Seas Fleet, alliance with Turkey and “blank check” to Austria. No country is blameless for what happened, yet the Kaiser did more than any other individual (except Gavrilo Princip) to bring the war about.

Tuchman concludes with a build-up to the Battle of the Marne, with the Allied high command on the verge of panic; Sir John French contemplates withdraw, Archibald Murray, his less-than-lionhearted chief of staff, faints at his desk, the French consider abandoning Paris and dynamiting the Eifel Tower. Then the implacable Joseph Joffre appears with his taxi-borne troops, stabilizing the Allied front and dooming the Germans to eventual defeat. “After the first thirty days of war…there was a premonition that little glory lay ahead” (434). Only after four more years and millions of lives wasted would the war conclude, failing to achieve much of anything.

The Guns of August draws enough questionable conclusions to give a serious historian pause. On the other hand, Tuchman’s prose is vivid and evocative, her narrative breathlessly engaging, her analyses lucid and compelling. In short, her work embodies both the strengths and pitfalls of popular history.