Review of The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I, by Barbara Tuchman

15 Nov

Few years can compete with 1914 regarding its importance to the entire world.  In her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman focused on that year’s crucial eighth month that saw the beginning of World War I. Although published over fifty years ago in 1961, her account still captivates readers with its incredible research and lively narrative. Clocking in at fourteen hours via audiobook, The Guns of August explains how the nations of the world entered this conflict and how the war’s eventual destiny was determined by its first month of action.

Tuchman, who won another Pulitzer with her biography of General Joseph Stillwell, starts the book back in 1910 with the pompous funeral of England’s Edward VII in which most of the world sent representatives to attend. She then provides background on all the major empires of the world and their lead up to war. The infamous Schlieffen plan, the German strategy of attacking France through Belgium, as well as France’s scheme of mobilization called Plan 17 garner special attention. Surprisingly, little time is given to the assassination of Austria Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but she goes into detail on the main powers and their declarations of war, and the feeble attempts made to prevent the horror from taking place.

The book’s pace quickens with the German onslaught through Belgium. Tuchman allows all the key figures such as Hindenburg, Joffre, French, Ludendorff, Haig and others their spotlight as their decisions bring their forces into combat. The capture of Liege, the Battle of the Frontiers, and the Russian defeat at Tannenberg are brought to life as Germany nearly achieves victory. A key decision by the German high command as its forces approached Paris, however, left its right wing vulnerable, providing French and English forces the opportunity to counterattack at the Battle of the Marne. This battle stopped the German advance, saving France and preventing Germany from winning the war quickly with an early knockout. Afterwards, the armies settled into trench warfare which would last for four horrible years. Tuchman states the failures of the Schlieffen plan and France’s Plan 17 were responsible for this deadlock on the western front and the horrors associated with it.

The Guns of August is a thrilling account of the beginning of World War I. Experiencing via audiobook does limit some understanding as one is unable to view maps and check any notes, but Tuchman thankfully does not get into minute detail on battles which allows the listener to follow along. Tuchman skillfully weaves her narrative and provides a multitude of information without completely overwhelming the reader (or listener.)  The book has enhanced my interest in the topic and sends me to seek out other accounts, an objective any author would be thrilled to achieve. I doubt there are any World War I enthusiasts who do not have this book on their shelf.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: