Fifty Years on: The Guns of August, Always Popular, Always Flawed
Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August appeared to glowing reviews in the popular press in February 1962. Orville Prescott, writing in the New York Times on February 5, declares it “a splendid and glittering performance, one of the finest works of history written in recent years”; she writes “elegant and polished” prose that reflects “a sardonic sense of humor.” And Tuchman, Prescott continues, concentrates “on what people said, did and felt. Her pages are full of apt quotations and of hundreds of dramatic scenes and episodes.” The work, he concludes, “is a fine demonstration that with sufficient art rather specialized history can be raised to the level of literature.”
The reading public agreed with Prescott. The book stayed on the bestseller list for more than forty weeks. In 1963 it won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. President John Kennedy reportedly read The Guns of August before the Cuban missile crisis later in 1962. It was said that he found in Tuchman’s admonitions to be skeptical about military plans the reasons behind his own sharp questioning of the military plans offered to him that October—plans that turned out to be exceptionally suspect. And, in the years since, the work has been assigned to generations of students on courses that deal with the First World War and with questions of grand strategy.
In contrast to the popular acclaim received by the book, professional historians have from the start been equally critical of it. Some, such as the reviewer in the Journal of Modern History (March 1963), praised its prose style but found the account based “only partially” on the best available sources and castigated its flagrantly “one-sided treatment of imperial Germany.” Another reviewer, in Military Affairs (autumn 1962), pronounced that the “serious military scholar, however, will find nothing here that is new either in facts or interpretations and will be struck by the author’s significant omissions.” The writer of this review, who read The Guns of August when it first appeared and cited it three times in a major study, has always regarded the effort as seriously flawed.
The republication of this influential popular study offers this reviewer [End Page 163] an opportunity to explain the widely discordant reception that the book received when it first appeared. The comments that follow first address why it was popular and then turn to the critics and the long-term place of The Guns of August in the historiography of the opening days of the First World War.
First Tuchman’s study heralded a new wave of publications about the First World War on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of its outset. Although access to the relevant archives among the European powers remained closed, save the German records captured in 1945, the vast majority of memoir material had been published, as well as major collections of documents. Tuchman uses some of this material skillfully, and her narrative style gives the reader a sense of intimacy with the events. A few examples will suffice to show her ability. Of those who worked planning mobilization schedules, she observes: “The best brains produced by the [German] War College, it was said, went into the railway section and ended up in lunatic asylums.” Of events in London, “The method was plain; the muddle was in the British mind.” “The German navy was the dog in the night. It did not fight.” And of General Joseph Joffre, the French commander, whom she rightly praises for recovering after his initial mistakes: “Joffre did not panic like Sir John French, or waver like Moltke or become momentarily unnerved like Haig or Ludendorff or succumb to pessimism like Prittwitz. What went on behind that opaque exterior he never showed. If he owed his composure to a failure of imagination, that was fortunate for France. . . . When ruin was all around him, he maintained an even tenor, a stolid control.” Nor did she neglect some prescient statements by the major leaders, such as General Moltke’s observation to the Austrian general Conrad von Hötzendorf on August 5, 1914, that this struggle “will decide the course of history for the next hundred years.”
More than a brilliant narrative style accounted for her reception. By 1962 America’s strategic position had been significantly altered. The Soviet arsenal of nuclear missiles made the possibility of war increasingly likely. Only two years earlier, Herman Kahn had written On Thermonuclear War, which posited a nuclear war and the chance to win it; and as part of his analysis he had tracked the origins of the First World War. And, of course, later in 1962 the Cuban crisis showed just how dangerous the chances of war might be. Not surprisingly leaders, writers, and commentators looked back to 1914 to analyze what had gone wrong. They did not wish to repeat the mistakes of August, and Tuchman offered, they thought, some guidance on the subject.
Furthermore, though Fritz Fischer’s book on Germany and 1914 had appeared too late for Tuchman to use, had she been so inclined, she wrote when the American public firmly believed that the Germans were solely responsible for the Great War. Her accounts of the valiant Belgian resistance to German demands and to Berlin’s surprise and consternation at Belgium won sympathy for King Albert. And she chronicled how the German [End Page 164] leadership—first with its invasion of neutral Belgium (facilitating Britain’s intervention), and then subsequent German executions of Belgian and French civilians, together with the destruction of the Louvain library—put Germany in the wrong. For many, Germany became the villain, a view of course reaffirmed by German behavior in the Second World War.
A further aspect of Tuchman’s account also deserves plaudits. She makes clear how the war plans of Germany, France, Russia, and Britain were all based on wishes, on the most favorable reading of intelligence reports, and on an almost unwavering belief in the power of the offense. In every case those expectations were disappointed. Nor does she neglect the role that technology played, showing how British and French aerial intelligence revealed the shift of German forces away from Paris toward the Marne River and the remarkable intelligence gifts the Germans got in the east from the Russian failure to encipher any of their field orders. The development of the huge German artillery pieces also gets her attention, as does France’s continual reliance on its superb 75 mm pieces.
Tuchman notes there was no significant naval action in the North Sea in August once the British had put their blockade in place. On the other hand Tuchman devotes a long and somewhat awkward chapter to the British chase of the German ships Goeben and Breslau in the Mediterranean in the opening moments of the fray. The account properly reflects little credit on British naval leaders.
A gifted writer and storyteller with an eye for catching detail, Tuchman earned applause from many literary critics and the general public. Moreover her book still makes for excellent reading if one seeks to understand at a macro-level the confusion of war and the almost miraculous way the French managed to salvage, at the Battle of the Marne, the destiny of the nation. From that success came—of course, after four more years of war.
In her opening page Tuchman writes: “To the reader I must explain that the omission of Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and the Russo-Austrian and Serbo-Austrian fronts was not entirely arbitrary. The inexhaustible problem of the Balkans divides itself naturally from the rest of the war. Moreover, operations on the Austrian front during the first thirty-one days were purely preliminary.” To professional historians, including this reviewer, Tuchman’s decision seems far more than arbitrary: it seems unforgivable, as does her entire treatment of the start of the war in a single page.
The war began in Eastern Europe. There would have been no war in the West if the Russians had not decided, for various reasons (altruism was not one of them), to intervene in the war on behalf of Serbia and thus attack the Habsburg monarchy. This action set in motion the German war plans. Nor was August devoid of military importance for the Austrians, since it saw them first deploy troops against Serbia, then redeploy them against Russia, and ultimately in August saw the Serb withdrawal inland deprive Vienna of the decisive battle. Or, as one critic puts it, “one wonders, for instance, how [End Page 165] Germany’s strategic planning can be evaluated . . . without some inquiry into the military arrangements made by and with the Austrian ally. And is it not obscuring some crucial issues to treat the opening Austro-Hungarian campaign against Serbs and Russians—the later on a major sector of the eastern front—as mere side shows?”
This jaundiced approach to the start of the war may owe something to the fact that Tuchman had not used any of the major works on the origins of the war, including those by Sidney Fay, Luigi Albertini, Pierre Renouvin, and Bernadotte Schmitt. A cursory acquaintance with any of them would almost certainly have altered her perspective. One critic put it more bluntly: “Forty years of historical research are ignored as are the hundreds of thousands of documents that have been published by the governments of Europe.” The excessive focus on Germany, in part the result of the failure to consult the existing literature, drew condemnation from professionals.
Issues of civil-military relations, alliance structures, and the coordination of military planning receive Tuchman’s modest attention at most. The role of public opinion is only fleetingly mentioned, and economic preparation for war, though noted, gets nothing more.
Still various critics applauded her ability to describe and write vignettes that captured the rapidity of decisions and the very narrow margins by which great outcomes were decided. Her maps helped in the presentation, and those in the current volume are even superior to those in the first edition.
This reviewer adds a purely personal note. In the spring of 1962 as a young graduate student I visited Professor Sidney Fay of Harvard, the doyen of historians about July 1914. His daughter had just finished reading The Guns of August to Fay, who was well into his eighties and nearly blind. His comments to me were simple and direct: “she has got the history wrong, but historians need to write like Tuchman or we will be out of business.” That injunction remains seared in my memory, if not in my practice.
Barbara Tuchman wrote a series of popular and impressive volumes, including one about General Joseph Stilwell that also earned a Pulitzer. The Proud Tower, which is included in this reprint edition by the Library of America, remains a very substantial introduction to intellectual changes that were altering the character and future of European life. Indeed one would do well to read The Proud Tower first, then The Guns of August, keeping in mind all of the caveats presented here about its limitations. And historians, both those now practicing and those in graduate school, would do well to study Tuchman’s ability to engage the reader, to present a sweeping narrative, and to display both irony and a sense of the sardonic. If Tuchman sometimes got the history wrong, she did not get its presentation and its importance wrong. For that we can be grateful. [End Page 166]
Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., vice-chancellor emeritus of the University of the South, has written extensively on World War i, including its origins and the politics of grand strategy.