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  • Fifty Years on: The Guns of August, Always Popular, Always Flawed
  • Samuel R. Williamson Jr. (bio)
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August. Library of America, 2012. Illustrated. 1,268 pages. $40.

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...


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