Sunday, October 15, 2006
Barbara W. Tuchman - The Guns of August
The outbreak of war in 1914 was greeted in many countries by rejoicing. Indeed, many of the most ardent and eloquent opponents of the expected conflict rolled over and supported their governments.
Barbara Tuchman's history of the first month the First World War is an excellent military history, dealing with a forgotten part of the conflict - the war of maneuver that all the European powers engaged in, before becoming bogged down in the trench warfare that we all think of when hearing about the conflict.
Up until the 1914, all wars had been on a relatively small scale, and very few (with the interesting exception of Lord Kitchener) believed that the coming war would be anything but a short war of conquest. Certainly no-one expected the slaughter that would take place.
The scale of the outbreak of hostilities however, shocked everyone. The first German attacks on the French forts on the second day of the conflict cost the lives of thousands of men. Tuchman describes how the “dead piled up in ridges a yard high” and points out the attitude of the German commanders in this battle “spending lives like bullets in the knowledge of plentiful reserves to make up the losses” set the scene for the later battles at the Somme and Verdun, were both sides wasted the lives of millions.
But not all of this history is as unsurprising as the horrific casualty figures. We learn that the British Army in France, who famously fought a brave battle at Mons in the first days of the war, under the cowardly leadership of Sir John French retreated in the face of the enemy, only returning to join the French in the battle to defend Paris. This is the second shock – how close the German’s came to capturing Paris, and ironically Tuchman points out that it’s precisely this failure on the part of the German military that sets the scene for the long, drawn out war of iteration.
As I finished the book, I was reminded of Rosa Luxembourg’s wonderful opening chapter of her anti-war pamphlet, written in 1915. She describes how the scenes of joyous crowds waving the armies off, had been replaced by a sullen acceptance of the horrific realities of war. In a memorable phrase, referring to those who were rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of a long drawn out war – the capitalists who could make money from it, she wrote “and the profits, spring like weeds from the fields of the dead”. An eloquent description of a wasteful war which altered the face of the last century.
Tuchman’s book is an amazing historical introduction to the leaders who led their countries into this war, the politicians and generals prepared to sacrifice the lives of their soldiers and the horrific battles in which their armies lost their lives.