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The Guns of August
File:Guns of august.gif
First edition cover
Author Barbara Tuchman
Country United States
Language English
Genre Military history, narrative history
Published 1962 (Macmillan)
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 511
OCLC Number 30087894
Dewey Decimal 940.4/144 20
Library of Congress Classification D530 .T8 1994

The Guns of August (1962), also published as August 1914, is a volume of history by Barbara Tuchman. It is centered around the first month of World War I. After introductory chapters, Tuchman describes in great detail the opening events of the conflict. Its focus then becomes a military history of the contestants, chiefly the great powers. The Guns of August thus provides a narrative of the earliest stages of World War I, from the decisions to go to war, up until the start of the Franco-British offensive that stopped the German advance into France. The result was four years of trench warfare. In the course of her narrative Tuchman includes discussion of the plans, strategies, world events, and international sentiments before and during the war.

The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction for publication year 1963.[1] It also proved very popular. Tuchman would later return to a subject she had touched upon in The Guns of August, i.e., the social attitudes and issues that existed before World War I, in a collection of eight essays published in 1966 under the title The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914.[2]

The book

A funeral

In May 1910 the funeral of Edward VII of the United Kingdom drew the presence of ten kings, prominent among them being Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Wilhelm, or William, was King Edward's nephew. This opening chapter [at 15-30] begins and ends with a description of this royal funeral [15-18, 26-30], and in between provides a discussion of the continent's political alliances and the diplomacy of royalty, all amidst the national rivalries, the imperialism, and social Darwinism, in the years leading up to the Great War (1914-1918).


Chapters 2 to 5 [33-87] are grouped into the first section called "Plans". Addressed here is pre-war military planning, as done by the major powers in Europe. Included are the German Schlieffen plan, France's offensive Plan XVII, joint British and French arrangements, and Russia's approach to a future European war.


The section "Outbreak" starts with a short introduction [at 91-92] which briefly mentions the trigger event that caused World War I. On June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, Serbian terrorists ambushed and murdered the heir apparent to the throne of Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, age 50, and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg (the former Sophie Chotek), age 46, mother of three. European-wide diplomacy and military preparations during July are then referenced.

Chapters 6 to 9 [93-157] commence with August 1914. Discussed and probed are maneuvers by leading politicians, diplomatic affairs, and actions undertaken by various armies, during the opening days of the war, August 1st to August 4th. Covered are the Kaiser's hesitation, the struggle by Russia to ensure her ally France would join in the war, France's attempts to win a guarantee from Britain of her involvement, and then Germany's ultimatum to Belgium.


The bulk of the remainder of the book, chapters 10 to 22 [159-483], is essentially devoted to the battles and tactical planning on two fronts, the Western (chapters 11 to 14, 17, and 19 to 22) and the Eastern (chapters 15 and 16). Yet Austria, and the Balkans, are omitted.[3] Chapters 10 and 18 are devoted to the war at sea.

Intertwined in this narration are the adverse effects of the vanity of the various leaders, and insubordination. Also addressed are some perceptions made among those in the rest of the world, including a critical interpretation of events that cemented various political views (e.g., chapter 17). The short "Afterward" then reflects on the horrific events of August, 1914.


Tuchman starts the "Battle" section by covering the search by Allied naval forces for the German battlecruiser Goeben in the Mediterranean (chapter 10, at [161-187]). The Goeben finally took refuge in the Dardanelles, waters of the then neutral Ottoman Empire [182-184]. Such naval actions set off diplomatic maneuvers, yet the event precipitated Turkey's entry into the war on the side of Germany. This development worked to block Russian import/export via its year-round ports on the Black Sea. This in turn led to the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign.

Western Front

Chapters 11 to 14 [188-296] cover the war in the west Europe. First discussed are the German invasion northeast of Belgium [188-207] and the general western front, especially the situation in Alsace [207-220]. Next Tuchman describes the arrival in France of the British Expeditionary Force or BEF (chapter 12 [221-233]).

As they crossed the Belgian frontier, the German armies were engaged by the Belgian army in front of Liège and, in the East of France, by five French armies and, in the south of Belgium, by four British divisions (known as the British Expeditionary Force or BEF). The French were said to be labouring under the delusion that Gallic élan would be crucial in countering German attacks while the English fought hard to Charleroi. During August each side deployed its armed forces in order to effect its own strategies developed in advance of the war (discussed in detail above: "Plans").

The French High Command had made incomplete allowances for dealing with the large massed attack by the German army that now came quickly bearing down on them. It was perhaps through the decisions of one corps commander, Charles Lanrezac, who timely acted before getting permission from Joffre, that the entire French line was eventually saved from envelopment and general collapse. Although his pleas were ignored, Lanrezac withdrew his forces at Charleroi from an untenable position (and probable destruction), and redeployed more favorably [236-240, 275-279, 282-286, 295]. He was later relieved of command [465]. The Battle of the Frontiers was brutal. The Belgian army was rushed against the German army, but the Allies were forced to slowly retreat under the German onslaught until finally the Germans were within 40 miles of Paris. The city was saved through the courage and verve of a semi-retired territorial general, Joseph Gallieni, who brilliantly marshaled his limited resources and saved the day. The city was preparing for siege and possible complete destruction and the government had fled south, when two divisions of reserves suddenly arrived and were rushed to the front by the city's fleet of 600 taxi cabs. Tuchman cynically notes that Joffre later took complete credit for saving Paris and the French army—after having the commander who ordered the tactical retreat, Charles Lanrezac, relieved of duty, and the older commander and his former superior, Joseph Gallieni, pushed back into obscurity.

Tuchman is also careful to point out that, although many of Joffre's actions were shameful, when he was finally pushed into action he showed great skill in guiding the hastily improvised counter-blow that crashed into the invader's flank. The Germans greatly contributed to their own undoing by outrunning their supply lines, pushing their infantry to the point of physical collapse, and deviating from the original invasion plan, which called for the right flank to be protected from counterattack. At this stage of its offensive the German army lacked troops used by the siege of the fortress of Antwerp held by the Belgian army. Both sides were plagued by poor communication and general staffs that were heavily invested with politics and sycophancy. Dire warnings from commanders in the field were ignored when they did not fit preconceived notions of quick victory at low cost (a recurring problem that has beset armies up to this day).

Tuchman carefully introduces us to all the key players, both the Allied (French, British, Belgian and Russian) and German commanders. With her characteristic attention to detail, we learn of their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses.

Russia and Germany

Only chapters 15 and 16 are devoted to the Eastern Front. These chapters center on the Russian invasion of East Prussia and the German reaction to it, culminating in the battle of Tannenberg. Here the Russian advance was stopped, decisively. In these chapters, Tuchman covers the series of errors, faulty plans, poor communications, and poor logistics which, among other things, decidedly helped the French in the west. For example, the Germans mistakenly transferred from the west two corps to defend against what the book refers to as the 'Russian Steam Roller'. The great misery which developed on the eastern front is adumbrated.

Flames of Louvain

Woven into the text about the battles in Belgium are threads of fact which allied governments would employ in the formation of the west's eventual opinion that Germany had been the aggressor nation against Belgium, notwithstanding the initial attack on Austria by Serbian terrorists. Such facts and conclusions would be repeated for the duration of the war, and greatly affect the future involvement of the United States. Also here in chapter 17 The Flames of Louvain, Tuchman places a selection of German views from a variety of sources as to the aims and desires of the German Empire. She cites [at page 348-349] Thomas Mann saying the goal was "the establishment of the German idea in history, the enthronement of Kultur, the fulfillment of Germany's historical mission". She then conveys the American reporter Irvin S. Cobb's account of an interview with a 'German scientist': "Germany [is] for progress. German Kultur will enlighten the world and after this war there will never be another." Yet further, a 'German businessman' opines that the war will give Europe "a new map, and Germany will be at the center of it" (aims similar to a "grandiose" imperial working paper [mentioned later at 360-361]).[4] Yet such outspoken menace, Tuchman notes, worked to solidify opposition to Germany, caused George B. Shaw to become "fed up" at Prussian Militarism, and H. G. Wells to condemn the German "war god" and hope for an end to all armed conflict [at 349]. Chapter 17's main focus is the German army's atrocities in Belgium, in particular against the historic university city of Louvain [at 356-359]. Tuchman frames her remarks by describing [at 350-351, 359] the German military's "theory of terror". Accordingly, in a failed attempt to suppress the "illegal" belgians franc-tireur (civilians shooting at German troops) [354-355], hundreds of nearby citizens at several Belgium towns had been executed [at 351-353]. Her accounts of the ferocity of such German army reprisals against the general population, and of the willful burning of Louvain, e.g., its university library, leave little doubt as to why the western allies might feel themselves justified to condemn Germany and Germans wholesale.

The war at sea

Chapter 18 [363-380] describes the British fear that, their island nation being dependent on overseas imports, the German navy would manage to disrupt their international trade. Although Britain's navy was superior in ships and experience, perhaps the German navy's "best opportunity for a successful battle was in the first two or three weeks of the war" [397]. Yet then the German fleet remained in port, ordered not to challenge the British warships watching the North Sea [368-369]. Consequently, a substantial control over the world's seaways was then exerted by Britain's Royal Navy [376].

Surrounding the neutral role of the United States of America, diplomatic politicking quickly intensified. On August 6th Washington formally requested the Europeans to agree to follow the 1908 Declaration of London, which "favored the neutrals' right to trade as against the belligerents' right to blockade" [371]. Germany agreed. Britain "said Yes and meant No" [372], supplemented by an Order of Council on August 20th (the 100th anniversary of Britain's burning of Washington) [373-374]. Despite the equitable intent of international law, Britain sought to receive supplies from America while their naval blockade denied them to Germany. President Wilson had already advised Americans on August 18th to be "neutral in fact as well as in name, impartial in thought as well as in action" so that America might become the "impartial mediator" who could then bring "standards of righteousness and humanity" to the belligerents in order to negotiate "a peace without victory" in Europe [375-376, 377]. Yet war-time paper profits from a nearly fourfold increase in trade with Britain and France, and "German folly", eventually would work to undo America's neutrality [376, 377].

Paris defended

The book's last four chapters (19-22) describe the fighting in France up to the beginning of the First Battle of the Marne. The French and British forces, united at last, fall on von Kluck's exposed right flank, in what would be the first successful offensive by the Allies. In the subsequent attack, the Germans were forced back north, with both sides suffering terrible losses. While Paris had been saved, the war took on a new cast, with both sides settling into a defensive trench system that cut across France and Belgium from the Channel to Switzerland. This became known as the Western Front, and over the next four years it would consume a generation of young men.


In the brief Afterwards [484-489], Tuchman offers reflections on the First Battle of the Marne, and on the world conflict in general. The war's opening "produced deadlock on the Western Front. Sucking up lives at the rate of 5,000 and sometimes 50,000 a day, absorbing munitions, energy, money, brains, and trained men... ," it ate up its contestants. "The nations were caught in a trap... ." With time such a war would become intolerable. "Men could not sustain a war of such magnitude and pain without hope--the hope that its very enormity would ensure that it could never happen again... " [at 488, 489].

A Tuchman theme: errors made

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Throughout the aforementioned narrative, Tuchman constantly brings up the numerous misconceptions, miscalculations, and mistakes that she believed resulted in the tragedy of trench warfare. Among these were:

  • Economic miscalculation. In Tuchman's view, both European intellectuals and leaders overestimated the power of free trade. These individuals believed that the interconnection of European nations due to this trade would stop a continent-wide war from breaking out, as the economic consequences would be too great. However, this assumption was incorrect. For example, Tuchman noted that Moltke, when warned of such consequences, refused to even consider them in his plans, arguing he was a "soldier," not an "economist."
  • Unfounded belief in quick warfare. Except for a very few politicians (who were at the time ridiculed and excluded because of their views with only Lord Kitchener having the authority to act on his anticipation of a long war), all the leaders of the major combatants believed the war would be concluded in a matter of weeks, by the end of 1914 at the absolute latest. Tuchman recounted the story of a British statesman who, after he warned others that the war might last two or three years, was branded a "pessimist." This false assumption had disastrous effects, especially on logistics (see below).
  • Over-reliance on morale and the offensive. Tuchman details, in depth, how the leaders of the major powers, before the war, developed a philosophy of warfare based almost entirely on morale, a constant offensive, and retaining the initiative. Joffre, in particular, refused to consider going on the defensive — or even to slow the offensive — even when the realities of the battlefield demonstrated that this approach was not working.
  • Failure to consider political backlash. Many war planners did not take into consideration the political and treaty-based consequences of their offensive actions. As Tuchman argues, the German leaders in particular refused to consider the consequences of moving their armies into Belgium, despite that country's neutrality. Despite Moltke's concerns, German generals insisted on moving through Belgium because they needed to maneuver. They failed (or refused) to realize that by invading Belgium they effectively forced Britain to declare war because of existing treaties and national honor.
  • Outdated forms of wartime etiquette. Although the technology, aims, methods, and plans of World War I were drastically different from earlier wars, military leaders continued to insist upon a form of martial etiquette from civilians which increased resentment between the countries. To illustrate, Tuchman regularly quotes from the diaries of German generals who commandeered the homes and supplies of civilians. One recurrent theme within their diary entries was that they simply couldn't understand why the property owners refused to fully cooperate, in line with past wartime courtesy. In a somewhat comical passage, Tuchman even quotes from a general who criticized the master of a Belgian house for failing to sit with him at dinner and observe proper mealtime etiquette, despite the fact that the Germans had violated his country's neutrality, taken over his house, and stolen or destroyed much of his property.

Overall, Tuchman argued that none of the war's major combatants wanted a prolonged war, but the above factors caused it nonetheless. Likewise, she argued that even successes, such as the First Battle of the Marne (a French victory), were to some extent accidental victories that were won despite, not because of, military leadership or strategy.

Cultural effects

The book was an immediate bestseller and was on the New York Times best-seller list for 42 consecutive weeks.[5] The Pulitzer Prize nomination committee was unable to award it the prize for outstanding history because Joseph Pulitzer's will specifically stated that the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for history must be a book on American history. Instead, Tuchman was given the prize for general non-fiction.

According to the cover notes of an audio version of The Guns of August, "[President John F. Kennedy] was so impressed by the book, he gave copies to his cabinet and principal military advisers, and commanded them to read it."[6] In One Minute to Midnight on the Cuban Missile Crisis, Michael Dobbs notes the deep impression Guns had on Kennedy. He often quoted from it and wanted "every officer in the Army" to read it as well. Subsequently, "[t]he secretary of the Army sent copies to every U.S. military base in the world.[7] Kennedy drew from The Guns of August to help in dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis, including the profound and unpredictable implications a rapid escalation of the situation could have.[8][9]

The British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who had served on the Western Front during the First World War, was also profoundly affected by the book.[10] In his diary for Monday, 22 October 1962, he wrote:

Washington, in a rather panicky way, have been urging a NATO 'alert' with all that this implies (in our case, a Royal Proclamation and the call up of Reservists). I told him that we do not repeat not agree at this stage. N. General Norstad agreed with this and said he thought NATO powers would take the same view. I said that 'mobilization' had sometimes caused war. Here it was absurd since the additional forces made available by 'Alert' had no military significance.

Graham Allison, a political scientist who covered the Cuban Missile Crisis in Essence of Decision, noted the effect of the Tuchman's book on Kennedy, but also its implications for the proper study of decision-making and warfare. Allison created an entire model of decision-making, which he called the "Organizational Process Model," based on such issues as those covered by Tuchman, a model which directly countered game theory and other rationalistic means of explaining events.

Tuchman in narrative

While she did not explicitly mention this in The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman was a witness to one of the pivotal events of the book: the pursuit of the German battle cruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau. In her account of this pursuit she writes: "That morning [August 10, 1914] there arrived in Constantinople the small Italian passenger steamer which had witnessed the Gloucester's action against Goeben and Breslau. Among its passengers were the daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren of the American ambassador Mr. Henry Morgenthau."[11] As she was a grandchild of Henry Morgenthau, one suspects that she is referring to herself. This is confirmed in her later book Practicing History,[12] in which she tells the story of her father, Maurice Wertheim, traveling from Constantinople to Jerusalem on August 29th, 1914, to deliver funds to the Jewish community there. Thus, at age two, Barbara Tuchman was a first-hand witness to the pursuit of Goeben and Breslau, which she documented 48 years later.

Critical comments

Tuchman [at 314-316] mistakenly followed Fritz Fischer in thinking that the "Septemberprogramm" statement of Germany's war aims in September 1914 was actual policy, while most historians such as Raffael Scheck agree that it was a discussion document that was never formally adopted.[13][14]

Reference notes

  1. 1963 Winners, The Pulitzer Prizes.
  2. "Jonathan Yardley Reviews 'The Proud Tower,' by Barbara Tuchman". March 16, 2009. 
  3. Tuchman ignores the war fought between Austria and Russia and between Austria and Serbia, except as it touches on the Mediterranean. In her Author's Note, she explains that the "inexhaustible problems of the Balkans" would necessitate a "tiresome length", which fortunately can be omitted without sacrificing the "unity" of the book. Hence the Serbian assassins and their terrorists organizations fail to merit further mention.
  4. See below at "Critical analysis".
  5. Dobbs, Michael (2008). One Minute to Midnight. pp. 226–227. "The President was so impressed by the book that he often quoted from it, and insisted his aides read it. He wanted 'every officer in the Army' to read it as well. The secretary of the Army sent copies to every U.S. military base in the world." 
  6. Tuchman, Barbara W. (2008) [1962] (Audio Book). The Guns of August. Narrated by Ian Stewart (Playaway Audiobook ed.). Recorded Books/Playaway. Back Cover. ISBN 978-1-4361-7732-0. "Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1963 established The Guns of August on the literary landscape, but Tuchman's best publicity came from her most devoted fan, President John F. Kennedy. He was so impressed by the book, he gave copies to his cabinet and principal military advisers, and commanded them to read it." 
  7. Robert, Dallek (2008). One Minute to Midnight. pp. 226–227. "The President was so impressed by the book that he often quoted from it, and insisted his aides read it. He wanted 'every officer in the Army' to read it as well. The secretary of the Army sent copies to every U.S. military base in the world." 
  8. "Vietnam and the Presidency: Interview with Jimmy Carter" (PDF). 
  9. Blight, James G.; Joseph S. Nye, Jr.; David A. Welch (Fall 1987). "The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited".  Excerpt online.
  10. Hennessey, Peter (2000). The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders Since 1945. Penguin Books. 
  11. Tuchman, Barbara W. (1962). The Guns of August. New York: The Macmillan Company. 
  12. Tuchman, Barbara W. (1981). Practicing History. New York: Albert A. Knopf. ISBN 0-394-52086-6. 
  13. Raffael Scheck, "Germany 1871–1945: A Concise History (2008)"
  14. The Pity of War (New York: Basic Books 1999) by Niall Ferguson provides a couterpoint to Tuchman. Here the causes of the war are also addressed in detail, including Fritz Fischer (at 169-170).

External links

  • The Guns of August on Open Library at the Internet Archive

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