“The terrible Ifs accumulate.” W. Churchill
Guys, can you believe I have been doing this blog for over ten weeks now and I have yet to have a book written by a woman?! Unbelievable. What an oversight on my part. But this week you are in for a treat.
The book we’re going to talk about now was not just written by a woman, it also won the Pulitzer Prize. And not just that – because the Pulitzer Prize for History cannot be awarded to a Non-American subject of History, the jury came up with a new category for “General Nonfiction”. That’s how good this book is.
Not even the subject of the book can hold it back. It is, essentially, a military history about the first month of the First World War, August 1914. Not exactly something you’d want to busy yourself with.
But ever since The Guns of August came out in 1962, it has been a bestseller. And you’ll understand why.
(Seriously. Next time you find yourself at an airport with no book, please pick this one up. It is, in my humble opinion, the best plane read. This is the third time I’ve read this book, and I wish I could read it again for the very first time.)
So what makes this book so good? There’s a couple of things.
First, there’s a wealth of vivid details. This is not a boring read. It’s exciting, it’s heartbreaking, and Tuchman’s incredible style of writing put you right in the middle of things.
Take the opening of the book:
“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”
Isn’t that just magnificent? And that’s just the start. Tuchman draws these vivid pictures, paints the characters so well that you feel like you’re part of this world.
The other thing that I truly appreciate about her is that she doesn’t take sides. She will leave you amused and saddened, but never cynical. You feel for these characters, for what is about to happen, but you never judge them.
But she’s here for the drama. Oh boy, is she ever. And it’s delightful. Instead of portraying the main characters as stuffy old people (which is how most of us will have encountered them in history class), Tuchman brings the tea.
The Kaiser turns into the “possessor of the least inhabited tongue in Europe.”
Von Schlieffen, the architect of the German War plan: “of the two classes of Prussian officer, the bullnecked and the wasp-waisted, he belonged to the second.”
Joffre, the French Commander in Chief: “massive and paunchy in his baggy uniform… Joffre looked like Santa Claus and gave an impression of benevolence and naivete – two qualities not noticeably part of his character.”
Sukhomlinov, the Russian Minister of War: “smitten by the twenty-three-year-old wife of a provincial governor, (he) contrived to get rid of the husband by divorce of framed evidence and marry the beautiful residue as his fourth wife.”
I mean. C’mon. These are some high-quality burns and I’m so here for it. This is not your average old dusty history book. This is so much better.
But where the magic of this book truly comes in is when she somehow persuades you as a reader to suspend all prior knowledge. This is why this book is impossible to set down.
She writes about the German Army rolling over Belgium into France, you are there as the French and the British decide what to do whilst this danger approaches. You already know that all the talk of ‘being home by Christmas’ and ‘this will be a short war’ are wrong, you know that this will turn into a four year quagmire which will change the world, you know about the horror of trench warfare – and yet, you forget about all that.
You feel yourself in the midst of things, wondering what will happen. Will the German war plan succeed? Can the French and Brits stop the German wave? Will Paris fall? You feel yourself in the middle of all this world history, wondering, hoping, fearing.
It is truly a masterpiece of storytelling.
And as you read it, you feel it. Something was lost that summer in Belgium. August 1914 marks the end of one world, and the beginning of another.
Perhaps that’s why this book is so fascinating – because it describes a pivotal moment in world history, when the romance of war runs into the reality of industrialized warfare.
The world had changed since the last time the Great Powers were at war, but they didn’t know it yet. But in this book, you clearly see the signs of what’s ahead, and it makes you fear for all these people.
In August 1914, this was still a war of movement. It wasn’t trench warfare, not yet. There was still hope for a short war. All the things we associate with the First World War – the gas masks and trenches, the mud of Passchendale and the barbed wire fence, no man’s land – all of that was still unimaginable.
War was still a gentleman’s occupation, especially for the French. French officers wore white gloves into battle, and for most of 1914, French soldiers wore the traditional red trousers. Army pride wouldn’t allow the adoption of less conspicuous uniforms.
“To banish all that is colourful, all that gives the soldier his vivid aspect, is to go contrary to both French taste and military function!” wrote one of the main French newspapers after the Germans declared war.
And you, as a reader, cannot help but mourn this innocence that was lost in that hot summer of 1914.
But this book also lets you understand that none of this was inevitable. None of this bloodshed and misery had to happen. But it did, because of the characters involved, because of the narratives that were spun, because of the simple fact that people couldn’t imagine the horror that lay in store for them. But it didn’t have to happen.
This is the book that started my deep dive into World War One, and I am so glad I found it. The only thing I don’t like about it is that it ends. But fear not – when you finished this book, and want to know what happened next (and I bet you you will!), go to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History Podcast. He has six episodes about the First World War. In fact, in the first episode, he draws heavily upon this book!
(Plus extra travel bonus – I listen to Hardcore History whenever I have a long-haul flight. This guy has the calmest voice in existence, perfect for when you’re trying to sleep.)
And one last thing –
There’s this one scene that Tuchman describes that I cannot get over:
General Gallieni (a French General tasked with the defense of Paris), dining in civilian clothes at a small cafe in Paris on August 9, overheard an Editor of Le Temps at the next table say to a companion: “I can tell you that General Gallieni has just entered Colmar with 30,000 men.”
Leaning over to his friend, Gallieni said quietly: “This is how history is written.”