The Guns of August (A Book Review)

by Nathan Pinkoski

Centennials of the battles of the Great War continue to fill the calendars of states with sombre commemorations. Despite these commemorations, however, fatalistic assertions about the origins and causes of the Great War dominate, even in learned circles. In these learned circles, 1914-1918 is a logical deduction from the study of 1871, 1789, or even 1648. It is subject to self-evident laws known to the experts. It has its causal antecedents. Like a storm on the horizon, it could have been predicted.

September marks the anniversary of the battle of the Marne, the 1914 battle that drove the Germans back from Paris, saved France from defeat, and drew each side to settle into the lines that became the Western Front, mostly unchanged for the next four years of the Great War. Yet what is perhaps most stunning about the battle of the Marne is that months before, indeed only a month before, no European power nor learned circle would have predicted its occurrence.

That attitude constitutes the setting for Barbara Tuchman’s 1962 historical masterpiece, The Guns of August. While Europe’s kings and princes had no difficulty gathering to celebrate the funeral of Edward VII, generals schemed for how to fight a European war. The crisis of July 1914 was a chance to show what they had accomplished.

The grandest scheme, the Schlieffen Plan, predicted swift, decisive victory. In August 1914, the German High Command deployed the product of years of careful thought. More than just a few extra arrows on a map sweeping through Belgium into northern France, the Schlieffen Plan treated war like clockwork. It detailed how and when railway lines across central Europe would be used, how many men would be upon it at any given time, and what they were to accomplish by a particular time. It was a vast, carefully choreographed scheme for the invasion of Belgium and France. By the 22nd day, Germany would have overrun Belgium. On the 31st day, they would have penetrated as far as Amiens, with the flanking of Paris to follow shortly. All this was subject to the laws of war grasped by the German High Command. From these laws, one could confidently assert that the British would not intervene in a war on the continent and the Russians would fail to deploy in time to threaten eastern Germany.

By contrast, the French had their own carefully choreographed scheme, ‘Plan 17.’ It had its own assertions. The Germans would not be deploying their reserve divisions, leaving German and French forces roughly equal. Thus the French would hold the frontier against the Germans in all places except Alsace-Lorraine, where it was asserted that unstoppable French élan would lead a glorious assault and recover the lost provinces of France.

Neither the Germans nor the French successfully predicted how the next month played out. For Tuchman, August 1914 is thus not the culmination of a determined destiny of Europe, but a drama. Tuchman detailed how the a priori doctrines of the French and Germans fell apart over the next month, and what decisions, errors, tricks, and chances brought General Joffre to utter a line unthinkable to any in Europe in the summer of 1914: ‘gentlemen, we will fight on the Marne.’

Tuchman desired to tell the story of that month of August when everything seemed possible. Her gift was to select historical episodes and turn them into thrilling, almost cinematic narratives. Avoiding embellishment or unverifiable speculation in the manner of ‘As Napoleon watched the coastline of France disappear, he must have thought back…’, Tuchman let the characters and events speak from their records. For Tuchman, questions about the causes of the war or a search for identifiable, immutable historical laws were distractions from the narrative of history. By concentrating on the vivid, verifiable human drama rather than dry theoretical debates, Tuchman, the amateur historian, routed scores of professionals who had attempted treatments of the same events. Her work was a triumph, won a Pulitzer Prize, and was reputed to have become one of the favourite books of John F. Kennedy.

Tuchman’s account of the month covers all the geopolitical theatres, but the main energy of the book is in how an assembly of uncertainties arose to overwhelm the meticulous a priori doctrines of the Germans and French. These two sides were enslaved to their plans despite the mounting evidence of their fundamental miscalculations. While the legend of the Kaiser’s absolute authority over Germany bears great truth, at one early point following German mobilization he doubted the wisdom of waging a war based on a plan that bet heavily on near-perfect circumstances. He asked to call the whole thing off. But his generals flatly contradicted him: ‘it is impossible.’ Such a veto would upset the careful choreograph of railway timetables. If the French endured savage losses on account of their refusal to acknowledge that the Germans were deploying reserve divisions in the initial attack and that élan was no match for machine guns and heavy artillery, the Germans refused to acknowledge that Schlieffen tried to do too much. Most notable of all is what it assumed about the British.

British uncertainty resulted in a split Cabinet, unsure if it should go to war to defend France. The ultimate catalyst was the violation of Belgian neutrality, a key tenet of the Schlieffen Plan—yet proponents of the plan assured the Kaiser that the British would not go to war over Belgium. Nevertheless, the British objectives were muddled. While First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill rushed the fleet to full readiness against the threat of a German pre-emptive strike that could have done great damage but never came, the British Expeditionary Force was deployed to France without clear orders for engagement. As the Germans edged closer to Paris, its vacillating commander Sir John French continued to find excuses to avoid committing the BEF to the fight.. Only at the 11th hour did Sir John French begin to coordinate effectively with his allies. These checks, combined with the Germans redeploying several divisions eastwards against the Russians, led to the failure of Schlieffen and the solidification of the Western Front.

The war became a world war for other reasons. In a little known but highly significant episode of the war, Turkish uncertainty led the Germans to race two cruisers stationed in the Mediterranean through the Royal Navy’s net to Constantinople, where they were cunningly donated to the Turks. Not long after, Turkey entered the war on the side of Germany, ensuring intercontinental warfare, the eventual fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the partitioning of the Middle East. Had the Royal Navy succeeded in intercepting the German ships, Turkey would have almost certainly stayed neutral, with a number of possible consequences. Or as Churchill put it at the time: ‘the terrible ifs accumulate.’ Tuchman’s history teaches that what matters is human contingency, a contingency which is ignored at great peril. To the boastful circles of each generation, who presume they have mastered the laws of human nature and human history, The Guns of August teaches moderation and humility.

Banner image courtesy of K putt.

Related posts: