Author Barbara W. Tuchman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1963 for The Guns of August. Fifty-five years later her book remains one of the best sources for understanding the prelude and first thirty days of what would become known as the Great War.
We are all familiar with the horrors of World War I – trench warfare, the ebb and flow of Allied and German advances across no man’s land using outdated tactics in the face of barbed wire, withering fire from machine guns and heavy artillery, and the inhuman use of mustard gas. Combat related casualty figures were a staggering 8.5 million killed and 21 million wounded. Civilian casualties exceeded six million from food shortages, malnutrition, and disease. The ensuing influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 even exceeded these figures with an estimated fifty million deaths worldwide.
How this conflagration began is the subject of Tuchman’s book. It suspends what the reader already knows about the war to focus on its genesis. Historians point to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand as the event that lead to four years of slaughter, but this was but the excuse to launch the German Army (700,000 men) through neutral Belgium toward Paris. The Germans had put together a timetable for victory known as the Shclieffen plan that they began executing August 4, 1914. The two front battle plan had been developed and proposed by the chief of the German general staff as far back as 1905.
The French also had developed a plan to counter the German attack which was known as Plan XVII. Rather than rely on defense it envisioned a bold strike into the heart of Germany to recapture the territories of Alsace and Lorraine that had been lost in the Franco-Prussian War. It relied heavily on French courage rather than sound tactics. Mounted cavalry attacks and bayonet charges failed to take into account how warfare had changed.
The first twelve days of the war came to be known as the Battle of the Frontier. During this period it was all but certain that Germany would prevail. The next eighteen days would become known as the Miracle on the Marne with retreating allied forces regrouping and turning the tide. However, German forces had penetrated so deeply toward Paris that the war would drag on for four more years.
Tuchman recounts the momentous decisions that lead to the stalemate and the military commanders behind them. It is a testament to her ability to fully humanize these historical persons that we find ourselves fully immersed in the times and events, and learn what really happened as well as what it felt like for the people involved.
This is a great read for any historian or reader who seeks to understand history!