According to Wikipedia: “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.

This year is 100th anniversary of the breakout of the infamous First World War, raising the opportunity to better understand how Europe went from leading the world toward progress to debilitating atrocities. At that time, war was on the minds of many governments and military planners, but the consensus pervading society was that a major war would not be possible. Still, Europe somehow went from uneasy but manageable peace to full blown war in less than 2 months.

In “The Guns of August“, Barbara Tuchman starts by laying out a detailed picture of the background surrounding the outbreak of the war: the various national ideals, the military plans of the main protagonists (Germany, France, Russia and England), and the complex personal relationships between the key actors. She then proceeds with a breath taking description of the first month of the war.

Her writing skills are nothing short of amazing, for even though one knows the issue of the combats, Barbara Tuchman still manages to keep the reader in a suspense that has nothing to envy to thrillers. Her style combines fluidity of writing with an avalanche of details, and a witty touch, which proves to be at the same time very enjoyable, sharp and insightful.

Departing from boring descriptions and day-by-day analysis of events, she focuses on the ideology, feelings and understandings of the various commanders throughout the 2 fronts, offering an elaborate picture of a battlefield that is dominated above all by men of various characters rather than by homogeneous armies.

The reader lives the stress of decision making by generals in the rear, the doubts of commanders on the front, the tiredness of soldiers, and the pain of civilians. All these emotions combined create a powerful idea of what is really war: a chaotic and traumatic event which issue is always uncertain.

Over the course of the book, we experience the frustration of French military commanders who have to fight an ossified General Headquarters blinded by its own ideology and deaf to obvious warnings of a German right wing going through Belgium; the self-righteousness of German commanders in their reprisals on civilians as they march through occupied territories; the isolation of a few men that saw the disaster of a long, painful and deadly war coming when everyone else was expecting a painless and short war…

In the end, what the Guns of August shows is that it is men, through their understanding and actions, that shaped, voluntarily or not, the course of history. Minor mistakes become world changing events. Men do the right things for the wrong reasons -and the opposite.

Many people have underlined the striking similarities between the world back then and today’s: disrupting technological innovations, fast societal changes, new economic paradigms, various political challenges… Like in the first decade of the XXst century, our understanding of the world is challenged by the reality of the ground. What World War I did was to shatter the remains of the old order under the awesome destructive power of man’s own creation. Let us hope that our leaders have understood the painful lessons of a hundred years ago.

For those who don’t have time to read, a condensed version of the book was made into a 1h40 documentary, but it follows little of the book, save the historical timeline.

Guns of August Modern Cover

Written by Carlito

About Carlito Riego

"Great perfection may appear imperfect, but its usefulness is inexhaustible. Great abundance may appear empty, but its usefulness cannot be exhausted. Great correctness may appear twisted, great skills appear crude, great eloquence appear awkward. Activity conquers cold; inactivity conquers heat. Clear serenity governs the world." - Lao Zi