on January 15, 2004
If you are looking at these reviews and deciding if you should or should not read this book - think about the following. It has a high ranking on the Amazon.com list but the book might be older than some of the readers. The fact that it is still popular should tell you something. It does not read like an old book.
The other thing is that this was in many ways a fascinating war involving the main powers of Europe and in a war in which tanks just started to be introduced, people still used horses, and it was simply a horrific conflict that quickly evolved into static trench warfare. Having said that the book is an excellent description of the build up to the military action of World War I just from the time before the war in 1914 to about a month or so into the war when as quasi-static situation developed. It reminds me of some of the books on the Arab-Israeli wars in more modern times but this book is on a much grander scale with lots of related information. It remains one of my favorite books and was highly recommended by the critics.
I found it to be well written and a to be a compelling read. Highly recommend for history or war buffs. Five stars.
Jack in Toronto
on October 21, 2003
A previous reviewer claims that Tuchman displayed an anti-German bias in this book, saying that "[the Germans] did not murder, torture or otherwise disobey rules of warfare...." Tuchman herself answers this charge in her book of essays, "Practicing History":
"It was supposed because the Germans had not, after all, cut off the hands of Belgian babies, neither had they shot hostages nor burned Louvain.... In writing of German terrorism in Belgium of 1914, I was at pains to use only accounts by Germans themselves or in a few cases by Americans, then neutral. The most telling evidence, however, was ... the rows of gravestones in [Belgian villages, and a marker outside Senlis], each inscribed with a name and a date and the legend "fusille pas les Allemands."
The German accounts she mentions turn out to be, in most cases, the actual reports of the commanding generals (von Hausen, von Below, von Kluck) who ordered the reprisals, claiming always that such were necessary if regrettable reprisals for Belgian franc-tiereur activities.
Sorry, doesn't look like she swallowed any propaganda. Propaganda of the sort decried by our reviewer was energetically circulated by the Allies, but Tuchman give no credance whatever to any of it. Regarding the basic charge, that the Germans shot civilians and burned towns as reprisals against civilian insurrection, the only "writers" I have encountered who deny them are the same crowd who deny the Holocaust on the same basis. Good company, that.
As for the relative merits of Tuchman and John Keegan, I can only say that this book probably will one day join the ranks of Gibbon, Macaulay, Syme, and the other great "literature of the real", and will be read with pleasure and edification long after the tepid and torpid efforts of Keegan and the other mediocrities have faded away.
on October 13, 2003
This is a very interesting book. It is a piece of nonfiction, yet it captures the reader in an intense and suspenseful plot that makes the distinction between fiction and non-fiction impossible. The book concentrates on the first month of the war because after August the war became a stalemate which lasted for four long years. Tuchman's writing style completely involves you with the story; her views are very objective, as she writes from both sides' point of view.
As opposed to a normal history book, Tuchman investigates the major people of the war to find a reason for the events that occurred during August of 1914. Because of this, the reader is left with a greater understanding of the topic. Furthermore, Tuchman's writing style is very detailed yet comprehensive. This means you'll actually understand what's being said, unlike what sometimes happens with a fact after fact textbook.
The Guns of August can replace any textbook on the First World War. There are many citations from actual documents of that time, which raises the credibility of the events.
After reading this book, it is startling to realize how much power men can achieve. One decision made by a tired man on a late night could cause hundreds or thousands to die. The motives of such men is what drives nations to war, and soldiers to death.
All in all, this is a great piece of work. Tuchman has opened a new view on this influential event, a view that is seen through the eyes of those who made the event happen. The Guns of August makes for an enjoyable, factual, entertaining, suspensful, and surprising read.
on August 29, 2003
These words are just as true today as they ever were. When I started this book, I was expecting to read about how WWI started. What I got was even more than I bargained for, and left me even more confused. This folly of missed chances and blind loyalty to outdated battle plans left me apalled and angry at both sides.
Politically, both Germany and France, and to a lesser extent, England and Russia, should have recognized the coming peril, but did little or nothing to stop it. Rather, their mistrust of each other, combined with their dreams of empire, left much of Europe in ruins, and ultimately sowed the seeds of WWII.
Militarily, both France and Russia seriously underestimated the enemy, and instead of preparing for a modern war, relied on grandiose and naive notions of Elan (Esprit-de-corps) to carry the day. The French army even had the audacity to wear red uniforms into battle. This proved to be an unfortunate and costly choice.
This book has modern implications, as even today, nations are locked in conflicts, both militarily and politically. My hope is that all of the nation's leaders read this book and if they don't see it as an example of how to stop a war, at least see it as a way NOT to fight one.
on June 17, 2003
Tuchman's book is a classic for several reasons. If one does not know much about WW 1, her book is a terrific place to begin. For me, it answered two of the key mysteries of the war: why did the assassination of the Austrian heir apparent so quickly develop into a world-wide conflagration; and why were the Allies so angry at Germany that they imposed reparations that crippled it for years, ultimately leading to WW 2? Tuchman handles both issues wonderfully, in fact, devoting 2 chapters to each of those issues. In so doing, she brings the key characters of the drama to full life, most interesting of them being stubborn Sir John French, leader of the British Expeditionary Forces; French General Joffre with his numerous insecurities; brave King Albert of Belgium; and indepedent French General Lanrezac. Once again, Tuchman reminds us all too well that history is made up of personalities. There are times in which mediocre people rise to unusual challenges and become heroes. There are far too many other times in which people of stature and position sink miserably into mediocrity. World War One was one such occasion.
on June 9, 2003
I read The Guns of August hoping to learn about the casuses of World War I, and what I took from this book far exceeded my expectations.
As the title indicates, the focus of the work is August 1914--the first month of the war. Early on, Tuchman describes the confusing relationships between the various aristocrats of Europe. Rather than focusing on the usual suspects when one asks "What caused WWI?" (such as Archduke Ferdinand's assassination), Tuchman unravels the web of treaties and alliances that pulled everybody into the mix.
Her account of the strategy and tactics of the first month seem solid (though I am no authority), but I was disappointed by the maps. They are very basic and added little to my understanding of the overall strategy.
Her strength, though, is juggling the various players and presenting them in a manner that is not confusing but illustrates the relationships between events.
Tuchman's writing is a pleasure to read. She draws on a vast vocabulary and I read most of the book with a dictionary handy--she chooses her words precisely and even for me (an English teacher), it helped to look things up. The book was challenging but not overwhelming. Overall, the book has the feel of a well-written novel rather than hard-core history.
Again, I felt that I got a great deal from the book. Not only do I have a better understanding of the forces that led to the Great War, but I have a strong desire to learn more about it.
on May 19, 2003
The Guns of August is an epic history of the first month of the first World War. Many history books are little more than forums for boring professors to argue with each over historical theories or to prove thier own brillant historical thesis and explain their "insights" in condenseding fashion to a "less educated" audiance. Let me use this forum as an oppurtunity to tell all of these authors who write these types of books, histography SUCKS!! Take a lesson from Tuchman and write history with some emotion, like you have some blood in your veins. Nobody cares about long winded discussions about how other historians wrote history, and why they wrote it the way they did, and what affect their writing of history had on history, and on and on and on. The study of history is supposed to be about studing history, not studing historians. Somehow historians have gotten their role and history's role reversed, historians are supposed to study history not use history to study themselves and the history of their profession. Historians themselves are not interesting, but history is. Anyway, back to the Guns of August, Tuchman is a great writer and this book almost seems like a novel execpt for the fact that all of this actually occured. Tuchman is a narrative historian who explains the facts and what happened and when. She writes with a lot of personality, (God Forbid) and inserts her own opinions throughout the text. She takes the reader through a time portal until the reader feels that he side by side with the leading statesmen of Europe who are making uncertain decisions on incomplete information that will affect the lives of millions of people who have no say in anything. The reader will feel like they too are marching with the doomed French teenagers who thought war to be a game, and find out that War is, especially modern war, nothing but a contest of attrition and they are disposable meat. The myth of glory and glamor that conceal the truth about war is quickly dispelled when these French troops attempt to storm entranched machine gun positions with single shot rifles and bayonets. Diplomacy failed because each nation feared that by trusting the other and halting preparations for war they would leave their own nations in weakened circumstances that could be exploited by their enemies. Their are numerous times when the situation could have been brought under control but no one had the guts to risk a military disadvantage by seeking to dely the war. For example,the French,British and German all had elaborate military contingency plans based on their enemies movements. If the Germans mobilized by this hour then the French must be mobilized by this hour. If the Germans did this, then the French must do that, and vice versa. This kind of strict adherence to pre formulated military doctrines is the most insidious trap in human history and if Tuchman has a point with this book beyond telling a great story it is to express this. Their are no pretentious lectures on why this or that happended and how it was all the result of impersonal historical forces which she then goes on to name. The reader is presented with the facts and left to draw their own conclusions because Tuchman does not tell them what to think, (imagine that, allowing readers to think for themselves because perhaps the historian does not understand everything as well as they might think). As for those who say the Germans are treated unjustly in this book, what planet are you living on? Without a doubt Britain and France were imperialist oprressors but the Germans were the worst of the worst, except maybe for the Russians. This book is a page turner despite the fact that it is history and the reader knows how it will turn out. World War 1 is understudied and a lot of the information she provides will come as news to many readers. Tuchman paints historical potraits of battles, individuals, events, etc. She is a creative genuis that uses history as her artform. Many acadmics are well read but small minded and almost all lack imagination which Tuchman possess in vast quanities. This book is an example of history the way it should be written. The Germans in this book had a plan that was so much better than the French and their fighting tactics where contemporary and not outdated. It is a mircle that the Germans did not conquer Paris in 1914. This book is so full of suspense it is unbearable, at times the scope of what is occuring will hit the reader all at once like a ton of bricks, and I constantly thought, how in the world did she manage to write this difficult story this well. The atmosphere is so well transmitted to the reader that he or she can practically smell the gunsmoke, hear the footfalls of the seemingly unstopable German army on the march, and see the supposed great men who rule nations tremble with indecision in the corriders of power. Tuchman has a flair for the dramatic and often ends chapters with famous quotes that sum up what has occured beautifully. After reading this book the reader will understand World War 1 in a way that surpasses intellectual comphrension, the reader will posses a viseral understanding that hits them in the heart, in the stomach, that colors their soul. This might seem like overstatment but believe me, the best way to understand an event is to experienc it first hand, and this book is as close as anyone can get to doing that.
on May 11, 2003
First, I would like to admit that I became curious about this book because of the movie "Thirteen Days." President Kennedy has always been one of my favorite heroes and so when his character mentioned the book in the movie, I became intrigued. I now understand why this book was so important to President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Barbara Tuchman has done a masterful job in making clear to the reader that historical events take place because of accidents and blunders. It is sad to realize that an entire generation (no exaggeration folks) of people died in World War I because the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Russia (both civilian and military) were so misinformed and imbecilic. Each of the leaders believed that he knew exactly what his adversary was going to do, even when facts were
produced that showed his perceptions to be mistaken. For example, the Chief of Staff of France believes that it doesn't matter how many soilders Germany concentrates in her right flank, opposite Belgium, since it makes his plan for an offensive against the German center that much more likely to succeed. He even strips troops from each of his flanks to concentrate in the center of his lines, leaving too few soilders to oppose the German war machine. The outcome, in a matter of days, Germany takes over Belgium and then proceeds to crush every French army it meets in a matter of weeks.
Each of us would like to believe that the leaders of our countries are intelligent and rational people. That during an international crisis (like war), because of their extensive schooling, experience and training they can handle themselves in a calm rational manner. We are wrong. It is becoming more apparent as I study history, that the leaders of our societies are just as failable to inpatience and irrational behavior. This literally keeps me awake at nights worried that something like the events of August 1914 could happen again. I hope this book becomes required reading for anyone mad enough to become the leader of thier country.
on March 20, 2003
The answer can only be no...but all the same, I feel compelled to write a short review about this excellent piece of historical work. This is the second book written by Tuchman that I've read and is indeed a timeless masterpiece. I thought beforehand that I knew something about WWI, but all I knew after reading this book is how little I really knew.
The narrative is fast, although one is doubtful of this in the beginning of the book-after all it deals with 30 days on 440 pages, but she keeps the narrative fast and flowing throughout.
One of Tuchman's strong points is character description. The best example of this is in the descriptions of the often eccentric and always outspoken Kaiser, who ecchoed the sentiments of Germans and quite possible the true cause of the war when he said "All the long years of my reign, my colleagues, the Monarchs of Europe, have paid no attention to what I have to say. Soon, with my great Navy to endorse my words, they will be more respectful." A vivid description of characters is essential in books on historical matters, and this is one of the places were Tuchman gets it right. The description of the Tannenberg battle stood out, with exciting, fast narrative and the ususal Tuchman trademark of descriptive characters that took part in that decisve battle (Tannenberg saw the signifcant introduction of Hindenburg and Ludendorff to commanding position in the war, although because of the short span of the book, we -sadly- can't see what effect this has on the western front later in the war).
Thuchman's (self admitted) strenghts lie in the narrative of the story she's telling and her excellent writing skills (she has described herself as a writer first and historian second) and in this book she is at her best, flexing her literary muscles so well that the reader hardly can put the book down. How often can one say that after reading history?
on March 9, 2003
These were the dying words of the German Staff General von Schlieffen, author of the eponymous Prussian invasion plan for France and Belgium. Eight years later in 1914, his scheme, as modified, was executed (or mis-executed), at catastrophic cost to Germany and civilized Europe as a whole. Tuchman's narrative essentially begins with the early 1900s, where continued Franco-German rivalry was fuelling war preparations on both sides, right through to the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, which saved Paris and spelt the failure of the Schlieffen Plan. Overlaying the military machine is a brittle (and, ultimately, ineffective) diplomatic framework built around the royal houses of Europe, personified by Edward VII and his various royal cousins in such capitals as Berlin and St. Petersburg.
"The Guns of August" was and remains such a powerful narrative that it actually subsumes collective memory. Most subsequent histories of the period, as well as films or works of historical fiction, have been influenced by it; indeed "Guns of August" sways histories of other periods - most obvious example being its citation by President Kennedy's character in the Cuban Missile Crisis film "Seven Days." On the whole the actual telling of the story emphasizes the French side most, though other Allied characters such as General Henry Wilson are extremely important. Most people associate "Guns" with the story of the Schlieffen Plan and the early mobilization of August, but it also deals expecially well with incidents such as the Meditteranean voyage of the German battleship "Goeben" as well as the destruction of Louvain in Belgium, both of which were decisive events in terms of their influence on world opinion. Immaculate in every respect.