396 of 413 people found the following review helpful
Written in 1962, this is a fascinating history of the beginnings of WW1 and is the result of a vast amount of research. It's all true, and all documented, and even though it's a dense read, the huge cast of characters springs to life. This is the story of a war that changed the course of history. And it's also a story of the men who make the war. The reader gets to see the blunders and the madness and the personal feuds. And the humanity of the imperfect human beings who make the decisions that result in slaughter.
There are maps in the book describing the battles. There are also photographs. But I must admit that I barely looked at the maps. And I found all the photos of the elderly generals very similar. What I did love though was the sweep of the story as well as the many details that go into waging a war. Previously, most war books I've read had to do with the experience of the soldiers. But this book is about the experience of making decisions, often based on folly. And it opened my eyes to how vulnerable the ordinary person is to the whims of the generals and the forces of pure chance. Ms. Tuchman also had a sense of irony and humor and sometimes I found myself laughing out loud.
The narrative of the month of August 1914 is described hour by hour. Belgium has to make a decision to accept an awful defeat or willingly allow the Germans to march through their neutral territory. There are alliances in place that are just waiting to be broken. The Russians come into the war. So do the British, even though it is with much reluctance. The basic war is between France and Germany, almost a continuation of the defeat the French suffered at the hands of the Germans during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
Before I read this book, I didn't know much about WW1. Now I do. It was a war that defined the breakdown of the European nobility and set the stage for the next war, which was even more horrific. It taught me a lot, especially about how many people wind up dying because of the quest for power. It saddened me too because this quest for power is basic. So is the folly of mankind. The only thing that has changed is technology.
This book is a masterful work. It lays the groundwork for an understanding of the mechanics of war. I might not remember all of the names of the generals or the battle plans. But I will always remember the feeling of being right there, watching the decisions being made, marching for miles in spite of fatigue, handling the big guns, making courageous decisions that sometimes led to disaster. And, especially, knowing that this is the true face of war. Highly recommended.
133 of 139 people found the following review helpful
on April 28, 2013
The Guns of August may be the single most influential popular history of the origins of the First World War. It has convinced generations of readers that the war stemmed from a series of rivalries, which in turn lead to an uncontrollable escalation of events which ultimately results in an unintended conflict which sweeps up the most of the continent in a war that no one wanted. To the extent that President Kennedy is reported to have stated that this thesis influenced his thinking during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Guns of August takes on an additional level of historical importance which goes far beyond its merit as an interpretation of history. This book didn't just interpret history; it influenced history. It may have even helped to prevent a nuclear war. As such, it is an important book. This is why I've assigned it three stars; the book is historically important.
The great big screaming problem is, as a history, from the very day it was published, its basic thesis of war by miscalculation was already untenable on the basis of available scholarship.
The root of the problem is that while Tuchman does provide a brief overview of the historical tensions that provide a background to the war, she spends all of ONE long paragraph discussing what actually transpired between the assassination on June 28 and the July 23 publication of Austro-Hungary's ultimatum to Serbia (i.e. the crossing of the threshold that establishes that a decision for war has been made and opens the door to the further expansion of the conflict). This is a STAGGERING omission. If you're not going to spend any appreciable time looking at the specific actions of the participants during the crisis period, how can one possibly advance a thesis on the war's origin or who was or was not responsible for it's outbreak!
Here we need to cut through some bland nonsense. The war does not break out simply because of a set of longstanding bitter rivalries. Those rivalries were just that... longstanding. They are historically relevant background, but they are ONLY background. Crises came and went in the preceding years without leading to general war. The point is that even in a time of genuine crisis, something more is required to transform a crisis into a war. What is required is a specific set of choices, made by a specific set of decision-makers, occurring within a specific timeline. Tuchman's one paragraph treatment of the crisis period is a completely inadequate examination of what the key actors were actually doing during this critical period.
The irony is that for many people, Tuchman's "Guns of August" tends to be their first introduction to the history of the outbreak of WWI, despite the fact that far more scholarly and thorough works had been available for decades. The Carnegie Endowment translated and published quite a bit during the 1920s. Pierre Renouvin's Immediate Origins of the War became available in English in 1928, followed by Luigi Albertini's landmark 3 volume study, The Origins of the War of 1914 (3 Volume Set) which, by virtue of its extensive primary source documentation remains as valuable a reference as it was on the day of its publication. To these one could add Fritz Fischer's Germany's Aims in the First World War, which was published in German the year before GoA, and the subsequent War of Illusions: German Policies from 1911 to 1914 which came out several years later. All of these works dug into primary source evidence to painstakingly reconstruct the nuts-and-bolts details of the timeline of what went on at the top levels of decision-making. The evidence makes it clear that Tuchman's thesis was all wet. The war was not one of accidental, unintended escalation, nor were all parties more-or-less equally responsible. Decision-makers in Imperial Germany and Austro-Hungary made a specific set of deliberate choices that guaranteed the threshold to war would be crossed. While they may not have expected or intended the world war that they got, they were aware of the risks of escalation, and they very early on chose to accept those risks and opt for a punitive military strike against Serbia in preference to the pursuit of redress by diplomatic means. In contrast, prior to the issuance of Austro-Hungary's ultimatum to the Serbs, no other power took any steps which would have precluded the peaceful resolution of the assassination crisis. These other powers may share some responsibility for their role in background rivalries of the day, but they do not share equal responsibility for transforming an assassination into a war, which then had every possibility of expanding into a world war. Unfortunately, none of this comes out if one relies on Tuchman's one paragraph treatment of everything that happens between the assassination on June 28, and the ultimatum on July 23.
As Tuchman's Guns of August is historical important, I can't recommend that readers ignore it. However, I stress that it is essential to aware of its flaws. I can also recommend some remedies.
If you're not particularly familiar with the crisis period or the cast of characters, a good introductory work to start with is Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? It's well organized and a fairly easy read. The documentation is not great, but Fromkin's book provides an excellent layout of the key players and the crisis timeline. When you get through Fromkin, move on to Albertini or Fischer's works cited above. These are not such easy reads, but they are scholarly, and very heavily documented. You'll need to spend some time with them, but if you invest that time, you'll emerge with a much more detailed understanding of the crisis period. You'll also be far better equipped to assess some of the new books which are coming out in connection with the war's anniversary.
181 of 192 people found the following review helpful
on January 2, 2001
What Barbara Tuchman has done here is something precious few historians are able to do. With her stunning prose and fathomless knowledge, she brings to life that first fateful month of World War One. The historical figures she describes seem more like a collection of characters from an action novel. More than once I found myself saying "Did they really do that?" Ordinarily I can only read about 75 pages at a time before I start to lose interest and need a break. This book I began one morning and didn't put it down until I finished it. Tuchman kept my interest throughout and at times, though I knew the outcome, I found myself sitting at the edge of my chair wondering what would happen next. Even some of the best novels do not have this kind of power.
As for the book itself, it covers only the first month of the war. Though it does go into some depth of the war's origins, the main focus is on the movement and action of the armies from mobilization day until stalemate is reached. Tuchman's research is exhaustive, and this is the definitive work on that period. When the book was finished, I was disappointed only because she didn't continue. I wish I could give this more than five stars. If you have any interest in history whatsoever, regardless of your field, you must read this book, because this is what history should be!
55 of 58 people found the following review helpful
on January 22, 2001
Barbara Tuchman (1912-89) captured the 1962 Pulitzer Prize with this gripping look at the opening stages of World War I. Tuchman begins by examining the pre-war politics, military plans, and inept diplomacy of major European nations. Once hostilities begin, she focuses heavily on Germany's attack through Belgium and Northern France - an offensive that just missed defeating France outright in 1914 and altering the course of history. The author exposes military stupidity, German atrocities in Belgium, and shows how this conflict opened as a murderous war of movement rather than as the entrenched stalemate that followed. I'd have liked fuller coverage on competing theaters of war, and wish that Tuchman hadn't stopped at the Battle of the Marne. Still, this is compelling history. Most importantly, the author shows how new technology and bungling politicians that failed to control their eager militarists plunged Europe into needless disaster. No wonder President Kennedy referred to this book during the Cuban missile crisis.
Tuchman was one of a few readable non-historians (William L. Shirer, John Toland) who outdid the stuffy academics. I particularly liked her coverage on Belgium's dilemma: either let the Germans march through, or fight them against overwhelming odds - you have 12 hours to decide. "The Guns of August" is gripping, tragic history at its finest.
57 of 64 people found the following review helpful
on October 14, 1999
Although we think of the First World War in terms of the stalemate and carnage of the trenches, for the first few weeks of combat, it was a war of movement. The battlelines shifted daily and the British and French came closer to disaster than I realized before I read this book. It's a gripping story, which Tuchman tells superbly. The political and military leaders come alive, the maps are clear, and even though you know how the story ends, you can't put the book down. Tuchman is also a reliable: I didn't find any factual errors. My complaints are minor. I agree with the previous writer who thought that the book ended too early: the war of movement in the west really ended with the French counterattack on the Marne, which is not discussed in the same detail as the campaign that led to it. Also, while Tuchman, presumably legitimately, dismisses the story of the angels of Mons as a legend, she should have told us what the legend was. Overall, however, I thought that the book was great, and I strongly recommend it even to those readers who think they know the story after reading such popular histories of the First World War as those by John Keegan or Martin Gilbert. You'll be surprised how you learn.
143 of 167 people found the following review helpful
on August 5, 2008
First, I really enjoyed this book. I believe Tuchman did a masterful job of giving life to the people and events that led to WWI. This book is well worth reading, but only for what it is: half-history, half-literature.
This is not the place to start if you want to understand what led to WWI. The author does have a distinct anti-German bias that glosses over most of the complexities that influenced Germany's actions. Given when the book was written, this bias is understandable, but it does affect its historical value. Moreover, Serbia and the Hapsburgs are essentially footnotes in this book when in reality, they are essential for understanding the causes of the war. When you ignore Serbia and Austro-Hungary, well, all you're left with is Germany acting like a belligerent punk under the hand of the man-child Wilhelm II.
Also, Tuchman definitely prefers some individuals over others. For example, she gives Sir French pretty short-shrift in comparison to Lord Kitchener when in reality, there was more than enough incompetence to go around (not that I would have done any better than they).
I do whole-heartedly recommend this book, but only as a halfway step from history to fiction, perhaps sandwiched between A World Undone and All Quiet on the Western Front.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
Europe in the late summer of 1914 was more than a powderkeg poised to go off; it was prewired and preset demolition awaiting the excuse of a match. According to Barbara Tuchman in this insightful and descriptive period piece of history, each of the potentates involved in the coming world war had a battle plan, a series of objectives, and a relatively good sense of what the other powers would do in the conduct of hostilities. Yet each disregarded the potential contingencies that might arise from the efforts of opposing forces, and descended pell-mell in the unbelievable madness of total war based on a combination of factors ranging from arrogance, overestimation of capability, personal animosities, ambition, lack of imagination of what could happen as a result, and of course, sheer ignorance.
Tuchman's magic in employing the written word to advantage shines here, as her narrative weaves together the elements of a world in transition, empires ruled by Kings, Queens and Kaisers living in the past, out of touch with what advances in technology and tactics meant, and not recognizing that these revolutionary changes in technology, demography, and battle techniques would plunge the world into a nightmare conflict that none of them could foresee, contain, or manage, once it started.
In many ways the first world war marks the true demarcation point between the old European world of tradition, chivalry, and empires, on the one hand, and the frightening new world of tanks, machine guns and mass exterminations. Prepared and propelled by visions of glorious conquest in a battlefield characterized by Kipling and "the charge of the light brigade", what they got in its place was the horrifying nightmare war of extermination in trench warfare, infantry slaughtered anonymously by artillary, tanks and rapid fire weapons the troops had no effective tactics to protect against. So much for the old glory.
Yet all that lay ahead, in the weeks, months and years of bloody battle, of the excruciatingly costly struggle for new territory turned into a useless bloodbath for mere feet and yards. Here we are dipped deep into the boiling cauldron of people steeped in the mystique of the past, trying to win glory and fortune through warfare, and never understanding that the very attempt itself would result in the ruin of everything they knew and treasured, for the nature of the protracted conflict did indeed change everything, and Tuchman winds her way through the book with dazzling description and highly readable prose.
This is a wonderful and memorable book, typical of Tuchman's engaging and often humourous writing style, detailing as it does the ways in which old and outdated perspectives try ruinously to force themselves and their designs into an abrasive future, at the expense of everything traditional, local, and familiar. It is a valuable snapshot of a moment suspended in time, lovingly restored, taken of a world in violent transition at that very moment as we first stepped off the threshold of the past into the bloody abyss of the 20th century. Enjoy!
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2001
I just finished Tuchman's "Guns of August" and I won't bore you with another in-depth analysis (you can read other reviews for that) but will make a personal, emotional pitch: I was so caught up in her storytelling that I had a hard time separating myself from the book. I read pages beyond the point of exhaustion, read on the train to and from work, read walking home from the station, read in bed, in the kitchen, in the bathroom, on the sofa, during meals, on my lunchbbreak... I think you get the picture. It's become sort of humorous, my attempting to engage my friends in excited, animated discussion about World War I - and they look at me funny when I do so - but what can I do? This book is terrific.
History telling as Tuchman does it rivals any great suspense novel I've ever read for sheer engagement. You want to get hooked? Buy this book.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on July 26, 1999
Barbara Tuchman's account of the 30 days of August 1914 can be viewed as a prism of events before and after this pivotal month at the start of the WW1. There are many views as to whether this War was an inevitable manifestation of tottering monarchies, deadly new technology, colonial rivalry and and the still very prevalent romance and chivalry associated with War. WW1 forever debased that latter notion, but sadly did not put an end to war. Although this can be read as a stand alone piece it is better put in the perspective of it's precedent, the war itself and its aftermath. John Keegan's new study 'World War One' is highly recommended, and perhaps Clausewitz's classic study of causes and tactics 'On War'. Tuchman does not present an ideological or chauvinistic perspective. Her strength is in her objective narrative rendering, and her character insights, including the llumination of some lesser known figures who played a key roll in events. Excellent, readable history with the drama and immediacy of a novel. You'll have trouble putting it down.
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on April 10, 1998
Focusing on the period immediately prior to the beginning of World War I, Ms. Tuchman has written an engrossing account of the events and characters which combined to propel the world into a bloody, disasterous, and wasteful conflict. The people who participated in these events -- from Kaiser Wilhelm and his adviser the odious Holstein, to Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wilson, and many less well-known individuals -- reveal themselves in excerpts from personal diaries as well as in published reports and state papers. The events themselves, leading as they did to the most horrible and all-encompassing war the world had known up to that point, are related in such a way as to make the reader keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. But one of the most interesting results of reading about this time period, is noticing how incidents which occurred in the early part of the 20th century resonate even now in news reports from Eastern Europe (Bosnia, Serbia, Greece and Turkey) and North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, and Ethiopia). At the time I read this book, I knew very little about World War I, and the book prompted me to go on and read more about that era. Ms. Tuchman's carefully researched book is a classic, and belongs on every discerning reader's bookshelf.