Wednesday, July 16, 2008

June Book a Month Challenge: Knowledge

Yeah. I'm late. Get over it.

Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

Tuchman covers only the first thirty days of the Great War in this five hundred page book: that time when all the players were moving into the positions that they would then hold for the next five years. Mining archives in Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany, she is able to go behind the scenes of all four governments and show not just what happened on the ground, but how important the personalities of the various players were in setting up foundation for a static war.

The first chapter, "A Funeral," shows us how different the world was during the first decade of the Twentieth Century from that of the 1950s and beyond. At the funeral of Edward VII we are introduced to Kaiser William II who, more than anybody else, is responsible for war. Tuchman portrays William as neurotic, desperate for the respect of others, paranoid about how King Edward was "encircling" Germany as he visited all the countries of the continent.

The main action begins in chapter two, on August 1, runs through various diplomatic and military alliances to lay the groundwork, and then on to war, which begins with Germany's violation of Belgium's neutrality as it marches through that newly created country on its way to France. Tuchman very clearly shows that at any instant during that first thirty days, if things had gone even the slightest bit differently, the outcome could have been very different. Anything from a swift German victory, if the different parts of the army had followed through on the original plan, or taken advantage of opportunities that they were unaware were available; to the French and British throwing back the German forces and ending the war, if only they had been more willing to cooperate and coordinate their forces, might have been possible.

This book clearly shows the effect of the "fog of war" on the plans of men. That fog is not just problems of terrain and the difficulty of communication, though. It is also the internal politics of the armies, and the clash of personalities throughout the chain of command and between commanders of different units. If the aristocratic German generals had been able to suppress their historic design for blood and glory, they might have been better able to retreat in front of the French, leading them deeper into a trap, for example.

Tuchman goes into exquisite, and to some extent necessary, detail about the movement of the various units, and the relationships between them on the ground, but it can be very difficult to keep track of who's who and where they all all at any given time. There are a few maps, but with modern printing processes, more maps, and perhaps some colour to ease the reading of them, would make following the action easier. She also shows how a war can seem "inevitable," and how everybody can see that it is only a matter of time before the combat begins (of course, that that is possible should be clear to anybody reading today's headlines).