Monday, November 24, 2008

The Guns of August

I've found that Pulitzer Prize winning histories usually deserve all the praise they get. I worry sometimes about the lens that the author uses to view the past. Most have some sort of bias, due to being human, and a lot of books, especially lately, have a very definite agenda beyond explaining a moment in history. One solution to this problem is to read books from a different historical moment. Whatever agenda someone might have had when they wrote the book is mostly irrelevant after a few years. I really enjoy books that seem to go right for the meat of the topic and don't try to preach to the reader or make comparisons with current events. This book fit my criteria perfectly because it was written in 1962 and won the Pulitzer Prize then was reissued 25 years later as a classic.

A reviewer stated, "It is her conviction that the deadlock of the terrible month of August determined the future course of the war and the terms of the peace, the shape of the inter-war period and the conditions of the Second Round." I think she makes her case and it dovetails nicely with Churchill's comments in the opening of his history, as he recounts the end of WWI and how it directly led to WWII.

To open the book, she describes the funeral of King Edward VII of England in 1910. I'm reminded of this bit from Mary Poppins: The majesty of the Old World was on display. Since he was related to half of Europe through his mother, Queen Victoria, the procession was unequaled in pomp, circumstance and royalty. In a few short years a number of attending monarchs would be at war, dead or dethroned.

This opening also allows for a quick description of the personalities who would become so very important in a few short years. I especially liked her description of William II of Germany, the Kaiser, "The flashing, inconstant, always freshly inspired Kaiser has a different goal every hour, and practices diplomacy as an exercise in perpetual motion." and later, "Envy of the older nations gnawed at him. . . The same sentiments ran through his whole nation, which suffered, like their emperor, from a terrible need for recognition. Pulsing with energy and ambition, conscious of strength, fed upon Nietzsche and Treitschke, they felt entitled to rule, and felt cheated that the world did not acknowledge their title."

The circumstances that led to open war were not so much mistakes, as inevitable results from Germany and France's decision made years before that war was inevitable. The military directors of both countries had developed elaborate plans of what to do in the event of war, and on both sides the conclusion drawn was get them before they can get us. With the two main belligerents acting under the assumption of future war it would have been nearly impossible to avoid. This must have been a reflection of current events to the author, who was writing at the height of the Cold War. Perhaps we should give more credit to the politicians of those days that there never was a great war between Russia and the United States.

One reason for that moderate restraint in modern times could be the structure of the US military. The President is Commander in Chief and has never shrunk from that role. In every country involved in the beginning of WWI, France, Germany, as well as England and Belgium, the military leaders overwhelmed, ignored and stonewalled the political leaders who wanted to change or postpone the coming offensive. Truman's accomplishment in restraining and finally firing MacArthur becomes a bit more impressive after reading how the heads of every other army ran over the political leaders.

The author manages to describe the intensity of those days with an understated humor that eases the understanding of such a complex topic. In describing British efforts in the Boer War she writes, " Since Britain's record against an untrained opponent lacking modern weapons had on the whole not been brilliant" and describing Henry Wilson, "that marvelous incapacity to admit error that was to make him ultimately a Field Marshall."

Of course errors weren't only British. The sheer number of mistakes makes the mind boggle, especially the scale of some of them. The Russians had few transports, and lacking telegraph wire, transmitted instructions by wireless (radio) in the clear because few officers had access to code manuals. The Germans began to rely on knowing where the Russians were every evening as the broadcasts came in.

The sides were even in aggressiveness and world opinion at the beginning of the war was evenly disgusted with both of them, but as Germany invaded neutral Belgium she began a campaign of terror that horrified the world. Burned and looted villages were the norm for a marauding army, but the systematic and sanctioned destruction of towns and villages retaliation of guerrilla activity by killing hundreds of civilians and the burning of a world famous library in Louvain hardened most who heard of it against the invading "Huns."

The demanding necessity of invasion forced the troops to their very limit. "In the coming battle many Germans prisoners were taken asleep, unable to go another step." The supply trains could not keep up, the men marched forty km for days on end, trying to outmaneuver the opposing army. The casualty rates for this first month were horrifying, 300,000 dead in the Battle of the Frontiers alone. Britain, France and Germany lost the majority of their young men in this war. One young man graduated in a class of 28 in the spring of 1914 and fell ill so he could not go to war. By winter he was the only one left alive. Though the absolute number of casualties were greater in WWII, WWI witnessed the shattering of the Victorian/Edwardian ethos of honor and morality. The social changes brought about by the war brought about a disillusion with the ideal that has continued and worsened through modern times.

The Guns of August. Barbara W. Tuchman. Macmillan. 1988.

1 comment:

Christina said...

I loved this book, too. And I feel desperately sorry for the Kaiser in some ways (though my grandmother, whose brother was killed on the Somme would turn in her grave if she knew!). I feel he wanted to avoid war at all costs - and his psychological make-up was such that he liked to bluster and show-off in his military uniforms (to compenasate for his damaged arm) but had no real desire for war. He loved his English grandmother, but had a love-hate relationship with his mother - and that, perhaps led to that sense of having to compete with England...
A fascinating blog! Thanks!