28 April 2010

Review: The Guns of August

My Aunt May has been telling me to read Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August for what seems to be ages. Boy was I stupid not to do so as soon as she recommended it. Tuchman's work recounts the first month of World War I: August, 1914. I have to admit to knowing very little about WWI, but this made for a great primer into the causes of the war as well as the reasons it got bogged down in the trenches.

A few things surprised me about the opening month of the war. The first was the transitional state that war was in. We tend to think of war as something that happened before mechanized weaponry or something that happened after. WWI shows that this was not the case. Weaponry used in battle of course included heavy artillery, rifles, airplanes, and machine guns. But it also included lances, bicycles, horses, and bayonets. Some of the massive casualties were undoubtedly caused by these discrepancies in firepower. I had the hardest time wrapping my mind around the idea of war that wasn't quite 19th Century but also wasn't firmly 20th Century either.

But the highlight of this book is Tuchman's writing. It took me a while to read, but a lot of that was owed to thesis writing. Tuchman's prose is absolutely gorgeous, and it draws you in. Throughout the book, I found myself angry and sympathizing with the Germans, British, French, Russians, and Belgians. She didn't allow retrospective history to get in the way of writing: the Germans aren't evil, and the British aren't demi-gods. All of the participants are instead just fallible human beings. Its devastating to realize how much human life was lost in the stupidity, and Tuchman really details the magnitude of tragedy involved, regardless of side.

While a lot of people who read the book focus on the (admittedly wonderful) first paragraph, I had a different favorite that really shows Tuchman's style. In Chapter 22, as she is setting up the Battle of the Marne that was to decide the fate of France, Tuchman writes this:

September 4 opened with a sense of climax felt in widely separated places; a kind of extra-sensory awareness that great events sometimes send ahead. In Paris, Gallieni felt this was the "decisive" day. In Berlin, Princess Bl├╝cher wrote in her diary, "Nothing is talked of but the expected entry into Paris." In Brussels the leaves had begun to fall, and a sudden wind blew them in gusts about the street. People felt the hidden chill of autumn in the air and wondered what would happen if the war were to last through the winter. At the American Legation Hugh Gibson noted a "growing nervousness" at German Headquarters where there had been no announcements of victories in four days. "I am sure there is something big in the air today."

What a beautiful way to set the stage for one of history's most important days.

If you haven't read The Guns of August and you have even a modicum of interest in history, pick up a copy. It is easily one of the best history books I've ever come across.

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