Sunday, May 22, 2011

World War I: The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman

The Guns of August
To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
The post describing Hitchen’s review of Hochschild’s book To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, reminds one that history has a fascinating tale to tell. It resurrected memories of excellent books on the subject of war in general and World War I in particular.

Barbara W. Tuchman’s The Guns of August was perhaps the only history book I have encountered that was so exciting that I literally could not put it down. She summarizes the lead up to hostilities and the first month of the war concluding with the battle of the Marne, or what the French appropriately referred to as the “Miracle of the Marne.” I read it over forty years ago, but still recall the way she conveyed the “fog of war,” the generals—vain, timid, incompetent, foolhardy, patriotic—all trying to figure out what was actually happening. The climax comes when the German assault into France comes within 30 miles of Paris and the French have no means to stop them. The German general decides the most important military target is the destruction of what he believes is a retreating French army. He swerves away from Paris in pursuit and in so doing exposes his flank and allows Paris a few extra days to reform the French forces with fresh troops and supplies before attacking. Tuchman’s images of Parisian taxis and their drivers being used to funnel troops to the front, just a few miles away, are memorable.

She finishes with this passage:

“The Battle of the Marne was one of the decisive battles of the world not because it determined that Germany would ultimately lose or the Allies ultimately win the war but that it determined that the war would go on. There was no looking back, Joffre told the soldiers on the eve. Afterward there was no turning back. The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.”

Tuchman’s book received the Pulitzer Prize in 1963, at the height of the Cold War. She was making a similar point to the one Hitchens made: if the war had ended within the few weeks everyone anticipated, a peace would have been drawn up, some land and money probably exchanged, and life would have resumed. The stalemate and the years of mutual slaughter were so traumatic for all involved that a simple end would never be possible. The ultimate victors would demand compensation for their suffering, while the losers would resent the humiliation of being the vanquished and plot revenge. World War I created the conditions for World War II, which created the Cold War. Today, Tuchman would point out, as did Hitchens, that we are still suffering the fallout from the demise of the Ottoman Empire during this period.

The story of the first thirty days of the war make a great tale with brave soldiers being pushed to their limits by exhaustion and fear, but continuing to fight, driven by their love of country. The remainder of the war provides few such moments. The generals, trained to fight the last war, were given the weapons of the next war. They were very efficient at killing the enemy if the enemy was dumb enough to show itself. The strategy devolved to incredibly intense artillery barrages in hopes of killing or driving insane as many as possible, followed by a charge against fortifications over an open field. The slaughter that ensued was incomprehensible. Generals assumed that their tactics would ensure that the enemy would suffer greater casualties than their own troops. It was almost as if the more troops they lost, the greater the victory.

Tuchman provides a footnote to her story that puts these enormous casualties in perspective.

“In the chapel of St. Cyr (before it was destroyed during World War II) the memorial tablet to the dead of the Great War bore only a single entry for ‘the Class of 1914.’ The mortality rate is further illustrated by the experience of Andre Varagnac....who came of military age in 1914 but was not mobilized in August owing to illness, and found himself, out of the twenty-seven boys in his lycée class, the only one alive by Christmas.”

France suffered military casualties (killed and wounded) equal to 14.3% of the population. If one assumes that these were all military-aged males, this could mean that a generation of young men suffered casualties at a rate five or six times higher. These are astonishing numbers. It is no wonder that the war could not end well.

During World War II the US military suffered 417,000 deaths, about 0.32% of its population. The equivalent numbers for France in World War I are 1,397,000, about 4.3% of the population. In spite of the US fighting in multiple theaters, the loss of life was relatively small compared to the earlier war. The nature of war fighting had evolved and caused nations to use their soldiers more wisely. Unfortunately, that did not mean a lessening in ferocity because civilians had become military targets also. This yielded death rates for entire populations that were incredible—but that is a story for another day.


  1. French casualties in World War I were horrific, but recent publications (in French) and St. Cyr records state about 406 of the 1914 class of 791 died in WWI about 100 in other French wars. Did Tuchman's sloppy research about the "plaque" create legend that continues to this day and continues to be made by serious academics writing in English.

  2. Tuchman does not quote a mortality rate for the St. Cyr class, she refers to the mortality rate of a specific class of 27 individuals at an unspecified school. I am not sure what the problem is.

  3. For example of an American academic interpretation/repetition of the "all died" see youtube "Fall of France-Mark Gerges." @14:00. It is fairly typical of what I have heard in other places.

  4. For more extrapolation of Tuchman to the "all dead" class of St. Cyr see " "Failure of French Plan XVII."


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