War Classics – The Guns of August

Jonathan Eaton recalls one of the great works of military history.


At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, as the world teetered on the brink of all-out nuclear war, President John F Kennedy took inspiration from a book published earlier in the same year. Pressing The Guns of August on friends and colleagues (including the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan), Kennedy implored them to study the account of the outbreak of the First World War and consider how disastrous miscalculations by well-meaning policymakers could inadvertently accumulate – with tragic global consequences.

Kennedy’s reading of the book was to shape profoundly his response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, through his careful calibration of risk and his appreciation of the motivations and concerns of the Soviet leadership under Nikita Khrushchev.

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman provides a compelling account of the opening stages of the First World War. It focuses not on the experiences of combatants, but rather on the personalities, characteristics, and motivations of key politicians and generals of the major powers. In doing so, Tuchman aims to explore how a series of political and military decisions, often based on personal factors, faulty intelligence, or naïve assumptions, gradually escalated tensions to the outbreak of war.

As such, Tuchman presents a series of engaging pen portraits of the individuals involved in critical decision-making and outlines how their interactions triggered a destructive cycle of escalation and counter-escalation, while also demonstrating the important role of personal and political relationships in world events.

Unusually, Tuchman begins her account not with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, but rather with the funeral of King Edward VII of England in May 1910. Indeed, the assassination receives relatively limited treatment from Tuchman, who quotes Bismarck’s prediction that the inevitable European conflict would be triggered by ‘some damned foolish thing in the Balkans’.

The funeral of Edward VII, involving representatives from monarchies across Europe, was one of the last occasions on which the great royal houses were presented as united. The pomp and ceremony of the occasion foreshadowed the destructive conflict that would be unleashed across Europe barely four years later – and offers a sharp contrast to the horrors of trench warfare that were to follow. Tuchman’s fascination with the relationships between the most powerful monarchs across Europe has been explored further by contemporary historians to understand how royal rivalry set the trajectory towards conflict.

Barbara Tuchman

Born: 30 January 1912
Died: 6 February 1989
Nationality: American

Barbara Wertheim was born to a wealthy banking family. She was educated at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1930s. Later that decade, she reported on the Spanish Civil War for The Nation magazine. Following her marriage to physician Lester Tuchman in 1940, she became a devoted housewife and mother. Only after her three children had grown up did she turn to writing popular history, producing bestselling books including The Guns of August (1962), The Proud Tower (1966), Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 (1971), for which she won her second Pulitzer Prize, and The Distant Mirror (1978).

Drumbeat of preparations

In parallel with Tuchman’s analysis of the interplay of key personnel in decision-making at the outbreak of the war is the steady drumbeat of preparations for war. These ultimately came to drive decision-making, rather than strategic decisions driving logistical planning, by dictating the timing and parameters of options available to politicians and generals alike. The logistics of the First World War, particularly in its opening stages, were defined by railway timetables in mobilising men and supplies, and transporting them to staging areas and subsequent conflict zones.

These logistical arrangements, shaped by planning conducted over many preceding years, created an urgency on all sides to mobilise swiftly and strike the first blow against the enemy. The tendency to prioritise logistical arrangements over political realities was perhaps most pronounced in the interactions between Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff, and the Kaiser on 1 August 1914.

Drawing on flawed diplomatic intelligence, the Kaiser believed that conflict on two fronts could be avoided through the promise of English and French neutrality if Germany did not attack the latter. On requesting the transfer of troops from the planned Western Front to the Eastern Front to face Russia, the Kaiser was refused by Moltke on the basis that the carefully choreographed mobilisation of troops would be thrown into disarray by the proposed changes and risked total defeat of the German army.

Controversy around Moltke’s decision has raged ever since, particularly given evidence provided after the war by the Chief of the Railway Division, who demonstrated that the changes in railway movements necessitated by the Kaiser’s request could theoretically have been accomplished. Moltke’s worldview and perception of his role was clearly shaped by the overarching necessity of engaging and destroying the enemy in combat.

Approached with a suggestion to form an Economic General Staff to support the war effort, he responded: ‘Don’t bother me with economics – I am busy conducting a war’. Nevertheless, Moltke’s confidence was undermined by the Kaiser’s requested change in mobilisation planning, and he subsequently left his post for a less pressurised command in September 1914.

While noting the overarching pre-eminence of the culture and bureaucracy of mobilisation planning on all sides, Tuchman remains alive to the unexpected influence of human factors in the early stages of the conflict. Describing the suicide of a divisional commander at the Battle of the Ardennes, she notes: ‘Human beings, like plans, prove fallible in the presence of those ingredients that are missing in maneuvers – danger, death and live ammunition’.

French troops driving back invaders during the Battle of the Marne, September 1914. Tuchman ended her account of the beginning of the First World War here, believing it to be a pivotal moment after which a prolonged conflict was inevitable. Image: WIPL

This included the role of rumour in manipulating public perceptions of the war. Tuchman details a rash of unsubstantiated sightings of mysterious Russian troops across England as the popular imagination was seized by the false narrative of a secret movement of reinforcements slipping through the English countryside to strengthen the Western Front. A railway porter even claimed to have swept snow off a train platform in Edinburgh which had fallen from the boots of disembarking Russian infantry.

Deadly consequences

Perhaps the most enigmatic section of The Guns of August relates to the pursuit of the German battlecruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau by the British Mediterranean Fleet. Fearing the threat they posed to French troop transports, the Royal Navy hotly pursued Goeben and Breslau to Constantinople, where their arrival and subsequent assimilation brought Turkey into the war on the side of Germany – an action that Winston Churchill believed led to ruinous consequences for the remainder of the conflict.

In narrating the naval chase across the Mediterranean, Tuchman describes the experience of passengers on an Italian passage steamer: ‘They brought an exciting tale of the boom of guns, puffs of white smoke, and the twisting and maneuvering of faraway ships’. Although not explicitly stated in the text, among the passengers who witnessed the dramatic passage of Goeben and Breslau was the two-year-old Barbara Tuchman herself, and her family, revealing a personal intersection of the historian’s study.

As the title affirms, Tuchman’s focus lies on the opening month of the First World War, and the book draws to a close on the eve of the Battle of the Marne, before the full horrors of static trench-warfare revealed themselves. The decision to conclude her study at this point was driven by Tuchman’s view that the Marne provided a fixed point at which a short conflict ceased to be possible and a lengthier, more destructive war became inevitable. In this framing, the decision-making by key political and military leaders during the first month of the war led ultimately, at the Battle of the Marne, to the failure of German aspirations for a rapid victory, and therefore to the protracted conflict that would follow.

On publication, The Guns of August rapidly achieved global acclaim and recognition – helped not least by public praise from the White House. Ironically, the book was ineligible for consideration for the Pulitzer Prize for History, which was reserved for studies of the history of the United States. Tuchman was therefore awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1963. Her book remains a key work of scholarship for understanding the immediate causes of the First World War.

The urgency with which President Kennedy read The Guns of August has not been diminished by the passage of time. On the contrary, Tuchman’s thesis that miscalculation and misunderstanding by generals and politicians can initiate a cycle of escalation with potentially disastrous global consequences remains as important today as it was in 1962 and 1914. •