The Guns of August
is a popular book from the 1960s that discusses the beginnings of the First World War and ends about a month into the conflict. Her book is still widely read and considered to be a classic of First World War studies that has stood the test of time. I heavily disagree.
I could simply link to a couple of posts on AskHistorians
that talk about Tuchman and her shortcomings, and why her books haven’t really stood the test of time. I’ve noticed in doing so however, that accusations of “professional jealousy” are often thrown around – which isn’t a very productive counter-argument to the criticisms of Tuchman’s work. Instead, this post will be based on contemporary academic reviews of her work about the shortcomings that were seen in the 1960s
, not just today. These shortcomings have only multiplied as the field of First World War studies has changed since then. I will also note ways in which her argumentation that may have held up in the 1960s does not hold up today.
This is also not to say that every historian in the 1960s was discontent with her work – but there is a sizable amount of critical reviews to draw from, and even the positive ones can tell us some of how the field has changed since the 1960s and why Guns of August should just be avoided in its entirety.
Ulrich Trumpener, of the State University of Iowa wrote:
In terms of sheer narrative power, The Guns of August is an admirable work. As a scholarly contribution to the history of World War I it is less satisfactory. Though Mrs. Tuchman has gathered (and effectively quotes from) a sizable stock of sources, her story is only partially based on the best available evidence. Numerous inaccuracies and over-simplifications, notably in the discussion of prewar developments and Mediterranean affairs, must be ascribed to insufficient familiarity with the relevant monograph literature. Moreover, for the events after August 1, 1914, a wider utilization of primary evidence would have been desirable. For example, neither the Russian and Italian document collections published since 1918 nor the captured German government viles, a valuable new source, seem to have been consulted.
The book’s usefulness is further impaired by a blatantly one-sided treatment of Imperial Germany. Authentic information about its faults and misdeeds is mixed in- discriminately with half-truths, innuendoes, and absurd generalizations, transforming the Germans of 1914 into a nation of barbarians. In Mrs. Tuchman's pages, the German people are invariably unpleasant, hysterical, or outright brutish (the garbling of evidence is particularly noticeable here), and the armies, marching like "predatory ants" across Belgium (p. 213), soon reveal the "beast beneath the German skin" (p. 314).
[…]The story of 1914 becomes even more lop- sided as a result of Mrs. Tuchman's decision to pay only fleeting attention to the Dual Monarchy and Serbia. To this reviewer it is not at all clear how the affairs of these two countries-and Balkan problems in gen- eral-divide themselves "naturally" from the rest of the war (p. viii) […] Mrs. Tuchman's personality profiles of the leading figures on both sides are skilfully written, though some are debatable (e.g., that of Sir John French) and a few plainly misleading (e.g., that of Admiral G. A. von Müller)
So safe to say this is a fairly scathing review of the book at its time of publication, and it echoes much of what Historians today say about the work. That it’s prose is widely regarded as excellent isn’t in doubt, it’s the content and argumentation contained within and that even for 1962 the sourcing was not the best.
A more positive review by Oron J. Hale in the Virginia Quarterly Review
said this in the summer of 1962
From the literary sources which she has used emerge some of the overtones of revulsion and disillusionment which came over thinking people as they sensed that a century of hope was turning into a century of despair. There is also the intellectual woman's scorn for statesmen and generals who appeared in this chapter of world history, when violence rather than reason governed human affairs. In Mrs. Tuchman's book the statesmen invariably dither and the generals blunder and butcher.
So from this we can glean some of Tuchman’s argumentation. “violence rather than reason” and “generals blunder and butcher” are the two key phrases. These are both threads of First World War interpretation that aren’t really taken up much these days. Her interpretation of the July Crisis then is one where countries didn’t utilize any logic or reason and “slithered” into war. While there is still debate over the July Crisis, it’s not really fair to criticize leadership in this manner. There was
logic involved, just not the logic that Tuchman would personally prefer. Leadership in, for example Austria-Hungary, wanted a war
. They made conscious decisions to bring about a war with Serbia, damn the consequences.
Secondly, she picks up the “butchers and bunglers” school of thought regarding Generals. Safe to say this myth is dead. General-Officers weren’t mindless “donkeys” leading “lions” to the slaughter. There were sophisticated tactics (in all eras of the war) and change as the nature of the war shifted, they weren’t mindlessly throwing men into the meatgrinder simply to move a drinks cabinet “6 inches closer to Berlin”. The reality is that during a war on the scale of the First World War there will be an enormous number of casualties. Some Generals were
better than others, but the “butchers and bunglers” school of thought is just not a fair critique.
Further on in his review he states
But what disturbs a student of the history of World War I, even more, is the fragmented treatment of the outbreak of war and the events of the first thirty days. The war originated in the Balkans with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by fanatical Bosnian Serb nationalists, and from a local crisis grew into a general European war through the reckless diplomatic and military actions of Austrian and Russian authorities […] All this is excluded with consequent distortion.
Even those who enjoyed the book felt that there was a major shortcoming: The focus on the Western Front. The critical Balkan and Eastern Fronts are excluded, and as Hale rightfully states, the picture is distorted. More modern authors of the July Crisis and early parts of the war – Holger Herwig, Christopher Clark, and T.G. Otte, for example, have placed that region back at the center of the narrative, even if they have disagreements in various parts of interpretation. It was noticed then and the absence is felt even more keenly today.
John W. Oliver of the University of Pittsburgh opened his review with
Never had the nations of western Europe plotted so carefully, so methodically, the destruction of their enemies as they had on the eve of World War I.
Oliver's point here is that everything
was so strictly laid out. You won't really find the "war by timetables" stuff creep up anymore, and it ignores how often that things didn't
run exactly, or were confused, etc... Yes, things were
laid out in various plans and such, but the war wasn't run
by these plans. A major example is that of the "Schlieffen Plan". Some scholars argue it didn't even exist, others paint as more of a "Schlieffen-Moltke Plan", and others stick to it being the brain-child of Schlieffen. But the "plan", as it existed, was more nebulous from what I've gathered, than a strict set of timetables. Plan XVII, France's plan of concentration
, was centred around reacting
to the moves of the Germans (some French moves were wrong because of faulty reconnaissance once the war began).
Harold J. Gordon wrote for Military Affairs
, Autumn 1962
It is difficult to believe that anyone today could write such an account of the coming of the war as is presented here, or that anyone could confine himself to the sources cited in the notes. The presentation is superficial, anecdotal, and follows the general lines of the Allied propaganda of the war years. Forty years of historical research are ignored as are the hundreds of thousands of documents that have been published by the governments of Europe. Albertini, Fay, Gooch, Langer, and Schmitt, among others, might never have written a line for all the impact they have had here.
Another reviewer identifying that Tuchman was not really drawing on anything new, but instead was relying on old tropes. Gordon seems to be, in general, a bigger “supporter” of the Germans and some of what he says in this review doesn’t hold up today – such as
[…] the author's passion. ate dedication to the Allied cause results in uncritical acceptance of wartime atrocity propaganda and in attacks upon the Germans for policies that were certainly no tougher than those applied by the English against the Boers or, later, against the Irish.
This is problematic in a couple of ways. Firstly, he is engaging in “atrocity/genocide olympics” where he compares how “harsh” the atrocities in Belgium were to other nations and places, as if that washes the hands of the Germans clean. Secondly, and frankly, most importantly, this conclusion does not hold up. John Horne and Alan Kramer settled the debate about the “Rape of Belgium” once and for all in their book German Atrocities 1914: A History of Denial
. No more can the cry of “it’s just propaganda!” be sounded, there were certainly incidents that were fabricated for propaganda purposes. But the reality was bad enough.
Gordon noted the characterization of the Germans that Trumpener had noted
The impression given is that the war was half the result of the fecklessness of the Kaiser and half the result of the unbelievably vicious character of the German people, who forced the war upon an innocent and peace-loving civilized world.
No matter where you fall in the debates about the July Crisis, this interpretation isn’t one you really find today. No historian worth their salt is going to portray the European powers was “innocent” or “peace-loving”. Some nations may have worked harder towards peace in July 1914 than others, but that doesn’t make them “peace-loving” on the whole. Tuchman is entirely out of step with the historiography.
Samuel J. Herwitz’s positive review in The American Historical Review
, July 1962 stated
She is most effective in etching (and damning with their own words) many of the dramatis personae whose ingenuousness would have made them brilliant stock characters in a stage farce. Unfortunately, they were real figures in life, little fitted to cope with the enormous power and responsibility vested in them. Most graphically portrayed are the befuddlement and delirium, the dust and smell of battle, the heroism and weariness, both unto death, of the troops, and the incredible lightheartedness and stupidity of so many of the leaders.
Again, this demonstrates that she was writing of a school of thought that really isn’t touted anymore. She treats Leadership as a set of stupid “Donkeys” who were “little fitted to cope with the enormous power and responsibility”. They’re not treated by her as human beings who were looking at the situations based on their own experiences and cultural contexts, but instead as bumbling fools. That is not what you want in a history book. There are
criticsms to be made of various decisions made, but it needs to be done thoughtfully and understanding that they weren't stupid
, but rather had a very different view of the world.
I’ll end with Donald Armstrong’s positive review of the book in World Affairs
, Summer 1962
The story she tells proves again "with how little wisdom the world is governed." In August 1914, the evidence piles up to show with how little wisdom war plans are made and wars are fought. Of course these things are plain as day with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, and without the fog and friction of war and the problems of logistics which rarely are stated or understood in the writing of history.
This illustrates again that Tuchman harps on how “stupid” everyone involved the war in 1914 was, at least he concedes we only see it as stupid with hindsight, but she still complies enough evidence, to some reviewers at least, to demonstrate her case.
In the end, The Guns of August
is a book that made a splash in the 1960s. It’s my opinion that it resonated so much during that time because of one of its overarching theses, that of two large competing power-blocks whom were at the edge of a conflict – and due to things like arms races they made the plunge, “stupidly”, to war. Tuchman, in her writing, was reflecting the zeitgeist of the Cold War. That Cold War narrative resonated with people because it reminded them so much of what could easily happen with much more disastrous consequence.
In the year 2020 this narrative is not nearly as relevant as it was in 1962. Her arguments no longer really hold up, and many of them were even criticized by historians then. Guns of August
isn’t really worth your time to learn about the First World War.
Reviews used in this post
- Armstrong, Donald. “The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman,” World Affairs, Summer 1962, Vol. 125, No. 2. 112-113.
- Gordon, Harold J. Jr. “The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman,” Military Affairs, Autumn 1962, Vol. 26. No. 3. 140.
- Hurwitz, Samuel J. “The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman,” The American Historical Review, Jul. 1962, Vol. 67, No. 4. 1014-1015.
- Hale, Oron J. “The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman,” *The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 1962, Vol. 30, No. 3 520-523.
- Oliver, John W. “The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman,”, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Jul. 1962, Vol. 342. 168-169
- Trumpener, Ulrich. “The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman,” The Journal of Modern History, Mar. 1963, Vol. 35, No. 1. 94-95.
Works Referenced/Recommended Reading These provide a fairly varied account of the war, and demonstrate some of the current
divergences in thinking.
- Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers. 2012.
- Herwig, Holger. The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary. 1997.
- Herwig, Holger. The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World. 2011.
- Horne, John & Alan Kramer. German Atrocities 1914: A History of Denial. 2001.
- House, Johnathan. Lost Opportunity: The Battle Of The Ardennes 22 August 1914. 2017.
- Otte, T.G. July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914. 2015.
- Sheffield, Gary. Forgotten Victory. 2001.
- Showalter, Dennis, Joseph P. Robinson & Janet A. Robinson. The German Failure in Belgium, August 1914. 2019.
- Showalter, Dennis. Instrument of War. 2016.
- Strachan, Hew. The First World War Volume 1: To Arms!, 2003.
- Strachan, Hew. The First World War. 2005.
- Todman, Daniel. The Great War: Myth and Memory. 2005.