GROUP READ: The Guns of August
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Here's where anyone interested can discuss Barbara Tuchman's popular history, The Guns of August.
After reading the intro, I've realized that this book focuses only on the first month of World War I. One quality to her writing, the preface points out, is the ability to make things interesting, even where the reader already knows the outcome.
Please join me in reading this popular history.
I'm actually at a good spot right now so I'm jumping the gun a bit and starting now.
One reason why the early start is that I intend to focus on WW1 for the next 6 weeks or so. I've got a few others lined up on this topic, too.
I've read a few other Tuchman books, though none recently, and have liked them all. She has a knack for bringing history to life.
Just a few pages in, really, and I realize how well the author adds color and puts things into perspective. As Bjace said, it's history that reads like a novel.
Because it's not a book on American history, the Pulitzer committee could not award it the prize for history. However, Tuchman did receive the Pulitzer prize for general nonfiction for this book, which was an immediate bestseller, back in 1962.
Interestingly, though she was only two years old at the time, she was a personal eyewitness to one of the events in the book.
In the late 1980s, I read her The First Salute, Practicing History, and possibly one other. Can't remember right offhand which one. I think I picked up a few of her other books but have never gotten around to them.
I hope you can join us.
I started it but then put it aside to finish a bio of Queen Elizabeth II that was due back at the library.
I'm moving back to The Guns of August now.
I vary between loving it and feeling neutral.
While I appreciate the fast pace, it seems like she breathlessly gets ahead of herself, or something. I wish she'd step back, more often, and put things into perspective.
Overall, I'd say I like it but it could've been better.
Will admit that I didn't love it as much as I did when I read it in my 20s, but I still enjoyed it very much, although trying to keep track of the troop movements made me a little crazy.
What impressed me was how arrogant everyone was. The Germans thought that they were invincible and were unable to conceive that their War College could overlook something. The French thought that elan and esprit trumped everything. The English thought they deserved to be Lord of the Seas. And Woodrow Wilson thought that he would save the world because he and the U.S. were so right. Was the world ever that arrogant again?
Good point about the universal arrogance. I was noticing that as well.
Everything seemed so set in stone and couldn't be avoided. Though I had a hard time keeping track of the generals, she created some memorable scenes such as the soldiers going off to war in taxicabs or the French generalissimo never missing one of his meals.
In the heat of a battle, Tuchman's writing seemed to take on urgency. I wish that she'd spent more time putting things into perspective.
But these are mostly minor quibbles. Overall,I thought it was very good.
With the 100th anniversary of the start of the war next year, I imagine that there'll be a lot of new books on the topic.
She had some perspective, of course, not just breathless commentary. In fact, I always knew that I was coming to the end of a chapter when she started to go into analysis mode.
Here's an overview from wikipedia...
It was written in 1962 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction (it couldn't win the Pulitzer for History because it's not about American history).
It was an immediate bestseller and was on the NY Times bestseller list for 42 straight weeks.
President Kennedy was so impressed by the book that he gave copies of it to his cabinet members and primary military advisers and ordered them to read it.
President Kennedy also drew from The Guns of August when dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
1. What surprised you?
2. What takeaways/lessons can leaders get from this?
3. Does having read this make you more likely to want to learn about World War I? Or not?
4. After reading this, do you want to read more by Tuchman?
That surprised me, as did the fact that so many people thought it'd be a short war.
It also surprised me that, once things got put into motion, even the leading political officials could not stop them.
It also surprised me, and maybe it's just true of war, but so many times, one side would find the military plans on an enemy's body (said enemy being dead or alive). Or they'd intercept a wide open communication.
What lessons? A plan is a good thing but don't stick to it when circumstances have changed drastically.
I certainly do intend to read more about World War I. In fact, after a lighter book or two, I'd like to start on John Keegan's comprehensive history, The First World War. Then read a more personal account. Not sure which one, though Five Lieutenants is a possibility.
I think I'd like to read more Tuchman, though maybe not right away. Definitely The Proud Tower, at least.
I read the introduction, and think that Tuchman is being intentional in letting facts speak for themselves, rather than trying to do an analysis.
I am about 1/3 way done with the book, liking it so far. But if I try to read too fast I become completely confused.
Perhaps she wanted to leave the analysis to the professional military historian. I've started the John Keegan The First World War. He's a military historian so I expect plenty of analysis.
Another book I would recommend is Solzhenitzyn's fictionalized look at the Eastern Front during the first month of the war, August, 1914.
Tuchman did have a fascinating early life.
I re-read the intro by Robert Massie, and found this interesting:
She had little use for systems or systemizers in history and quoted approvingly an anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement who said, "The historian who puts his system first can hardly escape the heresy of preferring the facts which suit his system best." She recommended letting the facts lead the way. "To find out what happened in history is enough at the outset," she said" "without trying too soon to make sure of the 'why'. I believe it is safer to leave the 'why' alone until one has not only gathered the facts but arranged them in sequence; to be exact in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. The very process of transforming a collection of personalities, dates, gun calibers, letters, and speeches into a narrative eventually forces the 'why' to the surface."
I had the privilege of hearing John Keegan speak many years ago when I was a undergraduate. Since then I haven't read a whole lot of his work, but I have read Six Armies in Normandy. It is about WWII but Keegan is a good writer about anything having to do with the study of war. I have a copy of The Face of Battle and need to get back to it someday.
Has anyone else been reading it?
I've picked up Tuchman's The Zimmerman Telegram but I haven't gotten too far in that one. Carrie has read it for the WW1 August TIOLI challenge so I'm still hoping to finish that.
Lately, I keep starting additional books but I'm not finishing much.
I asked myself the same question back in 2003. Only one Senator, at that time, had a son in the military. That fact alone makes it easier to vote for war.
What I always wondered was why do men follow these leaders? I remember my father saying, back in about 1975, (after Vietnam) that if the government had a war that nobody would go. Things certainly changed in 35 years.
I've read a lot more about WW2 which makes reading about it easier for me. So much of this WW1 stuff is new to me.
I don't really see the French or the Germans as rigid in their thinking. I think that it is hard for us to not bring our modern lifestyle into our thinking about how this war was fought. I just read the part about the Belgians who kept cutting the German's telephone and telegraph lines. It is so hard for us to think that in order to communicate in war time somebody had to run wires!! I was astounded to learn that the French had a big radio jamming facility on top of the Eiffel Tower that managed to disrupt the communication systems. Who would have thought that they would have been so modern in 1914?
The whole battle reminded me of the Battle of Chicamuga in the American Civil War. In that battle, fought on September 18 & 19, 1863 the entire Corp commanded by General James Longstreet was transported by train from Virginia to Georgia so that they could participate in the battle. They detrained on the night of September 18 and could hear the guns firing from the town of Ringgold, where they unloaded. They immediately marched to the battlefield and the next morning managed to hit a seam in the Union Army battle lines and broke the entire Union Army in half. Only the Corp commanded by General George Thomas managed to retreat in order and make a stand. Even though the Union Army lost that battle Thomas forever after was known as the "Rock of Chicamauga." Longstreet, after the battle said that they had gotten extremely lucky. Which leads me to Napoleon who said that he would wanted his generals to be lucky.
It was a surprise to learn that Hindenburg and Ludendorff were not sure about what they were doing and particularly Ludendorff suffered from a case of "nerves." Poor Samanov. Poor Czar Nicholas. There were great consequences from this battle.
Isn't it funny how that happens? I find that the same topic often will come up in different books I read in a short period of time -- sometimes when I'd least expect it.
I finally finished the book last night. I'd say a lot of it sort of washed over me without full comprehension -- so many names of so many people and places. But I think I got an overall sense of what happened that month, certainly much better than I had before I read it.
Part of that may be due to the unfamiliar subject matter but part, too, due to the fact that I think she could've developed the people better.
Some books seem better well after I've read them. For some reason, this one doesn't seem as good, more than a month after I finished it.
I think that the author is trying to give us a sketch of the main people. There is so much going on in that month that she can't write a biography so she makes do with a short sketch. I did find her short sketch of Admiral Tirpitz fascinating. She mentions that he was a big imposing man with a squeaky high pitched voice, and that made him more of a character for me. She also tells us that he was astonished to find out that there was no plan of action for the grand navy he built. I just wonder how he could have been so out of the loop? I always knew that in the end the big navy groups of all the countries involved played no significant part in the war except for the British Navy doing convoy guard duty. The German Navy left all the heavy hitting to its submarine force. Now I know why.
What impressed me the most is that my previous view of World War I was that Britain had to come in a rescue the incompetent French. This book totally turned that view on its head. In fact, Sir John French comes across as a slow-wit as does most of the British General Staff. Tuchman also does much to redeem the reputation of many of the Russian generals and even though they lost they put up a good fight considering what they had to work with.
In sum, this book changed my notions about what happened in the opening month of World War I and created a need for me to explore this chapter in history in greater depth. There probably isn't any higher praise for a work of non-fiction. I will be glad to recommend this title to others.
It was also interesting to me how the French managed the first month and what the Germans pictured as a rout was really a constant rearguard defensive action designed on the spur of the moment, but still soon enough that the French had the time and manpower to save themselves. This was remarkable and Tuchman made me realize how really brilliant it was.
The short epilogue by the author was a brilliant piece of writing.