I hate to say it, but for me the main takeaway from Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is that I don’t find military history as interesting as I used to. This surprised me, since I used to read a lot of it – back in middle school and high school, I read several books on the World Wars, as well as several other military histories from around the Napoleonic Wars on. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t read Tuchman’s book earlier.
There’s nothing wrong with the book itself, of course; it’s brought up every time there’s a discussion of the First World War, and deservedly so. It’s well-written all around, and I would still recommend it to anyone who wants to know about the beginning of the war. Even those with only a small interest in the subject might find it engaging simply from a narrative perspective, and I did find several memorable passages that made the book worthwhile. For example, while I knew that the Germans’ plan for invading France, the Schlieffen Plan, was meticulously worked out in every detail years prior to the war, I did not know much about French or Russian plans. The Russians seem to have intended to mobilise as fast as they could and then march in the general direction of German and Austro-Hungarian forces, while France had only slightly more detail:
Its motivating idea, as expressed by Foch, was, “We must get to Berlin by going through Mainz” … That objective, however, was an idea only. Unlike the Schlieffen plan, Plan 17 contained no stated over-all objective and no explicit schedule of operations. It was not a plan of operation but a plan of deployment with directives for several possible lines of attack for each army, depending on circumstances, but without a given goal. … Its intention was inflexible: Attack! Otherwise its arrangements were flexible.
I especially liked Tuchman’s description of some of the participants of the war, like this anecdote about Count Alfred von Schlieffen, architect of Germany’s plans (though he did not live to see the war itself):
Of the two classes of Prussian officer, the bullnecked and the wasp-waisted, he belonged to the second. Monocled and effete in appearance, cold and distant in matter, he concentrated with such single-mindedness on his profession that when an aide, at the end of an all-night staff ride in East Prussia, pointed out to him the beauty of the river Pregel sparkling in the rising sun, the General gave a brief, hard look and replied, “An unimportant obstacle.” So too, he decided, was Belgian neutrality.
Finally, on Sir Winston Churchill:
Asquith had, however, a particularly active First Lord of the Admiralty. When he smelled battle afar off, Winston Churchill resembled the war horse in Job who turned not back from the sword but “paweth in the valley and saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha.” He was the only British minister to have a perfectly clear conviction of what Britain should to and to act upon it without hesitation.…