The Guns of August
by Barbara W. Tuchman
“I had always thought in my acquaintance with history up to that point,” Barbara Tuchman wrote, “that 1914 was the hour when the clock struck, so to speak, the date that ended the nineteenth century and began our own age, ‘the Terrible Twentieth’”.
In 1962, with a second world war in history’s rear view mirror, and two halves of the world facing down each other with nuclear arms, a history of World War I hardly seemed likely to be a best seller. Tuchman admitted, “In moments of depression during the course of writing, I had said to (literary agent Cecil) Scott, ‘Who is going to read this?’ and he had replied, ‘Two people: you will and I will.’”
Instead, to Tuchman’s amazement, The Guns of August “took off like a runaway horse,” becoming a Book of the Month Club pick and earning her a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.
Although the main narrative is limited to the first month of World War I, the book opens with the famously opulent description of the equally opulent funeral procession of Edward VII of England, a procession whose nine kings included the new king, George V, flanked by his cousin and bitter rival, German emperor William II. “Few observers,” Tuchman wrote, “had eyes for the ninth king, the only one among them who was to achieve greatness as a man,” Albert, King of the Belgians. The violation of his country’s neutrality in the opening days of World War I would set public opinion on fire. Riding next to Albert was the soon to be assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose death would spark the looming conflict. That funeral procession ranks among the most awe-inspiring and inauspicious gathering of world leaders in history.
Tuchman closes on the eve of the First Battle of the Marne, September 1914, with the
order of French General Joseph Joffre to his retreating soldiers: “Now, as the battle is joined on which the safety of the country depends, everyone must be reminded that this is no longer the time for looking back. . . .”
“Ordinarily,” Tuchman wrote, “the French language, especially in public pronouncements, requires an effort if it is not to sound splendid, but this time the words were flat, almost tired. . . It did not shout ‘Forward!’ or summon men to glory. After the first thirty days of war in 1914, there was a premonition that little glory lay ahead.”
Tuchman’s works would bring her a second Pulitzer and make her one of the best known of American historians. She would also live to see Saturday Review name her one of the “most overrated“ figures in the arts for turning from “writing history as a moral lesson to writing moral lessons as history.”
It was a judgment that smelled like sour grapes for a woman whose intention, she proclaimed in her 1963 address at Radcliffe College, was “to write history so as to enthrall the reader and make the subject as captivating and exciting to him as it is to me.”
And how does a writer do that, when after all, everybody knows how the war turned out? “I worried about this a good deal at the beginning, but after a while the actual process of writing, as so often happens, produced the solution. I found that if one writes as of the time, without using the benefit of hindsight, resisting always the temptation to refer to events still ahead, the suspense will build itself up naturally. . . Even though one knows the outcome, the suspense is almost unbearable, because one knows that if (Joffre) had made the wrong decision, you and I might not be here today--or, if we were, history would have been written by others.”
Tuchman’s works are widely available, with a used paperback of The Guns of August going for as little as $1.02 on Amazon. I splurged, paying $7 after wandering happily through the huge history section in the basement of Recycled Books in Denton, Texas.
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a January of true adventures with James D. Watson’s short, gossipy and surprisingly funny account of the discovery of the structure of life’s building block, in The Double Helix.)