Thursday, March 8, 2012

Review: Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

Author: Barbara W. Tuchman
Publisher-Format: e book-Random House Publishing Group, 640 pages
Also: Audio - Blackstone Audio, 19 hrs, 10 min
Narrator: Nadia May
Subject: World War I
Setting: England, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria,
 various Eastern European sites
Genre: Narrative history
Source: my own shelves (Nook), public library download (audio)
Recommended? for history buffs and those interested in World War I.

I certainly wouldn't call this an enjoyable book, but it is certainly one of the best detailed histories of the opening days of The Great War, what we have come to know as World War I.  I'm currently participating in the War Through the Generations World War I reading challenge for 2012, and chose this Pulitzer prize winning chronicle to start my journey through this epic struggle between the Allies and the Central Powers. It did not disappoint.

By focusing on the issues, nationalism, misunderstandings, and rivalries leading up to the conflict, and examining in minute detail the build-ups, alliances, war plans, battle strategies, personalities, and mis-steps of the national leaders, Tuchman gives us, in clear and concise prose, an engrossing story of how the actions of so few impacted the entire world.  The first month's campaigns are explained in blinding detail and no matter how much or how little exposure the reader has had to military life and jargon and history, no matter how negative or positive the reader's attitude is toward the subject, she grabs our attention, arouses our emotions and intellect, and takes us through an entire month of mistakes, miscues, arrogance, buffoonery, lack of vision, and dare I say idiocy of the then current state of warfare.  19th century tactics were meeting head on with earky 20th century weapons and technology, e.g. the airplane and zeppelin; experienced leaders from previous wars held tenaciously (and disastrously) to their pre-drawn plans without taking into consideration the impact and possibilities of new weapons, the possible change in "enemy" strategies and tactics, at the same time they made erroneous assumptions based on untested hypotheses, or scenarios that were at least 100 years old.

It was a frustrating read.  At times I was so outraged by the stupidity of the players that I had to put it down for days at a time.  It was minutely detailed, easy to follow, even for this reader who normally doesn't "do" battle scenes.  In the end though it was a book that could not be abandoned, a book that made me examine my own attitudes about armed conflict and the total insanity of humans killing humans to prove a point.  I plan to read several more books, both fiction and non-fiction, about this conflict and the period surrounding the actual war years.  I doubt I will find one that is better written, or more readable.

I should mention that I was also able to get a copy of the audio version which I found helpful as I read the text.  Nadia May's wonderful abilities to speak in various European accents and to narrate phrases in a variety of languages added much to my enjoyment of this volume. If you can read only one book about this war, this is the one!


  1. Barbara Tuchmann was my idol as a beginning writer. When she died, I wrote to her family and received a touching note from her husband. Anyway, I read this book so many years ago that I recently bought a copy to read again. No one could make the beginnings of a world war so understandable (and frustrating) than Tuchman.


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