The Guns Of August Summary

Barbara W. Tuchman

The Guns Of August

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The Guns Of August Summary

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Written by American historian Barbara Tuchman in 1962, The Guns of August is a historical chronicle of World War I, centering on the war’s first month. The book examines how multiple miscalculations and mistakes resulted in a years-long, devastating wars that killed a generation of young men and set the stage for yet another world war only decades later. The book received both critical acclaim and status as a bestseller, eventually winning the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction.

Tuchman begins her narrative in 1910, with the funeral of England’s King Edward VII. Nine European kings have arrived to pay their respects, though some, like the German Kaiser Wilhelm, had despised Edward. Wilhelm, Edward’s nephew, resented how England had stifled Germany’s emergence as a European power, allying instead with France, Russia, and Japan. Wilhelm longed for power and recognition and used Edward’s funeral to begin scheming. Over the next several years, Germany secretly prepares for war, making plans to invade Belgium and widening the Kiel Canal, which allowed access to the Baltic Sea.

England and France begin to worry about the possibility of war with Germany. They fear that Japan’s 1910 defeat of Russia might inspire Germany to take advantage of the conflict, but Russia is still a massive, major power. Despite their relative lack of mobility and out-of-date weaponry, France stills depends on Russia to help defeat any German attack. On June 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, are assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. In the chaotic aftermath, Germany declares war on Russia, despite the Kaiser preferring to conquer bloodlessly. Russia pulls France, its ally, into the war. France then tries to pull England, its ally, into the war. But England is reluctant, feeling protected by the English Channel from the consequences of a land war and bolstered by its isolationist citizens. Meanwhile, Germany tries to convince Belgium that France is planning to invade their country to attack Germany. King Albert of Belgium rebuffs Germany and goes to France and England for help. In England, the country frets about whether to go to war, but after Germany invades Belgium, England enters the war.

The Germans send boats into the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey struggles with which country to back. They are not friendly with England, but reluctant to back Germany, worried of the consequences should Germany lose the war. The German ships eventually end up in Turkey, taking control of the country and the neighboring countries of Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, and Greece. The Germans begin their assault on Belgium, taking the city of Liege and killing innocent citizens. Nevertheless, King Albert’s resistance to the Germans makes him a hero in the eyes of his people. Meanwhile, France invades Alsace-Lorraine, a former French territory Germany had taken years earlier, but Germany counter-attacks. Germany advances farther into Belgium. On the fifteenth day of the war, offensive fighting begins in Lorraine, currently occupied by the Germans. The French open their offensive there and in Alsace, but the German forces quickly retire, unwilling to fully engage the French troops. The French receive word that thousands of German troops are pouring into Liege, but the generals hold their forces steady. Ten thousand Germans enter Belgium and march across Belgium, executing civilians as they pass and capturing the Belgian capitol of Brussels on August 20th.

From August 20-24, The Battle of the Frontiers rages. The French, having underestimated the size and brutality of the Germany army, struggles to hold territory, and the Germans continue to slaughter civilians and burn cities. The Germans take the Belgian city of Namur in four days, after the British press had estimated Namur could last six months under siege. This boosts the German army’s confidence. The Russians enter the fray, wanting to support their French allies and drive out the Germans. Russia’s lack of transportation hinders their efforts, however, and they arrive far later than the agreed upon date of invasion. Russia invades East Prussia, but find themselves outgunned by the defending Germans as they move farther in. The Germans pretend to retreat, but only to better strategize. They attack the Russians, who suffer heavy casualties and eventually retreat on August 30th. Germany begins offering Russia peace treaties, and do so through the end of the war. Russia accepts none of them.

The war is twenty days in by the end of the Battle of the Frontiers. The Germans continue their march across Belgium, murdering civilians along the way. In Louvain, a small, medieval Belgian city, the townspeople are slaughtered and the city is burned to the ground. After hearing of this, American President Woodrow Wilson decides America can no longer stay neutral. Though he had previously been cautious, making sure not to take sides in the European conflict, Louvain shows the president the possible consequences of a German victory.

Having made it through Belgium, the German troops set their sights on France—specifically, taking Paris. They invade France on August 24th, pillaging the French countryside. French President Poincare warns his citizens that a battle for Paris is imminent, and brings the retired General Gallieni to defend the city. Gallieni requests the necessary supplies and troops, but they are extremely slow to arrive, hindered by poor transportation and current fighting in the countryside.  Parisians abandon their city, fearful of the invasion. Gallieni advises Poincare and the rest of the government to leave Paris, as well. By September 1st, the German army is within thirty miles of the French capitol. The Germans prepare to take Paris, despite not having received their requested reinforcements. France, they believe, is all but defeated. Finally, Gallieni’s supplies and troops arrive. Gallieni stirs the French army, telling them they are saving their country from an evil, ruthless enemy. On September 3rd, the Germans reach the Marne river. A battle is imminent. The war is only thirty days in, and all sides are sure that victory lies ahead.

In an afterword, Tuchman notes that the Battle of Marne ended with the Germans retreating, but fell short of a true victory for the French. For the moment, France was still standing. The Battle of Marne did not end the war or predict its winner, but rather, only confirmed that the war must continue. By the end of WWI, countries would lie in tatters and an entire generation of young men would be dead.