This month, 100 years ago, it was beginning. The Great War marks an important anniversary – a century one – this summer. And so, The Buffalo News Book Club is offering readers in Western New York a war-focused selection for this August.
“The Guns of August,” by Barbara W. Tuchman, is our selection for the month.
Why should you dip back into 1962, to read a book about the summer of 1914 and the start of the first world war?
For a few reasons, actually.
Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” delivers a detailed history of the events of the first weeks of the war – in Belgium, France, England, Russia and beyond.
If you read Tuchman’s prize-winning book along with the Book Club, you’ll embark on nearly 500 pages of narrative that will offer striking insights into the tragic events that played out in the summer a century ago.
In addition to that, there’s the simple fact that “The Guns of August” makes for very meaningful reading.
And, if you’re like us, you might just walk away from the experience of reading Tuchman’s history with a feeling of surprise – at how relevant this story remains today.
Tuchman’s book recounts the words and actions of many people who participated in the war, ranging from Winston Churchill and General Joseph Joffre to Woodrow Wilson and Czar Nicholas II. (There are lesser players, too, like Charles de Gaulle, at the time a young French soldier, who was wounded in the early days of fighting.)
In Tuchman’s book, readers learn about the multilayered environment – politically, economically, socially – that existed in 1914, in Europe and elsewhere. Tuchman describes the aims and ambitions of various leaders, and their jealousies and hatreds, too.
All the details are here, down to the color of the trousers worn by the various armies involved – red pants, for instance, on the French troops, a somewhat old-school feature they were quite proud of, and which proved dangerous once the war got underway.
“The British had adopted khaki after the Boer War,” Tuchman writes, of the period leading up to the war, “and the Germans were about to make the change from Prussian blue to field-gray. But in 1912, French soldiers still wore the same blue coats, red kepi and red trousers they had worn in 1830, when rifle fire carried only two hundred paces and when armies, fighting at these close quarters, had no need for concealment.”
When the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, an archduke in Austria, happened that June, Tuchman writes, it became part of this larger picture.
It was enough for alliances to form, and momentum built.
“ ‘Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans,’ Bismarck had predicted, would ignite the next war,” Tuchman writes, of the German leader Prince Otto von Bismarck, in her book. “The assassination of the Austrian heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by Serbian nationalists on June 28, 1914, satisfied his condition.”
“The Guns of August” won a Pulitzer Prize and is one of several books that Tuchman wrote about the World War I period, including “The Proud Tower” and “The Zimmerman Telegram.”
A former journalist for the Nation and other publications, as well as a mother of three, Tuchman died in 1989.
The book has been released this year in a new edition by Random House, along with some of Tuchman’s other works of history.
An interesting fact about “The Guns of August”: John F. Kennedy gave the book as a gift to another leader, as we learn in a foreword to the book by Robert K. Massie.
“ ‘The Guns of August’ was an immediate, overwhelming success,” Massie writes in his foreword.
This week, a century ago, the war was growing worse.
On Aug. 5, 1914, Belgian soldiers defending the country’s forts at Liege fought off an attack by the Germans.
It was a shocking moment. War had come, though many had tried to make sure it wouldn’t.
The attack by the Germans – who outnumbered the Belgians – was frightening in its severity, Tuchman writes in “The Guns of August.”
Of the name “Hun,” for the German soldier, Tuchman relates this tidbit about William II, the kaiser of Germany: “The choice of Huns as German prototypes was his own.”
She describes the military action at Liege in this way:
“Again and again the Germans returned to the assault,” Tuchman writes, of the attacks on the forts, “spending lives like bullets in the knowledge of plentiful reserves to make up the losses.”
The war would go on for four years, we learn, including in the trenches that it became infamous for.
And, in Tuchman’s words, one of its fruits after 1918 was for many people a “disillusion.”
(To see some of that disillusioned feeling of the era, sample the works of World War I poets like Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon. who captured the bleakness and absurdity of the war. Try Sasson’s “The General” to start.)
Tuchman quotes D.H. Lawrence on the effect of the Great War on people who lived through it: “ ‘All the great words were canceled out for that generation,’ ” Lawrence wrote, according to Tuchman.
In Tuchman’s words, in “The Guns of August” we perhaps can see the whole of the Great War reflected in what happened at Liege on today’s date, a century ago.
She writes of Aug. 5, 1914:
“The prodigal spending of lives by all the belligerents that was to mount and mount in senseless excess to hundreds of thousands at the Somme, to over a million at Verdun began on that second day of the war at Liege.”
Random House, publisher of a new paperback edition of “The Guns of August,” has provided The News Book Club some copies of Tuchman’s book – as well as other histories written by Tuchman – to be given away to Book Club readers.
To be considered for one of the copies, contact the Book Club.
You can reach us by mail or email, at the following addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org or The Buffalo News Book Club, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240.
When you write us, tell us a bit about why you would like to be considered for one of the copies.