The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman - and some reflections on the Great War

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For me, The Great War ( World War One ) remains fascinating. From the time in my youth when I saw Peter Weir's film "Gallipoli", that time has been endearing. I see it as interesting because it was morally ambiguous. It does seem that - at least to start with - you had two belligerent parties of roughly equal moral standing, while with World War Two, it is pretty obvious who was good and bad.

We see so many war memorials in Australia - considered in the book "Sacred Places" by K.S. Inglis, showing how these memorials represent an emotional reaction to the sacrifice of so many young innocents, and that thinking all these lost lives were "living a better life in heaven" just did not cut it. We needed to imagine their lives had been sacrificed for all of us, for something greater, and they then gained immortality of sorts in their heroic deeds.

But "King and Country" was what they sacrificed their lives to. To the future of our world. Much as this is amazing history, this does seem like a false notion, and in fact a needless sacrifice. Without going all the way down the Anarchist slope, it does seem that heirachical society developed to the point where people far up the feeding chain were making isolated decisions which cost the lives of so many. However, equally, to just think of it as "the ruling class" pulling the strings for their own benefit seems to equally miss some of the detail. It seems that control of the military operations of the state - in some cases - passed from the notional sovereigns or Governments to the military leaders. Further, it does also seems that much of the broader citizenry would have identified with the patriotism and militaristic push at the time. You can debate whether this was in some sense "genuine" or merely the results of manipulation by the ruling class.

But this is not to deny that in the thick of war, there was a great assymetry between those who were sacrificing their lives and those who were living self-indulgent lives off the back of the war effort back home. Some of this is captured in "The Sexual History of the [Great] World War" by Magnus Hirschfeld. Certainly, the Great War had multiple layers of unfairness and injustice, apart from the fact that people's lives were thrown away; but it was not just some coordinated push by the ruling class, and there were a lot of accidents of history along the way ( though some might say, there was a powder-keg, waiting for some freak event which would eventually and inevitably set it all off, with only the exact nature of that freak event to be determined ).

Somewhat inspired by the film "13 days", I read "The Guns of August" by Barbara Tuchman. I've read a few other books on the Great War, but this book was certainly fascinating in its way, and now I've decided to write something of combined review and commentary drawing from this book.

In the leadup to WWI, there were intellectuals such as Norman Angell, writing "The Great Illusion", talking about the futility of War :

He establishes this apparent paradox, in so far as the economic problem is concerned, by showing that wealth in the economically civilised world is founded upon credit and commercial contract (these being the outgrowth of an economic interdependence due to the increasing division of labour and greatly developed communication).


If credit and commercial contract are tampered with in an attempt at confiscation, the credit-dependent wealth is undermined, and its collapse involves that of the conqueror; so that if conquest is not to be self-injurious it must respect the enemy's property, in which case it becomes economically futile. Thus the wealth of conquered territory remains in the hands of the population of such territory.


When Germany annexed Alsace, no individual German secured a single mark's worth of Alsatian property as the spoils of war. Conquest in the modern world is a process of multiplying by x, and then obtaining the original figure by dividing by x. For a modern nation to add to its territory no more adds to the wealth of the people of such nation than it would add to the wealth of Londoners if the City of London were to annex the county of Hertford.

In a sense, this was an articulation of the "New Globalism", sentiments that echo in terms of the contemporary globalisation debate.

This is in contrast to General von Bernhardi in Germany, who wrote "Germany & the Next War", a militaristic piece. He advocated a policy of ruthless aggression and complete disregard of treaties and regarded war as a "divine business", with references to a "Duty to Make War" and the need for "France to be crushed". It is in these sort of writings that you can see the seeds of the militarism of WWII - of Lebensraum ( breathing space ), the superiority of Germany, and other similar concepts.

You cannot see similar strong militaristic threads within the UK intellectual scene ( though yes, separately to any militarism, there were intellectual developments around eugenics which we'd today consider dodgy ). It seems that while Germany made strong plans for War, especially via the Schleifen plan, the UK / French plans were more of a defensive nature. It seems there were many in Germany "chomping at the bit" to go into war, while the UK was dragged into war. In fact, it was something of a task to get the military plans ratified by the UK parliament.

Needless to say, it does seem the Kaiser never really wanted to go to war, it seems the goal was sabre-rattling in order to be taken seriously - it was more the military class who wanted to go to war. Nevertheless, it seems clear the "centre of gravity" of German political and intellectual thought was more militaristic than was that of the UK.

At the same time, once the UK went to war, it made its own silly mistakes. One was to requisition two ships it had been building for Turkey, rather than deliver them. This put the Turks off side at the start. Then, you had a German ship wandering around the Mediterranean whose visit to Turkey crystallised the Turks entering the Central Power alliance, something which had a lot more impact than missing two ships would have ever had.

While there was an intersecting web of alliances which eventually brought the two sides to war, when the Germans attacked France, they nevertheless felt the need to claim provocation from the French. They claimed the French had made air attacks against Nuremberg and Karlsruhe and also violated Belgian neutrality by flying over it. Hence, it seems that in the great scheme of things mere ties of alliance did not feel to be enough to excuse an invasion, even if those alliances prompted declarations of war. It seems to echo of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was used to excuse the Vietnam War. It seems that the US boats fired first, contrary to the propaganda story that the Vietnamese boats fired first. Perhaps wars tend to start from sought-after excuses, rather than reasons, and a complex dynamic situation can normally be relied on to throw up some sort of excuse.

At the start of the war, both sides had a definite naivete about its length, thinking it would be quick and decisive. Some decisions were clear mistakes in the context of those expectations of a war of short length. It was only Lord Kitchener in the UK who saw a long war coming.

The French had a thing about offensive battle, not taking artillery seriously, the wearing of bright red uniforms and an unwillingness to entrench and prepare for an oncoming onslaught. This was a great mistake. Certainly, courage can turn around a marginal situation, but it can't be expected to plug all holes either; the French certainly over-reached. Similarly, the Germans underestimated the Belgians - they did not expect them to fight vigorously, and they did not expect them to defend the forts so vigorously - they threw away lives needlessly attacking the forts before they brought their siege guns into play. These were monstrous affairs, which are amazing to read about, even in the modern nuclear age. When fired, all the crew were lying down, with their faces down, eyes ears and mouths covered; when one was fired in a village, the act of firing shattered all the windows in the village - and you can imagine what it did to the fort.

Into the bargain, there was a lot of history. The treaty at Versailles in 1871 at the end of the Franco-Prussian war meant France lost the provinces of Alasace and Lorraine to Germany, and had to pay a large war debt to Germany. Germany was puzzled that the occupants of Alsace and Lorraine still identified with France, while Nice had been absorbed into France in 1860 following the second Italian war of independence and now the occupants of Nice considered themselves French. Clearly there were some differences, and maybe they were worth reflecting on - for example, while there were claims of vote-rigging, the occupants of Nice ratified the transfer in a referendum at the time - but the Germans just gave up in puzzlement.

Further, the Germans seemed to be taken over by some wooly and inconsistent thinking, and their approaches just alienated themselves from the world. They violated Belgian neutrality - which was "illegal" by some measure - though it's not clear how this illegality compares with the illegality of war itself. Then they became miffed when Belgian civilians undertook guerilla warfare against the invading forces - something that had in fact happened previously in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and was still remembered by the Germans.

It's interesting to reflect that guerrilla warfare was not in fact the monopoly of Mao Tse Tung or Che Guevara, much as we might also observe that the Maori developed their own version of trench warfare well before the Great War.

In any case, the Germans were incensed by the "illegality" of guerrilla warfare, by Belgian civilians while ignoring their own illegality in invading neutral Belgium in the first place. They could also not comprehend that Belgians could take it on themselves to make their own attacks without any central coordination. There's a certain strange arrogance you need to make these jumps of logic, and you can in fact see it today if you look around hard enough.

It was a concern against guerilla attacks that prompted the Germans to take hostages and kill them in reprisal - there's a string of associated atrocities. This was justified within German thinking through the idea that they wanted to terrorise the population into submission, drawing on the doctrine of Emperor Caligula - "Let them hate us as long as they fear us". In fact, this doctrine had been tempered by Machiavelli, writing in "The Prince". He said it was better to be feared than loved, but in any case you should always avoid being hated. Much as you might think Machiavelli licensed the free and unlimited use of brutal power, he did in fact draw the line - he saw that being hated would have larger consequences.

And, indeed for the Germans, it did have larger political consequences. The atrocities committed by the Germans swayed world opinion against them. Till then, they were just one side in a war - but as word spread, the world polarised against them, and refused to negotiate in the manner in which the Germans expected them to be willing to. This development seems obvious in retrospect - but for all the thought the Germans put into war and politics, they didn't see this one coming. Actually, not seeing the broader implication of your decision seems a common mistake in contemporary times, so the Germans would sure not have been the first or the last to make that mistake ( The Brits should have sent those two ships to the Turks. Silly fools.). The ability ( tendency? ) of the military to make mistakes has been considered in more detail in the book "On the Psychology of Military Incompetence" by Norman Dixon.

This has echoes of the current idea that obnoxious US foreign policy involving the use of force gets results in the short term, but has the overall effect of undermining US legitimacy - an echo of what happened to Germany. Naomi Klein identifies a so-called "shock doctrine". However, this seems to be more a reference to "electroshock therapy" than it is to shock as something like force and terror. There could be some problems with her arguments, but Joseph Stiglitz does say she properly identifies the machinations used to force unsavoury policies onto resisting countries.

Continuing with the book, Barbara Tuchman cites a litany of mistakes and failed opportunities during the early course of the Great War. Indeed there were plenty of mistakes - some from sheer idiocy, some actually the result of personality clashes, much as you might think that military necessity and the loss of life would cause military staff to cooperate in spite of their differences - well, it didn't. Personalities and their interactions cast a long shadow.

But, even after all this time, the Great War remains fascinating to me. Perhaps it is pure history, for its own interest. But, equally, you can see parallels and echoes in current times.