Trending in August: World War I.
As unlikely as that sounds, know that we are on the cusp of the 100th anniversary of the war’s outbreak in 1914.
In popular culture, the First World War gets no respect, seen as a mere precursor to the main event, World War II.
So now is the perfect time, experts say, to pull the war from out of the historical shadow, to explore it as the driver of the 20th century — and into the 21st.
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The FYI Book Club is jumping on that bandwagon. Its current selection is Barbara W. Tuchman’s “The Guns of August.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning account is an apt start to the commemoration: Not only is it a classic on the war, published in 1962, but the nonfiction book also homes in on the war’s beginning, as the title says.
“The Guns of August” is beloved for its focus on the war’s personalities and page-turning narrative.
“Great historians, for me anyway, are great storytellers, and Tuchman is one of the best,” says Bruce Cole, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Cole puts Tuchman in a category with historian and author David McCullough, saying she mixed her scholarship with just the right amount of story, personality and telling detail.
“Writing history is as much an art as a science,” Cole says.
Tuchman, who died in 1989 at age 77, famously begins the book not with a battle but with the 1910 funeral of Edward VII of England.
The sovereigns of 70 nations, leaders she describes as plumed and bejeweled, had assembled in London.
“The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace,” Tuchman writes, “but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”
Cole says Tuchman came to history from a journalism background. She was thankful she hadn’t pursued a doctorate.
“She felt she would have gotten bogged down in specialized and academic writing,” he says.
Yet she was a rigorous scholar, he says, one who considered broad social movements and historical forces while drilling down to the personalities of the leaders, men who were making early and fateful decisions.
In her book, Tuchman calls out German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II as the “possessor of the least inhibited tongue in Europe,” and she writes that French Gen. Joseph Joffre “looked like Santa Claus and gave an impression of benevolence and naivete — two qualities not noticeably part of his character.”
Tuchman was particularly curious about individuals, their flaws and finer points.
“She definitely represents the idea that personalities make history,” says John McManus, a professor of U.S. military history at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. “There’s nothing wrong with that. We still argue about it. To an extent, these individuals are products of their age, but their personality quirks help drive events — until eventually the events engulf them.”
In proposing a book about World War I to a publisher, Tuchman was looking for something manageable. She first suggested the story of the escape of the German battleship, the Goeben. But the publisher wasn’t interested.
“The war as a whole seemed too large and beyond my capacity,” she writes in the preface to “The Guns of August.”
So she hit upon the plan to take apart that crucial first month of the war.
“I think she was very wise to focus on the beginning of the war and to do it as no one had done it before,” McManus says.
In her book, Tuchman chronicles the many early moments when leaders could have changed courses but failed. Political judgments took a back seat to military decisions, including pre-set deployment schemes, such as Germany’s Schlieffen Plan and France’s Plan 17.
“The participants had very unrealistic expectations of what the war actually would be,” McManus says. “The plans all reflect some degree of delusion on their parts.”
Germany intended to breach Belgium to encircle Paris but drained away the manpower to pull it off. Britain had the idea that a blockade war was strategic enough. And Russia was pretending it had more army than it did.
“There’s a lack of accountability in these countries, elite individuals empowered to make what were irrational decisions,” he says.
“The Guns of August” made an impression on President John F. Kennedy, an avid reader of history, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
Kennedy saw parallels between the crisis and Tuchman’s account of August 1914, and he found a particularly cautionary tale in a conversation between two German leaders:
“How did it all happen?” one asked, to which the other replied, “Ah, if only one knew.”
“If this planet,” Kennedy said, as quoted in a biography, “is ever ravaged by nuclear war — if the survivors of that devastation can then endure the fire, poison, chaos and catastrophe — I do not want one of these survivors to ask another, ‘How did it all happen?’ and to receive the incredible reply, ‘Ah, if only one knew.’”
Kennedy gave a copy of the book to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, noting that leaders should avoid the snares of 1914.
The study of history is all about discerning its lessons, says Lora Vogt, curator of education for the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial. And World War I can be a head-scratcher historically, which is what makes it so fascinating to explore, she says.
“We’ve been inundated by World War II movies, the good guys against the bad guys,” Vogt says. “World War I is more nuanced, more challenging. It’s messy.”
From that perspective, she says, Tuchman’s scrutiny of those first decisions, which led to years of huge human loss under gruesome conditions, is a good place for anyone to start.
“Decisions and actions in July and August of 1914 would lead to 37 million military and civilian casualties, empires lost, national boundaries reshaped,” Vogt says. “Even the conditions of peace still plague us today. The borders of Iraq were formed at the peace process in Paris.”
Vogt, McManus and Cole all encouraged readers to visit the national museum in Kansas City as part of any exploration of the war.
Tuchman’s book won quick and widespread praise. At the risk of being presumptuous, Tuchman said, she believed the book’s closing paragraph was as well-stated as any summary of World War I. The war, she commented, had spread into a pattern of world conflict that couldn’t be fixed by peace treaties.
“The nations were caught in a trap,” she writes in the last sentence of the book, “a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.”
GREAT WAR, GREAT READ
Starting in August, the Kansas City Public Library and the National World War I Museum are presenting “Great War, Great Read,” an initiative to encourage residents to read Barbara W. Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” and Erich Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
Here are five author events to consider:
Aug. 13: Paul Jankowski, “Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War”
Sept. 17: Christopher Clark, “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914”
Sept. 24: April Smith, “A Star for Mrs. Blake”
Oct. 3: Ann Bausum, “Sergeant Stubby”
Oct. 8: Howard Blum, “Dark Invasion: 1915”
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a “book of the moment” selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along.
Members of FYI and the library staff chose “The Guns of August” by Barbara W. Tuchman.
If you would like to participate in an upcoming discussion of the book led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Passages from Barbara W. Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” published by Random House
“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens — four dowager and three regnant — and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.” Chapter One
“Despite his great height and perfect horsemanship, Albert, King of the Belgians, who disliked the pomp of royal ceremony, contrived in that company to look both embarrassed and absent-minded. He was then thirty-five and had been on the throne barely a year. In later years when his face became known to the world as a symbol of heroism and tragedy, it still always wore that abstracted look, as if his mind were on something else.
“The future source of tragedy, tall, corpulent, and corseted, with green plumes waving from his helmet, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir of the old Emperor Franz Josef, rode on Albert’s right, and on his left another scion who would never reach his throne, Prince Yussuf, heir of the Sultan of Turkey.” Chapter One
“Character is fate, the Greeks believed. A hundred years of German philosophy went into the making of this decision in which the seed of self-destruction lay embedded, waiting for its hour.” Chapter Two
“… the Home Secretary, a young man of thirty-seven, impossible to ignore, who, from his inappropriate post, had pelted the Prime Minister during the crisis with ideas on naval and military strategy, all of them quite sound, had produced an astonishingly accurate prediction of the future course of the fighting, and who had no doubts whatever about what needed to be done. The Home Secretary was Winston Churchill.” Chapter 4
“On July 31 Germany issued an ultimatum to Russia to demobilize within twelve hours and ‘make us a distinct declaration to that effect.’
“War pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no use. Agents at frontiers were reporting every cavalry patrol as a deployment to beat the mobilization gun. General staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables, were pounding the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain an hour’s head start. Appalled upon the brink, the chiefs of state who would be ultimately responsible for their country’s fate attempted to back away but the pull of military schedules dragged them forward.” Outbreak
“One army corps alone — out of the total of 40 in the German forces — required 170 railway cars for officers, 965 for infantry, 2,960 for cavalry, 1,915 for artillery and supply wagons, 6,010 in all, grouped in 140 trains and an equal number again for their supplies. From the moment the order was given, everything was to move at fixed times according to a schedule precise down to the number of train axles that would pass over a given bridge within a given time.” Chapter Six
“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 Liège.” Chapter Eleven