gunsofaLast August, in conjunction with the centennial of the start of World War I, I re-read Barbara Tuchman’s classic account of the war’s first days, The Guns of August. Tuchman is a great writer and she tells the story of the war’s first weeks well. One thing she captures particularly well is the way that poor military planning based on fatally flawed assumptions brought on catastrophes that affected all of the combatants.

Unfortunately, Tuchman’s book has some flaws and some critical omissions. Tuchman is a great story-teller, but all too often her desire to tell the story interferes with her account. There are too many sentences like this one, relating to Belgium’s war minister: “Baron de Broqueville, Premier and concurrently War Minister, entered the room as the work concluded, a tall, dark gentleman of elegant grooming whose resolute air was enhanced by an energetic black mustache and expressive black eyes.” Maybe it is just me, but when a war looms, the minister’s grooming, moustache and eyes are hardly relevant. Even if his mustache was — as improbable as it seems – “energetic.”

And whether or not you like the way she tells the tale, the problem is that her rendition is hollow at its core. Although Tuchman dutifully recites Bismarck’s famous quip that “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans”  will start the next war,  and although she dutifully if tersely recounts how the assassinations of the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, triggered the war, she does not explain why the events in the Balkans threatened war so portentously, as Bismarck predicted, or even why the assassination of an Austrian Archduke would provoke a war that drew all of the major powers into what became at the time the most destructive war that the world had ever seen. Indeed, though she does a great job detailing the flaws of the various combatants’ war plans, she does little to explain why they were preparing for war in the first place and why all of the major powers viewed war as inevitable.

So, after finishing Tuchman’s book, I set out on what has proven to be a year of reading to try to gain a better understanding of what happened and why.
Continue Reading The Great War: A Book List