The Guns of August by Barbara W Tuchman

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The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman
A predilection for the high drama of war stories and an appreciation for history as narrative led me explore Barbara W. Tuchman’s The Guns of August , a dramatic, comprehensive and painstakingly detailed account of the beginnings of World War One. Having read her history of fourteenth century Europe, A Distant Mirror, I was eager to see how she would apply her style of taking important individuals of the period and showing how events unfolded through the prism of their experiences, to the subject of the First World War. Moreover, the period is one in which I have long been interested, having been introduced to it through the World War One poets, T. S. Elliot’s The Wasteland and All Quiet on the Western Front. The very individual tragedy of this war and the one it engendered a generation later was brought home to me when I lived in France and saw the village memorials and the plaques in Paris commemorating the spots where a civilian had been dragged out and “fusillé par les Allemands,” (shot by the Germans.) Finally, the fact that nearly a century later we are still grappling with war and the world that arose out of 1914 gave immediacy and poignancy to the reading of this book exactly ninety years since the events it records took place. The Guns of August is a military history of the first month of the First World War written by a self-taught scholar and physician’s wife who combined raising three daughters and writing her first books. The Guns of August, which received a Pulitzer Prize in 1962, cemented her reputation in the field of history. Tuchman was a traditional historian who depended on facts scoured painstakingly from a plethora of primary and secondary sources and who wove a gripping narrative from the interplay of these facts, an exploration of the role of individuals, and a consideration of the complex motivations which may have led them to take the actions they did. Rather than imposing her own loose interpretations on what the participants were thinking, however, “She recommended letting the facts lead the way,” as Robert K. Massie points out in the forward. Quoting Tuchman, “‘The very process of transforming a collection of personalities, dates, gun calibers, letters and speeches into a narrative eventually forces the ‘why’ to the surface.’” In this very little of the recent trends in historiography can be seen, except perhaps what Lawrence Stone referred to in his essay “The revival of narrative: reflections on a new old history” from Tosh’s Historians on History. Hers is a “single coherent story” the arrangement of which is descriptive rather than analytical. Its focus is on man not circumstances and it possesses a theme and an argument – the unfolding of World War One and its disastrous consequences for Europe. Certainly Tuchman would have agreed with Stone in his assertion that the culture of the group and will of the individual are important as causal agents of change. And she clearly wants to know what was going on in people’s heads in the past. For her, the “great man” approach, the mentalité model, the histoire événementielle and the historicist technique of combining documentary evidence with the powers of the imagination are the brushes she uses to paint a vivid, living picture of the events and individuals of August, 1914. One could argue that Tuchman might have used the cliometricians’ approach to good effect in her discussion of the economic factors which the academicians and policy makers of the day felt would make a long war unfeasible, or to better show the importance the railroads played or to shore up her already impressive statistics on troop

2 strengths. The reader can also see opportunities for a more longue durée discussion of the natural obstacles that limit or stop humankind, such as the challenge presented by the sloping ground and mists of the Ardennes Forest or the way the iron ore concentrations in the area around Briey and the...
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