Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August. New York: Presidio Press, [1962, 1988, 1994] 2004. ISBN 978-0-345-47609-8.
One hundred years ago the world was on the brink of a cataclysmic confrontation which would cause casualties numbered in the tens of millions, destroy the pre-existing international order, depose royalty and dissolve empires, and plant the seeds for tyrannical regimes and future conflicts with an even more horrific toll in human suffering. It is not exaggeration to speak of World War I as the pivotal event of the 20th century, since so much that followed can be viewed as sequelæ which can be traced directly to that conflict.

It is thus important to understand how that war came to be, and how in the first month after its outbreak the expectations of all parties to the conflict, arrived at through the most exhaustive study by military and political élites, were proven completely wrong and what was expected to be a short, conclusive war turned instead into a protracted blood-letting which would continue for more than four years of largely static warfare. This magnificent book, which covers the events leading to the war and the first month after its outbreak, provides a highly readable narrative history of the period with insight into both the grand folly of war plans drawn up in isolation and mechanically followed even after abundant evidence of their faults have caused tragedy, but also how contingency—chance, and the decisions of fallible human beings in positions of authority can tilt the balance of history.

The author is not an academic historian, and she writes for a popular audience. This has caused some to sniff at her work, but as she noted, Herodotus, Thucydides, Gibbon, and MacCauley did not have Ph.D.s. She immerses the reader in the world before the war, beginning with the 1910 funeral in London of Edward VII where nine monarchs rode in the cortège, most of whose nations would be at war four years hence. The system of alliances is described in detail, as is the mobilisation plans of the future combatants, all of which would contribute to fatal instability of the system to a small perturbation.

Germany, France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary had all drawn up detailed mobilisation plans for assembling, deploying, and operating their conscript armies in the event of war. (Britain, with an all-volunteer regular army which was tiny by continental standards, had no pre-defined mobilisation plan.) As you might expect, Germany's plan was the most detailed, specifying railroad schedules and the composition of individual trains. Now, the important thing to keep in mind about these plans is that, together, they created a powerful first-mover advantage. If Russia began to mobilise, and Germany hesitated in its own mobilisation in the hope of defusing the conflict, it might be at a great disadvantage if Russia had only a few days of advance in assembling its forces. This means that there was a powerful incentive in issuing the mobilisation order first, and a compelling reason for an adversary to begin his own mobilisation order once news of it became known.

Compounding this instability were alliances which compelled parties to them to come to the assistance of others. France had no direct interest in the conflict between Germany and Austria-Hungary and Russia in the Balkans, but it had an alliance with Russia, and was pulled into the conflict. When France began to mobilise, Germany activated its own mobilisation and the Schlieffen plan to invade France through Belgium. Once the Germans violated the neutrality of Belgium, Britain's guarantee of that neutrality required (after the customary ambiguity and dithering) a declaration of war against Germany, and the stage was set for a general war in Europe.

The focus here is on the initial phase of the war: where Germany, France, and Russia were all following their pre-war plans, all initially expecting a swift conquest of their opponents—the Battle of the Frontiers, which occupied most of the month of August 1914. An afterword covers the First Battle of the Marne where the German offensive on the Western front was halted and the stage set for the static trench warfare which was to ensue. At the conclusion of that battle, all of the shining pre-war plans were in tatters, many commanders were disgraced or cashiered, and lessons learned through the tragedy “by which God teaches the law to kings” (p. 275).

A century later, the lessons of the outbreak of World War I could not be more relevant. On the eve of the war, many believed that the interconnection of the soon-to-be belligerents through trade was such that war was unthinkable, as it would quickly impoverish them. Today, the world is even more connected and yet there are conflicts all around the margins, with alliances spanning the globe. Unlike 1914, when the world was largely dominated by great powers, now there are rogue states, non-state actors, movements dominated by religion, and neo-barbarism and piracy loose upon the stage, and some of these may lay their hands on weapons whose destructive power dwarf those of 1914–1918. This book, published more than fifty years ago, about a conflict a century old, could not be more timely.

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