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The Guns of August
“The Guns of August” was written by Barbara W. Tuchman in 1962. The book
describes the causes of the first World war and the first month into. It describes how it
began as only a local war and then broke out into an entire European struggle by a call to
war against Russia and then soon after became a world issue.
Summary of the Book
The Beginning (Chapters 1-5)
The book begins at the funeral procession of King Edward VII of England in 1910.
This procession contained a glorious array of Kings and Nobles from around the world,
this was to be the last. Throughout the procession there are mournful faces, but one
“mournful face” hides happiness. The happiness is of Emperor William II of Germany.
Throughout his life and reign, Edward candidly exhibited his love for France over his
neighboring country, Germany. Now that Edward was out of the way, William was sure
that he had earned the position as the ruler of Europe the entire and would soon take
action to prove to the rest of the world that Germany was more powerful than all. In
Germany, the Chief of the German General Staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, created a
plan of attack in case of the possibility of a two-front war. But, this plan required
invading Belgium, which(at the time) was neutral territory and proteced by England,
Despite the promise of England to Belgium, Schlieffen continued with his attack plans.
He believed that Germany’s army was far more powerful and advanced than England,
and that there was no reason he should feel threatened. After years of perfecting his
plans, they were finally finished in 1906. Nevertheless after all of those years of
planning, he failed to properly reinforce the eastern front. Even though he was highly
criticized for this, he stood by his decision stating that he knew the Russians would force
the army into the cold harsh, Russian winter, such as the case of Napoleon. Even though
Schlieffen came up with this wonderful and well thought out plan, his successor, General
von Moltke, changed the plans entirely.
Like Germany, France also concocted an offensive plan. So absorbed in their
pride for their country, they never even gave thought to having a defensive plan. All,
because they wanted to see Germany suffer after the humiliation of Sedan. This
humiliation was “the last straw” after so many years of defeat, they felt that if they won a
war, their pride could be restored. So, they come up with Plan 17, a plan which directed
a march from Paris to Berlin until Germany surrendered. Because of the embarrassing
defeat in1905against Japan, Russia’s-a French ally-status quo was severely disturbed.
Which meant that France could possibly go to war without an ally. After a threat was
thrown from Germany, France quickly turned to their other ally, England. But because of
the outcome of a resent election, the new elected turned out to be a Liberal, and liberals
are against involvement of foreign affairs and war in general. Consequently, the French
were forced to seek support from England unofficially. It wasn’t until 1910 that any
progress was made towards making a military plan that would be compatible with that of
the French. British General Henry Wilson was assigned to arrange this military plan.
And this plan eventually became the official plan of the British government in any case of
a war between France, and Germany.
Russia was considered a “steam roller” to the British and French because f its vast
size and powerful attack once it got going. But, getting going was the slow part.
However, appearances aren’t everything. Russia lacked sufficient leadership, supplies
training, and organization. Under the direction of General Sukhomlinov, the army
vegetated and soon began to deteriorate. Instead of spending government money on
supplies and guns, the General used it for other things and supplied the army with
bayonets, lances and sabers. Because of this, Russia was unprepared for war.
Austria’s final opportunity to seize Serbia as they had done to many other
countries such as Bosnia and Herzgovina, came with the assassination of the Austrian
heir apparent the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a group of Serbian nationalists. Because
of this a series of events followed. The first was on July 5, Germany convinced Austria
that they would back them up in any decision made. July 23 Serbia was sent an
ultimatum and the reply was rejected on the 26th. Two days later, war was declared and
the next day, Austria bombarded Belgrade. The same day Russia hurried along their
Austrian front and on the 30th, both countries ordered general mobilization. Finally on
the last day of the month, Germany handed out an ultimatum to Russia which ordered
Russia to Demobilize within 12 hours. In Germany on the first of August, as the
upcoming war was approaching, the Kaiser found himself worrying, since the war was a
two-front one and their plans were so unstable. Even at the last minute he was trying to
prevent this two-front war from occurring. On the 1st of August, around five o‘clock, the
Kaiser signed an the permit to order mobilization and then handed it to General von
Moltke. But, Moltke did not travel far until he was suddenly called back because the
Kaiser had received some (false) information stating that Germany would not have to go
to war with France. In truth, Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, really
offered to keep France neutral on the grounds that Germany would not enter the war
against France and Russia. Despite all of that, Moltke stood his ground. The
mobilization continued on, and the Kaiser still managed to stall the invasion on Belgium.
Around 11 o’clock, the Kaiser discovered the truth of the situation and let Moltke
continue with his plans. The next day at 7:00, Germany crossed the Belgian border at
Trois Vierges and World War II began.
Whilst Germany was stalling its armies, France was too. At approximately 2 in
the morning, Islovsky, a Russian ambassador, awoke President Poincare to see if France
was indeed going to support Russia. Despite the clearly written answer in the military
alliance between the two countries, the Russian government was concerned that the
French Parliament would not honor the alliance. At nine the Cabinet was called and they
agreed to honor the alliance. But, at this point in England, whether or not Britain was
going to become part of the war was still undecided. The only thing that kept them from
joining the war was the violation of Belgium by Germany.
When Belgium learned of the Germany’s intents, Belgium was mobilized by July
31. But, they did not act in their own defense until it was absolutely necessary in order to
keep their promise of neutrality. On the 1st August, they received notice that France had
responded to England about upholding Belgium’s neutrality but Germany had not. The
next day, Belgium heard abut the German invasion of Luxembourg, and M. Davingon,
the Foreign Minister commanded that Germany tell him what they were about to do.
Soon after he received his answer from Herr van Below, sent the ultimatum to the
Belgian government. This ultimatum tried to force an invasion onto Belgium by
proposing that Germany will fix all the buildings, etc., that their army would destroy and
leave as soon as they could. King Albert realized that there was no question and that
Belgium must fight Germany no matter what, then he gave an order to destroy all of the
railroads and bridges in Belgium. About this time, Britain still did not know what they
should do. They had heard about the ultimatum from Germany unto Belgium, and on the
3rd, an entire Parliament meeting was called to order. Grey made a speech which
convinced the government to go to war if it became necessary. But, they wrote an
ultimatum to Germany ordering them to demobilize by midnight. Sadly, they waited until
the next day to send it and less than two hours after Grey’s speech was made, German
declared war on France. The next day, while the Germans invaded Belgium, Britain was
waiting for an answer to their proposal.
Throughout all of this, no one thought about Turkey for no one considered them a strong
nation. But, unknown to the other countries, Turkey had become strong right before the
war and both sides were rushing to become an ally. All except for Britain who was
dominating Turkey, and in this domination Britain stole some of Turkey’s ships. As a
result, Turkey was looking to become a German ally. They did not become an ally
quickly because they were not sure if Germany would win, so they held out. They finally
joined with Germany because Germany sold Turkey two of their war ships. While thy
still had this ally, Germany was still thinking about Belgium. They did not expect
Belgium to resist them , but in their efforts to conquer Liege, it was discovered that
Belgium was not going to give up without a fight. Despite that fact that they could not
launch an offense attack their defense efforts were excellent. During this time, the
French were tying to take over Alsace. On August 5, the French established a
headquarters in Marne.
Before the start of the war battle plans were made which called for the British
Expeditionary force to cover General Lanrezac’s left flank. But, the British did not have
conscription, and the army in the islands only had six cavalry divisions and one cavalry
division. A great number of the officials stressed keeping the divisions at home for
training and then use them to form a better a larger army. Others wanted to move the
divisions and land them in Antwerp and work with the Belgians, but Prime Minister
Winston Churchill vetoed that idea. Eventually they reached a compromise to send the
cavalry and for infantry divisions to Rouen, France. Reluctantly, the BEF agreed to
fallow the pre-war plans arranged and guard the left flank. Yet, General Kitchener
determined to protect his BEF army by not acting in the offensive maneuvers ordered by
the French. The 15th day after the war had begun, the French army moved to the
offensive on the right flank. The German army defended their position with barbed wire,
deep trenches and gun emplacements. All throughout the first four days of this attack, the
Germans slowly withdrew. Without the French realizing it, the German army had
gathered a large number of troops on the French left flank. The Belgians were tiring and
the BEF was moving too slowly and could not yet get into position, on the 28th, a retreat
of the Belgian army was ordered by the King. When they realized what had happened,
the Germans quickly moved in and massacred Aerschot and Dinant. The next day, von
Kluck’s army occupied Belgium.
Between August 20 and August 24, there were four great battles going on at the
western front. Near Lorraine, the fighting stopped the trenches, barbed wire and guns
stopped their attack short. North of Loraine, at Ardennes, the French tried to fight
through the Germans, because they the generals were sure that was Germany’s weakest
front. But, once again on the 22nd, the French were proven wrong. Even further north at
Charleroi the French come up with a right way to attack the Germans. They believed that
the Germans only had about 17-18 divisions to the west of the Meuse against which they
could field twenty-one divisions, including the BEF. In reality, the Germans had 30
divisions with eight standing by. During the battle General Lanrezac was forced to pull
back in order to save the 5th French army. Around the same time the BEF was involved
with the battle at Mons with von Kluck’s army. Since they were outnumbered the British
were forced to retreat.
At their wits end, France began to plead with their ally, Russia, to help them attack
on the eastern front. But, as said before, Russia was un prepared. On the August 17, the
German army withdrew as the Russian army advanced towards them. The reason the
Germans withdrew was because they knew that the further west the Russian went, the
more vulnerable they would become. Three days later the Germans switch gears into
offense, although the Russian army was hurt, it was the Germans who were forced to
retreat. General Ludendorf was sent to take over command in the east. And the new
commanders concentrated on how to use all of their strength against the Russians. Right
before the Battle of Tennenberg, a Russian wireless was intercepted by the Germans, and
int hose wireless’ were the Russians’ plans for attack. When the battle began, the
Russian Sixth Corps was exhausted and hungry, they were not prepared for battle. And
so, Russia lost the battle. The same thing happened to the Twenty-Third Corps and the
First Corps. Consequently, the entire Russian army retreated. Even the retreat turned
into a disaster. The entire Russian command was killed or captured, A Russian General
by the name of Samsonov committed suicide. The Russians were defeated.
German soldiers poured into the French armies left wing by the thousands. For
days, France fought and retreated, but the army was not yet beaten. Even though Paris
was at risk of being destroyed, all that mattered to the Generals now was that the soldiers
not be destroyed. To assist, the BEF sent more divisions to the left wing and the French
added three more from overseas. On the 26th, the Germans were held at bay and the left
flank was finally saved. A couple of days later, von Kluck made the decision to strike
against the retreating French army’s flank instead of cutting the BEF off. The Germans
met the flank heavily and the French defended the same way.
That same day, Paris was brought under military jurisdiction. Everyone was
forced to work in the cities defense. The German army was stopped at Guise, but on the
left-wing the BEF troops continued to retreat. During his time the Germans were not
following the Channel, they were not even aiming for Paris, but for the BEF and French
troops. The same day as Tennenberg, orders were given to abandon Paris .
The advance of the Germans was causing holes in the armies, reenforcements were
not on time in arriving and consequently the ranks were thinning. Kluck stood his ground
and did not head for Paris, even though the armies were out of supplies. By turning away
from Paris Germany exposed their flank to the others. General Lanrezac was replaced by
Franchet d’Esperey; on September 5, the French decided to throw a full attack upon the
Germans station north of the Marne. But, the British would not cooperate and retreated
another 15 miles. Despite the British’s stubbornness, the French attacked anyway. The
embarrassed British commander ordered his troops to retrace their steps and join the
French. The Battle of Marne ended a German retreat and afterwards time was on the side
of the French, their allies and the Americans who would later join the army.
About the Author
What I thought
“The Guns of August” was given to me by my History teacher a few months ago.
He told us to read it and then write a report, this report actually, about it. Upon hearing
him and then taking a look at the book I held in my hands, a soft groan was suppressed by
my lips. Now that I look back onto that time I can understand why I felt that way, this
book is very long and is not at all anything I would dream of reading in my free time.
Beginning the book was rather hard, it could have been my attitude, it could have been
the book itself, or it could have been both. All I can remember was that it seemed like it
took an eternity to just read one page. But as I went along, and started to really absorb
the information, I started to enjoy reading this book more. Truthfully, it is not my
favorite book, and I would not want to read it again unless I was forced to. But, that does
not sway the fact that I learned things by reading “The Guns of August.” Before reading
this I never really understood or knew that facts surrounding or the reason for World War
I. All I knew was that the Germans had something to do with it and they lost. This book
has really opened my eyes and now I can understand why people would look at me
strangely when I asked.. “Wait, World War I was the one WITHOUT the Nazi’s right?”
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