The Guns of August


The Guns of August is Barbara Tuchman’s iconic work on the period starting in the first decade of the 20thcentury that led to the outbreak and critical first month of World War I.   After August and September 1914 and their inability to outflank one another as they raced to the sea, the combatants settled into what became a war of attrition that was only resolved by America’s entry into the war.  While much has been written about the cause of the “Great War”, the lessons on how wars start and are fought bear repetition and re-examination.  Moreover, while we don’t currently have a “hot” Cold War, we continue to live in times in which the making and deferral of political decisions as well as missteps in communications by political leaders and other public figures can have chilling consequences.  This problem is heightened in the 21st Century as the number of media sources (which includes social media) has increased exponentially when compared with historical experience, but the quality of communicated information has, with notable exception, deteriorated.  Our primary goal will be to use Ms. Tuchman’s book and occasionally other sources, to examine her period of focus.   Using lessons from the core book and other sources, we will also discuss how channels of communication employed today can affect the development of consequential world events.

Weekly Topics


1          The Great War is foreshadowed by: the Franco-Prussian War; a plan of Count Alfred von Schleiffen, who along with most German military leaders, was a student of von Clausewitz; and France’s Plan VII offering a limited strategic view of a possible war with Germany that underestimated the threat of envelopment.  (pp vii-52)

2          At the outset of the 20thcentury, England recognized that any conflict between France and Germany would pose a threat to Belgian neutrality; nevertheless, England’s perceived role in a war was confused by conflicting attitudes of its politicians and its military leaders; Russia’s earlier loss in its war with Japan did not seem to diminish its perception by the European leadership and populous as a “steam roller,” complete with hordes of Cossacks and mujiks willing to die; Germany’s plan required that it avoid a two-front war with France and Russia, which it would accomplish at the outset by focusing on the von Schleiffen plan of envelopment.  (pp 53-99) 

3          A prime objective of French policy was to enter the war with England as an ally; this required that France avoid violating Belgian neutrality, which required that it wait until German troops crossed the Belgian border; this allowed the internally-conflicted Asquith cabinet to temporize while German forces prepared to invade Belgium; in contrast to England, King Albert of Belgium was single minded in his view of what was developing and how he would react.  (pp 100-160)

4          Mindful of the threat of England’s navy, in 1900 Germany embarked on a massive program to build its naval strength; viewing his navy as precious, the Kaiser feared its destruction and was reluctant to risk a naval confrontation with England; German naval action became key to bringing Turkey into alliance with Germany; Germany’s right wing advances into Belgium toward Liège, and seeking to recover Alsace-Lorraine, the French right wing advances toward Mulhouse and Colmar.  (pp 161-212)

5          Established English military plans for use of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in war are delayed by cabinet and Field Marshall Lord Kitchner, a skeptic about BEF effectiveness, coordinating with the French military and the anticipated short duration of the war; his suggestion that 70 divisions and a protracted war of years would be required for a continental effort was met with horror by the cabinet (several of whom were opposed to military conscription) as well as the military leadership; the French chief of staff refuses to move troops from its center to oppose von Klück's and von Bülow’s armies in the north reasoning that any German forces in the north moving west toward Liège will thin the center where France will concentrate its efforts.  (pp 213-272)

6          The Battle of the Frontiers: in Lorraine advances of the French First Army (General Dubail) and Second Army (General de Castelnau) faltered and were driven back, in part by a bloody defeat at Morhange and by General Rupprecht’s counterattack into French territory; mistakenly thinking (on assurances from Marshal Joffre) that they had numerical superiority, the Third (General Ruffey) and Fourth (General Langle de Cary) French Armies plunged into the Ardennes and were overwhelmed by German resistance and counter attacks; Sir John French was unwilling to coordinate the BEF with the French Fifth Army (General Lanrezac), so they fought unsuccessful and separate battles at Charleroi and Mons where the British suffered their worst losses thus far and, in spite of heroic efforts of forces led by King Albert, enabling the Germans to turn southward toward Paris; Marshal Joffre refused to consider the possibility of an envelopment by von Klück and von Bülow in spite of concerns expressed by Lanrezac.  (pp 273-311)

7          While Russia’s primary target in the war was Austria (due to the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo), it was allied with France.   Russia’s unrealized promises to France to mobilize and move quickly against Germany confirmed French skepticism about this ally; failures of logistics, communications, transportation, training and leadership, together with the geographic breadth of Russia and political divisions within and affecting the Russian royal family, ultimately resulted in failed offensive action in east Prussia.  Nevertheless, concerns of the Kaiser due to Russian action in east Prussia (and in response to east Prussian landowner fears), resulted in General Erich Ludendorff, the hero of Liège, being appointed to take charge of the German Eighth Army. With the assistance of reinforcements taken from German action in the west, Ludendorff’s forces prevailed against the Russians at Tannenberg.  (pp  312-367)

8          Reaction to German military outrage toward Belgian civilians included the following inscription on 384 cemetery gravestones “1914: Fusillé par les Allemans”; the German six-day burning of Louvain, a medieval city with a library of over 230,000 volumes, was widely reported in the world press; British blockade of goods bound for Germany; the Kaiser declares the German navy a “fleet in being”; the doctrine of continuous voyage; Wilson’s declaration of neutrality.  (pp 368-405) 

9          Five German armies of the right wing and center cut into Belgium and France after the War of the Frontiers, with von Klück’s army on the extreme right seeking to envelop the Allied line; minds were focused on a possible repeat of German victory of the French at Sedan in September 1870; the BEF and French forces retreat yielding further French territory; General Joseph-Simon Gallieni becomes Military Governor of Paris and is denied troops to defend the capital.  (pp 406-490)

10       Bothered by the gaps between his enveloping armies on the west as they headed south toward Paris and the lack of reinforcements from his army in Lorraine (which, counter to von Schleiffen doctrine, he had committed to the battle for the Moselle) Chief of Staff General Helmuth von Moltke, believing the French were beaten, directs von Klück’s forces away from its southern march to Paris to make an inward wheel toward Noyon and Compiègne in pursuit of the Fifth Army, but this exposes von Klück’s flank to Paris; Joffre removes Lanrezac from the Fifth Army; holes in the German lines remain and the troops sent to east Prussia as reinforcements are missed; von Klück is ordered to reverse his direction and head west toward the Marne River; recognizing the opportunity to attack the German flank exposed by von Klück, the French and British, with some difficulty, barely patch their quarrels; and with the forces commanded by General Gallieni as well as the BEF and the Fifth and Sixth Armies, the Germans are defeated in the Battle of the Marne.  (pp 470-524) 


Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August

Christopher Clarke, The Sleepwalkers:  How Europe Went to War