Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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"The Guns of August 1914", Barbara Tuchman

May 28th, 2009 · No Comments · History, Politics

Synopsis: Droll and erudite Pulitzer Prize winning account of the first month of the first World War.

My Take: I had wanted to read this book since reading RFK’s account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Serendipitously, ‘The Guns of August’ won the Pulitzer Prize in 1962 and as a result came across JFK’s desk just before the Missile Crisis. As a result, the book’s insights into the momentum of war and the myopia of military commanders had more real world impact than possibly any historical account before it. It’s no exaggeration to say that this book changed our understanding of organisational decision making forever.

Beyond this rich back story, The Guns of August is a really engaging read. Tuchman is a talented and dry writer (“with that marvelous incapacity to admit error that was ultimately to make him a Field-Marshal”), bringing detail and colour to the fascinating political and military narrative of the war. Tuchman’s impressive coverage of the personal peccadilloes and idiocies of the political and military leaders of the time is both terrifying and amusing (the Russian general who insisted that bullets were simply a fad and that the Bayonet would continue to rule supreme was a personal favourite). I haven’t read many history books that had had me chortling out loud like this one.

Highlights:

There are lots of highlight worthy passages in this book.

The first line:

“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kinds rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration”. Sets the tone for the whole book.

The personal descriptions of the protagonists eg:

“The last-named, Prince Danilo, ‘an amiable, extremely handsome young man of delightful manners’, resembled the Merry Widow’s lover in more than name for, to the consternation of British functionaries, he had arrived for the funeral the night before accompanied by a ‘charming young lady of great personal attractions’ whom he introduced as his wife’s lady-in-waiting, come to London to do some shopping.’

Bismark’s prediction that the next war would be triggered by:

“Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans”

And finally, the Russian government’s decision to ban its troops from drinking vodka. Possibly a good military decision, but given that vodka was at that time a state monopoly and the army drank 1/3rd of all vodka sold in Russia(!), an economically ruinous one that contributed in no small part to the subsequent revolution.

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