A History Course on WWI

2792609e262b3a4596755716951444341587343The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman ★★★★
Edition: Tantor Audio, Unabridged MP3, 19h02. Narrated by John Lee
Original publication date: 1962

One of my reading goals this year is to mark the centenary and include at least one book per month on the theme of Word War I, in a mix of genres and approaches. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning work of non-fiction, Barbara Tuchman set out to describe the events which led up to the onset of the Great War and walk us through that first month, during August 1914. Focusing primarily on the heads of state and government, she describes what the dynamics were in the early years of the 20th century, in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war from which Germany emerged victorious and hungered for world domination. Until reading this book, I had always believed that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914 was the spark that suddenly started it all. I had also been under the impression that the war could have been averted, but the picture Tuchman paints of those years leading up to August 1914 seems to show that the Germans were bent on invasion and domination and in effect forcibly provoked it’s enemies to retaliate. I had not known the history of Belgium, nor that it was, up till the German invasion in August 1914, a neutral country as determined by a treaty which had been signed by Prussia in 1839. Tuchman describes how the Germans deliberately invaded Belgium and proceeded to brutalize the local population with the excuse that they were meeting violent resistance from the civilians, in what came to be known as the Rape of Belgium. Here, the assassination of Ferdinand is barely mentioned. In this version of events, it seems that the allied forced of France and Britain on the Western front, and Russia on the Eastern front, had no choice but to retaliate to stop the German forces from proceeding on to their targeted invasion of France and onward.

I can’t say this is the kind of book I normally gravitate to. It’s focus is on the military strategies, plans of action and commands, which is an aspect of war which is not of great interest to me. I am more interested in the human element, which is usually to be found in fictional novels, or stories about individual experiences, but it seemed to me important to read about the major forces which led to the onset of war so I could gain a bit more understanding of the political aspects which influenced an entire generation and were then responsible for tens of millions of casualties in that other war just a couple of decades later. I was quite fascinated with the first chapter, describing the pomp and ceremony of the Funeral procession of King Edward VII in May 1910, which presents all the major world-wide players of the day, at what was reportedly one of the largest gatherings of European royalty ever to take place, and one of the last before many royal families were deposed in World War I and its aftermath. Later on, I was much less enthused with the focus remaining on strategy and troupe movements, but instead of abandoning ship (so to speak) as I was tempted to do, decided to keep listening in a similar spirit in which I would have continued attending a lecture series in hopes of bettering my general knowledge, even if this meant listening distractedly at best though long bouts of the narrative.

It’s hard for me to say whether Tuchman’s is a biased view of events or not, as I have not yet read anything else comparable about WWI, but I did get the strong impression that the blame as to who was responsible for causing the war lay strongly on German powers. There followed detailed descriptions of decisions by the allied forces which might have turned things around, so the blame does not solely rest on the Germans, but one can hardly read this book and walk away feeling much sympathy for them, and for this reason I think I will have to make a point of reading works where the focus is quite different so I can form a more balanced view. As it is, I walk away quite angry, thinking that all this massacre could have been avoided had the Keiser and some of the ‘great German intellectuals’ not been obsessed with world domination. In other words, my prejudices are more or less intact thus far.

This is a rare case when I’ve decided to rate the book more on it’s own merit than to reflect my private appreciation of it. As a history course, I think it is to be highly recommended. Those who tend to read non-fiction regularly and are comfortable in the realm of power plays and politics will definitely find full satisfaction here. For those like me who only occasionally read non-fiction and prefer to read about the day-to-day realities of living through war, this may seem too dry, but then there is a time and place for everything, and I thought 2014 was a good year to make room for reading the kinds of books about war I would not normally gravitate to. A last note about this particular audio version; I was very annoyed with John Lee, who insisted on adopting the various accents of whoever was being quoted. He is no Meryl Streep and his accents were far from convincing, besides which it took away from the serious tone of the work and was not at all appropriate. I know there is another audio version narrated by Nadia May, though I do not know whether or not she puts in a similar type of performance.

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