The guns of august

The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman

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Plans

The first five chapters are devoted to describing the major powers of the war (Britain, France, Germany, and Russia, omitting Austria and Turkey) and the events that led to the conflict. Tuchman describes in detail the societal forces behind the events in The Proud Tower. The opening chapters provide the necessary background for the discussion of the battles and their commanders, although some events (notably the Dreyfus Affair and military engagements prior to 1914, especially the Franco-Prussian War) are assumed to be prior knowledge, and are referenced without explanation.

The book opens with the death of King Edward VII, whose funeral on May 20, 1910 marked “the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered and, of its kind, the last.” (p. 15). Following chapters describe

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The French High Command had made incomplete allowances for dealing with the large massed attack by the German army that now came quickly bearing down on them. It was perhaps through the decisions of the French Fifth Army commander, Charles Lanrezac, who acted in a timely fashion before getting permission from Joffre, that the entire French line was eventually saved from envelopment and general collapse. Although his pleas were ignored, Lanrezac withdrew his forces at Charleroi from an untenable position (and probable destruction) and redeployed them more favorably [pages 236-240, 275-279, 282-286, 295]. He was later relieved of command [page 465].

The Battle of the Frontiers was brutal. The Belgian army was rushed against the German army, but the Allies were forced to retreat slowly under the German onslaught until finally the Germans were within 40 miles of Paris. The city was saved through the courage and verve of a semi-retired territorial general, Joseph Gallieni, who brilliantly marshalled his limited resources and saved the day. The city was preparing for siege and possible complete destruction and the government had fled south, when two divisions of reserves suddenly arrived and were rushed to the front by the city’s fleet of 600 taxi cabs. Tuchman cynically notes that Joffre later took complete credit for saving Paris and the French army—after having the commander who ordered the tactical retreat, Charles Lanrezac, relieved of duty and the older commander and his former superior, Joseph Gallieni, pushed back into obscurity.

Tuchman is also careful to point out that, although many of Joffre’s actions were shameful, when he was finally pushed into action he showed great skill in guiding the hastily improvised counter-blow that crashed into the invader’s flank. The Germans greatly contributed to their own undoing by outrunning their supply lines, pushing their infantry to the point of physical collapse, and deviating from the original invasion plan, which called for the right flank to be protected from counterattack. At this stage of its offensive the German army lacked the troops used by the siege of the fortress of Antwerp held by the Belgian army. Both sides were plagued by poor communication and general staffs that were heavily invested with politics and sycophancy. Dire warnings from commanders in the field were ignored when they did not fit preconceived notions of quick victory at low cost (a recurring problem that has beset armies up to this day).

Tuchman carefully introduces us to all the key players, both the Allied (French, British, Belgian and Russian) and German commanders. With her characteristic attention to detail, we learn of their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses.

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A further aspect of Tuchman’s account also deserves plaudits. She makes clear how the war plans of Germany, France, Russia, and Britain were all based on wishes, on the most favorable reading of intelligence reports, and on an almost unwavering belief in the power of the offense. In every case those expectations were disappointed. Nor does she neglect the role that technology played, showing how British and French aerial intelligence revealed the shift of German forces away from Paris toward the Marne River and the remarkable intelligence gifts the Germans got in the east from the Russian failure to encipher any of their field orders. The development of the huge German artillery pieces also gets her attention, as does France’s continual reliance on its superb 75 mm pieces.

Tuchman notes there was no significant naval action in the North Sea in August once the British had put their blockade in place. On the other hand Tuchman devotes a long and somewhat awkward chapter to the British chase of the German ships Goeben and Breslau in the Mediterranean in the opening moments of the fray. The account properly reflects little credit on British naval leaders.

But some of the names are more familiar: Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, President Raymond Poincaré, Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, a young soldier named Charles de Gaulle who fought for France (only given honorable mention) and another young soldier named Adolf Hitler, among others.

The Front with Russia

Only two chapters are devoted to the Eastern Front. These chapters center on the Russian invasion of East Prussia and the German reaction to it, culminating in the battle of Tannenberg. Tuchman further completely ignores the front between Austria and Serbia.

In these chapters, Tuchman covers the series of errors, faulty plans, poor communications and poor logistics which decidedly helped the French by causing the Germans to transfer two corps (yet another error) to defend what the book refers to as the ‘Russian Steam Roller’. It only hints of the follow-on misery of the eastern front.

  1. The Battle of the Frontiers which was most of the month. This was the period of the German violation of Belgian territory, the taking of Belgium, the introduction of terror, which alienated much of the world, the destruction of much of Belgium and some of northern France and the terrible destruction of Louvain. People saw a significance in the burning of the famous library of Louvain, as something beyond the pale of civilized people:

    “’The burning of the library (Louvain)’ said the Daily Chronicle, ‘meant war not only on noncombatants, but on posterity to the utmost generations.’”

  2. The second phase was the turn south, and the German march
    toward Paris.
  3. The ultimate failure of that march led to the establishment of
    trench warfare which defined the Western Front for the rest of
    the war, four more long years of massive casualties.

The first month of the war was a disaster of pig-headed generals, of all belligerents sticking to plans made in the abstract and not working in fact. If either side didn’t DECISIVELY lose the war in the first month it was because of absurd mistakes by the opposition and not because of their carefully crafted plans.

There were no exceptions to the notion that each player in the war did some very dumb things in that first month.

  1. The Germans seem to do fewer of them than the others, but with greater consequence. The primary factor was the introduction of terror against the civilian population. As they would take any town, if there was any sort of resistance of the local population – shooting at the invading soldiers, sabotage of roads, railways or bridges, cutting of communication lines, destruction of food supplies – anything, then the Germans would line up people in the local villages, shoot many of them as an example and increase the numbers if others tried resistance. This not only increased the will of the Belgian people to resist, but alarmed the whole world against these tactics of German warfare.

    A second mistake, that turned out to be quite important was that they were moving through Belgium with some pace, and began to think they would get things back on schedule despite Belgian resistance, and thus they sent three divisions of soldiers away from the Western Front to their east to help resist the (weak) Russian attack at Tannenberg. Tuchman’s assessment of the Russians was: “They entered the war without confidence and remained in it without faith.”

    A third severe mistake in that first month was that the Germans, who had built a significant navy just for this war was that the German navy stayed holed up and used almost exclusively (in August) to patrol against Russian incursion. England was terrified at any prospect of losing sea superiority which it had over the rest of the world and needed. It was totally sea dependent for everything, including food. The Germans passed up a critical opportunity to engage the British fleet and cripple
    England’s supply lines from the world.

  2. The French were so wedded to their plans to attack the German center at Alsace and Lorraine, that they let the encirclement by the Germans grow so strong, ceding the Germans a huge area of French northern territory where there was heavy manufacturing and great bounties of agriculture, that they greatly disadvantaged themselves.
  3. The British just couldn’t really get themselves committed to the war. In that month of August 1914 the British faced the severe Curragh Mutiny in Northern Ireland. Since the “Irish problem” was possible to flare up again at any time it made many British nervous about sending too large an army to Europe. Thus they joined the Allies, but with half a heart and always wanting to be defensive of casualties.
  4. The United States was extremely slow to realize the significance of the war and to join the Allied cause. President Wilson wanted to stay out of the war so the U.S. could play a power role as savior of the world in diplomacy and economic power after the war (which, he assumed, would be short). Eventually, despite his wishes, conditions wouldn’t allow the United States to remain neutral.
  5. The Russians were just so disorganized and unprepared that they took much too long to get seriously into the war to matter much in that first month.

The book was an immediate bestseller. The Pulitzer Prize nomination committee was unable to award it the prize for outstanding history because Joseph Pulitzer’s will specifically stated that the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for history must be a book on American history. Instead, Tuchman was given the prize for general non-fiction.

The Malaysian airliner crash was a terrible disaster in many ways. Not so much per se: three hundred people are being killed each day in Gaza, Iraq, Donbass. Europeans and Americans forgot the Cuban air liner  flight 455, or Iranian liner flight 655, or Libyan liner  flight 114, as these liners were downed by “our side”. But this was a chance for the Western media machine to unleash its dreadful might. This machine is as powerful as nuclear weapons; when in full blast, it incapacitates leaders and countries. Thousands of TV channels, newspapers, radio programs, bloggers, internet sites, experts, ministers, presidents united in one single message, terrifying as vox Dei, though it’s not even a vox populi, just a device of Masters of Discourse, akin to big trumpets used by Romans to scare the barbarians.

British newspapers ran photos of dead children with captions like “He was murdered by Putin”. Russians were overwhelmed by the furious blast of propaganda. People wept; some weak and emotional personalities admitted their guilt and lit candles in front of Netherlands embassy in Moscow. Why Netherlands, if the liner was Malaysian? (Because Netherlands is a European “white” country, while Malays are not?) Why guilt, if nothing was known yet? Why did not we see pictures of slaughtered Gaza kids with caption “murdered by Netanyahu”, killed Iraqi kids “murdered by Blair”, murdered Afghani babies “murdered by Obama”? This is the incredible power of the Masters of Discourse: when they go full blast, people lose mind and panic.

I welcomed every conspiratorial scheme in this case, as well as in 9/11 case. Not because I believe or even prefer this or other scheme. I see it as a useful device to release minds from the holding power of mass hysteria induced by mass media. It is necessary to sow doubt in order to release minds and regain sanity.
A successful 9/11 conspiracy theory could have saved lives of thousands of Muslims killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Recently Israeli Jews were induced with mass hysteria as three young settlers disappeared. This mass hysteria resulted in half a million refugees and two thousand dead of Gaza. An attempt to sow doubt regarding the official story (claiming they were stolen by Mossad etc.) was an attempt to save lives. Likewise, every way to sow doubt regarding the Malaysian plane was a way to save lives.

Now, one month later, we know that there was no evidence of Russian involvement in the tragedy. There are strong pieces of evidence suggesting Kiev and US involvement, the best of them is a negative one: if Kiev and Washington would have a proof of Russian and/or rebels’ guilt we would hear of it day and night. If you are interested in detailed analysis of the disaster, you can read this one, recommended by our friends. I must admit I am not interested in details, for the reasons similar to those of Noam Chomsky regarding 9/11. While every explanation that differs from one promoted by Masters of Discourse is good because it breaks their hold on minds, importance of such an event is greatly overblown by media. Anyway, the air liner is out of news and out of mind by now, and this means it was an accident or a failed provocation by Kiev or Washington, for otherwise we would hear about it.

The Cast

TAGGART, screenplay by Robert Creighton Williams, from novel by Louis L’Amour; directed by R. G. Springsteen; produced by Gordon Kay and Associates; presented by Universal Pictures. At the Palace and other theaters. Running time, 85 minutes.

Taggart . . . . . Tony Young

Jason . . . . . Dan Duryea

Stark . . . . . Dick Foran

Consuela . . . . . Elsa Cardenas

Miriam . . . . . Emile Meyer

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