Monday, April 9, 2012

The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman

Tuchman won the Pulitzer Prize for this narrative of the first month of the First World War, and deservedly so. There were parts I had a difficult time getting into, primarily, I think, because of my unfamiliarity with the people and events that shaped that period of history. The details of troop movements and of military command structures can sometimes grow tedious, especially when you’re sometimes struggling to understand which are French, which are German, and which are Russian.

But there is also plenty of the kind of history I love—history that is less about marches and bullets and more about the people who forced and fired them. Indeed, the first several chapters are a kind of cultural history of the belligerents, and a handy guide to understanding their differing motivations and objectives.

And the two primary players, the French and the Germans, were very much planning for war. They had last tussled in the Franco-Prussian War, which had ended badly for the French in a place called Sedan in 1870. They lost a piece of their national character there, and the terms of surrender included the loss of the most treasured region of their homeland. At the time, Victor Hugo predicted:

“France will have but one thought: to reconstitute her forces, gather her energy, nourish her sacred anger, raise her young generation to form an army of the whole people, to work without cease, to study the methods and skills of our enemies, to become again a great France, the France of 1792, the France of an idea with a sword. Then one day she will be irresistible. Then she will take back Alsace-Lorraine.”

France built an offensive plan exactly for this circumstance. When war came again, they would concentrate their force and take back Alsace-Lorraine if they achieved nothing else. Their military, their government, their population were all organized in a way to facilitate the execution of this ultimate purpose. Through a long and connected line of military thinkers, they had come to embrace this “will to re-conquer,” and the dash and élan it gave their soldiers, as their fundamental strategic asset, almost to the extent of eschewing the more mundane realities of weapons and firepower. This spirit was clearly epitomized in the French Field Regulations of 1913, used as the fundamental document for the training and conduct of their army.

“The French Army, returning to its traditions, henceforth admits no law but the offensive.” Eight commandments followed, ringing with the clash of “decisive battle,” “offensive without hesitation,” “fierceness and tenacity,” “breaking the will of the adversary,” “ruthless and tireless pursuit.” With all the ardor of orthodoxy stamping out heresy, the Regulations stamped upon and discarded the defensive. “The offensive alone,” it proclaimed, “leads to positive results.” Its Seventh Commandment, italicized by the authors, stated: “Battles are beyond everything else struggles of morale. Defeat is inevitable as soon as the hope of conquering ceases to exist. Success comes not to him who has suffered the least but to him whose will is firmest and morale strongest.”

Heady stuff. And the Germans? Well, they had developed a plan of battle, too. Theirs was based on their belief in the ultimate superiority of the German character. Like the ancient Greeks, they believed that character was fate, and that their national character destined them for greatness. A greatness, for example, that easily superseded the petty sovereignty of any of their European neighbors. So rather than plan to attack France through the thick forests around Alsace-Lorraine, their intent was the rampage through neutral Belgium and swoop down on Paris from the north.

A hundred years of German philosophy went into the making of this decision in which the seed of self-destruction lay embedded, waiting for its hour. The voice was Schlieffen’s, but the hand was the hand of Fichte who saw the German people chosen by Providence to occupy the supreme place in the history of the universe, of Hegel who saw them leading the world to a glorious destiny of compulsory Kultur, of Nietzsche who told them that Supermen were above ordinary controls, of Treitschke who set the increase of power as the highest moral duty of the state, of the whole German people, who called their temporal ruler the “All-Highest.” What made the Schlieffen plan was not Clausewitz and the Battle of Cannae, but the body of accumulated egoism which suckled the German people and created a nation fed on “the desperate delusion of the will that deems itself absolute.”

The Germans encountered much more resistance in Belgium than they expected. The Belgian people, surprisingly from the perspective of the overpowering German character, disapproved of the violation of their neutrality, and fought back. They ultimately couldn’t stop the Germans, but they did knock them off the schedule of their detailed battle plans.

Another glimpse into the German psyche is revealed in this passage about their reaction to the local guerilla fighters (the franc-tireur) they encountered upon finally invading French soil.

Fear and horror of the franc-tireur sprang from the German feeling that civil resistance was essentially disorderly. If there has to be a choice between injustice and disorder, said Goethe, the German prefers injustice. Schooled in a state in which the relation of the subject to the sovereign has no basis other than obedience, he is unable to understand a state organized upon any other foundation, and when he enters one is inspired by an intense uneasiness. Comfortable only in the presence of authority, he regards the civilian sniper as something particularly sinister. To the Western mind the franc-tireur is a hero; to the German he is a heretic who threatens the existence of the state. At Soissons there is a bronze and marble monument to three schoolteachers who raised a revolt of students and civilians against the Prussians in 1870. Gazing at it in amazement, a German officer said to an American reporter in 1914, “That’s the French for you—putting up a monument to glorify franc-tireurs. In Germany the people would not be allowed to do such a thing. Nor is it conceivable that they would want to.”

These, then, are the characteristics of the two primary belligerents that anxiously renewed their age-old aggressions against each other in what we now call the First World War. And it is the long history of their animosity that is one of the central messages that Tuchman’s book left me with. The First World War, contrary to what I may have previously thought, wasn’t just something that these two nations and their various allies fell into. I might once have believed that Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated and all the overlapping alliances of Europe forced a dozen nations to go to war with one another. In fact, Germany and France were itching to go to war with each other, planning and conditioning themselves for it since the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and the assassination was only the match that lit the fuse. The war was inevitable, and even those who tried to stop it when the day came, were trapped by the plans and military timetables that had already been laid a generation before.

War pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no use. Agents at frontiers were reporting every cavalry patrol as a deployment to beat the mobilization gun. General staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables, were pounding the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain an hour’s head start. Appalled upon the brink, the chiefs of state who would be ultimately responsible for their country’s fate attempted to back away but the pull of military schedules dragged them forward.

And it is snippets like this…

In Belgium there are many towns whose cemeteries today have rows and rows of memorial stones inscribed with a name, the date 1914, and the legend, repeated over and over: “Fusille par les Allemands” (Shot by the Germans). In many are newer and longer rows with the same legend and the date 1944.

…that show World War I was not a unique circumstance in the history of these nations. The painful truth is that the belligerents in Europe had been enemies for centuries, and the battle plans they used in the 1940s, the 1910s, the 1870s, and probably previously, were based to a large extent on the dictates of their national characters and the vagaries of a landscape they had come to understand from generations of combat.

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One of the challenges the Allies had in the first month of World War I was the lack of a central command. The French, the Belgians, the English and the Russians were all on the continent, fighting on the same side against the Germans, and although the Russians were separated from the others, the French, the Belgians and the English found themselves struggling to coordinate their efforts so they could have the fullest effect. Here’s a typical passage describing just such an instance.

As Joffre saw it, the Belgian Army, ignoring purely Belgian interests for the sake of a common front, should act as a wing of the French Army in conformity with French strategy. As King Albert saw it, with his clearer sense of the danger of the German right wing, if he allowed the Belgian Army to make a stand at Namur it could be cut off from its base at Antwerp by the advancing Germans and pushed out of Belgium over the French border. More intent on holding the Belgian Army on Belgian soil than upon common strategy, King Albert was determined to keep open his line of retreat to Antwerp.

The English especially, it seemed, were intent on maintaining their own independence on the continent. Or, at least, that was the intention of their commander, Sir John French. He wanted either a decisive victory where the Brits delivered the fatal blow, or absolutely no casualties whatsoever, and he positioned his small force accordingly.

The four armies—British, French, Belgian, and German—tussled awkwardly and without much coordination with each other for nearly the entire month of August 1914. The French experienced a continuous series of setbacks and the Germans made tactical progress, albeit behind their scheduled timetable. Eventually, the Germans were poised to enter Paris itself. And here Tuchman offers some interesting perspective on that unbounded élan that drove the French army to take up their arms in the first place. She believes it had been an utter failure and was then all but gone. In the last desperate order issued by the French commanding general, she sees no trace of it. It was grim and direct.

“Now, as the battle is joined on which the safety of the country depends, everyone must be reminded that this is no longer the time for looking back. Every effort must be made to attack and throw back the enemy. A unit which finds it impossible to advance must, regardless of cost, hold its ground and be killed on the spot rather than fall back. In the present circumstances no failure will be tolerated.”

The battle that followed was the battle of the Marne, in which the French and their allies were able to stem the German advance and force them to entrench into the line that would define much of the Western Front for the rest of the war. And just like that, as demoralized and sullen as the French spirit had become, this victory resurrected it. Perhaps less so in the minds of the French soldiers, but infinitely more so in the minds of their enemies. Here’s what German general Alexander von Kluck said after the battle:

The basic reason for German failure at the Marne, “the reason that transcends all others…was the extraordinary and peculiar aptitude of the French solider to recover quickly. That men will let themselves be killed where they stand, that is a well-known thing and counted on in every plan of battle. But that men who have retreated for ten days, sleeping on the ground and half dead with fatigue, should be able to take up their rifles and attack when the bugle sounds, is a thing upon which we never counted. It was a possibility not studied in our war academy.”

Tuchman strongly disagrees with this assessment, citing a number of errors and other commitments the Germans had made as the primary reason for their loss on the Marne. But the takeaway for me is that war, rather than proving the moral superiority of one of two clashing ideologies, is more frequently a place where dangerous myths are given new life for future generations.

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Like so many wars before and after it, it is not in the national battle plans or in the memoirs of the generals that we find the painful truth of the First World War. It is rather in the diaries of the fighting men themselves that we find its most honest and vivid description.

“The guns recoil at each shot. Night is falling and they look like old men sticking out their tongues and spitting fire. Heaps of corpses, French and German, are lying every which way, rifles in hand. Rain is falling, shells are screaming and bursting—shells all the time. Artillery fire is the worst. I lay all night listening to the wounded groaning—some were German. The cannonading goes on. Whenever it stops we hear the wounded crying from all over the woods. Two or three men go mad every day.”

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