I know little of the Great War (World War I) other than the small bit that one learned in high school during general US and World History classes. I could explain how the war started and why, though not in any great detail. I know a bit of the naval battles and an even smaller bit of the land battles – and I know hardly nothing of how the war ended. I do remember how and why the United States became involved – and I know my grandmother on my father’s side served in the military during this war – though I do not know the details of his service.
So when I was out looking for books with a gift card that some family had given me, I came upon Barbara W. Tuchman’s classic The Guns of August – a very detailed account of the first month of the Great War. While I am only 174 pages into the book, I am totally engrossed in its description of the pre-war diplomacy (or lack thereof) and of the interlocking alliances and loyalities that divided royal houses, countries, and families.
The book begins with this passage:
So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings 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. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the gun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again
And with that – no one knew that this entire assemblage of royalty would be at war with one another in just over four year’s time…. a horrible war with massive casualties – hundreds of thousands at the Somme – and over a million at Verdun. Tuchman writes of the first major encounter of the war – the neutral Belgians attempting to enforce their neutrality against a German onslaught at Liege, Belgium:
On August 5th, Emmich’s brigades opened the attack on the four easternmost forts of Liege with a cannonade by field artillery followed by infantry assault. The light shells made no impression on the forts, and the Belgian guns poured a hail of fire on the German troops, slaughtering their front ranks. Company after company came on, making for the spaces between the forts where the Belgian entrenchments had not been completed. At some points where they broke through, the Germans stormed up the slopes where the guns could not be depressed to reach them and were mowed down by the fort’s machine guns. The dead piled up in ridges a yard high. At Fort Barchon, Belgians, seeing the German lines waver, charged with the bayonet and threw them back. Again and again the Germans returned to the assault, spending lives like bullets in the knowledge of plentiful reserves to make up the losses. “They made no attempt at deploying,” a Belgian officer described it later, “but came on line after line, almost shoulder to shoulder, until as we shot them down, the fallen were heaped on top of each other in an awful barricade of dead and wounded that threatened to mask our guns and cause us trouble. So high did the barricade become that we did not know whether to fire through it or to go our and clear openings with our hands… But would you believe it? – this veritable wall of dead and dying enabled those wonderful Germans to creep closer, and actually to charge up the glacis. They got no further than halfway because our machine guns and rifles swept them back. Of course we had our losses but they were slight compared to the carnage we inflicted on our enemies.”
The entire book is about only the first month of the war – but I will need to read a more comprehensive history of this war – any recommendations?