THE GENESIS OF THIS BOOK lies in two earlier books I wrote, of which the First World War was the focal point of both. The first was Bible and Sword, about the origins of the Balfour Declaration issued in 1917 in anticipation of the British entry into Jerusalem in the course of the war against Turkey in the Middle East. As the center and source of the Judaeo-Christian religion, and incidentally of the Moslem as well, although that was a matter of lesser concern at the time, the taking of the sacred city was felt to be an awesome moment requiring some major gesture to accompany it and provide a fitting moral foundation. An official statement recognizing Palestine as the national homeland of the original inhabitants was conceived to fulfill the need, not in consequence of any philo-Semitism but in consequence rather of two other factors: the influence in British culture of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and a twin influence in that year of what the Manchester Guardian called “the insistent logic of the military situation on the banks of the Suez Canal,” in short, Bible and Sword.
The second of the two books preceding The Guns was The Zimmermann Telegram, a proposal by the then German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, to induce Mexico together with Japan to make war as an ally of Germany on the United States with the promise of regaining her lost territories of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Zimmermann’s clever idea was to keep the United States busy on her own continent so as to prevent her entering the war in Europe. However, it accomplished the reverse, when in the form of a wireless telegram to the president of Mexico, it was decoded by the British and made available to and published by the American government. Zimmermann’s proposal aroused the anger of the public and helped to precipitate the United States into the war.
I had always thought in my acquaintance with history up to that point, that 1914 was the hour when the clock struck, so to speak, the date that ended the nineteenth century and began our own age, “the Terrible Twentieth” as Churchill called it. In seeking the subject for a book, I felt that 1914 was it. But I did not know what should be the gateway or the framework. Just at the moment when I was floundering in search of the right approach, a small miracle dropped in my lap when my agent called to ask, “Would you like to talk to a publisher who wants you to do a book on 1914?” I was struck, as the phrase goes, all of a heap, but not to the extent that I couldn’t say, “Well, yes I would,” even if rather perturbed that someone else had my idea, although happy he had it with regard to the right person.
He was a Britisher, Cecil Scott of the Macmillan Company, now regretfully deceased, and what he wanted as he told me later when we met, was a book about what really happened at the Battle of Mons, the first encounter overseas of the BEF (the British Expeditionary Force) in 1914, which had been such an extraordinary survival and check to the Germans that legends grew of supernatural intervention. I was going skiing that week after the meeting with Mr. Scott and took along a suitcase of books to Vermont.
I came home with the proposal to do a book on the escape of the Goeben, the German battleship, which, by eluding a pursuit by British cruisers in the Mediterranean, had reached Constantinople and brought Turkey and with it the whole Ottoman Empire of the Middle East into the war, determining the course of the history of that area from that day to this. The Goeben seemed a natural for me for it had become family history which we had witnessed, including myself at the age of two. That happened when we, too, were crossing the Mediterranean en route to Constantinople to visit my grandfather, who was then American ambassador to the Porte. It was an often-told story in the family circle how the puffs of gunsmoke from the pursuing British cruisers were seen from our ship, and how the Goeben put on speed and got away, and how on arriving at Constantinople we were the first to bring news to officials and diplomats of the capital of the drama at sea that we had seen. My mother’s account of her heavy questioning by the German ambassador before she could even debark or had a chance to greet her father was my first impression, almost at firsthand, of the German manner.
Almost thirty years later when I returned from my skiing week in Vermont and told Mr. Scott that this was the story of 1914 that I wanted to write, he said No, that was not what he wanted. He was still fixed on Mons. How had the BEF thrown back the Germans? Had they really seen the vision of an angel over the battlefield? And what was the basis of the legend of the Angel of Mons, afterward so important on the Western Front? Frankly, I was still more interested in the Goeben than in the Angel of Mons, but the fact of a publisher ready for a book on 1914 was more important than either.
The war as a whole seemed too large and beyond my capacity. But Mr. Scott kept telling me I could do it, and when I formed the plan of keeping to the war’s first month, which contained all the roots, including the Goeben and the Battle of Mons, to make us both happy, the project began to seem feasible.
When mired among all those Roman-numeraled corps and left and right flanks, I soon felt out of my depth and felt I should have gone to Staff and Command School for ten years before undertaking a book of this kind, especially when trying to tell how the French on the defensive managed to regain Alsace at the very beginning, which I never did understand but I managed to weave my way in and around it, a maneuver one learns in the process of writing history—to muffle the facts a bit when one can’t understand everything—watch Gibbon do it in those sonorous balanced sentences which, if you analyze them, often turn out to make little sense, but you forget that in the marvel of their structure. I am no Gibbon, but I have learned the value of venturing into the unfamiliar instead of returning to a field of previous study where one already knows the source material and all the persons and circumstances. To do the latter makes the work certainly easier, but removes any sense of discovery and surprise, which is why I like moving to a new subject for a new book. Though it may distress the critics, it pleases me. Since I was hardly known to the critics when The Guns was published, with no reputation for them to enjoy smashing, the book received instead the warmest reception. Clifton Fadiman wrote in the Book-of-the-Month Club bulletin: “One must be careful with the big words. Still, there is a fair chance that The Guns of August may turn out to be a historical classic. Its virtues are almost Thucydidean: intelligence, concision, weight detachment. Dealing with the days preceding and following the outbreak of the First World War, its subject like that of Thucydides goes beyond the limited scope and reach of the mere narrative. For in hard, sculptured prose this book fixes the moments that have led inexorably to our own time. It places our dread day in long perspective, arguing that if most of the world’s men, women and children are soon to be burned to atoms, the annihilation would seem to proceed directly out of the mouths of the guns that spoke in August 1914. This may be an oversimplification but it describes the author’s thesis which she presents with deadly quiet. It is her conviction that the deadlock of the terrible month of August determined the future course of the war and the terms of the peace, the shape of the inter-war period and the conditions of the Second Round.”
He then went on to describe the main actors in the narrative, saying that “one of the marks of the superior historian is the ability to project human beings as well as events,” and he picked out the salient characters—the Kaiser, King Albert, generals Joffre and Foch, among others, just as I had tried to convey them, which made me feel I had succeeded in what I intended. I was so moved by Fadiman’s understanding, not to mention being compared to Thucydides, that I found myself in tears, a reaction that I have never known again. To elicit perfect comprehension is perhaps to be expected only once.
I suppose the important thing to say in introducing an anniversary edition is whether the significance given to it historically holds up. I think it does. There are no passages I would wish to change.
While the best-known part is the opening scene on the funeral of Edward VII, the closing paragraph of the Afterword expresses for the book, or rather for its subject, the meaning in our history of the Great War. Though it may be presumptuous of me to say so, I think this is as well stated as any summary of World War I that I know.
On top of Fadiman’s praise came a startling prediction by Publishers Weekly, the bible of the book trade. “The Guns of August,” it declared, “will be the biggest new nonfiction seller in your winter season.” Carried away by its own superlative, PW was led to some rather eccentric prose stating that the book “will grip the American reading public with a new enthusiasm for the electric moments of this hitherto neglected chapter of history …” I did not think that “enthusiasm” for the Great War was quite the noun I would have chosen, or that one could feel “enthusiasm” for “electric moments” or that one could justly call World War I, which had the longest list of titles in the New York Public Library, a “neglected chapter” in history, nevertheless I was pleased by PW’s hearty welcome. Given the fact that in moments of depression during the course of writing, I had said to Mr. Scott, “Who is going to read this?” and he had replied, “Two people: you will and I will.” That was hardly encouraging, which made PW’s pronouncement all the more astonishing to me. As it turned out, they were right. The Guns took off like a runaway horse, and my children, to whom I assigned the royalties and foreign rights, have been receiving nice little checks ever since. When divided among three, the amount may be small, but it is good to know that after twenty-six years the book is still making its way to new readers.
With this new edition I am happy that the book [is being introduced] to a new generation, and I hope that in middle age it will not have lost its charm or, to put it more appropriately, its interest.
—Barbara W. Tuchman