By Barbara W. Tuchman
New York: The MacMillian Company., 1962
511 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2009

Barbara Tuchman begins this monumental treatment of World War I in May of 1910 at the funeral of Edward VII of England. Virtually all the royalty of the world had gathered in London for the funeral, and she uses that meeting to set the stage for what was to follow.

I was immediately brought up short to realize that it was less than 100 years from today that the world was still almost entirely controlled by emperors, kings, queens and other royalty. Only THREE prominent diplomats at Edward’s funeral were non-royalty. One of them, former U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt, came home from that funeral convinced there was going to be war in Europe.

The gathering troubles centered around Germany and its leader Kaiser Wilhelm, whom Tuchman chooses to call William. He and his military advisors were convinced that most of Europe was amassing power against it and encircling it. A crushing blow had been Edward’s alliance with France, concluded only a month before his death. On the east, William (I will follow Tuchman’s usage in these notes) wanted a non-aggression pact with Russia, but it would have violated a similar pact Russia had made with France, and thus the czar refused.

By 1906 Germany had developed a two-fold strategy. On the one hand it had been building a massive navy for some years, and on land it was planning to have a surprise strike on France leading to an encirclement. The plan was to do that as quickly as possible, knowing it would take Russia some time to respond were it to honor it’s pact with France, and Germany did not want to get into a two-front war, remembering how it destroyed Napoleon.

What stood dangerously in the way was Belgium. A small nearly defenseless nation, it had been made a neutral state back in 1839. This independence was agreed upon by all European nations, and that agreement was strongly supported by England.

However, a direct frontal attack on France seemed impossible since the Alsace / Lorraine front had been heavily fortified after the 1870 European war. Thus Germany was planning to risk the violation of Belgium’s neutrality and to invade France in a lightening attack through that corridor. The German plan did include an frontal attack at Alsace / Lorraine, but that was more to lure the French to a huge defense in that area, while the Germans would march quickly west through Belgium to the English Channel, then, having France in a semi-circle, the Germans would move quickly south from Belgium to take France. They expected to complete the war and win Paris within 39 days. If this were achieved, then the Germans could quickly turn their attention back to the eastern front where the Russians would soon be ready for war.

The stage was set for a terrible war. Yet Tuchman is convinced that the mind-set of each participant nation was critical.

"Character is fate, the Greeks believed. 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, [the general who concocted the attack plan] 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.”

This plan they had was created as early as 1899, justifying the need to violate Belgium.

“… the one that willed war more than the other could not help but will the violation of Belgian neutrality.”

The plan called for a 39 day war from the day of invasion until the surrender of Paris.

The French had their own view of the world which involved a nearly wild optimism which called for “elan” and courage and offense. If one BELIEVES in oneself and attacks one cannot lose.

Thus they didn’t want to defend the Belgium west and northern border in the middle and west. Rather, they wanted to attack Germany at Alsace and Lorraine and break through to separate the Germany army which would be rushing to encircle the north and come south in a giant wave. The French were aware of the German plan, but believed this surprise and daring offensive would split the German power, interrupt supply lines and weaken their power.

The French and British were devising joint plans from 1905 onward but often not very seriously.

Would the British fight? Humor and chilling real politik existed as well: When French General Foch was asked “What is the smallest British military force that would be of any practical assistance to you?” Foch replies: “A single British soldier – and we will see to it that he is killed.”

However the British got serious in 1910 when General Henry Wilson took over. He whe was a good friend of Gen. Ferdinand Foch of France.

Russia had recently performed poorly against Japan in war and thus this encouraged the Germans. The Russians were harmed by the weakness of Czar Nicholas II and their Minister of War, Gen. Sukhomlinov who

“’… scolded a meeting of Staff College instructors for interests in such innovation as the factor of firepower against the saber, lance and the bayonet charge.’ He bragged about not having ‘… read a military manual for the last twenty-five years.’”

However, there was some hope of Russia as an ally because of Grand Duke Nicholas who was competent and bright.

For some years this was called “The German War.” Yet, despite the German plan, which was to begin the war by the beginning of September 1914, the war began not with Germany and an attack on France, but after June 18, 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Serbian nationalists. By Aug. 1, 1914 the war was declared by Austria on Serbia, and Germany immediately joined in the war, declaring against France and Russia, and Russian declared war on Germany and Austria. For a short while England stayed out of the war.

Gen. von Moltke was chief of staff for Germany and all was carefully set on the soon-to-be western front. However, the quick date of action had set the German plans in some turmoil.

Barbara Tuchman writes a masterful book of some 500 pages which concerns itself with the first 30 days of the war in the west. Basically she argues that the fact that the French, with their (weak) allies held off the march on Paris and turned the war into a war of trench warfare, made the difference between defeat and the eventual triumph. In this book there is almost nothing about the war in the east, either between Austria and Serbian, and even very little about the Russian advance into Germany on the east. This is the story of the founding of THE WESTERN FRONT.

The German plan began to run into trouble before it was ever set in motion. Germany sent an ultimatum to the Belgian government on August 2nd. If they cooperated with the violation of their neutrality (protected by a treaty with all the eventual belligerents), then Germany would spare Belgium and even, after the war, would pay reparations for any damages done to Belgium. However, the Belgians had no trust at all in the Germans (and it turned out to be with good reason).

In relation to Germany’s ultimatum of Aug. 2nd the Belgian minister said:

“If we are to be crushed let us be crushed gloriously.”

By August 5th the Germans attacked Liege and the war was on.

The Germans had a powerful war machine with terrible new giant guns never known before in war and they marched with a huge army into Belgium, using tactics of terror and murder of civilians as they moved. Yet the Belgians heroically resisted. Resisted, yes. Paid a phenomenal price in death and destruction, yes. But delayed the German war machine very little. Yet Tuchman points out:

“… what Belgium gave the Allies was neither two days nor two weeks, but a cause and an example.”

In Tuchman’s gripping account, the first month of the war may divided into three periods:

  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.

Overall all belligerents except the Germans, under valued new fighting tools (huge guns, machine guns and airplanes) and tried, in that first month of the war, to fight a 19th century war of cavalry and bayonet charges, all of which were easily cut down by machine gun fire and giant cannons.

As September came it finally became clear to the French that an attacking position was insane and that if they didn’t quickly change to a defensive posture, Paris would fall in days. It was General Gallieni who decided on the trench warfare to defend Paris. After a decisive battle at the Marne, a French counter-attack which drove the Germans back, the French settled into defensive trenches. Gallieni constructed an “arm” of deep trenches about 20 miles around Paris. These began to hold and soon the Germans were behind their own trenches as well.

In the decisive battle at the The Marne –6000 French reinforcements were rushed to the front from a Paris train station by TAXIS.

“The world remembers the battle ever since by the taxis. A hundred of them were already in the service of the Military Government of Paris. With 500 more, each carrying five soldiers and making the sixty-kilometer trip to Oureq twice, General Clergerie figured he could transport 6,000 troops to the hard-pressed front."

"... Running from Switzerland to the Channel like a gangrenous wound across French and Belgian territory, the trenches determined the war of position and attrition, the brutal, mud-filled murderous insanity known as the Western Front that was to last for four more years.”

Barbara Tuchman is a marvelous writer of history. I had actually wanted to read this book since about 1980 but never got around to it until now. It was in late 1979 that I first heard about Tuchman and her book A DISTANT MIRROR: THE CALAMITOUS 14 CENTURY.

I read the book in awe, finishing it as the year turned. Most of my reading in 1980 was of writers of the 14th century -- authors Dante, Chaucer, Boccaccio and Bacon, and then topics like the Inquisition, Joan of Arc, The Jews of the period and even Arabian medicine. I then branched out to the trilogy of early 20th century writer Sigrid Undset, KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER which is set in the 14th century. I was on fire with that period, and thanked Barbara Tuchman for lighting that fire.

Now, finally, I finally got around to her great book on the early days of the Western Front of World War I, and I have much of the same fever beginning in my heart. I may be headed back to re-read the novels of John Dos Passos which I recall as being quite related to this period.

I would recommend this book with the strongest recommendation I could give. She writes with wit and intelligence, with stunning detail and lays bare the banal comedy behind the phenomenal mismanagement of this war in its early days and the petty and idiotic stories of the generals and other leaders who behaved like complete fools in directing those early days of “the German War.”

Bob Corbett


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