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Phew, this was a difficult book to digest in the audiobook format. Neither is it easy to digest in a paper book format. It is dense. It is detailed. Names and places and battles are thrown at you in rapid succession. You have to remember who is who, which corps is fighting where and its number, the title of each commander and more. You do not have time to stop and think and recall what was told to you minutes/pages or even hours/chapters before. You need more than a detailed map because you don’t have much time to spend looking at that map. What you need most of all is a good memory, a good knowledge of history and geographic knowledge before you even pick up the book. OR you can read this book to begin learning and accept that there will be parts that go over your head. That is what I did, and I enjoyed much of it, but I also spent time exasperated since there were sentences I had to think about and ponder before I understood their implications. I had to rewind and write notes and search on the internet.
Does this mean I regret reading it? My response is emphatically no.
Much of the book is set in Belgium and France. (It also covers the Eastern Prussian Front.) I have been to many of the towns, cities, citadels, squares, forests and rivers named. Knowing the history of what happened where I have walked is special to me. I am a bit unsure if it would mean as much to one who has not been there. If you have been in the Ardennes you immediately understand the difficulty of moving artillery around there. Having walked in Leuven, Dinant, Mons, Charleroi and Namur, to name a smattering, when you hear of the burning and sacking and murder of hostages, you more intimately understand. I believe my own experiences, rather than the writing made the events real.
It is important to know that this book is focused primarily on the military battles of the first month of the war. Why? Because what happened then set the course for the four years that followed. You might as well be told that the primary focus is military because that will not appeal to all. The start of World War One is all about the idiosyncrasies of generals. It is about a lack of communication. It is about men who have decided on a plan and from that they will not budge.
The narration by John Lee was fine, but he does not speak slowly and that might have made things a bit easier. Some say he speaks with a Scottish dialect. That is fine by me!
I will tell you why I liked this book. I now have the basics for how the war started. I appreciate knowing what has happened to the people living around me here in Belgium; I understand them better. I understand why they so quickly capitulated in the Second World War. Today there is so much squabbling going on between the Flemish and the French people of Belgium. It was wonderful to see how in the First World War they fought united, as one people, for their independence and very existence. I needed to learn of this.
27 of 27 people found this review helpful
Ever since I was a kid, I've been fascinated with World War One and the huge transition point it represented in history. Despite knowing a good bit about the subject, I was still very impressed with The Guns of August. Tuchman accomplishes what few history writers pull off, which is to make readers forget what they know about history and see its drama unfold through the eyes of people at the center of events, who didn't know what would happen next. The book’s very detailed, but has the sense of narrative of a novel.
Tuchman opens, with a fitting sense of moment, at the 1910 funeral of King Edward of Britain, where the heads of future belligerent states gather on still-cordial terms. From there, she sets the stage with a portrait of Europe as it stands in the early 20th century, and the policies, mindsets, histories, and cultural attitudes that shape each country's leaders, as they look towards a war that everyone is certain will come. She captures the relationships and self-fulfilling expectations that drive those leaders towards fateful decisions, like players in a Shakespearian tragedy, and the gears and wheels of military plans inexorably grinding forward while diplomats search in vain for the "halt" button. Then comes the tremendous drama of the war's first weeks, when vast armies are in motion, the fate of nations hangs in the balance, and choices are made that will come back to haunt both sides. While there are probably better "academic" works on the war and books that better capture the horrors of trench warfare, I don't know of any that so well explains the key players and the flow of events, while conveying the excitement, fear, hope, and desperation that gripped each country as the crisis exploded. It was hard not get a little caught up in the emotions of events, such as the brave defense of Belgian forts, even knowing that initial success wouldn’t last against overwhelming forces.
Is Guns of August a perfect work? Probably not. Like all historical writers, Tuchman has her biases, and seems to put primary blame for the war on Germany. In her version, they’re aggressors who blindly refuse to put aside preset invasion timetables, even when the option of avoiding war with a less menacing France seems at hand. Other historians probably have more subtle pictures. Also, Tuchman covers politics and battles in equal levels of detail and some readers might get bored with the play-by-play descriptions of maneuvers and clashes that fill the latter half of the book (though I enjoyed that part myself).
However, the positives far outweigh the negatives. As a chronicle of a crucial forty days in human history, The Guns of August remains fresh and alive even half a century after its first publication (when much was still in living memory). On the audiobook experience, I thought that the narrator did a good job with French, German, and Russian accents. Apparently, there’s another audio version out there, but I don’t know how that compares.
PS. If you enjoy this sort of narrative history, I recommend seeking out Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, which is more informal, but driven by a similar enthusiasm for recreating the moment of decision.
24 of 25 people found this review helpful
Justly famous book and beautifully read, even if as someone pointed out, John Lee's efforts at foreign accents are a bit hammy. First third of book is the diplomacy leading up to war. Rest is mostly battles and there lies the problem common to so many books about warfare. Without the right map infront of you, you quickly become confused. Even with a map following a written account of a battle is hard enough. The publishers of war books should make sure the right maps are available, but they don't seem to. So recommend you search the web for ww1 and maps. The Vox site for instance has some excellent ww1 maps.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
An incredibly good book marred by a tiresome reader. While it is clear the enthusiasm for what he reads, I found the indiscriminate emphasis tiring. I cannot appreciate the rendering of German names and way of speaking because i do not speak German but I found the treatment of French names and speech a distraction.
Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?
This is one of those classics that I've wanted to read since getting interested in World War 1 with the centenary. It lives up to its reputation as a gripping, well written narrative history.The reading is excellent with good 'accents' and easy to follow.
What other book might you compare The Guns of August to, and why?
There is a litany of other books and authors who reference themselves instead of The Guns of August. Sean McMeekin, author of "July 1914" is respectful but a bit derogatory. In fact when I read/listened I was surprised that the 'origins' of the war are not a dominant part of the book at all, and the military events of August, as the title suggests, are the central content.
Max Hasting's "Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914" is probably the most comparable recent book.
Which scene did you most enjoy?
The beautifully described encounters between Joffre and his subordinates (and the British) through the book are sometimes frustrating, sometimes amusing but always vivid.
If you made a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?
Failure of the Best Laid Plans