“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 green and blue 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 sun. 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.”
That opening paragraph of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August influenced me as an aspiring writer more than any other book. The imagery and storytelling elements were different from other histories I had read in the past. For whatever reason, it had never occurred to me that nonfiction did not require sacrificing style for substance, and that enticing the reader to turn the page was as worthy a goal as imparting new knowledge.
Tuchman’s subject is the complex relationships, strategies, and plans of the great European powers leading to the outbreak of World War I. The crisis of July 1914 sets the stage for military mobilizations, diplomatic dealings, and the ultimate clash of forces in Belgium, France, and Russia. The narrative paints a picture of a war that nobody really wanted, but in the end couldn’t avoid. She stops just as stalemate sets in on the Western Front, trusting that her readers don’t need to be reminded of the sad rest of the story.
The book has had a lasting impact on American history beyond a simple retelling of events. President John F. Kennedy based many of his actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis on lessons he had drawn from reading Tuchman’s tale of strategic miscalculation and accidental escalation. He insisted that his military aides read it, had copies sent to every military base in the world, and apparently carried his potential decisions far enough into the future that he wanted to ensure that no one would write a book about the U.S. and Russia called “The Missiles of October.”
When I visited Belgium earlier this year on a trip to the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, I thought of the The Guns of August often. On my day off, I took a train northwest to Bruges, that famously undisturbed medieval city not far from Flanders Fields, the lands that witnessed so much of the Great War’s killing and death. On another trip, driving south through the city of Mons, my path mirrored that of the initial German advance against the British Expeditionary Force. A few unremarkable signs along the sides of the road commemorated chapters of a story that the people living there would rather forget, forging a connection between the physical reality of war and the pages I’d read in a book.
A few months ago nations across Europe remembered the centennial anniversary of The Guns of August. Several books were published this year that reexamine the complex central thesis of the Great War’s origins, and few scholars today—bolstered by newer documents and evidence that discredit the notion that the war was accidental—ascribe to Tuchman’s reading of the events that changed the course of world history.
But that doesn’t really matter. Readers continue to come to her book not to be told exactly how it all happened, but to marvel at a standard of storytelling unequaled in narrative nonfiction, a standard that places the reader’s attention and interest above spewing facts, dates, and names. In her final paragraph, she tells us that the failure of the German offensive into France was “one of the decisive battles of the world not because it determined that Germany would ultimately lose or the Allies would ultimate win the war but because it determined that the war would go on.” The sentiment contained within those words is, in my mind, just as emotional as watching a favorite character in a novel reach the final chapter of what we know will be a grueling and terrible future, even if we aren’t told all the details.