The Guns of August Revisited

(By Barbara W. Tuchman, 1962)

Tuchman’s classic history of the stirrings of WWI deserves a fresh look, when one compares some of the events leading to and culminating in August 1914 with some of the events leading to and maybe culminating in August 2023:

1910: Edward VII dies / 2022: Elizabeth II dies. A comet appears in both years (“When beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes” – “Julius Caesar”)

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All the old buoys which have marked the channel of our lives seem to have been swept away.” (Lord Esher, 1910).

Meanwhile, in the years 1910 to 1914, Germany peers at the ‘weak link’ of France/Belgium, who refuse to play ball, and the threat of an Anglo/Russian alliance. Wilhelm II is enraged by both, and says “I could not be played with. Whoever in the case of a European war was not with me was against me.”

2014/15: A Crimean ‘skirmish’  (2014/15), whereby Putin invades Ukraine on a campaign of annexation.

July 23, 1914: Austria-Hungary gives an ultimatum to Serbia in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand.

January 2022: Russia gives an ultimatum to NATO members states and others to “end NATO enlargement, compromise the sovereignty of other states, and curtail US and Allied ability to cooperate, conduct exercises, or deploy forces anywhere near Russian borders, establishing a de jure sphere of influence” [International Institute for Strategic Studies, 25/1/22].

August 1914: “War pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no use…General staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables, were pounding the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain an hour’s head start. Appalled upon the brink, the chiefs of state who would be ultimately responsible for their country’s fate, attempted to back away but the pull of military schedules dragged them forward.” (Tuchman).

Recession and foreign trade embargoes loomed in both years.

24 February 2022: Russia invades Ukraine. Like Germany in 1914, it has become “a nation fed on the desperate delusion of the will that deems itself absolute.” Morale, that old-fashioned concept, still holds true.

There are stirrings of other times as well. NATO mismanagement of Eastern European membership looks a bit like the Treaty of Versailles. The Ukraine adventure, with its pile-on of countries busting to test their new-fangled weapons, is our Spanish Civil War. Hopefully we don’t see an incursion into Poland; or Georgia or the Baltics, for example.

“No worries” – In 1914, The Kaiser told his embarking troops, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” Mr. Putin seems to have had the same optimism (or insouciance?) for a quick result. Of course, if there is an escalation beyond the current fracas, that might be resolved more quickly than is comfortable.

File:The people's war book; history, cyclopaedia and chronology of the great world war (1919) (14595511247).jpgFile:Family photo of the 2023 Vilnius Summit.jpg

Tuchman wrote of the brink of the Great War: “In Whitehall that evening, Sir Edward Grey, standing with a friend at the window as the street lamps below were being lit, made the remark that has since epitomised the hour, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.'”


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