Downton Abbey and Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August

Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August about the first month of World War I is a truly magisterial work. “Magisterial,” suggesting pomp, command, wealth of resources, or in other words “magesty.” Not only is her English prose brilliantly crafted, rich in variety and precision, but her command of the intricacies of this crucial first month entirely compelling. She knows the German, French, English and Belgian commanders and governments from the French Poincare, a deeply emotional but realistic leader, to the Belgian young King Albert who astonishes the world with his refusal to be bullied by the Germans, to the English field marshal Sir John French, a wishy-washy coward who wants nothing more than to protect his British divisions, and would have retreated at the crucial last moment for a French counteroffensive had not the imperturbable French commander Joffre reduced him to shame and tears. Let us also not forget the German Kaiser whose designs on world domination started the war and meddled to disastrous effects at the end of the first month.

Just by coincidence, as I’ve been listening to The Guns of August, I’ve also taken in episodes of the BBC Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey. This second season shows how the lengthening trench warfare of World War I affects a kindly but rather dim-witted family of British aristocracy. Yet, what The Guns of August is to historical writing, i.e. supreme, is not what Downton Abbey is to historical TV miniseries. Yet, I find myself more than amused by this wartime upstairs/downstairs drama. As Tuchman’s German armies begin to be stymied toward the end of August–those invading France to the right of Paris have outrun their supply wagons and exhausted their troops, while those attempting to break through the French eastern defenses are held at bay–the aristocracy at Downton Abbey begins to rouse itself.

The abbey is turned into a convalescent hospital which gives the family’s women a chance to take managerial, even commanding roles. We see younger daughter Edith become the soldiers’ link to civilian life, writing letters for them, bringing them books to read, and arranging for musical and theatrical entertainment. She even convinces her aloof and beautiful oldest sister Mary to sing to the soldiers, part of Mary’s melting into something like humanity. Ditto their mother who stops being a willowly wisp and develops organizational skills that suggest a change-over to feminism after the war.

The below stairs contingent, far more amusing in some ways than the upstairs one, also extend themselves to help soldiers who’ve been released from convalescence to wander the countryside, unable to find work and instead locating hunger. So far none of the upstairs folk have lost young men to the war, but that’s not true for the downstairs. The nephew of the energetic and colloquial head cook has been shot as a deserter, which plunges her into shame. But she shakes this off as she begins helping the returned soldiers by establishing a soup kitchen.

Another returned soldier is elevated to sergeant so that he can order the men receiving care at Downton Abbey. Early in the series, we see him lift a match above the trench top and incur a desired wound. He is, by far, the nastiest Brit on the scene, whose ugliness is being slowly revealed. His mother, one of the older servants, is likewise sneaky and mean-spirited. We wonder how his cowardice will be revealed and what part she will play in it.

Tuchman concludes The Guns of August with assessments about the strengths and limitations of the combatants this first crucial month into what will become a four-year stalemate. She gives the French head commander Joffre top marks for his “sang-foid,” that imperturability and confidence, which despite the long French retreat from the lost first battle of the frontiers, keeps him sure that his countrymen will turn and fight off their exhaustion and chase the Germans back. She recognizes the gifts of other French commanders–Gallieni, especially, in charge of Paris defense, who recognizes an opportunity to attack the Germans on their right flank and will not stop pressuring Joffre and the British until they agree.

But the Germans, she indicates, were too greedy, they pushed too far into France, leaving their soldiers and horses starving and strung out over too great an area. Likewise because they had determined to invade neutral Belgian, the Germans have had to leave several corps behind to hold that country, corps that should have been in their French lines. They also were fighting on two fronts–against the Russians and Austro-Hungarians in the east. As she says, the defeat of the Russians allowed the French to succeed in their counter-0ffensive. Finally, German cruelty to the civilian populations of France and Belgian, not to mention their depredations on world-renown sites like the library at Louven and soon the Rheims cathedral, turned world opinion against them, showed the British, and finally (though far too late in my opinion) the Americans that they too must defeat German imperialism. For to live under its rule would extinguish all the freedoms and history, art, culture and beauty that gave value to European life and all the countries it spawned.

A Minnesota footnote: Hatred, even justified hatred, can turn brutal. During the war, many states including Minnesota created anti-German offices that made life difficult if not impossible for many long-standing American citizens of German extraction. It was comparable, though of a different character, to the “Red-baiting” of Communists after World War II, i.e. the McCarthy era. Americans from time to time embark on a witch hung, said another great historian whose name escapes me. Since I am part-German, I too have struggled to defeat sweeping dislike of German culture and peoples. “But I understand,” said my first German “host-mother,” when I visited Nuremberg with my daughter in the early 1990s. “You must visit Dachau,” she urged. “It is something we all, especially we Germans, dare not forget.”

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