Book Review: August 1914
France, The Great War, and a Month That Changed the World Forever
by Bruno Cabanes
(translated by Stephanie O’Hara)
Yale University Press, 2016
As historian Bruno Cabanes points out in his Aout 1914 (written in 2014 for the centennial and now ably translated by Stephanie O’Hara as August 1914: France, The Great War, and a Month That Changed the World Forever), we tend to see the carnage of the First World War in terms of its signpost bloodbaths like Verdun and the Somme, thereby forgetting the fact that those battles didn’t spring from nowhere. The German invasion of Belgium began on the 4th of August, and pitched almost immediately began giving intimations of the full horrors to come. In lean, fast-paced chapters, Cabanes takes his readers through the Battle of Liege, the Battle of the Frontiers, the Battle of the Ardennes, the Battle of Mons, the Battle of Le Cateau, and a dozen sloppy slaughters conducted on the run from every unexpectedly successful advance and improvised retreat. “In our collective memory, the catastrophes of Verdun and the Somme in 1916 have eclipsed the unprecedented violence of the war’s first month,” Cabanes writes. “I have sought to recapture this violence here.”
He does a very effective job of that, but in many ways he’s even more effective in relating what he refers to as “an intimate history of the end of a world,” the world of pre-war France and Belgium, which saw its own death-notice tacked up in churches and meeting-houses:
In the abundance of firsthand accounts of August 1, 1914 – daily notes, correspondences, memoirs written during the war or in the 1920s – people describe at length the moment when the poster announcing the mobilization was put up. Reading this poster, the French for the first time witnessed the war’s arrival as an accomplished fact, not as a more or less distant risk. It was also doubtless at this exact moment that the fears that had been growing over the past several weeks were realized.
It’s refreshingly narrative-jolting to have August 1914 in English, particularly in 2016 at the 100th anniversary the Battle of the Somme, reminding us that the nightmare of the First World War began the day after the lights went out in Europe.