Review: John Keegan, The
Face of Battle, (Penguin, 1976).
John Keegan describes his book as "a personal attempt
to catch a glimpse of the face of battle." (p. 77) And, indeed, the personal nature of The Face of Battle is a prime ingredient
in making the book so effective. Keegan,
who taught at Sandhurst for over 25 years, opens by admitting his discomfort
with the fact that although he regularly lectured British cadets on military
history, "I have never been in a battle.
And I grow increasingly convinced that I have very little idea of what a
battle can be like." (p. 13) The
first of the three main sections of the book sets out his premise that most
military history has relied on a stylized "battle piece" description,
which fails to examine fundamental questions about the actual experience of
battle. What actually happens when
cavalry meets other cavalry, or infantry?
What are the crucial elements in determining whether soldiers stand and
fight or turn and run?
Having proposed that military history has been shirking its
duty, Keegan then proceeds to demonstrate how it should be done. He takes three battles in which British
armies fought -- Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme -- and describes the
experiences of the British participants, and how these changed or remained
constant over time. Here Keegan is at
his best. For each battle, he gives an
overview of the events which led up to it, and for Agincourt and Waterloo he
also precedes his analysis with a brief account of how the battle
happened. He then looks at the soldiers'
experience during the battle from every angle and every perspective, from the
preparation for battle to the fate of the wounded. What makes his descriptions especially convincing is his care not
to overgeneralize. He takes each battle
apart both spatially and temporally, pointing out how the experience varied in
different places and at different times during the battle.
The Face of Battle
is justifiably famous for its evocation of the experience of battle. Keegan weaves analysis and primary material
with great skill, and his inclusion of even seemingly minor details such as the
sounds and the weather help create an overall impression of actually standing
on the battlefield in 1415, 1814, or 1915.
He also attempts to explain what motivated the soldiers to fight by
examining a wide variety of factors, such as religion, pride, economics,
coercion, and leadership. Although he
raises many individually valid points, these never really mesh into an overall
portrait with the success of his description of the physical experience. His main problem here is that he is too
narrowly focused on the mechanics of the battle itself, to the neglect of the
wider society from which the soldiers were drawn. His account of the Somme is by far the best in this regard, since
he devotes considerable space to the origins of the "Kitchener battalions"
that carried out the attack. For
Agincourt and Waterloo, however, he barely examines the soldiers' backgrounds. His explanation of the soldiers' motivation
at Waterloo turns into little more than an explanation of the officers'
behavior -- he never moves on to explain why their actions should have meant so
much to the men they commanded.
The book's final section is titled "The Future of
Battle," and here Keegan brings together some of the themes that ran
through his description of the three battles.
For instance, believes that the increasing size and impersonalization of
the battlefield has made the psychological strain of combat on soldiers the
weak link in modern armies. He also
suggests that "battle has already abolished itself" due to the
widespread belief in its uselessness as a means of decision. Keegan's book certainly does not stand or
fall on proving these conclusions, however.
His real thesis is an indirect one: that historians' understanding of
battle needs to be refocused from the commanders to the soldiers. The
Face of Battle is really about the writing of military history, not
any theme or trend of history itself. In
this sense, irregardless of any weaknesses in the specific arguments he makes,
Keegan has certainly succeeded in making a convincing case.