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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 261


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.

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