Book Review: The Face of Battle by John Keegan

I have to caveat this review somewhat.   I wrote this book review for an undergrad military history course I took almost six-years ago.   I still think that the The Face of Battle is an excellent book.   I have modified my opinion of Keegan as a historian somewhat though.   I think he is somewhat overrated and he tends to simplistic British-centric judgements in his analysis of military history.   He is a good historian, but sometimes his interpretations of events are not all they could be.

“The Face of Battle” by John Keegan has become a classic in the thirty years since it was published.   The book is an attempt to examine three historical battles from the point if view of the participants: Agincourt-1415, Waterloo-1815, and The Somme-1916.   All the battles are chosen as representing the archetype of the battles of the period as well as being well documented.

He begins the book by defining the parameters of what he is trying to accomplish.   He defines a battle as not just fighting or small scale skirmishing but a fight that “must obey the dramatic unities of time, place, and action.”  The most defining point being the action “which is directed towards securing a decision by and through those means, on the battlefield and within a fairly strict time limit”- thus at one strike he limits his subject to preclude most of the combat fought throughout history, the set-piece battle being fairly rare.

Keegan takes issue with the conventional study of military history as being too dogmatic and not more liberal in mode of thought.   That is a criticism that holds true today in much contemporary military history.   Similarly, Keegan is at pains to show that the methods in which military history is written have sound and compelling arguments given the target audience of those histories.   The largest point that Keegan makes is that the conventional battle piece history is insufficient to accurately describe the behavior of large masses of men in what is arguably one of the most stressful situations a person could ever find himself in.   He decries the mass description of behavior that while it may be typical of most participants is not typical of all.   He examines the types of history written and concludes that while there is much collective history there has not been enough attention paid to the individual and their experiences in war.

He analyses the individual’s experience of battle by breaking the battle down into its component parts.   He describes the campaign and battle itself then further subdivides it by describing the type of combat based on soldier and weapon archetypes.   He finally describes the aftermath of battle and how the participants coped with it.

The first battle described in the book is the Battle of Agincourt, which took place in northern France on October 25, 1415 as part of the Hundred Years War between England and France.   The scene is set by a short description of the campaign leading up to the battle and a concise narrative of the battle itself.   He begins his battle analysis by detailing some of the deficiencies in the available sources and what assumptions he has made to make up for these deficiencies in information.

The battle is broken down according to type of combat for analysis.   The combats he discusses are archer versus infantry and cavalry, cavalry versus infantry, and infantry versus infantry.   Keegan attempts to recreate the conditions under which each combat occurred and give the modern reader some idea of what it must have been like to be in the battle.

The analysis is full of descriptive phrases that paint a picture of what the experience of medieval battle was like.   Another element of his battle description that sets his writing apart from other battle narratives is Professor Keegan’s use and explanation of the technical terms describing how he reaches his conclusions on the way the battle was fought.

Keegan makes a specific point of logically scrutinizing the king’s order to execute the prisoners when he feared a French resumption of the attack.   He then describes how the battle ended with Henry’s summoning of the French and English heralds to fix a name for the battle.   Then he describes how the wounded were cared for and what the prognosis for the different type of wounds was.   He finalizes his account of the battle by discussing the will to combat of the soldiers of the Middle Ages.

Keegan jumps four hundred years of history to his next battle description, that of Waterloo between the Allied armies and the French under Napoleon on June 18, 1815.   Waterloo was the culminating battle of over twenty years of continental warfare dating to the French revolution in 1789, it was to define an age and usher in era of European peace that would last for fifty years.

His treatment of the Battle of Waterloo is roughly the same as his treatment of Agincourt though here he distinguishes between more weapon types than were present at Agincourt.   The types of combat Keegan relates at Waterloo are single combat, cavalry versus cavalry, cavalry versus infantry, cavalry versus artillery, artillery versus infantry, and infantry versus infantry.   While some engagements are the same, the type and nature of combat was completely altered due to the weapons used.

Keegan makes much of the fact that wounds suffered at waterloo were likely to be much graver than wounds received at Agincourt.   He also points out that though there was medical care available it was almost exactly the opposite of what would be prescribed in modern times.

Another large difference is in the number of soldiers engaged there were close to 100,000 troops on both sides at Waterloo compared to a maximum of 30,000 total engaged at Agincourt.   This increased the size of the battlefield though the battle was still substantially over after the first day.

The last battle the Keegan examines is the First Battle of the Somme from June to November 1916 and only June 1, 1916 the first day of the battle is examined in detail.   This battle is also described using the same basic format as Agincourt and Waterloo.   There are two types of combat discussed, infantry versus machine-gunners, and infantry versus infantry; though a case could be made that infantry versus artillery should be included as a distinct type and not just discussed in the passages leading to the battle description.

Throughout his description and analysis of the battle, he repeatedly points out the horrifying nature of trench warfare.   He describes the plight of the wounded caught in no-mans land and contrasts that with the experience of the wounded that made it to a casualty clearing station.

The final section of the book is concerned with the future of battle in warfare and Keegan’s assertion that the modern battlefield has become too lethal a place for man to exist upon it.   This is the only part of the book that is open to criticism.   Here Keegan has fallen into the historian’s trap of trying to predict the future.   Nobody knows what the future may bring except the certainty that it will be different.   It has been predicted for sixty years that nuclear weapons would make war obsolete and humanity has continued to prove that it will still fight.   It can be said with certainty that war will change and may even change in a fundamental way but it is an excess of hubris to think that man will not find a way to fight as long as he thinks that doing so may gain some advantage.

In summation “The Face of Battle” is an excellent piece of research in the nature and experience of the common man at war.   I would highly recommend it to anyone who would like to get an appreciation for what combat is like.   I disagree that there is a qualitative difference between set piece battle and small-scale conflict the emotions and experience of the common soldier are essentially the same during combat itself.   The difference lies in the period between combat actions where I would argue that it is more stressful to be in small-scale conflict when combat can happen at anytime as compared to set piece battles where combat can be somewhat anticipated.

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