Friday, 28 January 2000

John Keegan: The Face of Battle (1976)

Edition: Penguin, 1984
Review number: 429

Today, John Keegan is widely known as a military historian, and has quite a reputation both in the field and among the public. The Face of Battle is the book which made his name. He sought to show his readers something of the reality of battle, in contrast to the usual concentration on strategy and technology. This is far more difficult to do, for several reasons. Even in these days of near-universal literacy (in the West, at least), generals are far more likely to write about their careers than private soldiers. On a modern battlefield, which can often cover several square miles, confusion reigns so far as the ordinary soldier is concerned. The air is full of smoke and noise, and any attempt to gain a good vantage point from the ground courts immediate death. Much of what can be said is the product of inference and supposition rather than direct testimony, and also involves and facing of rather unpleasant facts about what men can do to other men. The traditional emphasis is understandable, but it does need to be challenged every now and then.

The book itself contains an introductory essay on military historiography, accounts of three battles, and a concluding essay on the way battles have changed over the centuries. The three battles (Agincourt, Waterloo, and the first day of the Somme) are carefully chosen. They took place in a small area of north west Europe, between soldiers of similar cultural backgrounds. (There are anthropological arguments that imply that these are different from battles between widely differing cultures.) They are all, importantly, well documented for their times. Several independent chronicles include accounts of Agincourt, an effort was made to question all the British officers who survived Waterloo, and the impressions of British survivors of the Somme still alive in the sixties were sought out and recorded.

The opening section is distinctly reminiscent of the historiographical essays of M.I. Finley. This is only to be expected, for ancient history and military history bear similar relationships to the mainstream of the subject. Both are traditionally subjects studied by specialists other than historians, both suffer from poor contemporary documentation.

The accounts of the battles, which do not make pleasant reading, are expertly constructed so that the reader is put into the position of the men on the ground while still having an idea of what is going on at a broader level. The principal lesson, as has been indicated, is that battles are far more chaotic and brutal than is implied by traditional accounts, and that this has always been the case.

The trend seems to be that these factors are constantly increasing, and with them the percentage of soldiers made ineffective for reasons other than death and physical suffering. This is the subject discussed in the final essay, along with the question of why men take part in battles at all. There has usually had to be coercion from the rear; the amount of effort expended to stop men escaping from the Western Front was quite considerable, for example. In the late twentieth century, it has reached the point where traditional battles have become virtually impossible, and increasingly scarce. Most modern wars seem to consist of guerilla style operations - which have the advantage of being far cheaper - or massive air bombardments.

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