The Face Of Battle
The Face of Battle is military history from the battlefield: a look at the direct experience of individuals at 'the point of maximum danger'. It examines the physical conditions of fighting, the particular emotions and behaviour generated by battle, as well as the motives that impel soldiers to stand and fight rather than run away.In his scrupulous reassessment of three battles, John Keegan vividly conveys their reality for the participants, whether facing the arrow cloud of Agincourt, the levelled muskets of Waterloo or the steel rain of the Somme.

The Face Of Battle Details

TitleThe Face Of Battle
Author
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseOct 7th, 2004
PublisherPimlico
ISBN-139781844137480
Rating
GenreHistory, Nonfiction, Military, Military History, War, Military Fiction

The Face Of Battle Review

  • Eric
    January 1, 1970
    As a just-get-to-the-fighting teenager I tried to read The Face of Battle and was baffled by the humanist erudition of Keegan’s introduction, a long historiographic essay that, I now see, echoes Virginia Woolf’s manifesto “Modern Fiction” and applies its prescriptions to historical prose. Keegan called to writers of military history as Woolf called to the novelists of her time – “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however As a just-get-to-the-fighting teenager I tried to read The Face of Battle and was baffled by the humanist erudition of Keegan’s introduction, a long historiographic essay that, I now see, echoes Virginia Woolf’s manifesto “Modern Fiction” and applies its prescriptions to historical prose. Keegan called to writers of military history as Woolf called to the novelists of her time – “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected or incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.” Keegan wanted historians to turn away from the construction of tidy panoptic narratives of battle and acknowledge the horizonless confusion experienced by even the most well-informed participants of those battles; wanted them to understand that most soldiers don't even know when they are engaged in battle, or at least "battle" as it was understood by the Victorians: a national apotheosis or histrionic downfall; the Hinge of Destiny; and he recommended the historian read and take to heart the chaotic combat scenes in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, just as Woolf prescribed Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekov to the fiction writer tempted by pat characterization, superficial psychology, all-too-conclusive action, and purely material relations. Keegan had it in for the “battle piece” – the sonorous, superbly modulated, rhetorical-declamatory mode of recounting battle; the stagey conventions under which all action is directed and decisive, all figures victors or vanquished, steadfast or yielding; a form Romantically colored and full of movement but for all that unable to convey a credible picture of the action, the colliding bodies, and presenting an “extreme uniformity of human behavior” in situations we know to be marked by jarring contrasts and a grotesque simultaneity. In a reading I’m too ignorant to evaluate, Keegan traces the battle piece to Julius Caesar’s self-promoting, politically savvy memoirs of the conquest of Gaul (mannequin legions waxing in his presence, waning in his absence), and argues that Greek military history (Xenophon, Thucydides) can offer an alternative tradition – one more formally relaxed, decentered and diffuse, as well as more attentive to the fickle, individually wayward responses of men in battle. And when we try to visualize Napoleonic battles, Keegan cautions us to avoid the Salon painting of Second Empire France and Victorian England – the ridiculous CGI of its time, apparently – all those paintings “which by their combination of photographic observation of detail with defiance of physical laws anticipate the work of the Surrealists.” As a contemporary critic, Baudelaire was harsher, calling exhibitions of battle scenes trade fairs for army contractors, vulgar hubbub of boot- and knapsack-makers; and of the soldier-painter Horace Vernet, Baudelaire said, “I hate this man because his pictures are not painting, but a sort of agile and frequent masturbation, an irritation of the French epidermis.”Given the influence I’m told this book has had, Keegan would seem to have succeeded in his effort to convince historians to treat the face of battle as something fugitive and multiform, appearing in many guises to participants variously affected by simple position, by wounds, sleeplessness, hunger, cold, terror, alcohol, noise, and smoke. I was particularly struck by an account of Waterloo Keegan quotes, that of the British gunner officer Mercer:Of what was transacting in the front of the battle we could see nothing, because the ridge in which our first line was posted was much higher than the ground we occupied. Of that line itself we could see only the few squares of infantry immediately next to us, with the intervening batteries. From time to time bodies of cavalry swept over the summit between the squares, and, dispersing on the reverse of the position, vanished again, I know not how.So appeared the grand French cavalry charges – an irresistibly operatic subject for later painters of the battle – to one veteran. This book’s classic status is understandable because Keegan installs battle as a image of life itself – a welter of particulars we suspect must mean something, decide something, must in the end make a shape, a shape about which we hazard and discard, or fiercely cling to, guesses and theories and stories. Something is happening to us – over the ridge, through that smoke – just at the edge of our grasp.
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  • Matt
    January 1, 1970
    The Face of Battle is John Keegan’s 1976 classic – at the time landmark – account of warfare from the perspective of individual soldiers. It is not concerned with grand strategy or tactics. It does not worry about the rulers and generals who made the decisions and hoarded the laurels. This is a book about the common soldier’s experience as a pawn on the most dangerous chessboard in the world. The bulk of Keegan’s book is his bottom-up analysis of three decisive battles at different periods in hi The Face of Battle is John Keegan’s 1976 classic – at the time landmark – account of warfare from the perspective of individual soldiers. It is not concerned with grand strategy or tactics. It does not worry about the rulers and generals who made the decisions and hoarded the laurels. This is a book about the common soldier’s experience as a pawn on the most dangerous chessboard in the world. The bulk of Keegan’s book is his bottom-up analysis of three decisive battles at different periods in history. Before we get there, however, Keegan begins with a rather lengthy – and fascinating – chapter on military historiography. This first chapter is more akin to a personal essay than anything else, and opens with a famous hook: “I have not been in a battle; nor near one, nor heard from afar, nor seen the aftermath.” Following this admission, Keegan goes on to write about the different types of military-history writing, and their various utilities. The tension is between technical histories and battle narratives. The technical histories are “intended as a chronological record of military incident to provide, among other things, material for Staff College lectures.” This is the stuff of Staff Rides and West Point classes, but holds little interest for the general reader. The battle narrative, on the other hand, allows “the combatants to speak for themselves,” and are the bread-and-butter of the popular histories you buy your dad for Christmas. (Or, in my case, that I buy for myself all the time). These narratives are certainly evocative, but as Keegan shows through a variety of excerpts, they can tend towards hyperbole or be used to protect (or destroy) reputations. As Keegan attempts to find the balance, he is also wrestling with the question of self-justification; that is, seeking reasons why this type of writing is necessary at all. Needless to say, since the book contains more than one chapter, Keegan decides there’s a good reason to explore the experiential aspects of battle. The bulk of The Face of Battle is made up of discussions about three immortal encounters: (1) Agincourt, about which I knew nothing (it happened in Westeros, right? During the War of the Five Kings?); (2) Waterloo, about which I know next to nothing (I’ve read one book on the Napoleonic wars, which I’m told Napoleon eventually lost); and (3) the Somme, about which I’ve started to learn a little (as part of my continuing celebration of the centenary of World War I). At its best, The Face of Battle approaches some faint idea of how battle must appear to the soldier in its midst. For instance, there is this description of the hand-to-hand combat at Agincourt that captures some of the physical realities of combat: At Agincourt, where the man-at-arms bore lance, sword, dagger, mace or battleaxe, his ability to kill or wound was restricted to the circle centered on his own body, within which his reach allowed him to club, slash or stab. Prevented by the throng at their backs from dodging, side-stepping or retreating from the blows and thrusts directed at them by their English opponents, the individual French man-at-arms must shortly have begun to lose their man-to-man fights, collecting blows on the head or limbs which, even through armor, were sufficiently bruising or stunning to make them drop their weapons or lose their balance or footing. Within minutes, perhaps seconds, of hand-to-hand fighting being joined, some of them would have fallen, their bodies lying at the feet of their comrades, further impeding the movement of individuals and thus offering an obstacle to the advance of the whole column.This is the kind of through-the-helm view I was hoping for when I picked up this book. And to be sure, Keegan provides them now and again. He gives, for instance, a gruesomely detailed comparison of the wounds caused by the weapons at Waterloo with the hideously refined methods employed at the Somme. On the whole, though, I wanted more of the tactile details: the exhaustion of men forced to march or charge before beginning a battle; the constricted viewpoints caused by dust or gun smoke; the clamor of a bladed battle verses the cacophony of modern war. I know that Keegan was attempting to break from stylized battle histories, but at times, this felt like a standard military history. Of course, this might be a function of Keegan creating the mold, the template that other authors I’ve read have scrupulously followed. One of the reasons I dallied in finally reading such a seminal work – aside from the fact that I have a hundred unread books awaiting the day my children are in college and I am retired, in three decades or so, if I’m still kicking – is that I didn't love Keegan’s The First World War. At certain times, Keegan’s sentences tend to resemble Colin Firth talking in a Colin Firth romantic comedy. That is, Keegan has a knack for composing a sentence that is filled with stutters and digressions and clauses that loop and wind and pause before finally, blessedly, getting to the point. This style drove me crazy while reading The First World War. Here, I don’t really recall the issue popping up. It helps, I think, that Keegan has structured this book so rigidly. He shows great focus in his writing, with two bookend chapters sandwiching a chapter on each of the three featured battles. Sticking with this format, with minimal digressions, allows for a lot of efficiency. Keegan covers a great deal of ground in only 343 pages. Aside from a few moments of existential doubt in his opening essay, he writes authoritatively and with confidence. Keegan does a fine job in analyzing his three picked battles. Ultimately, though, this book’s resonance comes from its approach, more so than its content. At least, that’s why I’m glad I finally got around to reading this. Going forward, I’ll probably be more attuned, and appreciative, of Keegan’s influence on the numerous historical volumes that are right now sitting unread on a groaning and partially-collapsed IKEA bookshelf that I put together while drunk.
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  • Laura
    January 1, 1970
    It’s a rare day that I become smitten with a 75-year old historian, but that day came when I read the introduction to The Face of Battle. I have several of John Keegan’s books, most of them featuring lots of photographs, but this is the one that made him famous – and for good reason. His elegant prose has the right amount of wit and clarity, scholarship and humility, gripping description and hard facts. After an introduction to military historiography that left me – I'm not even kidding – thinki It’s a rare day that I become smitten with a 75-year old historian, but that day came when I read the introduction to The Face of Battle. I have several of John Keegan’s books, most of them featuring lots of photographs, but this is the one that made him famous – and for good reason. His elegant prose has the right amount of wit and clarity, scholarship and humility, gripping description and hard facts. After an introduction to military historiography that left me – I'm not even kidding – thinking “What a fascinating topic!!” he describes three seminal European battles that took place in the same region: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. I can’t say that you don’t need to be a teeny bit interested in military history to be interested in this, as I do happen to be interested in military history, but I can objectively testify to his eloquence. He describes what it would be like to be a man-on-the-ground combat soldier in each of these battles with the arrows whizzing by, the cannon smoke obscuring the field, and the rain of bullets falling indiscriminately and unceasingly. (I know “rain of bullets” is cliché, but I’m not John Keegan.) And with a considerable understanding born of his years researching and teaching at Sandhurst, he explains what on earth compells the average soldier to endure the misery and danger of combat. To hear him describe the experience of these battles, buy the book – you, too, can know as closely as it’s possible to know what it would be like to fight in another time period. It’s worth far more than $11 and five or six hours just be wowed by his prose and grateful for your life. Plus you’ll know a lot more about these battles than you would by reading anything else.
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  • BAM The Bibliomaniac
    January 1, 1970
    An enlightening erudition of three monumental battles in English history: Agincort; Waterloo; and the Somme. Agincort-when battle was chivalrous and troops were led by the kingWaterloo-when the height of technology was the soldier's bayonet The Somme-when the top line of defense was...well...an actual line of trenches and razor wire called the Maginot The author details both the strategy and tactics of each of these battles then finishes the book by comparing and contesting them as well as discu An enlightening erudition of three monumental battles in English history: Agincort; Waterloo; and the Somme. Agincort-when battle was chivalrous and troops were led by the kingWaterloo-when the height of technology was the soldier's bayonet The Somme-when the top line of defense was...well...an actual line of trenches and razor wire called the Maginot The author details both the strategy and tactics of each of these battles then finishes the book by comparing and contesting them as well as discussing their relationship to and effects on modern warfare. Any student warfare should read this book. The audio version is also very good.
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  • Checkman
    January 1, 1970
    I first read The Face of Battle in 1991. I was a young 2nd Lieutenant attending the Armor Officer's Basic Course at Fort Knox, Kentucky. As a 2nd Lieutenant my focus was on the small world of the armor platoon leader (four tanks - sixteen soldiers) and the type of combat that I would encounter as a platoon leader. "The Face of Battle" was amazing for it addressed many of the issues that I found myself wondering about. It was a breath of fresh air. I have since read it several times both in it's I first read The Face of Battle in 1991. I was a young 2nd Lieutenant attending the Armor Officer's Basic Course at Fort Knox, Kentucky. As a 2nd Lieutenant my focus was on the small world of the armor platoon leader (four tanks - sixteen soldiers) and the type of combat that I would encounter as a platoon leader. "The Face of Battle" was amazing for it addressed many of the issues that I found myself wondering about. It was a breath of fresh air. I have since read it several times both in it's entirety and it's different sections. Thirty-six years after it was first published Keegan's The Face of Battle might seem like old hat. There are no lack of critics who will point out the mistakes in Keegan's methodology; that he examined three British battles that were victories (I would argue that The Somme was hardly a victory) and so on and so forth.Then there are those who have issues with the man himself and allow their personal opinions to influence their critiques of his books. I readily acknowledge that John Keegan is not perfect and I have found many of his more recent books to be flat, but The Face of Battle is something special. To understand why Keegan wrote Battle all you have to do is read the first twenty pages. Keegan examines contemporary military history (mid - 1970's) and it's depiction of the physical reality of combat. Military historians interests were more on the macro rather than the micro. Many of them used sweeping generalities and cliches when describing the experiences of the soldiers in battle. There were exceptions of course. Historians who were looking at the existence of the individual soldier. Most notable (at the time of the book being written) would have been writers Cornelius Ryan and John Ellis, but for the most part, historians had not examined the battlefield empirically.With The Face of Battle Keegan moved into new territory. It's hard to understand in 2012 just how groundbreaking his book was at the time. It's hard to understand because his work has been so influential that it has been seamlessly incorporated into other historians research. That in itself is probably the greatest compliment possible. The book is very readable. Each battle is analyzed methodically, but it never drags. Different aspects of each battle is looked at. Such as the experience of the infantry, cavalry, commanders, artillery and so on. He looks at the conditions of the battlefield itself when the fighting begins and how it changed as the fighting went on. He also examines the effect of the physical conditions (of the battlefield) on the tactics and the how it effected the moral of the soldiers involved in the fighting. Again there had been historians before Keegan who had examined these things, but not as methodically nor had such an examination been the thesis of the earlier books. All in all a fascinating read and one that is deserving of it's place in military history.
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  • Contrarius
    January 1, 1970
    I read this as part of an "expand your horizons" challenge, and I very much enjoyed it. Keegan has an engaging style and is very easy to listen to (audio format) -- and the narrator, one of my all-time favorites (Simon Vance), didn't hurt any either. This is a classic book of military history/analysis...but it almost seems blase in some ways, today, because so many writers have learned from Keegan's insights. While I was listening, I kept thinking that any writer of fiction who wanted to include I read this as part of an "expand your horizons" challenge, and I very much enjoyed it. Keegan has an engaging style and is very easy to listen to (audio format) -- and the narrator, one of my all-time favorites (Simon Vance), didn't hurt any either. This is a classic book of military history/analysis...but it almost seems blase in some ways, today, because so many writers have learned from Keegan's insights. While I was listening, I kept thinking that any writer of fiction who wanted to include battle scenes in their stories should read this book before setting their own pens to paper; and I kept seeing lessons from this book reflected in the works of some of my favorite authors. I am docking this book one star simply because it was published before any of the current mid-East conflicts heated up. IMHO some of Keegan's conclusions about mechanisation at the end of his book have been thrown into doubt by the intimacy of many of the recent battles over there. I would really love to see his analyses of recent battle trends...unfortunately, his only book on the subject (so far) was written near the beginning of the war, so I'll have to wait for something more up-to-date!
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  • Lobstergirl
    January 1, 1970
    John Keegan was an instructor at Sandhurst when he wrote this in the early 1970s. As he notes, he was someone who had never seen battle himself, teaching those who would. He writes about battles in a nuts-and-bolts, but also a deeply human way, investigating their moral aspects: why were prisoners sometimes killed, sometimes not? When it quickly became clear that soldiers were dying needlessly in some of the attrition battles of WWI, why were those particular offenses not stopped? Why did the of John Keegan was an instructor at Sandhurst when he wrote this in the early 1970s. As he notes, he was someone who had never seen battle himself, teaching those who would. He writes about battles in a nuts-and-bolts, but also a deeply human way, investigating their moral aspects: why were prisoners sometimes killed, sometimes not? When it quickly became clear that soldiers were dying needlessly in some of the attrition battles of WWI, why were those particular offenses not stopped? Why did the officer class become increasingly distanced from actual killing, so that in WWI some only carried an ornamental sword, and in WWII some only a walking stick? Why did so many combatants over the centuries enter battle drunk? How and why did the fatality rate (men killed as a proportion of those entering battle) change over the centuries, or from battle to battle? What does it mean when somewhere between 10-20% of battle casualties are psychological? (After a certain number of days in battle, psychological damage is inevitable, researchers have found.)This is a work of historiography as much as history. Keegan examines several styles of writing about battles, comparing, for example, Caesar with Thucydides, as well as later historians.
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  • Mike Hankins
    January 1, 1970
    Originally released in the mid 1970s, this book is beginning to show its age a little, but only because it had such a huge impact on the field of military history, spawning so many imitators in its wake. Before John Keegan's groundbreaking work, military history tended to focus on generalship, top-down views, and "great man" hero-worship. Not that there's anything wrong with such approaches, they have their own usefulness and drawbacks. But Face of Battle sought to apply an entire new -- for the Originally released in the mid 1970s, this book is beginning to show its age a little, but only because it had such a huge impact on the field of military history, spawning so many imitators in its wake. Before John Keegan's groundbreaking work, military history tended to focus on generalship, top-down views, and "great man" hero-worship. Not that there's anything wrong with such approaches, they have their own usefulness and drawbacks. But Face of Battle sought to apply an entire new -- for the the time -- approach to the writing of military history: an approach that centered on the viewpoint of the individual soldier in battle.Keegan examines three famous battles: Agincourt in the fifteenth century, Waterloo in the early nineteenth, and the Somme during World War One. In each case, Keegan attempts to paint a detailed picture of what the battle was like for the average soldier in the crowd--what the individual saw, felt, smelled, heard. From the pressure of massive crowds of sword-wielding knights pushing each other in a mosh-pit-like mass, to the loud sounds of muskets and cannon at Waterloo, where soldiers blind-fired into the huge clouds of smoke that covered the fields, to the terrifying creeping barrage advances to enemy trenches in World War One, Keegan paints a vivid picture of what battle is really like for the average man in the line. This is a fascinating look, which accomplishes several huge feats at the same time. Most of all, it puts a human face on war. Reading accounts of battles can often distance a reader from the brutality and reality of war itself, and Keegan does a remarkable job of putting readers in the shoes of various soldiers -- a perspective which is at once terrifying and enlightening. This re-focus places the agency of victory back on individual soldiers. Generals may do all the right things and make all the right decisions, but victory can often be won or lost by individuals at the front, who have no direct communication with their generals. That is not to diminish the role of a general, but merely to emphasize that the men in the lines are just as important. Keegan is also able to track the evolution of warfare across time, from a medieval battle featuring knights and archers, through the devastating mechanization of killing seen in trench warfare. New technology brought new tactics and new experiences to warfare. Yet through these changes, one can see similarities between soldiers of all eras: a desire for safety, for belonging, the power of strong leadership, genuine fear, and hope. The effect this book had on the field of military history is difficult to overstate, not necessarily because of new information regarding these specific battles, but because of Keegan's overall approach. He opened a door into examining battles from a bottom-up perspective, emphasizing not only the experience, but the role of the common soldier in battle. The influence of this approach is felt across the whole field. Some works tend to apply the same approach to other battles, where many other works simply incorporate this perspective into other elements of their studies. In any case, if reading this book now might feel a little bit "normal," it's because Keegan made it normal to use this approach. This is a great book which holds up well even almost 40 years after its release. Sure to please the academic and the hobbyist, its a classic book that every history fan will want to have on their shelf.
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  • Steve
    January 1, 1970
    Meh. It's ok. Written in 1976, The Face of Battle is badly in need of an update. In addition, the battles are all very British (Agincourt, Waterloo, and The Somme). This is understandable, since the book is probably an outgrowth from Keegan's teaching notes. The focus is on the experience of the individual soldier, which is pretty standard stuff in current battle books. The Face of Battle can be a bit dry at times (the first 20 pages are a real slog), but it can also be quite fascinating. It was Meh. It's ok. Written in 1976, The Face of Battle is badly in need of an update. In addition, the battles are all very British (Agincourt, Waterloo, and The Somme). This is understandable, since the book is probably an outgrowth from Keegan's teaching notes. The focus is on the experience of the individual soldier, which is pretty standard stuff in current battle books. The Face of Battle can be a bit dry at times (the first 20 pages are a real slog), but it can also be quite fascinating. It was interesting to see that Keegan portrays the demise of calvary as early as Agincourt, which works as a great lead in to all those futile French charges at Waterloo. What a waste. My edition has some cool (and very rare) pictures of infantry charges during WW 1 and Dien Bien Phu.
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  • Jonathan
    January 1, 1970
    Such a good book that I read it in essentially one sitting. Keegan sets out with a number of objectives in mind. He wishes to dissect, as best he can, what it was actually like to fight in each of the three battles he selects. In so doing, he wants to demonstrate a superior approach to military history over the more traditional "battle piece" he spends the introduction deriding. Finally, by moving chronologically through history, he seeks to show that battles (if not war as a whole) has "abolish Such a good book that I read it in essentially one sitting. Keegan sets out with a number of objectives in mind. He wishes to dissect, as best he can, what it was actually like to fight in each of the three battles he selects. In so doing, he wants to demonstrate a superior approach to military history over the more traditional "battle piece" he spends the introduction deriding. Finally, by moving chronologically through history, he seeks to show that battles (if not war as a whole) has "abolished itself" through its ever increasing lethality, complexity and scale.I didn't find this final point, the central focus of his conclusion, very convincing. The book was written originally in 1976 and so we can allow Keegan a certain amount of leniency but his treatment of the mechanisation of warfare (the supposed irrelevance of tanks, for example) is a lot weaker than the rest of the book, firstly, as a general idea and, even worse, in the way he argues the point. The technological differences between Agincourt and the Somme are self evident but I do not believe that battle, even within the strict boundaries that Keegan sets, is a thing of the past.The real substance of this book is to be found in Keegan's criticism of the historiography of "battles" and military history in general, and the corrective he provides in the form of an eminently human account of the three battles in question. He admits that he cannot know what it is like to be in a battle, it is his opening gambit of the book, however, he also shows the ways in which the historian can navigate this problem. He is extremely thorough and writes very well. He breaks the battles down into sections (infantry vs infantry, cavalry vs infantry, and artillery vs infantry etc) and attempts to pick apart what each of these encounters was like, creating an aggregate depiction of the battle as a whole.This is extremely successful when it comes to Agincourt and Waterloo, where Keegan's writing is particularly insightful. He specifically attacks ideas such as the shock of cavalry charges and the typical "walls of dead" described in more narrative, less forensic accounts. He also turns the general conception of the repeated cavalry attacks against the British squares at Waterloo on its head. Certainly, for any historian (whether their field is exclusively military or not) there is a great deal to process and take to heart. Keegan mines into even the most basic of ideas (for examples, how the English archers at Agincourt arranged their stakes) and applies an incisive logic to his "best guess" conjecture of how events proceeded. In the main, he is totally convincing and his control over the separate threads of the history, knotting together as it were to create the overall sense of the battle, is very deft.I think the scale of the Somme ultimately confounds him. Unlike the other battles, where he is able to conjure, however incompletely, an impression of the battle (used, in miniature, to depict the whole of that era's warfare), the first day of the Somme would require an entire book to deconstruct in the same way. The scale alone, the number of divisions involved, the differing geography - it certainly conforms with his thesis that a battle's outcome defies simple categorisation. Indeed, it is impossible for him to cover much more than the very first day. It may be that the scope of the book was actually too wide and Keegan's theory holds true even when it comes to his own writing: battles of the 20th Century were already beyond what we can easily comprehend and what the military historian can convey. This section, I should add, is very readable and interesting, just not as successful. It doesn't really stand out from other histories of the Somme that I have read but that is perhaps because Keegan's work was so influential and also because the way in which the Somme was written about, by historians and its participants, was so different to the other battles depicted.I was left with an indelible impression of what Agincourt and Waterloo may have been like on the ground for at least some of its participants. As it's possible to read in my other reviews, I do feel this is a critical and often overlooked responsibility of history writing in general and military history specifically. I still cannot process the mindset of men spurred up ladders into machine-gun fire. The battalions involved were so different, miners and clerks and eighteen year old farmers, each one almost needs to be treated separately. It is hard enough to understand the mindset of a Edwardian teenager, let alone one on the Western Front. Keegan talks about how battle is experienced by just the individual and those immediately surrounding him, so why does he devote so much time to reciting battalion level experiences of the battle? What was it actually like for a rifle section or platoon? This question is not as unfair as, perhaps, it seems given how the individual experience of the earlier battles is exactly what Keegan spends so much time detailing.It is not likely I will ever be able to understand what it was like to be a private soldier at the Battle of the Somme, and perhaps that is why it and WW1 as a whole has inflicted such a psychological wound on Britain, however much revisionist historians attempt to rehabilitate it. The simple military parameters of success and failure are not applicable and it defies even Keegan's more humanitarian and erudite approach to military history. It is impossible to avoid the sense of tragedy and inevitability - retrospective impulses, for the most part, that Keegan has been critical of elsewhere.Given he was a lecturer at Sandhurst and his own family were all soldiers (his father was an artilleryman in World War One) it may be that Keegan is simply too close to his subject here, he has too much affection for the British army to avoid uncharacteristic lapses into sentimentality. Certainly, trying to analyse the mindset of the General Staff and the British Army as a whole on the Western Front with little to no reference to its imperial history seems to me massively shortsighted. There is not much in the way of jingoism in the text generally but I still cringed at references to the British lack of excesses in Kenya and necessity for "sharpshooter" accuracy in Belfast. According to Keegan, this is to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties when IRA gunmen use civilians as shields. It is a hint at the underlying bias of the author which, otherwise, does not make itself explicit. Especially not when concerned with pre-20th Century warfare. I would say that some of the socio-economic analysis in the book is a bit limited, perhaps by design. Keegan is, for example, more than aware of class distinctions between the officers and their men in the British Army in 1916, and is quick to emphasis the stripping away of divisions by competent and kindly public schoolboys drafted in to command the Pals Battalions. He is concerned, elsewhere, with the necessity of coercion in order to bring men to battle - he even gives an account of a summary execution - but he does not link the two. This seems to me an omission that precludes the part about the Somme being as effective as the chapters regarding Agincourt and Waterloo.Much military history is certainly as bad, or worse, than anything Keegan criticises in his book and, largely, this is a good example of how it should be written. It is definitely a corrective to some of the other books I have read recently. It is also highly readable and largely free of all the usual ideological junk and xenophobia that afflicts history of this genre and which Keegan is wary of, even if he cannot totally avoid his own lapses.
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  • Ted
    January 1, 1970
    This was the first book I read by John Keegan, and it became the first of many. In it he describes three different historical battles (Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, if memory serves) and describes what we know (or can guess) about what the battle experience was like for the men involved. Of particular interest is the way he breaks this down into sub-topics like "infantry vs. archers", "infantry vs. cavalry", "cavalry vs. artillery" etc.This is probably the best non-fiction description of t This was the first book I read by John Keegan, and it became the first of many. In it he describes three different historical battles (Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, if memory serves) and describes what we know (or can guess) about what the battle experience was like for the men involved. Of particular interest is the way he breaks this down into sub-topics like "infantry vs. archers", "infantry vs. cavalry", "cavalry vs. artillery" etc.This is probably the best non-fiction description of the horror of battle that I have read. Keegan notes that long ago (and perhaps not so long ago) it was common on the night before battles for a great number of the soon-to-be participants to drink themselves nearly to oblivion, as a way of steeling themselves to face what was to come.Keegan is a well known British military historian, and held a lectureship in Military History at the Royal Military Academy (Sandhurst) for 26 years.
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  • Lanko
    January 1, 1970
    Great book. I was searching for the psychological aspect of battle, its effects before, during and after. There is a lot of technical material as well, for those who like it. Various myths are revealed, such as treating the wounded right away, amount of time in combat, fatigue, conscripting, wounds suffered, leadership that sees everything and such. I particularly like the "coercion" chapter. Aftermath, wounds and the psychological effects on modern day are also great.Another really good one is Great book. I was searching for the psychological aspect of battle, its effects before, during and after. There is a lot of technical material as well, for those who like it. Various myths are revealed, such as treating the wounded right away, amount of time in combat, fatigue, conscripting, wounds suffered, leadership that sees everything and such. I particularly like the "coercion" chapter. Aftermath, wounds and the psychological effects on modern day are also great.Another really good one is how usually "easy victories later became hard defeats" in most of the time. If you want to read by curiosity, historically or intend to write more realistically some technical, but most importantly, the real mental effect that battle has, this is a really good book.
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  • Ben Wand
    January 1, 1970
    The chapters on Agincourt and the Somme were particularly interesting.
  • Jonathan
    January 1, 1970
    A page-turner of a work on historical methodology. Keegan advances some complicated theses, supported by concepts developed in many academic disciplines (psychology, sociology, biology, physics, etc) as well as readings of archival materials, letters, and journals, conversations with soldiers, and what seem to be his own wide-ranging, personal interest in human nature.The result is a book packed densely with insights, whether about the noise made by clattering pikes or 20th Century combined arms A page-turner of a work on historical methodology. Keegan advances some complicated theses, supported by concepts developed in many academic disciplines (psychology, sociology, biology, physics, etc) as well as readings of archival materials, letters, and journals, conversations with soldiers, and what seem to be his own wide-ranging, personal interest in human nature.The result is a book packed densely with insights, whether about the noise made by clattering pikes or 20th Century combined arms; the etymology of "barrage"; or the way fallen soldiers crawl together like sheep on a cold night. Keegan's focus on the personal, lived experience of soldiers -- chaotic, partial -- builds his seemingly idiosyncratic observations into compelling descriptions of battles.Maybe more unexpectedly, this book is about writing as much as it is about military history. Keegan tried to unpack the ways that accounts of battles -- whether by contemporary chroniclers popular and professional volumes of military history -- rely on tropes, elisions, categorizations, etc. that distort chaotic events involving thousands of people. So on the one hand, Keegan performs close readings of his many primary and secondary sources in order to describe more accurately, e.g., the progression of Agincourt from two armies sitting across a narrow field to a press of armored French men-at-arms blindly shoving their front line forward without patience into a series of small-scale duels fought on poor footing (their comrades' bodies) and without room to maneuver against their outnumbered English counterparts:Agincourt ... is a victory of the weak over the strong, of the common soldier over the mounted knight, of resolution over bombast, of the desperate, cornered and far from home, over the proprietorial and cocksure. Visually it is a pre-Raphaelite, perhaps better a Medici Gallery print battle -- a composition of strong verticals and horizontals and a conflict of rich dark reds and Lincoln greens against fishscale greys and arctic blues. It is a school outing to the Old Vic, Shakespeare is fun, son-et-lumiere, blank verse, Laurence Olivier in armour battle; it is an episode to quicken the interest of any schoolboy ever bored by a history lesson, a set-piece demonstration of English moral superiority and a cherished ingredient of a fading national myth. It is also a story of slaughter-yard behavior and of outright atrocity.".On the other, Keegan attempts to describe these fights in his own words. He is neither poetic nor clinical: he illustrates (animates?) the actions of individuals on the day in question while contextualizing both what he sees as the reasons for those actions and their larger significance to the fight, the war, and at times, least convincingly, the history of nations*. He aims for objectivity while being aware that objectivity is nonsense. If nothing else, the product is strong stuff, Scotch aged for 50 years. It's impossible to put down, and probably makes his case stronger than it necessarily is. Command of ideas (like brigades) is demonstrated, sometimes achieved, by the writer's power of expression. *Cries of "La garde recule!" at Waterloo don't simply punctuate the end of Napoleonic reign, but enacted it, as, in Keegan's forced reading, Napoleon's domestic authority rested on his ability to command the group of men in uniform that had its roots in the revolutionary armies. Thus, the restored Louis XVIII disbanded the institution of the French national army in 1815 to create a new royal army.
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  • Timothy Lugg
    January 1, 1970
    John Keegan is a sophisticated war historian so there are times when his understanding is over my head. This was evident during the first 78 pages of the book when Keegan writes an essay about war history. However, the remainder of the book is golden. The point of the book is to give a history of battle from the perspective of the soldier instead of the commander. Most military histories already document this perspective. The author gives a detailed analysis of the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo John Keegan is a sophisticated war historian so there are times when his understanding is over my head. This was evident during the first 78 pages of the book when Keegan writes an essay about war history. However, the remainder of the book is golden. The point of the book is to give a history of battle from the perspective of the soldier instead of the commander. Most military histories already document this perspective. The author gives a detailed analysis of the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. His comments are useful for understanding these battles, the soldier, and even human nature itself. From a spiritual perspective, it is interesting to note Keegan's observations regarding alcohol and divine service. Both have historically been a part of the soldier's preparation for battle, not always every soldier or every battle, but most of the time. Under the extreme conditions of battle men are helped by fortifying their courage with alcohol and "seem to hunger for its [religion's] consolations on the eve of action." These are just a few of the gems one can mine from the text.
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  • Laura
    January 1, 1970
    "The young have already made their decision. They are increasingly unwilling to serve as conscripts in armies they see as ornamental. The militant young have taken that decision a stage further: they will fight for the causes which they profess not through the mechanisms of the state and its armed power but, where necessary, against them, by clandestine and guerrilla methods. It remains for armies to admit that the battles of the future will be fought in never-never land. While the great armoure "The young have already made their decision. They are increasingly unwilling to serve as conscripts in armies they see as ornamental. The militant young have taken that decision a stage further: they will fight for the causes which they profess not through the mechanisms of the state and its armed power but, where necessary, against them, by clandestine and guerrilla methods. It remains for armies to admit that the battles of the future will be fought in never-never land. While the great armoured hosts face each other across the boundary between east and west, no soldier on either side will concede that he does not believe in the function for which he plans and trains. As long as states put weapons in their hands, they will show each other the iron face of war. But the suspicion grows that battle has already abolished itself"
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  • Mercedes Rochelle
    January 1, 1970
    I purchased this book because I read in an interview that Bernard Cornwell found it useful in his research. And I can see why: John Keegan's analysis of the battlefield is unlike anything I ever read before. He essentially brings us down to the eye-witness level of fighting, and his explanations give us an understanding of battlefields that cannot be grasped when looking at broad strokes.This book covers much territory—too much for most general enthusiasts to grasp. The first part is theory, exp I purchased this book because I read in an interview that Bernard Cornwell found it useful in his research. And I can see why: John Keegan's analysis of the battlefield is unlike anything I ever read before. He essentially brings us down to the eye-witness level of fighting, and his explanations give us an understanding of battlefields that cannot be grasped when looking at broad strokes.This book covers much territory—too much for most general enthusiasts to grasp. The first part is theory, exploring the concept of Military History. The second part covers the Battle of Agincourt, the third part gives us an extensive view of Waterloo, the fourth part illustrates The Somme, and the last part discusses the Future of Battle. I admit that I got bogged down during WWI, for my interest is in earlier centuries; so I only read about 3/4 of the book. It was interesting to see how he structured the chapters. First he gave us the outline of the each battle, then he broke it into a sequence of events to show how the various divisions interacted with the other side (Archers vs. Infantry, Cavalry vs. Infantry and so on). I found the Agincourt chapter most instructive, though it was predominately, and necessarily, built from conjecture. I have always had my doubts that the French army was wiped out by the arrows in the initial charge, as the quick-and-dirty renditions often imply. Keegan reinforces my suspicions, for he states that in the opening volley, "Four clouds of arrows would have streaked out of the English line to reach a height of 100 feet before turning in flight to plunge at a steeper angle on and among the French men-at-arms opposite. These arrows cannot, however, given their terminal velocity and angle of impact, have done a great deal of harm...For armour, by the early fifteenth century, was composed almost completely of steel sheet, in place of the iron mail..."He theorized the archers hammered steaks in the ground, not as is often thought, in a straight line like a fence, but rather "disposed checkerboard fashion" so that "we may then visualize the French bearing down on the archers in ignorance of the hedgehog their ranks concealed." With this in mind, it's easier to imagine the chaos on the front line once the horses “found themselves on top of the stakes too late to refuse the obstacle”. Repelled, the cavalry retreated into the face of the approaching men-at-arms, where it “broke up the rhythm of the advance and knocked some men to the ground”. The crunch kept coming from behind, and the “unrelenting pressure from the rear on the backs of those in the line of battle” combined with a lack of organized command gave the English archers the opportunity to charge with swords, axes and hand-weapons. Keegan gives us a convincing description of the slaughter demonstrating the effectiveness of hand-to-hand fighting against an enemy “who were plainly in no state to offer concerted resistance and scarcely able to defend themselves individually”. This is a more balanced depiction of a battle where archery, though still important, was not the only means of success. Then we abruptly jump ahead 400 years to a battle of a scale unimagined in the middle ages. Waterloo was so huge that one battalion had no clue of what another battalion was doing across the field. “The ‘five phases’ of the battle were not perceived at the time by any of the combatants, not even, despite their points of vantage and powers of direct intervention in events, by Wellington or Napoleon.” Again, we get the general overview, then shift to a comparison of Cavalry vs. Artillery, Artillery vs. Infantry, Infantry vs. Infantry and whatever combinations you could think of. To me, it both helped and hindered a total understanding of this complicated battle. To make it more personal, we get a dizzying compilation of first-hand reports that pinpoints individual experiences. In the process, I felt completely lost, which I guess is much to the point. I was intrigued by the concept of the crowd-like behavior of soldiers who could only react to what they were hearing in the front lines, especially in the French columns. “The men at the rear did nothing, or did nothing useful. Indeed, it seems safe to go further. It was at the back of the columns, not the front, that the collapse began, and the men in the rear who ran before those in the front.” It was this behavior, according to the author, “rather than direct British action, that rendered useless the most critical French attacks of the day, and led to Napoleon’s defeat.” Apparently the British squares were more successful and felt safer, for the wounded could be dragged into the center; it was also more difficult for the weaker soldiers to flee. The Somme, the discussion of which seemed more familiar to the author, relied on trench warfare, a horrific way to fight a battle. The poor infantry were obliged to follow the line of destruction laid down by the artillery. They were unaware that much of the noisy, explosive shells were ineffectual due to the fact that the Germans were sheltered in holes dug well below the range of the bombardments. Also, the detonations did little to remove the barbed wire which slowed many Allies enough to get mowed down in their efforts to cut their way through. This, added to lack of communication, contributed to a casualty rate almost inconceivable to the armchair historian. Overall, though the writing was difficult to plow through, I absorbed a lot of helpful information. My own interest in military history was not up to the task, and I could not do this book justice. But it is a great reference, though it would be much better appreciated when familiar with the subject matter ahead of time.
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  • Mega Chan
    January 1, 1970
    Had to read this for my masters in history class. This book made me realize how boring military history is in academia.
  • John Jr.
    January 1, 1970
    Though he addresses only three battles in detail—Agincourt, on October 25, 1415; Waterloo, on June 18, 1815; and the first day of the Battle of the Somme, on July 1, 1916—so evocative is John Keegan’s study that a reader can come away feeling he or she has acquired a whole new sense of what combat has been like, across centuries of history and even up to the present day, for those who have fought it.Keegan builds up his accounts through the patient accumulation of many details, analytical and de Though he addresses only three battles in detail—Agincourt, on October 25, 1415; Waterloo, on June 18, 1815; and the first day of the Battle of the Somme, on July 1, 1916—so evocative is John Keegan’s study that a reader can come away feeling he or she has acquired a whole new sense of what combat has been like, across centuries of history and even up to the present day, for those who have fought it.Keegan builds up his accounts through the patient accumulation of many details, analytical and descriptive and statistical, at multiple levels. His reports on Waterloo and the Somme include numerous quotations from participants, such as this, from a soldier at the Somme:I could see, away to my left and right, long lines of men. Then I heard the “patter, patter” of machine-guns in the distance. By the time I’d gone another ten yards there seemed to be only a few men left around me; by the time I had gone twenty yards, I seemed to be on my own. Then I was hit myself.He also tells us what kinds of clashes took place:Despite the immense growth of complexity of the machinery and business of war which had taken place in Western armies since 1815, the Battle of the Somme was to be in many ways a simpler event than Waterloo…in the range and nature of the encounters between different categories of armed groups which took place on the ground. At Waterloo we counted seven different sorts of encounters: artillery versus artillery, infantry and cavalry; cavalry versus cavalry and artillery; infantry versus infantry; and single combat. Several of these could or did not occur on the Somme.Keegan provides assessments such as this as well:The first day of the Somme had not been a complete military failure. But it had been a human tragedy.… In all the British had lost about 60,000, of whom 21,000 had been killed, most in the first hour of the attack, perhaps the first minutes.… There is something Treblinka-like about almost all accounts of 1 July, about those long docile lines of young men, shoddily uniformed, heavily burdened, numbered about their necks, plodding forward across a featureless landscape to their own extermination inside the barbed wire.In short, his book is, as a front-cover blurb from C. P. Snow declares, a “brilliant evocation of military experience,” but it’s more than that.Is this kind of history endangered? Nowadays there’s an increasing tendency to assume that experience cannot be communicated; one often finds statements that begin “You can’t possibly understand…” There are reasons to accept this attitude, from one point of view; from another, it’s absurd, it ignores the existence of a vast range of literature and other forms of expression that demonstrate the contrary, and it risks closing off much that we might say to one another. It’s conceivable that military veterans who in the past wrote or provided in interviews the kind of account that Keegan draws on here are now less inclined to do so. And yet I doubt that the human voice will ever come near falling silent on these matters, or that historians will find themselves short on primary sources. Still, the study of the literature of war, which seemed barely to exist in the 70s, when Keegan wrote this book (he remarks on its absence, coincidentally at the very time Paul Fussell was writing The Great War and Modern Memory), may have something to say about, to horridly twist a phrase, the artwork of war in the age of experiential incommunicability.Keegan’s intention is two-fold: to argue for a new kind of military history, which he does in his first chapter, and to show how it might be carried out, which he does in the following three. In a final chapter, he discusses “The Future of Battle,” which to some extent means combat after WWI and to some extent genuinely means the future as he was able to estimate it at the time. The Face of Battle isn’t and doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. Thus Keegan says essentially nothing here about the experience of naval warfare, which is ancient, or of aerial warfare, relatively new but established by the 70s. Women don’t enter the picture. And, though he was bound to know of the use of radio-controlled weapons in WWII and later, he didn’t anticipate the current form of drone warfare, though it fits his discussion of the increasing depersonalization of battle. But the clash of combatants on the ground has not gone away, and this book, in a vivid and gripping form, is the essence of its story.(Addendum: I jotted a page and a half of notes while reading this book and marked or annotated many passages in it. What I’ve written here doesn’t do justice to the experience of reading it, but it can’t be helped—there’s too little time.)
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  • Simon Mcleish
    January 1, 1970
    Originally published on my blog here in January 2000.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 Originally published on my blog here in January 2000.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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  • Geoff
    January 1, 1970
    John Keegan opens with the point that although he has never been a combatant, military history writing is rife with inaccuracy because most writers either regurgitate the facts baldly without consideration for context or prejudice their story by applying personal filters and perceptions to the antagonists. His research is impeccable, he picks three battles that occur in roughly the same location in three different time periods and explains the circumstances surrounding the ranks in terms of thei John Keegan opens with the point that although he has never been a combatant, military history writing is rife with inaccuracy because most writers either regurgitate the facts baldly without consideration for context or prejudice their story by applying personal filters and perceptions to the antagonists. His research is impeccable, he picks three battles that occur in roughly the same location in three different time periods and explains the circumstances surrounding the ranks in terms of their social and religious, their preparedness, how they were motivated (fear being one way), the weapons which were employed as hand to hand, single missle, or multi-missle, and in tight detail. His opening is rather drawn out by his stretching back in time to show which military historians have either failed or succeeded in getting it right and why (greeks did, romans didn't).Then the battles, epic battles that changed history. Agincourt, Waterloo, Somme; each more bloody than the previous and all to be massively surpassed 30 years later in the second world war.There are sections in each battle which were new to me, Agincourt with it's class distinction between archers and men at arms, Waterloo with english infrantry squares maintaining position in the face of repeated artillery and cavalry charges, and the Somme with Keegan's exploration of what motivated the soldiers to climb out of the trench when it was clear their chance of survival was slim. Interestingly, the US Army interviewed and studied their troops extensively and drew amazing conclusions about the society within the army. From the stories told by my father in law, the pacific theatre was much the same. It's also not surprising that the "hands on" generals of WWII were captains and colonels in WWI and felt first hand how degrading authority could be when detached from reality. According to Keegan, Rommel often started battles in the first tank, patton, montgomery, marshall, eisenhower, all interacted and identified closely with the foot soldier. Montgomery preferred fatigues to dress, Patton packed weapons usually reserved for lower ranking officers.I skimmed the detailed listings of which brigades were present and their relative strength and locations during each battle. This is much more than a book of military history, pages and pages written describing in detail through these three battles why a man will fight or not fight.finally, i read this book because of the war poets. World War I had the highest concentration of literate infranty men of any war. there is a huge body of writing from these intelligent men who had time to committ their thoughts to paper. Keegan doesn't disappoint here either.
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  • Jake
    January 1, 1970
    “But 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.”Thus ends the opening paragraph of Face of Battle, in which military historian John Keegan attempts to explore, as best one can absent the experience, what it is like to be involved in real military combat. He does this by examining three historically significant battles in North-western Europe: Agincourt (1415), Waterloo (1815) and the Somme (1916).This is not your ty “But 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.”Thus ends the opening paragraph of Face of Battle, in which military historian John Keegan attempts to explore, as best one can absent the experience, what it is like to be involved in real military combat. He does this by examining three historically significant battles in North-western Europe: Agincourt (1415), Waterloo (1815) and the Somme (1916).This is not your typical book on military history: absent are long discussions about troop deployment patterns or elaborately colored maps detailing the movements of soldiers. With some minimal exceptions, there are very few discussions of supply lines, tactical or strategic maneuvers, or the thoughts of the great leaders of the battles. This is not about the politics that lead to battle, nor the morality behind it. Instead, Keegan’s focus is solely and firmly fixed on the experience of the average infantryman. The grunt soldier who sees, not abstract movements of mathematically defined units, but the chaos and destruction that is part of all warfare. Where Keegan’s discussions do veer off, they often do so into the realm of psychology, or even biology, more than they do into traditional military tactics and doctrine. In several cases, particularly in his discussions of the more modern battles, he draws on primary sources in order to enhance his picture of what the battlefield experience is like. It’s a very different way of looking at military history.Keegan’s writing itself is excellent—he manages to keep the writing engaging and flowing, without resorting to the over-romanticized prose that sometimes accompanies military writing. His use of primary sources allows him to paint a convincing and vivid picture of what the battle field experience would have been like for most soldiers in these engagements, and give the reader at least a greater understanding of what the average soldier experiences on the battlefield.Keegan ends the book with some broader discussions of military history, theory, and the future of warfare, most of which are very interesting. The discussion of the future of warfare will seem a bit dated to modern readers (the book was first published in 1976), but in general, Keegan’s observations about the nature of warfare seem to hold up well enough in the modern day. For those interested in a slightly different outlook on military history, this is well worth the read.
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  • Nicholas During
    January 1, 1970
    I'm probably not the best person to review this book since my knowledge of military history (and militohistiography) is minimal, but here goes.Keegan attempts to recount what happened at three major battles (Agincourt, Waterloo, Somme). His aim is to do this, not from the pov of the generals and leaders, though there is plenty of that, but what it would be like to be a soldier in the field there. Pretty easy answer: not fun.It's well written and so is engaging, it's almost a cliche that military I'm probably not the best person to review this book since my knowledge of military history (and militohistiography) is minimal, but here goes.Keegan attempts to recount what happened at three major battles (Agincourt, Waterloo, Somme). His aim is to do this, not from the pov of the generals and leaders, though there is plenty of that, but what it would be like to be a soldier in the field there. Pretty easy answer: not fun.It's well written and so is engaging, it's almost a cliche that military histories are incredibly boring, and one can't help but feel awful that people have to go through this. And die in such large numbers in such small areas overs such a small part of time. What Keegan is best at is the psychological aspect of war. In terms of strategy this boils down to how it was that one side was more confident, more eager, and therefore fought longer, harder and did not give up. Easy to say but in the example of Agincourt the French had a much bigger army and assumed they would win easily. This is interesting in itself since one may tends to hear about leadership, strategy, and technology rather than "our guys stayed around despite the awful shit that was happening to them while there guys fled after we did awful shit to them." But really the biggest question is, "why do we make young men die like that?" Keegan doesn't really answer this, probably because there isn't an answer, or at least a convincing one.
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  • William Johnson
    January 1, 1970
    A book about battles like the Somme and Waterloo has no business being this boring. Keegan's long winding, multi-claused sentences suffocate all the excitment out of what should be a thrilling topic. I love history and I thought this, from what I'd read about it, would be an interesting book, but dear God it is awful.I can only recommend this to the biggest of history nerds - the kind that have busts of Napolean on their desk and closet-full of old Civil War uniforms from their reenacting days, A book about battles like the Somme and Waterloo has no business being this boring. Keegan's long winding, multi-claused sentences suffocate all the excitment out of what should be a thrilling topic. I love history and I thought this, from what I'd read about it, would be an interesting book, but dear God it is awful.I can only recommend this to the biggest of history nerds - the kind that have busts of Napolean on their desk and closet-full of old Civil War uniforms from their reenacting days, which I imagine describes Keegan himself. And Keegan comes across as such an obnoxious Englishman. I mean he chooses England's two most important military victories and a draw to illustrate his points (which I dont seem to remember in detail). Why not analyze an English defeat!? England lost plenty battles in its long history and his using Waterloo and Agincourt demonstrates his unabashed anglocentric bias. Dude probably hates black people and wishes England still controlled the world. Ok thats a a stretch but you get the idea. For instance he makes the crazy claim in the Waterloo section that British might have had an advantage because they played more competitive team sports! Wtf, man. So unless you like paragraph long sentences and have a poster Churchill on your wall or the Duke of Wellington as your screen saver I advise not wasting your time.
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  • Jill Hutchinson
    January 1, 1970
    Keegan was one of the greatest historians and I have read several of his works. But this one was not exactly what I thought it was going to be. It is not a description of tactics and battle plans but rather the reason that men fight, how they summon courage, or run away. He takes an interesting approach by using the backdrop of three famous battles to make his point about war in general and how it and the men involved change (or don't change) over the yearsI have to admit that there were section Keegan was one of the greatest historians and I have read several of his works. But this one was not exactly what I thought it was going to be. It is not a description of tactics and battle plans but rather the reason that men fight, how they summon courage, or run away. He takes an interesting approach by using the backdrop of three famous battles to make his point about war in general and how it and the men involved change (or don't change) over the yearsI have to admit that there were sections which were rather dry...but the author took much of his material from his lectures as an instructor at Sandringham which probably explains those lapses. So don't expect blazing guns, exploding bombs, and complicated battle plans. This book goes much deeper than the generalities of all wars but instead, delves into the reasons why and the human side of battle. Recommended.
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  • Mike
    January 1, 1970
    A classic in military history which I was supposed to have read for a class back in 1986, I thought this was a reread however I either never read it when I was in college (beer) or forgot it in it's entirety (beer?). Keegan (back when he was really good) does more then just describe the three battles. He explains what it was like to actually fight in the each battle, at least as much as he can, it is still a book. In addition to highlighting the similarities and differences between each battle, A classic in military history which I was supposed to have read for a class back in 1986, I thought this was a reread however I either never read it when I was in college (beer) or forgot it in it's entirety (beer?). Keegan (back when he was really good) does more then just describe the three battles. He explains what it was like to actually fight in the each battle, at least as much as he can, it is still a book. In addition to highlighting the similarities and differences between each battle, he discusses the types of combat, weapons, wounds, and treatment; what caused the men to fight? I also learned that most of what I know about Agincourt comes from Shakespeare, most of what I know about Waterloo comes from Bernard Cornwell, and I know almost nothing about The Somme.
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  • Brendan Hodge
    January 1, 1970
    Erudite and well thought out, this is a classic of ground level military history. Though I found it interesting, I was surprised to find myself mentally arguing with it in places, mainly in the chapter on the Somme and the final chapter on the future of battle. Perhaps it's partly that this was written forty years ago, when Vietnam was the most recent set of lessons for the military historian to draw from. I'm glad I read it, and someone wanting to take any serious run at military history should Erudite and well thought out, this is a classic of ground level military history. Though I found it interesting, I was surprised to find myself mentally arguing with it in places, mainly in the chapter on the Somme and the final chapter on the future of battle. Perhaps it's partly that this was written forty years ago, when Vietnam was the most recent set of lessons for the military historian to draw from. I'm glad I read it, and someone wanting to take any serious run at military history should read it, but it's not quite the last word that I was expecting. It's also important to keep in mind that it is focused more on the experience of battle than the tactics of it.
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  • Steve Dewey
    January 1, 1970
    Very readable, and as I'm very new to all this history of war stuff, a splendid intro to the notion of the "battle" and what it might be like... However, the most interesting section for me was the first chapter, about the challenges of historiography in analysing and writing about the history of battles; it was a good general introduction to the problems of historiography and its lessons would travel wider than war history.
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  • Lark Benobi
    January 1, 1970
    I have never read anything like this book before, and I learned so much, and it's so well written, about a topic I never thought would be something I'd want to read about and it had me riveted. I feel like I've spent time with a very wise person who had given me a better sense of what it means to be human.
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  • Peter
    January 1, 1970
    John Keegan was military historian and Senior Lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. His The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme (1974) is an intriguing surgical dissection of those three famous battles. The emphasis is not on battle strategy or tactics, it is on how the common soldier experiences battle, and on how soldiers’ psychology interacts with the organization of battle. In short, this is a scholarly look at the social psychology of combat. As one John Keegan was military historian and Senior Lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. His The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme (1974) is an intriguing surgical dissection of those three famous battles. The emphasis is not on battle strategy or tactics, it is on how the common soldier experiences battle, and on how soldiers’ psychology interacts with the organization of battle. In short, this is a scholarly look at the social psychology of combat. As one example, Keegan introduces the distinction between behaviors at “critical distance” and “flight distance” between forces. Flight distance is when the opponents are out of range; flight distance behavior is an effort to use intimidation to forestall combat by verbal and visual efforts to intimidate--taunting, primitive wearing of masks and hurling insults from a distance are simple examples, Napoleon’s review of his troops in Wellington’s sight is a more sophisticated example. At the other extreme is “critical distance,” occurring when two forces are so close that each is seriously threatened by the other. Critical distance behavior is combat—-each side knows that its best chance to survive is to attack first, so both sides attack. Keegan also points out that when a group breaks into panic and flees, it tends to be the rearmost portions that begin the flight. The front portions, engaged in combat, are very busy and can’t turn to flee because they are blocked. The rear soldiers have nothing to do but imagine the death up forward, and nothing stands in the way of flight. This observation becomes significant in Napoleon’s loss at Waterloo.Winston Churchill remarked that, “The British and the Americans are people divided by a common language.” The distinction between American and British English is apparent in Keegan’s book—alien idioms ("cocking a snook"), a more formal grammatical structure, and a different cadence. These are by no means show stoppers—-this is an excellent book—-but they do mean that on our side of the pond the reading might be slower.AgincourtAt Agincourt the greatly outnumbered English had the advantage of good ground: woods on both sides of the broad (1,000-yard wide) plain through which the French attacked funneled the French troops into the English line, creating congestion and disorder, and a recent rain promised a slippery slope for the attacking French. Keegan calculates that for a man to fight effectively with hand weapons he would need more than a yard of space, so the French front could be at most roughly 1,000 men wide; yet the French threw as many as 8,000 men at a time into the field—-cavalry first, followed closely by men-at-arms, all armored. Unseen by the charging French cavalry were stakes driven into the ground by the English archers, an abatis designed to frighten and kill horses; these stakes were hidden by the archers who, as the horses came near, simply stepped back to reveal them. The French horses shied, the cavalry charged failed, and the cavalry retreated right into the mass of oncoming French men at arms. Chaos ensued—-as intended the advancing French soldiers were stopped in place and the masses just behind them surged onward, falling over those in front in a “tumble effect” that built a barrier to further advance and made the fallen French easy targets. The panic of a European soccer crowd comes to mind.Keegan dispels several myths about Agincourt, myths probably due to the histories of the time or to the poetic license used by Shakespeare in Henry V. Agincourt was not an English victory because of the new English longbow—-the longbow was more an irritation to the French than a telling weapon because French armor usually defected it except at close range; its effect was fatal only when the arrow passed through unprotected gaps in armor—-armpits,groin holes, holes in helmets, and so on. The famous French attack on the English baggage train (and the associated murder of innocent squires who stayed with the train) was not an attack by the French; rather, it was an attack by local peasants to get baggage train spoils. This, of course, does not mean that Richard knew that it wasn’t a French attack when (and if) he used it to inspire anger against the French; if so, he was simply wrong. Richard’s order to kill the prisoners held in the rear was not a reaction to the treachery of the baggage train attack; it was from fear that the prisoners would get weapons from the ground and attack from the rear—-and it was never implemented. The field at Agincourt was not flooded by heavy rainfall that caused French knights to drown when thrown from horses. It was wet from an earlier rain but it would have become muddy and tractionless just because of the number of men and horses crossing the plain—-roughly 40,000 French soldiers’ feet and 40,000 horses’ hooves.WaterlooWaterloo—-a three-day series of battles, none of which occurred at the town of Waterloo in Belgium—-was a very close event. Unlike Agincourt, where the English were greatly outnumbered, the balance between Napoleon’s and Wellington’s forces was fairly even, the Russians not having arrived yet to add to Wellington’s forces. The first two days of battle had been either draws or French victories, so it was by no means clear that July 18, 1815 would go to the Anglo-Dutch-Prussian-Austrian alliance at “Waterloo.”Several factors made Waterloo a very different battle than Agincourt. The first was the technology: at Agincourt the only weapon with any range was the bow, followed by the crossbow; everything else was a weapon that worked at a distance of mere feet. At Waterloo there were hundreds of cannons and many thousands of muskets. While these were smooth-bore weapons, effective only at short (by modern standards) ranges, they extended the “critical distance” between forces—-the distance at which men resort to combat rather than flight; combat became inevitable when opponents were within roughly 100 yards rather than Agincourt’s several feet. Second was battle formation. At Agincourt, forces massed in lines and advanced in waves of line following line. At Waterloo forces could be arranged in lines, in columns, or in squares. The line was used for attack, as at Agincourt; the column was used for advance to the battle area; and the square was an almost impenetrable formation with ranks formed in four sides several layers deep, the officers located in the middle to preserve command and control. Much of infantry drill was training for smoothly going from one formation to another, a very complicated process in battle conditions. The advent of the square had particularly important effects—-it negated the shock effect of cavalry, that is, its ability to create gaps in formations (Keegan reports only one case where cavalry broke a square, and that was a fluke); it provided unit cohesion and a sense of personal safety by gathering soldiers together; it allowed officer’s to control the action from a secure central area; it eliminated the “rear” of a formation, thus reducing the tendency to flee (men in the rear of a column tend to flee first); it could counter attack from any direction.Third was the use of artillery. Napoleon had his troops advance behind a line of light artillery. While heavy artillery pounded the opponent’s artillery, the light artillery created openings in the opposing battle line, as well as emitting black smoke that masked the attacker's infantry; it allowed the following infantry better access to the enemy by breaking up his line. Wellington countered by placing his forces on high ground, the bulk of them behind a ridge so that his force seem small to the enemy and was little affected by the advancing artillery; this also had the advantage of forcing the French to run uphill and to expose themselves on the ridge. A fourth was the Commanders. Napoleon’s instincts on the battlefield had always been spot-on, his communications clear, his generals followed his orders, and he was plain lucky—-the opposing generals always made mistakes of which Napoleon immediately took advantage. This was not so at Waterloo. Napoleon was off his form, almost lackadaisical. His main commander, Marshall Ney, was inexplicably dilatory in following orders, and one general converted a diversionary attack into a sustained major attack, which he lost. Furthermore, Wellington was Napoleon’s equal, and by far the best general he had met in battle. Keegan’s emphasis at Waterloo is the on interaction of infantry, cavalry, and artillery in the battles; he assesses seven types of interactions: infantry-artillery, infantry-cavalry, infantry-infantry, artillery-artillery, artillery-cavalry, artillery-infantry, and cavalry-cavalry. His analysis of each describes the basic elements that affected the battle’s outcome. As at Agincourt, the “tumble effect,” was an important element—congestion worked against the affected party.Napoleon’s great mistake was in the last battle, when he threw the entire Imperial Guard at the Allied –occupied estate of Hougoumont. The Imperial Guard had never lost in an attack over its ten-year existence, and it was fresh, having been kept in reserve the previous days. But it was ordered to advanc in columns rather than in line. This reduced the total firepower that could be generated as only front troops could fire, and it inadvertently creating a panicked flight that started in a column’s rear and infected the front ranks. When the Guard was seen to retreat, Napoleon’s cause was lost.The SommeThe Battle of the Somme is named for the sluggish river that passes through the agricultural region in western France where the primary crop was beets. Until mid-1916 it was a backwater in World War I, with French and German troops in trenches but no attempts to advance. But when the Germans attacked the French fortress of Verdun in mid-February 1916, and French losses mounted, Marshal Joffre wanted to open a second battle area to draw German forces away from Verdun. He chose the Somme, where the greatest single one-day loss of the war occurred on the battle's first day, July 1, 1916.Joffre and Field Marshall Douglas Haig (commanding the British Expeditionary Force) developed a plan based on artillery. The infantry attack would be preceded by a week-long artillery bombardment designed to clear the barriers protecting German trenches, destroy the trenches, and prevent German movement. The attack itself would advance behind a moving barrage (much as Napoleon’s forces moved behind his light artillery). It would be a walk-in, with all German defenses squashed by artillery. Man plans, God laughs!Of course, modern artillery was a big advance over Napoleon’s: the rifled bore, the elongated projectile, and the improved metallurgy allowing greater internal pressures made artillery an accurate long range weapon (though accuracy depended on the abilities of forward observers to direct the guns). But the machine gun—-a German introduction-—was the new and very powerful innovation, and it could be countered only by artillery or direct infantry attack. Regrettably, allied artillery of the sort needed (howitzers) wasn’t very accurate because forward observation required observers to advance with troops and stay alive, and because the communication lines between observer and artillery usually broke down.In addition to its remarkable firepower, the machine gun addressed a long-standing problem of fire discipline. One of the problems with individual rifle-bearing infantry was that each soldier directed his weapon at targets of his choice and at a time of his choosing—-the unit commander had little control over targets and timing. The results were lots of friendly-fire accidents as well as wasted time and ammunition when low-priority targets were selected. The British countered this with very choreographed firing sequences of the “ready-aim-fire” sort. The machine gun allowed a great deal of firepower to be directed by two men under a unit commander’s instructions.The week-long bombardment of German trenches had far less effect than expected on both fortifications and casualties. Several reasons are offered: the shells of the day had very heavy casings that reduced the space available for explosives; disproportionate amounts of shells were of the shrapnel variety that were of little effect on well-entrenched troops; Britain had backlogs in production of high-explosive shells, so less than ten percent of shells were high-explosive. Thus, the bombardment created dramatic visual effects but little damage. Even the barbed-wire barriers were left largely intact. Another problem was that accurate artillery, like that required to destroy machine gun nests, required both forward observers and working telephone lines between the observers and the artillery positions. Forward observers could identify machine gun nests only when they were operating, meaning only when an attack was underway. But that put the observers at risk. Telephone lines were easily broken by German artillery, moisture, and other adverse conditions. So machine gun nests were relatively safe from the allied artillery.On July 1, 1916 allied casualties were about 60,000, while German casualties were roughly 6,000:it was a very bloody day indeed. And the Battle of the Somme lasted until November, 1916 with eight additional attacks on the German lines, all unsuccessful. Keegan measures the casualties over those months at British, 420,000; French, 200,000--over 600,000 Allied dead and wounded with no significant change in position! Keegan summarizes the impact on Britain and on its future attitude toward war:But the principal memorial that the Somme left to the British nation is not one of the headstones and inscriptions. It is intellectual and literary, and it turns on the revelation, from which the British public had been shielded by their navy, that war could threaten with death the young manhood of a whole nation.The literary contribution Keegan refers to is the vast output of literature—-poems and prose—-about World War I that shaped Britain’s psychology for many decades. To the Brits, WWII—-our Great War—-was a relative scuffle.
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