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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 awayIn 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


10 thoughts on “The Face Of Battle

  1. says:

    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 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 uestion of self justification; that is seeking reasons why this type of writing is necessary at all Needless to say since the book contains 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 columnThis 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 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 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 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


  2. says:

    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 vanuished 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 grotesue 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 conuest of Gaul manneuin legions waxing in his presence waning in his absence and argues that Greek military history Xenophon Thucydides can offer an alternative tradition – one formally relaxed decentered and diffuse as well as 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 freuent 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 uotes that of the British gunner officer MercerOf 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 suares of infantry immediately next to us with the intervening batteries From time to time bodies of cavalry swept over the summit between the suares and dispersing on the reverse of the position vanished again I know not howSo 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


  3. says:

    I debated between being objective about this nonfiction or just reviewing it based on my gut feeling In the end I had to give it a 5 for good analysis and its own bright objectivityBut for myself I have to wonder why I read military history and why after each time I do it I feel sullied and unclean If I leave enjoyment out of it I did learn a lot about the details of these battles and the author did his very best to bring in all sides of the battles not just what ifs and strategy but a lifetime of critical thinkingI really appreciated that And a point of fact I would absolutely recommend this book for all military buffs and history buffs He's not only pretty exhaustive and wise about the battles but he has a healthy dose of self doubt tempered by a lot of experience But not of battle He makes it very clear he cannot understand battle from direct knowledge But importantly neither can almost anyone But of course any history is going to rest or fall on its details and analysis Fortunately this one comes through with flying colors But again I really didn't enjoy this text all that much Be it mood or distaste I generally don't go out of my way to read about war and for that reason alone I had a hard time liking it And yet I can still appreciate a good dose of new knowledge so it balances out


  4. says:

    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 elouence 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 than 11 and five or six hours just be wowed by his prose and grateful for your life Plus you’ll know a lot about these battles than you would by reading anything else


  5. says:

    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 waswellan 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


  6. says:

    Focused on the psychology of the soldier to a commendable degreeKeegan is an able myth buster taking down notions of Henry’s lack of chivalry at agincourt to the defects of soldiers esprit de corps at the SommeGetting drunk shirking and self inflicted wounds are far prevalent than one is led to believeThe historiography of detailing immense troop movements is romantic and nonsensicalAnd smoke and confusion are the most ubiuitous characteristics of battles of the later agesTolstoy would be pleased Keegan highlights that the idea of planning a battle ends at the first moment the soldiers clash


  7. says:

    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 forthThen there are those who have issues with the man himself and allow their personal opinions to influence their critiues of his books I readily acknowledge that John Keegan is not perfect and I have found many of his 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 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 empiricallyWith 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


  8. says:

    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 uickly 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 foundThis 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


  9. says:

    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 historyanalysisbut 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 trendsunfortunately his only book on the subject so far was written near the beginning of the war so I'll have to wait for something up to date


  10. says:

    In The Face of Battle author John Keegan in his role as historian and not soldier attempts to dissect the experience of battle as the common soldier knows it The trouble with most accounts he explains at length in his opening chapters is that historians tend to focus on the winlose aspects of the battle or else how its outcome has affected the course of human events or else been enad with its pageantry and its place in the popular imagination As an educator of young cadets who would someday be British officers he found these methods inadeuate; and it would seem motivated by his own lack of experience IN battle while teaching ABOUT battle he sought to reach a different level of discourse about the processAlong with his lengthy opening concerning how battles are traditionally recorded he also seeks to define what he means specifically by the word 'battle' Rather than the generic descriptor he is referring to particular events possible within a larger framework of warfare in which the set conditions are fairly narrowly confined Instead of re defining Professor Keegan's description I think the 'battles' that he chooses to focus on are indicative themselves of the term as he uses it Agincourt Waterloo and The SommeOnce these preliminary discussions are out of the way Professor Keegan begins his dissection of the three battles mentioned and I doubt I have ever read a fascinating account of warfare While the general course of the contest is first described what follows is an examination of what an individual may have experienced reasonable suppositions as to why they men may have behaved as they did and a breakdown of the different weaponry systems as they were deployed against one another In many ways I'm reminded of the old rhyme 'for want of a nail the battle was lost' since essentially what Professor Keegan is examining is the 'nails' It may make great theater to hear Henry inspire his men with the St Crispin's Day speech but how exactly did an outnumbered and bedraggled English army slaughter the French in 1415 to the point there were 'heaps of dead'? How exactly were Napoleon's cavalry attacks repulsed by the infantry? And a uestion I've always wondered myself exactly what could have propelled a man up and out of the trench to walk into the machine guns of No Man's Land? These and many other uestions are examined and one has to agree finally with a blurb that decorates the cover of the paperback edition 'one learns as much about the nature of man as of battle'Over the years as I have read traditional account of battles there often seem to be downright unexplainable factors that influence the outcome bravery in one individual cowardice in another weapons that had once been effective but no longer were and on and on Professor Keegan is intensely interested in these factors in fact that is the whole theme of his historiography To seek explanation for what has before seemed nearly impenetrableThere are two sections of The Face of Battle which bookend the description of the three battles; one an introductory section which seeks to explain the author's motivation and ideas behind the book and then a concluding chapter 'The Future of Battle' The first is necessary I think though overlong I found the second to be disinteresting written in 1976 it suffers the same problems most attempts to look at the future do Regardless of these two issues the meat of the book is a transformative look at warfare and the actions of those involved in it It is by far the most truthful look at the process that I have read tallying neatly with my own experiencesI do not think it necessary to agree with Professor Keegan's analysis or all his comments to appreciate this effort It is his revolutionary way of looking at the events which rightly place this book on the top lists of non fiction of the twentieth century Highly recommended