The Face of Battle - A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme
First published in 1976, The Face of Battle is currently available in a smart new edition from Pimlico, complete with a range of black and white plates. However, despite its subtitle, the books begins, not with the Somme, Waterloo or Agincourt, but with Keegan's musings on military history, a subject which at the time of his writing was only taught as a detailed body of lore to soldiers. The discussion, which starts with Keegan's feelings of guilt at teaching young officers how to handle combat having never fought himself, then moves onto the broader nature of officer training and, more relevantly for us, the flaws and strengths of military history. As Keegan notes how battle is considered - from the movement of platoons to grand imperial strategy - the true question behind this book appears: what happens to the soldier in war?
I recommend the first chapter to anyone who is either planning to, or already pursuing, a career in history, because Keegan swiftly and surely examines the different methods, techniques and materials of military history, details which would normally fill a specialised text. This is one of the most accessible looks at how history, and specifically military history, is written (if only someone had suggested I read it as a student), but it won't enrapture everyone, probably not even a majority of readers. Fortunately, you can skip much of the chapter without undermining the later ones.
Three examinations follow, of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme. In each Keegan begins by analysing the traditional outlines of events and considering from which sources these have been derived. Keegan then moves through the main phase of each battle, attempting to make sense of the major events, before considering the combatants: how did the soldiers feel before the battle, what actually happened when the troops engaged, and what insight does this provide us?
In looking for human motives while applying logic, deductive battlefield knowledge and, above all, common sense, Keegan produces some fascinating new assessments. For instance, instead of the victorious longbow myth that still pervades British teachings on Agincourt, The Face of Battle provides a more involving, subtle and multi-faceted account. The longbow may have caused great damage, but the fact that a large hand-to-hand melee took place shows it wasn't dominant, and the archer's social class was just as important. The discussion of Waterloo is much less revealing - possibly because it's one of, if not the, most discussed battles ever, but his exploration of the troops who stayed to fight after six hours of constant bombardment is good. Keegan's chapter on the Somme shares some of the same problems, but benefits from a comparison with certain aspects of Waterloo.
Given that the battles are so well known, Keegan's work on each in this limited volume was never going to be truly groundbreaking, but that isn't really the point. Instead, the models, methods and approaches presented in The Face of Battle represent the start of the debate, the author's attempts to examine and introduce a new - or at least revitalised - way of treating combat. As such, Keegan maintains a deliberately inconclusive stance, simply probing many of the possibilities. Some readers may find this unsatisfactory, especially if they want to know the full breadth of answers, but they will need more modern texts for that (assuming we really do know the 'answers'.)
Keegan may present little in the way of contextual information on each battle - the reader is left to slot each one into its relevant timezone - but the battles, chosen presumably because they are already well-known, are simply the vehicles through which the ideas are conveyed. The results are, nearly thirty years later, still wholly valid and required reading for anyone who ever wishes to hold an opinion on conflicts.
Having spent several hundred pages on three battles, Keegan attempts much more in his final chapter where he tries to summarise World War 2 in a few pages, once again looking at the motives of the combatants. Unfortunately he falls short, giving himself far less room than required - why not a fourth examination? Indeed, the book weakens further as Keegan attempts to compare the three battles using an ill-advised, albeit interesting, analogy to the evolution of mountain climbing. This undermines his comparative work, giving it a slight air of triviality when we could be discussing one of the broadest, most intriguing and possibly most controversial aspects of military history: have battles got harder and soldiers better? Only here does The Face of Battle reveal its age, as Keegan discusses the imminent conflict of a war against Communist Russia.
In his conclusion Keegan once again highlights his main point - that the history of battles isn't simply commanders or countries, but the individual combatants. Unfortunately, he never fully explores the themes he has uncovered, instead opting for a tilt at combat in the future: always a problem for those reading a book several decades after it was written. However, while The Face of Battle may have faults, it remains a fascinating and thought-provoking volume, especially for would be historians, all of whom should read the relevant part of chapter one (working out what's relevant being part of the training.) Nevertheless, there are four years until this volume's thirtieth anniversary and I hope someone - preferably Pimlico - urges Keegan to revise and update the book, even if it's just a new - but extended - preface exploring the text's original impact.
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