Books by Keegan. John

Keegan. John. The Face of Battle. New York: Penguin, 1976. ISBN 978-0-14-00-4897-1.
As the author, a distinguished military historian, observes in the extended introduction, the topic of much of military history is battles, but only rarely do historians delve into the experience of battle itself—instead they treat the chaotic and sanguinary events on the battlefield as a kind of choreography or chess game, with commanders moving pieces on a board. But what do those pieces, living human beings in the killing zone, actually endure in battle? What motivates them to advance in the face of the enemy or, on the other hand, turn and run away? What do they see and hear? What wounds do they suffer, and what are their most common cause, and how are the wounded treated during and after the battle? How do the various military specialities: infantry, cavalry, artillery, and armour, combat one another, and how can they be used together to achieve victory?

To answer these questions, the author examines three epic battles of their respective ages: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the first day of the Somme Offensive. Each battle is described in painstaking detail, not from that of the commanders, but the combatants on the field. Modern analysis of the weapons employed and the injuries they inflict is used to reconstruct the casualties suffered and their consequences for the victims. Although spanning almost five centuries, all of these battles took place in northwest Europe between European armies, and allow holding cultural influences constant (although, of course, evolving over time) as expansion of state authority and technology increased the size and lethality of the battlefield by orders of magnitude. (Henry's entire army at Agincourt numbered less than 6,000 and suffered 112 deaths during the battle, while on the first day of the Somme, British forces alone lost 57,470 men, with 19,240 killed.)

The experiences of some combatants in these set piece battles are so alien to normal human life that it is difficult to imagine how they were endured. Consider the Inniskilling Regiment, which arrived at Waterloo after the battle was already underway. Ordered by Wellington to occupy a position in the line, they stood there in static formation for four hours, while receiving cannon fire from French artillery several hundred yards away. During those hours, 450 of the regiment's 750 officers and men were killed and wounded, including 17 of the 18 officers. The same regiment, a century later, suffered devastating losses in a futile assault on the first day of the Somme.

Battles are decided when the intolerable becomes truly unendurable, and armies dissolve into the crowds from which they were formed. The author examines this threshold in various circumstances, and what happens when it is crossed and cohesion is lost. In a concluding chapter he explores how modern mechanised warfare (recall that when this book was published the threat of a Soviet thrust into Western Europe with tanks and tactical nuclear weapons was taken with deadly seriousness by NATO strategists) may have so isolated the combatants from one another and subjected them to such a level of lethality that armies might disintegrate within days of the outbreak of hostilities. Fortunately, we never got to see whether this was correct, and hopefully we never will.

I read the Kindle edition using the iPhone Kindle application. It appears to have been created by OCR scanning a printed copy of the book and passing it through a spelling checker, but with no further editing. Unsurprisingly, the errors one is accustomed to in scanned documents abound. The word “modern”, for example, appears more than dozen times as “modem”. Now I suppose cybercommand does engage in “modem warfare”, but this is not what the author means to say. The Kindle edition costs only a dollar less than the paperback print edition, and such slapdash production values are unworthy of a publisher with the reputation of Penguin.

July 2009 Permalink