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The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme Paperback – January 1, 1983
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"In this book, which is so creative, so original, one learns as much about the nature of man as of battle."
J.H. Plumb, The New York Times Book Review
"This without any doubt is one of the half-dozen best books on warfare to appear in the English language since the end of the Second World War."
Michael Howard, The Sunday Times
"A totally original and brilliant book"
The New York Review of Books
About the Author
Sir John Desmond Patrick Keegan (1934–2012), was one of the most distinguished contemporary military historians and was for many years the senior lecturer at Sandhurst (the British Royal Military Academy) and the defense editor of the Daily Telegraph (London). Keegan was the author of numerous books including The Face of Battle, The Mask of Command, The Price of Admiralty, Six Armies in Normandy, and The Second World War, and was a fellow at the Royal Society of Literature.
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The book also discusses other variables and compares the experience and training of military officers in the late 20th century industrialized nations, keying in mostly on the UK. Agincourt, in the late Medieval period, was a major English victory over a French army which greatly outnumbered the force commanded by the young English King Henry V.
Waterloo, fought in Belgium, was an Anglo-Prussian victory over the resurgence of Napoleon Bonaparte, who'd returned to France after being exiled on Elba.
The Battle of the Somme, fought in 1916 in the region of the river of the same name in northern France, was a massive British offensive in World War I which lasted two months. Its first day in July of 1916 has been called the bloodiest day in British military history.
John Keegan explored factors which were not well-covered, if mentioned at all, in most military history accounts of battles and campaigns.
THE FACE OF BATTLE is a good book for people who want to know how battles flow and how certain variables can cause victory or defeat.
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.
My primary interest was in Agincourt and Waterloo. First he gives us the outline of the each battle, then he breaks it into a sequence of events and shows 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 returned 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, 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 down 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.
Keegan is a real, solid-gold scholar of wide-ranging interests and accomplishments, and all of human history is his purview--but I think he is unsurpassed when it comes to the details (horrid as they sometimes are) of war, battlefields and blood. To explain Macbeth's character, I quoted an infantry officer quoted by Keegan ("I never minded killing people"). I never read an adequate description of Jutland until I read Keegan's history of the Great War.
His faults--if he has any--is that he tends to side (in his view, justifiably) with those who use violence as an end. His judgment of Douglas Haig is balanced, where most of us would condemn him as an unimaginative butcher.
This doesn't mean Keegan is without conscience or intelligence or sympathy--but in his view the Vietnam and Iraq wars were justifiable. (I obviously disagree, but here we're running into "opinion.")
IN SUM: while I might argue with him politically, I would bow to him for his scholarship, his research skills, his overviews of messy engagements (like the Somme) and his scholarship in general. I recommend him for everyone who is interested in history.
The Face of Battle is weighed down by a lot of minutia that doesn't stand the test of time for relevance (to most readers). Do you really need a catalog of every British regiment at Waterloo just to understand what it was like to be there?
Keegan's writing style is tortuous. Many sentences require multiple readings to decipher. They slosh back and forth so much that you might get seasick. Ugh! You'll need to be a motivated reader to get through this book.
Top international reviews
This a truly fine achievement giving a gritty and far more gripping realistic account of the simple foot soldier's experience of battle from the medieval archery exchanges to the horrendous trench war of the early twentieth century.
well worth a serious read.
The book deals primarily with 3 battles Agincourt, Waterloo, and The Somme.
What I found fascinating was the examinations of why armies and individuals take up arms, go to war, fight or in many cases not fight.
Although the Author could do with adding the more modern military references of the Falklands, Gulf wars and Afghanistan to its body of work. As a book of its time (written pre Glastnost) it still should be essential reading for the serious and amatuer military historian.
Book very informative, though these days there are many more competitors for this type of reading market.