“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.