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The Face of Battle by John Keegan
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Apr 10, 09

Read in January, 1990

The classic examination of battlefield experience. The obvious, logical, and instinctual thing to do in the face of mortal danger is to flee. Why do men stand and fight in the face of death? What compels them to act against all reason?

Keegan looks at three battles fought in close geographical proximity. The English victory against the French at Agincourt, Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, and the British and French offensive against Germany along the Somme. This is not about strategy or even much about tactics. This is about how it felt to be a soldier in the battle.

What was it like to advance against the shower of arrows from the English archers? What was it like to stand armed only with lances and swards against the French cavalry charge? What was the experience of combat with swords and personal armor?

How did it feel to stand in an infantry square facing a cavalry charge? What was it like for cavalry to charge 19th-century artillery? Or to charge into the rifle fire of infantry? What did it look and sound and smell like to stand in line and square off against opposing infantry with 19th-century rifles?

What was it like in a foxhole under modern artillery fire? What was the experience of going over the top into machine gun fire?

In all these experiences Keegan considers the gut feel and psychological effects. Sitting helplessly in a trench not knowing when the artillery shell that will kill you will come. The overwhelming sensory experience of standing in front of a charging horse. The terrifying restriction of movement and vision from wearing 15th-century armor.

I know of no other book like this. It is the classic in it's field. And for good reason.
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