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The Face of Battle

4.18  ·  Rating details ·  6,443 ratings  ·  287 reviews
In this major and wholly original contribution to military history, John Keegan reverses the usual convention of writing about war in terms of generals and nations in conflict, which tend to leave the common soldier as cipher. Instead he focuses on what a set battle is like for the man in the thick of it - his fears, his wounds and their treatment, the mechanics of being t ...more
Hardcover, 355 pages
Published June 1986 by Dorset Press Ltd. (first published November 1976)
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Average rating 4.18  · 
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Matt
Sep 28, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: military-history
The Face of Battle is John Keegan’s 1976 classic – at the time landmark – account of warfare from the perspective of individual soldiers. It is not concerned with grand strategy or tactics. It does not worry about the rulers and generals who made the decisions and hoarded the laurels. This is a book about the common soldier’s experience as a pawn on the most dangerous chessboard in the world.

The bulk of Keegan’s book is his bottom-up analysis of three decisive battles at different periods in hi
...more
Eric
Mar 31, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, war
As a just-get-to-the-fighting teenager I tried to read The Face of Battle and was baffled by the humanist erudition of Keegan’s introduction, a long historiographic essay that, I now see, echoes Virginia Woolf’s manifesto “Modern Fiction” and applies its prescriptions to historical prose. Keegan called to writers of military history as Woolf called to the novelists of her time – “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however ...more
Bradley
Sep 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I debated between being objective about this nonfiction or just reviewing it based on my gut feeling.

In the end, I had to give it a 5 for good analysis and its own bright objectivity.

But for myself, I have to wonder why I read military history and why, after each time I do it, I feel sullied and unclean. If I leave enjoyment out of it, I did learn a lot about the details of these battles and the author did his very best to bring in all sides of the battles, not just what-ifs and strategy, but a
...more
Laura
It’s a rare day that I become smitten with a 75-year old historian, but that day came when I read the introduction to The Face of Battle. I have several of John Keegan’s books, most of them featuring lots of photographs, but this is the one that made him famous – and for good reason. His elegant prose has the right amount of wit and clarity, scholarship and humility, gripping description and hard facts. After an introduction to military historiography that left me – I'm not even kidding – thinki ...more
BAM The Bibliomaniac
An enlightening erudition of three monumental battles in English history: Agincort; Waterloo; and the Somme. Agincort-when battle was chivalrous and troops were led by the king
Waterloo-when the height of technology was the soldier's bayonet
The Somme-when the top line of defense was...well...an actual line of trenches and razor wire called the Maginot
The author details both the strategy and tactics of each of these battles then finishes the book by comparing and contesting them as well as discu
...more
Checkman
Mar 18, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Those interested in military history and the experience of battle
Recommended to Checkman by: the U.S. Army
I first read The Face of Battle in 1991. I was a young 2nd Lieutenant attending the Armor Officer's Basic Course at Fort Knox, Kentucky. As a 2nd Lieutenant my focus was on the small world of the armor platoon leader (four tanks - sixteen soldiers) and the type of combat that I would encounter as a platoon leader. "The Face of Battle" was amazing for it addressed many of the issues that I found myself wondering about. It was a breath of fresh air. I have since read it several times both in it's ...more
Contrarius
May 10, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I read this as part of an "expand your horizons" challenge, and I very much enjoyed it. Keegan has an engaging style and is very easy to listen to (audio format) -- and the narrator, one of my all-time favorites (Simon Vance), didn't hurt any either.

This is a classic book of military history/analysis...but it almost seems blase in some ways, today, because so many writers have learned from Keegan's insights. While I was listening, I kept thinking that any writer of fiction who wanted to include
...more
Bryan "They call me the Doge"
In The Face of Battle, author John Keegan, in his role as historian and not soldier, attempts to dissect the experience of battle as the common soldier knows it. The trouble with most accounts, he explains at length in his opening chapters, is that historians tend to focus on the win/lose aspects of the battle, or else how its outcome has affected the course of human events, or else been enamored with its pageantry and its place in the popular imagination. As an educator of young cadets who woul ...more
Lobstergirl
Jan 15, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Tagg Romney
John Keegan was an instructor at Sandhurst when he wrote this in the early 1970s. As he notes, he was someone who had never seen battle himself, teaching those who would. He writes about battles in a nuts-and-bolts, but also a deeply human way, investigating their moral aspects: why were prisoners sometimes killed, sometimes not? When it quickly became clear that soldiers were dying needlessly in some of the attrition battles of WWI, why were those particular offenses not stopped? Why did the of ...more
Steve
Nov 27, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history, war
Meh. It's ok. Written in 1976, The Face of Battle is badly in need of an update. In addition, the battles are all very British (Agincourt, Waterloo, and The Somme). This is understandable, since the book is probably an outgrowth from Keegan's teaching notes. The focus is on the experience of the individual soldier, which is pretty standard stuff in current battle books. The Face of Battle can be a bit dry at times (the first 20 pages are a real slog), but it can also be quite fascinating. It was ...more
Elliot
Keegan’s The Face of Battle has been a book that I’ve wanted to read for some time now. I knew it as a significant milestone in the style of military history writing, and was eager to read about Keegan’s description of war from the soldier’s point of view. It’s safe to say that I had high expectations before reading. Fortunately, the book did meet my expectations, but not in the ways I had anticipated.

The book begins with a lengthy introduction about military historiography, or as Keegan puts it
...more
Mike H
Nov 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: military-history
Originally released in the mid 1970s, this book is beginning to show its age a little, but only because it had such a huge impact on the field of military history, spawning so many imitators in its wake. Before John Keegan's groundbreaking work, military history tended to focus on generalship, top-down views, and "great man" hero-worship. Not that there's anything wrong with such approaches, they have their own usefulness and drawbacks. But Face of Battle sought to apply an entire new -- for the ...more
Jill Hutchinson
Nov 02, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: military-history
Keegan was one of the greatest historians and I have read several of his works. But this one was not exactly what I thought it was going to be. It is not a description of tactics and battle plans but rather the reason that men fight, how they summon courage, or run away. He takes an interesting approach by using the backdrop of three famous battles to make his point about war in general and how it and the men involved change (or don't change) over the years

I have to admit that there were section
...more
An Idler
Oct 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm not well-read on military history, beyond some Churchill and Caesar. So this is a layman's take. In this book Keegan has selected three historical battles of some superficial similarity - battles fought in central Europe by ethnically similar groups of generally similar military power. After summarizing the shortcomings of traditional battle narratives and analyzing how those tropes came to be, he does a "deep dive", as the jargon goes, into each battle to assemble a more lucid picture of wh ...more
Ted
This was the first book I read by John Keegan, and it became the first of many. In it he describes three different historical battles (Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, if memory serves) and describes what we know (or can guess) about what the battle experience was like for the men involved. Of particular interest is the way he breaks this down into sub-topics like "infantry vs. archers", "infantry vs. cavalry", "cavalry vs. artillery" etc.

This is probably the best non-fiction description of t
...more
Lanko
Jan 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016
Great book. I was searching for the psychological aspect of battle, its effects before, during and after. There is a lot of technical material as well, for those who like it.

Various myths are revealed, such as treating the wounded right away, amount of time in combat, fatigue, conscripting, wounds suffered, leadership that sees everything and such.
I particularly like the "coercion" chapter. Aftermath, wounds and the psychological effects on modern day are also great.
Another really good one is
...more
Ben Wand
The chapters on Agincourt and the Somme were particularly interesting.
Jonathan
Jan 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A page-turner of a work on historical methodology. Keegan advances some complicated theses, supported by concepts developed in many academic disciplines (psychology, sociology, biology, physics, etc) as well as readings of archival materials, letters, and journals, conversations with soldiers, and what seem to be his own wide-ranging, personal interest in human nature.

The result is a book packed densely with insights, whether about the noise made by clattering pikes or 20th Century combined arms
...more
Mike Moore
Apr 12, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A powerful medium for developing an understanding of how military historians think about conflicts, this book also provides a quasi-teleological progression through three eras of battles that seems to be somewhat borne out by the continued trends since it was written.

It's hard for me to accept teleology in general, and many of the corollaries Keegan implies in the course of his survey (for example, the relationship of high officers to violence and serving men) seem more a matter of fashion than
...more
Timothy Lugg
Aug 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: military
John Keegan is a sophisticated war historian so there are times when his understanding is over my head. This was evident during the first 78 pages of the book when Keegan writes an essay about war history. However, the remainder of the book is golden. The point of the book is to give a history of battle from the perspective of the soldier instead of the commander. Most military histories already document this perspective. The author gives a detailed analysis of the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo ...more
Laura
Jun 07, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"The young have already made their decision. They are increasingly unwilling to serve as conscripts in armies they see as ornamental. The militant young have taken that decision a stage further: they will fight for the causes which they profess not through the mechanisms of the state and its armed power but, where necessary, against them, by clandestine and guerrilla methods. It remains for armies to admit that the battles of the future will be fought in never-never land. While the great armoure ...more
Mercedes Rochelle
Oct 27, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I purchased this book because I read in an interview that Bernard Cornwell found it useful in his research. And I can see why: John Keegan's analysis of the battlefield is unlike anything I ever read before. He essentially brings us down to the eye-witness level of fighting, and his explanations give us an understanding of battlefields that cannot be grasped when looking at broad strokes.

This book covers much territory—too much for most general enthusiasts to grasp. The first part is theory, exp
...more
Chris Hall
Really drags for the first couple of chapters but is much more engaging once it discusses the three battles. Portrays battle as a point where two armies made up of individuals agree to force a decision by risking personal harm. 
Michael
The opening chapter of this book is the best piece of historiography I've ever read/listened to. The battle descriptions here are fascinating. The level of detail is intense but valuable and illuminating.
Mega
Feb 23, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Had to read this for my masters in history class. This book made me realize how boring military history is in academia.
David
Sep 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wonderfully written and informative.
Kevin Keating
Apr 14, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a great book if you have the luxury of reading slowly and carefully, concentrating carefully. He has a florid writing style which has really long and intricately constructed sentences and paragraphs. In this book Keegan tries to really explain what battles are like for people who've not been there and why armies do what they do. Very interesting.
John Jr.
Though he addresses only three battles in detail—Agincourt, on October 25, 1415; Waterloo, on June 18, 1815; and the first day of the Battle of the Somme, on July 1, 1916—so evocative is John Keegan’s study that a reader can come away feeling he or she has acquired a whole new sense of what combat has been like, across centuries of history and even up to the present day, for those who have fought it.

Keegan builds up his accounts through the patient accumulation of many details, analytical and de
...more
Simon Mcleish
Jun 19, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
Originally published on my blog here in January 2000.

Today, John Keegan is widely known as a military historian, and has quite a reputation both in the field and among the public. The Face of Battle is the book which made his name. He sought to show his readers something of the reality of battle, in contrast to the usual concentration on strategy and technology. This is far more difficult to do, for several reasons. Even in these days of near-universal literacy (in the West, at least), generals
...more
Geoff
Jan 24, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
John Keegan opens with the point that although he has never been a combatant, military history writing is rife with inaccuracy because most writers either regurgitate the facts baldly without consideration for context or prejudice their story by applying personal filters and perceptions to the antagonists. His research is impeccable, he picks three battles that occur in roughly the same location in three different time periods and explains the circumstances surrounding the ranks in terms of thei ...more
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Sir John Desmond Patrick Keegan, OBE, FRSL was a British military historian, lecturer and journalist. He published many works on the nature of combat between the 14th and 21st centuries concerning land, air, maritime and intelligence warfare as well as the psychology of battle.

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“Visually Agincourt is a pre-Raphaelite, perhaps better a Medici Gallery print battle - a composition of strong verticals and horizontals and a conflict of rich dark reds and Lincoln greens against fishscale greys and arctic blues.” 3 likes
“One of Picton's officers fell asleep the instant the halt was sounded and did not think of food until later in the night, when he woke to eat some chops cooked in the breastplate of a dead cuirassier (meat fried in a breastplate was very much à la mode in the Waterloo campaign, rather as rats spitted on a bayonet were to be in 1871 or champagne exhumed from chateau gardens in 1914).” 3 likes
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