The Face of Battle

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

John Keegan is Senior Lecturer in War Studies at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (the British equivalent of West Point). He admits in the very beginning that he has never been in battle, nor near a battle. In those two statements is an opening key to this book. The Face of Battle is an effort to derive from the historical sources a better understanding of what it is like to be in battle—not just to narrate the events, but to come closer to a realization of what the participants felt. The method is a description and analysis of three battles: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. Keegan surrounds the battle accounts with an introductory chapter and a conclusion, which provide much of the value of his work. The method is justified, for not only are the battle accounts fascinating and innovative in themselves, but they demonstrate the observations made in the more general portions, and bring the analyses to life.

Keegan’s introduction is in large measure a study of military history, at once a defense and a critique, but also an effort to rescue the genre from its limitations. The authors of military history have been largely staff officers intent on “lessons,” teachers in the military schools with much the same attitude, and amateur students of history, or of battle, or of both. The limitations derive from these facts, but lie deeper. The writers of military history have rarely gone beyond the fighting; they have taken what Keegan calls the “win/lose” approach, which isolates the military story from the rest of history. He likens this method to the English and American trial by jury, which he calls “accusatory,” an aggressive process intended to reach a verdict. The alternative approach is the French “investigatory” proceeding, in which the judge has wide powers of interrogation and investigation to aid in arriving at truth. Whatever the merits of the two legal procedures—a matter for serious thought—the analogy is a valuable stimulus to an examination of the preconceptions behind historical writing, especially but not exclusively military historical writing. The implication is that practicing historians, military and otherwise, may not be fully conscious of the theoretical underpinnings or ramifications of their procedures.

Keegan’s point, however, is especially applicable to the battle historian; if battle is not a crime, it is at least a definite event, and therefore possessed of parallels. In the “court of history,” the question is always, Who was guilty of the result, if it was defeat, or responsible for the result, if it was victory? This commonest of approaches makes statements such as, “If General A had not extended his flank . . . ,” or, “If General B had moved up five minutes earlier. . . .” Obviously, this is too narrow an approach. Not only is it unsafe to assume that the result of battle hinges on some single decision, but it is also true that not all battles have clear victories or defeats for which credit and blame can be distributed. Deeper and more important, if the historian looks only for guilt or innocence, blame or responsibility, he will not reach an understanding of the total event or process in all its background and complexity.

Keegan uses two examples to illustrate typical qualities of military history writing in the past; one is the English “philosopher of war,” Sir Edward Creasy, the author of The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, first published in 1851 and often reprinted, extended, and imitated. Creasy, accepting the Victorian aversion to war but fascination by it, concentrated only on those battles which, as his title indicates, decided the course of history.

The second example is Julius Caesar and his Gallic Wars, which is illustrative, perhaps...

(The entire section is 1556 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Book World. September 18, 1977, p. E5.

Commonweal. CIV, September 2, 1977, p. 566.

New York Times Book Review. September 4, 1977, p. 23.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXII, August 8, 1977, p. 68.