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Sir John Desmond Patrick Keegan — , 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. The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme.

The Face of Battle

And in his scrupulous reassessment of three battles representative of three different time periods, he manages to convey what the experience of combat meant for the participants, whether they were facing the arrow cloud at the battle of Agincourt, the musket balls at Waterloo, or the steel rain of the Somme.

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. 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.

The Face of Battle

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.

The late John Keegan, who was the senior military history lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, for years.

The Face of Battle by John Keegan | omyhukocow.tk

He showed how terrain, the commanders' personalities, the politics of the eras involved, and the mindset and preparation of the fighting men all contributed to the outcome of these engagements. The three battles Keegan analyzes are Agincourt in , Waterloo in , and the Somme in All of the these engagements were fought in a geographical area encompassing northern France and western Belgium, a region fought over for centuries.

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 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 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. As an educator of young cadets who would someday be British officers, he found these methods inadequate; and, it would seem, motivated by his own lack of experience IN battle while teaching ABOUT battle, he sought to reach a different level of discourse about the process.

Along with his lengthy opening concerning how battles are traditionally recorded, he also seeks to define what he means specifically by the word 'battle'. Rather than the generic descriptor, he is referring to particular events, possible within a larger framework of warfare, in which the set conditions are fairly narrowly confined.

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Instead of re-defining Professor Keegan's description, I think the 'battles' that he chooses to focus on are indicative themselves of the term as he uses it: Agincourt, Waterloo, and The Somme. Once these preliminary discussions are out of the way, Professor Keegan begins his disection of the three battles mentioned, and I doubt I have ever read a more fascinating account of warfare.

While the general course of the contest is first described, what follows is an examination of what an individual may have experienced, reasonable suppositions as to why they men may have behaved as they did, and a breakdown of the different weaponry systems as they were deployed against one another. In many ways, I'm reminded of the old rhyme, 'for want of a nail, the battle was lost', since essentially what Professor Keegan is examining is the 'nails'.

Published October 7th by Pimlico first published November To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up. To ask other readers questions about The Face Of Battle , please sign up. Lists with This Book. 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.

Before we get there, however, Keegan begins with a rather lengthy — and fascinating — chapter on military historiography. This first chapter is more akin to a personal essay than anything else, and opens with a famous hook: The tension is between technical histories and battle narratives. Or, in my case, that I buy for myself all the time. These narratives are certainly evocative, but as Keegan shows through a variety of excerpts, they can tend towards hyperbole or be used to protect or destroy reputations.

As Keegan attempts to find the balance, he is also wrestling with the question of self-justification; that is, seeking reasons why this type of writing is necessary at all. The bulk of The Face of Battle is made up of discussions about three immortal encounters: During the War of the Five Kings? At its best, The Face of Battle approaches some faint idea of how battle must appear to the soldier in its midst.

For instance, there is this description of the hand-to-hand combat at Agincourt that captures some of the physical realities of combat: At Agincourt, where the man-at-arms bore lance, sword, dagger, mace or battleaxe, his ability to kill or wound was restricted to the circle centered on his own body, within which his reach allowed him to club, slash or stab.

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Prevented by the throng at their backs from dodging, side-stepping or retreating from the blows and thrusts directed at them by their English opponents, the individual French man-at-arms must shortly have begun to lose their man-to-man fights, collecting blows on the head or limbs which, even through armor, were sufficiently bruising or stunning to make them drop their weapons or lose their balance or footing. Within minutes, perhaps seconds, of hand-to-hand fighting being joined, some of them would have fallen, their bodies lying at the feet of their comrades, further impeding the movement of individuals and thus offering an obstacle to the advance of the whole column.

This is the kind of through-the-helm view I was hoping for when I picked up this book. And to be sure, Keegan provides them now and again. He gives, for instance, a gruesomely detailed comparison of the wounds caused by the weapons at Waterloo with the hideously refined methods employed at the Somme. On the whole, though, I wanted more of the tactile details: I know that Keegan was attempting to break from stylized battle histories, but at times, this felt like a standard military history.

That is, Keegan has a knack for composing a sentence that is filled with stutters and digressions and clauses that loop and wind and pause before finally, blessedly, getting to the point. This style drove me crazy while reading The First World War.

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It helps, I think, that Keegan has structured this book so rigidly. He shows great focus in his writing, with two bookend chapters sandwiching a chapter on each of the three featured battles. Sticking with this format, with minimal digressions, allows for a lot of efficiency. Keegan covers a great deal of ground in only pages.

Aside from a few moments of existential doubt in his opening essay, he writes authoritatively and with confidence. Keegan does a fine job in analyzing his three picked battles. I was particularly struck by an account of Waterloo Keegan quotes, that of the British gunner officer Mercer: Of what was transacting in the front of the battle we could see nothing, because the ridge in which our first line was posted was much higher than the ground we occupied.

Of that line itself we could see only the few squares of infantry immediately next to us, with the intervening batteries. From time to time bodies of cavalry swept over the summit between the squares, and, dispersing on the reverse of the position, vanished again, I know not how. So appeared the grand French cavalry charges — an irresistibly operatic subject for later painters of the battle — to one veteran. Something is happening to us — over the ridge, through that smoke — just at the edge of our grasp. View all 10 comments.


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Sep 17, Bradley rated it really liked it Shelves: 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 I debated between being objective about this nonfiction or just reviewing it based on my gut feeling.

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 lifetime of critical thinking. I really appreciated that. And, a point-of-fact, I would absolutely recommend this book for all military buffs and history buffs. He's not only pretty exhaustive and wise about the battles, but he has a healthy dose of self-doubt tempered by a lot of experience.

But not of battle. He makes it very clear he cannot understand battle from direct knowledge. But more importantly, neither can almost anyone. But, of course, any history is going to rest or fall on its details and analysis. Fortunately, this one comes through with flying colors. Be it mood or distaste, I generally don't go out of my way to read about war and for that reason alone I had a hard time liking it. And yet I can still appreciate a good dose of new knowledge, so it balances out. Trish Sounds like my kind of book though. Sep 18, Bradley It probably is.


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  • Oh, and it's one of those " books you must read before you die": His elegant prose has the right amount of wit and clarity, scholarship and humility, gripping description and hard facts. Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. He describes what it would be like to be a man-on-the-ground combat soldier in each of these battles with the arrows whizzing by, the cannon smoke obscuring the field, and the rain of bullets falling indiscriminately and unceasingly.

    And with a considerable understanding born of his years researching and teaching at Sandhurst, he explains what on earth compells the average soldier to endure the misery and danger of combat. 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 Any student warfare should read this book.

    The audio version is also very good. Those interested in military history and the experience of battle. I first read The Face of Battle in 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. It was a breath of fresh air. I have since read it several times both in it's I first read The Face of Battle in I have since read it several times both in it's entirety and it's different sections. Thirty-six years after it was first published Keegan's The Face of Battle might seem like old hat.

    There are no lack of critics who will point out the mistakes in Keegan's methodology; that he examined three British battles that were victories I would argue that The Somme was hardly a victory and so on and so forth. Then there are those who have issues with the man himself and allow their personal opinions to influence their critiques of his books. I readily acknowledge that John Keegan is not perfect and I have found many of his more recent books to be flat, but The Face of Battle is something special. To understand why Keegan wrote Battle all you have to do is read the first twenty pages.

    Keegan examines contemporary military history mid - 's and it's depiction of the physical reality of combat. Military historians interests were more on the macro rather than the micro. Many of them used sweeping generalities and cliches when describing the experiences of the soldiers in battle. There were exceptions of course. Historians who were looking at the existence of the individual soldier. Most notable at the time of the book being written would have been writers Cornelius Ryan and John Ellis , but for the most part, historians had not examined the battlefield empirically.

    With The Face of Battle Keegan moved into new territory. It's hard to understand in just how groundbreaking his book was at the time. It's hard to understand because his work has been so influential that it has been seamlessly incorporated into other historians research. That in itself is probably the greatest compliment possible. The book is very readable. Each battle is analyzed methodically, but it never drags. Different aspects of each battle is looked at. Such as the experience of the infantry, cavalry, commanders, artillery and so on. He looks at the conditions of the battlefield itself when the fighting begins and how it changed as the fighting went on.

    He also examines the effect of the physical conditions of the battlefield on the tactics and the how it effected the moral of the soldiers involved in the fighting. Again there had been historians before Keegan who had examined these things, but not as methodically nor had such an examination been the thesis of the earlier books. All in all a fascinating read and one that is deserving of it's place in military history.

    View all 4 comments. 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. While I was listening, I kept thinking that any writer of fiction who wanted to include I read this as part of an "expand your horizons" challenge, and I very much enjoyed it. While I was listening, I kept thinking that any writer of fiction who wanted to include battle scenes in their stories should read this book before setting their own pens to paper; and I kept seeing lessons from this book reflected in the works of some of my favorite authors.

    I am docking this book one star simply because it was published before any of the current mid-East conflicts heated up. IMHO some of Keegan's conclusions about mechanisation at the end of his book have been thrown into doubt by the intimacy of many of the recent battles over there. I would really love to see his analyses of recent battle trends View all 8 comments. John Keegan was an instructor at Sandhurst when he wrote this in the early s.

    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: 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 John Keegan was an instructor at Sandhurst when he wrote this in the early s.

    Why did the officer class become increasingly distanced from actual killing, so that in WWI some only carried an ornamental sword, and in WWII some only a walking stick? Why did so many combatants over the centuries enter battle drunk? How and why did the fatality rate men killed as a proportion of those entering battle change over the centuries, or from battle to battle? After a certain number of days in battle, psychological damage is inevitable, researchers have found. This is a work of historiography as much as history. Keegan examines several styles of writing about battles, comparing, for example, Caesar with Thucydides, as well as later historians.

    Nov 13, Mike Hankins rated it it was amazing Shelves: Originally released in the mid s, 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 Originally released in the mid s, 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. But Face of Battle sought to apply an entire new -- for the the time -- approach to the writing of military history: Keegan examines three famous battles: Agincourt in the fifteenth century, Waterloo in the early nineteenth, and the Somme during World War One.

    In each case, Keegan attempts to paint a detailed picture of what the battle was like for the average soldier in the crowd--what the individual saw, felt, smelled, heard. From the pressure of massive crowds of sword-wielding knights pushing each other in a mosh-pit-like mass, to the loud sounds of muskets and cannon at Waterloo, where soldiers blind-fired into the huge clouds of smoke that covered the fields, to the terrifying creeping barrage advances to enemy trenches in World War One, Keegan paints a vivid picture of what battle is really like for the average man in the line.

    This is a fascinating look, which accomplishes several huge feats at the same time.