Book Review of “The Face of Battle” by John Keegan

John Keegan, the author of The Face of Battle is allowing the reader to view different perspective of history, from the eyes of the soldier. Although by his own account, Keegan acknowledges, 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. Keegan scorns historians for pointing the finger of failure after an evolution occurs and not examining the soldiers point of view while the battle is transpiring.

Keegan chooses the three well documented campaigns of Agincourt in 1415, Waterloo in 1815, and Somme in 1916 to answer the question of his thesis: To find out how men who are faced with the threat of single-missile and multiple-missile weapons control their fears, fix their wounds, and face their death. In his words he is seeking to catch a glimpse of the face of battle. The first chapter of his book titled Old, Unhappy, Far-off Things gives Keegans recognition to the fact that historians do not focus enough on actual soldiers.

To explain this further, what Keegan is saying is that a historian puts things in a pack of sequential dates and times; but to the soldier, these things happen very rapidly and many times without planning. Keegan continues on to make note that when a historian puts together the pain-staking task of compilation of facts, the information is put down on paper as the writers view of how the facts unfolded and not from the soldiers perspective. The second chapter, titled Agincourt, October 25th, 1415, gives a historical background about Agincourt, and then goes into the campaign about the battle in 1415.

King Henry V sought to regain some French territory lost in the Hundred Year War and set out on a 120 mile journey to Maisoncelles where the English came head to head, or 300 yards, with the French. The English bowmen enticed the French to action and when the French responded they were met at the English line which consisted of three groups and archers on the right and left. Keegan goes on to tell of how the different groups of warriors affected each other: the archers versus the cavalry and infantry, the cavalry versus infantry, and infantry versus infantry.

The worse effect must have been on the French soldiers that after the order was given to kill all survivors unless they were rich, noblemen, or worth a ransom. The third chapter, titled Waterloo, June 18th, 1815, skips ahead four hundred years to Waterloo in 1815 after Napoleon returned from his exile in Elba to face the Prussians and the British soldiers. Keegan gives an extremely thorough look at the battle evolution and breaks the timeline down into five phases: diversion, weakening the center front with artillery, further weakening the center front with cavalry, infantry attack, Prussia reserve arrival and Napoleons defeat.

Keegan goes on to describe how no soldier on either side would have been able to view the entire battlefield and how the events of combat for eight straight hours, after already going through a skirmish with the Prussians just two days prior, would have taken its toll on the French. Keegan examines the emotions of the fighting men in seven different situations, but really touches the reader towards the end of this chapter when he makes a comparison of the surrendering French soldiers piling up on top of each other to try and prevent being harmed after the battle to that of children huddled together during a parents rage .

The third chapter closes with the relief that the surrendering French were not killed, as was the case in the second chapter. The Fourth chapter, titled The Somme, July 1st, 1916, spins forward another hundred years to World War I in 1916 at Somme. Keegan dives much deeper into the logistics that are involved in a battle and explains the plans for the German offensive maneuver against the French and British planned offense against the once thought German defense positions. Over the period of seven days, artillery fire of 1,500,00 shells flew prior to July 1st, the actual z-day of the attack .

The next step was the whistle blow to signal the trench soldiers to engage with the enemy. Keegan explains that there are far fewer categories to examine in this chapter than the previous one; due to the horses used by the three cavalry regiments were not engaged at Somme. The categories range from the infantry to the machine-gunners to artillery. The most impressive section of this chapter goes into depth about the mind frame that a soldier must possess in order to begin and continue to fight.

The final chapter, titled The Future of Battle, gives an old-school glimpse at a possible vision of what combat will look like. This book was written in 1976, and the future of the cold-war battle dealt mostly with nuclear weapons. It is interesting to read and see how the mind of a writer in the 70s perceived the future of combat. In this chapter Keegan brings out a good definition of battle as an event that can only be studied historically. The events that unfold in a wartime scenario can be planned, but the mental capacity of the soldier is what needs to be examined.

His thesis to find out how men will react in a given scenario suggests that focus should be placed on studying the reactions of soldiers to the occurring skirmish and not the specific events and timelines of the war. I found this book to be an insightful look into the mindset of a combat soldier. The author was successful in accomplishing his thesis of getting a glimpse of combat. The book definitely gives good supplemental reading to anyone wanting to explore and understand more about war and the effects that is has on the combative participants.