John Keegan’s Unsentimental Celebration of the Common Soldier

The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme
by John Keegan; Peter Smith Publishing, Inc. (June 2001); ISBN-13: 978-0844671260

The study of war — the how, where, and why of wars and warfare — has been John Keegan’s life’s work. He has studied warfare in almost all of its different facets: leadership, strategy, military organization, technology, tradition, and history. He has also written extensively about warfare, and taught prospective British military officers about the subject of war and war-making. And he has done these things for virtually all of his adult life. Yet John Keegan has never experienced war at first hand. He has, in fact, never been a soldier. Therefore, as he admits on the first page of the opening chapter of ‘The Face of Battle’, he has never, in any personal way, experienced, even at a distance, the most palpable and immediate manifestation of warfare: battle. He is not alone. In an age of professional militaries and technologically complex war-making, fewer and fewer people in the modern world are any longer called upon to feel the actual “sting” of battle. This is a peculiar feature and, doubtless, a benefit of our time. Nonetheless, it is precisely the increasingly-foreign, yet timeless reality of a soldier’s experiences and behavior on the battlefield that Keegan seeks in ‘The Face of Battle’, to examine and, at least on some level, to understand.

Obviously, once such a subject is raised, the first question that the writer really needs to address is: what, for the purposes of this discussion, is the definition of the term “battle”? In simplest terms, of course, a battle is a violent armed clash between two organized groups, occurring at a specific time and place, and directed towards achieving some measureable goal. Moreover, in the eyes of the author, battle is a peculiarly human experience. Not because violent life-and-death struggles between competing groups do not regularly occur elsewhere in nature, but because human beings, alone, are capable of understanding the terrible social and personal toll that battle imposes on its participants. And because of this uniquely human understanding, Keegan argues, all battles and their human combatants evidence certain fundamental characteristics that have remained changeless throughout history. Thus, the weapons and tactics of battle may have changed through the ages, but not the men who have fought them. These commonalities, Keegan suggests, are evident both in terms of the soldier’s psyche and in his behavior; he writes:

What battles have in common is human: the behaviour of men struggling to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation, their sense of honour and the achievement of some aim over which other men are ready to kill them. The study of battle is therefore always a study of fear and usually of courage; always of leadership, usually of obedience; always of compulsion, sometimes of insubordination; always of anxiety, sometimes of elation or catharsis; always of uncertainty and doubt, misinformation and misapprehension, usually also of faith and sometimes of vision; always of violence, sometimes also of cruelty, self-sacrifice, compassion; above all, it is always a study of solidarity and usually of disintegration for it is towards the disintegration of human groups that battle is directed.
To give focus to his narrative, Keegan examines three different European battles all of which are widely separated by time but not by space; each seen, in so far as possible, through the eyes of the ordinary soldiers who fought in them. The three engagements that the author chooses for his study, interestingly enough, are: the ‘Battle of Agincourt’ — English versus the French during the Hundred Years War (25 October, 1415); the ‘Battle of Waterloo’ — English and Prussians versus the French during the Napoleonic Wars (18 June, 1815); and the ‘Battle of the Somme’ — English and French versus the Germans during World War I (1 July, 1916). Each of these battles differs profoundly from the others in terms of their respective weaponry, if not in the tactics, customs, and usages of war. At Agincourt, the mounted and dismounted men-at-arms, and English archers armed with the longbow, are decisive. At Waterloo, smoothbore artillery, cavalry, and infantrymen armed with smoothbore muskets and bayonets, conspire to play their own very different roles on the battlefield. The Battle of the Somme — thanks to the modern miracle of mass production — is dominated by parks full of rifled artillery, massive numbers of infantrymen all armed with magazine-fed rifles, large numbers of machineguns, elaborate trench lines, and barbed wire.

Thus, in addition to the differing and changeable qualities of the men that played their various parts on the battlefield, the author argues that battles are also shaped by the styles and quality of leadership, the weaponry and tactics employed, the physical state of the combatants (fatigue, hunger, and disease), and the type and condition of the terrain on which they are fought. For Keegan, these are all critically important questions. How many arrows, for example, could an English bowman at Agincourt physically loose before a mounted French knight crashed into the English line? What was the effective range of a smoothbore musket at Waterloo, and could a cavalry mount — however well trained — actually be compelled to charge home against an unwavering wall of enemy bayonets? Alternatively, how wide was no-man’s land at the Somme, and how many machineguns did the Germans have for every mile of front? Finally, given the din and confusion of combat, what would an ordinary soldier or even a commander really see as a battle unfolded? And, once the action had begun, how much control would any commander, however able, actually be able to exert over events on the battlefield? These questions, of course, are not concerned with brilliant military stratagems, or sweeping maneuvers, or even with inspiring stories of personal valor, but with the utterly ordinary, often depressing, nitty-gritty details of battle. Yet, the author suggests, an understanding and appreciation of these details is crucial to any valid historical depiction of events on a battlefield. It is an argument that is hard to refute.

Keegan’s ‘The Face of Battle’ is a carefully-crafted, even fascinating study of the behavior of common men when they are thrown into the crucible of combat; however, and just as importantly, it is also a critique of the limits of historiography. The histories of battles are typically recorded by the victors and thus, great battles — even when carefully chronicled — often become the stuff of folklore and national legend. For instance, did the twenty-seven year old English King, Henry the Vth, really rouse the spirits of his outnumbered soldiers with an eloquent “St. Crispin’s Day” speech just before the Battle of Agincourt? Or did the plain-spoken King Harry even address his archers and men-at-arms at all before they formed to go into battle? In the sorry aftermath of Waterloo, many British officers accused their allies, the Prussians, of looting the wounded and dead of both friend and foe alike, as these unfortunates lay untended on the darkening battlefield. The Prussians, for their part, loudly protested their own innocence of the scurrilous charge and, instead, accused Wellington’s troops and the local Belgian peasantry of the crime. The truth of the matter was, undoubtedly, sorrier still. In this instance, Keegan argues that, given the grinding poverty of the peasantry and the common soldiers of both armies, there was doubtless plenty of blame to go around.

Even the simple description of a battle, Keegan posits, can be accurate in one sense, and totally false in another. The ebb and flow of a battle; its critical moments and tipping points; even its structure and chronology, are all, the author suggests, at least partially the artifacts of the historian’s personal experiences, predilections, and biases. Thus, a historian — writing a century and a half after the event — might confidently ridicule Napoleon’s timidity for not sending the Old Guard forward against Wellington’s center as soon as La Haye Sainte fell to Ney’s evening assault. Yet, the Emperor, from his own vantage point on the French right and because of the heavy smoke that hung over the battlefield, could not possibly have seen the actual situation at the section of the front in question. Moreover, in consequence of the fact that Ney had already wasted the French reserve cavalry in futile attacks against the British right earlier in the afternoon, could Napoleon really have been expected to commit his last reserves in the uncertain rush of the moment? Would any prudent general, given the French Emperor’s circumstances and the facts as he understood them, have acted differently? And then, of course, there are the wide-spread criticisms by contemporary historians of both Joffre and Haig and their conduct of the Battle of the Somme. Were these two Allied generals really callous butchers who placed national honor and stubborn personal pride above the welfare of their men? Or is it more likely that, because of the still underestimated defensive advantages of organized trench lines, barbed wire, and dugouts, that the two commanders merely placed too much faith in the combat effectiveness of their artillery? When, in the eyes of some modern historiographers, asks Keegan, did ‘being wrong’ become synonymous with villainy?

Battles are almost always named after places: convenient and recognizable points that posterity can easily locate on a map; but excepting those few battles that have involved great cities, the actual sites themselves are usually of little real consequence. Who would ever have heard of Kursk or Gettysburg, for instance, had these places not been the sites of famous battles? In point of fact, it is not really the location of the battle that matters; it is what ordinary men were willing to risk there that gives these places their significance. This simple truth, I think, lies at the heart of ‘The Face of Battle’. It is also a truth that, at least intuitively, I think most people understand and appreciate. When visitors, unconnected to a battlefield either by geography or personal history, first begin to tour these history-laden sites, it has been my experience that their first, quickly-stifled reaction is often one of surprise. The beautifully-groomed cemeteries, the impressively-adorned monuments, and the somber memorials that have all been erected well after the historical fact, usually cannot conceal the underlying ordinariness of most of these locales. I would even go further: it is probably no exaggeration to suggest that most visitors would not even want to bivouac in these places, much less fight or die for them. Yet soldiers, in their thousands, once did precisely that, and for this reason, alone, these hallowed grounds are today visited and remembered. After all, how many amongst us would travel to, or even take notice of, a place like Agincourt, or Waterloo, or the Somme battlefield were it not for the bloody events that long-ago transpired there. Of course, some people will note that great battlefields are almost always associated with famous generals; yet, I would argue, it is not really the generals who give these places their importance. If Wellington and Napoleon had faced each other in a personal duel at Waterloo rather than at the heads of their respective armies, who besides a handful of historians would even take note of the fact today. And would there even be a plaque to commemorate the event for posterity? Maybe, maybe not; but, be that as it may, I think that when most people come to visit these places, it is to honor the ordinary men who — in an extraordinary situation — fought and died there, not to celebrate their generals. And this, in his role as a historian, is what I believe John Keegan attempts to do with his unsentimental examination and acknowledgement of the basic humanity of the common soldier in ‘The Face of Battle’; it is a worthy enterprise.

Over the years, I have come to possess quite a few of John Keegan’s works; some were gifts, but the majority I bought. And I have never regretted a single one of my purchases. In the case of ‘The Face of Battle’, I bought my own copy of this book sometime in the early nineties, even though I had actually read it several years before. I purchased a new copy anyway: it was just a book that I wanted to own. And although it is not my favorite of Keegan’s books (I personally found The Mask of Command a little more interesting, despite its several flaws), ‘The Face of Battle’ is usually the title that I recommend or occasionally even loan to someone who is either unfamiliar with the author, or is a little leery of the whole subject of ‘military history’. Needless-to-say, John Keegan is on the short list of my favorite historians, and I personally like this title a lot. However, like most of the better British writers, Keegan does not trim back his writing style in order to suit some editor’s idea of a target ‘book-buying’ market. Thus, for those casual readers who prefer their prose to be spooned out at the 8th grade level, this book is probably not a good choice. However, for those who prefer writing that is both nuanced and highly literate, then this book is most assuredly for you. Keegan may have his stylistic quirks, but ‘The Face of Battle’ is, nonetheless, extremely well-written in that richly-crafted, yet unobtrusively graceful way that seems to come naturally to a select few, mainly British, historians. As an added plus, the text is also illustrated with nine pages of black and white plates and photographs, and four easy-to-read reference maps.

As is obvious from the tone of this review, I believe that ‘The Face of Battle’ is a great choice for anyone with even a passing interest in history, ‘military’ or otherwise. In addition, for those students of military affairs who have (inexplicably) not yet read any of John Keegan’s other works, and also for those who are just beginning to dip into the subject of ‘military history’, I can think of no better place to start than with “The Face of Battle’. In short, I cannot recommend this book too highly; more importantly, I believe that this title is a must own for anyone with even a passing interest in the very human, but often-ignored, emotional forces that, along with culture, technology and leadership, have continually acted to shape events on countless battlefields throughout the ages.


  • best of the series!

  • Keegan is really a good historian. I've read this book (in french), quite a good one !

  • I think this is Keegan's best work ever and he's never been able, despite mutiple attempts, to go beyond this particular book.

  • Greetings Again Eric:

    I think that most of my readers probably agree with you! And while I personally found "The Mask of Command" interesting -- despite, I should note, some of its more controversial arguments -- "The Face of Battle" was one of the very few of my military history books that my wife actually read from cover-to-cover, and heartily enjoyed!

    Best Regards, Joe

  • I haven't read The Mask of Command, but I thought Keegan's The First World War was quite well done. The Face of Battle, of course, is a masterpiece.

  • Greetings Ken:

    Thank you for your comments; I appreciate your interest.

    Personally, I have yet to read Keegan's "The First World War" although, at some point I will probably get around to it. Unfortunately, I think that I rather exhausted my interest in "The Great War" some years ago, and I have had a hard time summoning up much enthusiasm for revisiting what is still, I believe, a very melancholy subject. World War II was certainly more devastating than World War I; but in terms of sheer pointless butchery, the "War to end All Wars" still strikes me as being unique.

    Best Regards, Joe

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