16 commentsRead On
As yet additional evidence (not that any is needed) of the general uselessness of the American media, I did not learn of the death of one of my all-time favorite writers on military history, John Keegan, until the day after I returned home from the WBC Convention in Lancaster. Hence, this tribute is a few days late. Still, given Keegan's influence on the trajectory of contemporary military historiography, late or not, I think this piece needs to be written.
JOHN KEEGAN DEAD AT 78
The arc of Keegan's life, considering his rather unremarkable background, was both interesting and unexpectedly rich. Born John Desmond Patrick Keegan, on 15 May 1934, in Clapham, England, the future historian and best-selling writer was the son of a schools inspector and a housewife. Given the modest circumstances of Keegan's upbringing, it is probably no surprise that his early childhood was uneventful; but that all changed for him, as it did for almost everyone else in Europe, in 1939. John Keegan was only five years old when he first saw, through a child's eyes, the very real effects, both great and small, of war on his family and on his fellow countrymen. And needless-to-say those effects were not trivial.
Like most of the able-bodied men of his generation, Keegan's father had already served in uniform during the First World War; however, both because of his age and because of his background in education, when war broke out with Germany for the second time in the space of twenty years, he was given a civilian task, that of helping to take care of some of the thousands of British children who had been evacuated from England's major population centers to save them from the ravages of the German "Blitz". To the young Keegan, the later years of the war, particularly the time of the enormous build-up of men and materiel prior to the Normandy Invasion, was one of extraordinary excitement; and, given the amazing scale of the events overtaking him and his countrymen, it can reasonably be surmised that his interest in military affairs probably took root during this early period in his life. Of course, for England as a whole, the six years of conflict were a gruelling test of both the national will and of sheer endurance; and it bears remembering that, of the major belligerents of World War II, only England and Germany were in the fight from the very beginning to the bitter end.
A certain amount of normalcy gradually returned to life in Britain and the Keegan household in the spring of 1945, once the Second World War had finally run it's violent and tragic course. Unfortunately, this happy condition did not last because, within a couple of years of the armistice, young Keegan was stricken with a case of Tuberculosis of the Bone, a condition that would, in spite of extensive treatment, ultimately leave him with a frozen hip joint and a permanent limp. Not surprisingly, such a physical infirmity barred Keegan, now a young man, from British "National Service"; on the other hand, it did nothing to interfere with his academic life and, despite his recurring health problems, he nonetheless managed to win a scholarship to read history at Balliol College. In 1957, at the age of twenty-three, Keegan graduated from Oxford and, for the next few years, worked as a minor functionary at the American Embassy in London.
In one of those happy accidents that only become obvious in retrospect, Keegan was offered a place with the faculty at the British Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, as a lecturer in military history, in 1960. The twenty-six year old Oxford graduate jumped at the chance. And, as things turned out, Keegan's new-found role as a teacher of British Officer Cadets suited him perfectly; in fact, the fit between the scholar and his job was so good that he continued, virtually without interruption, to lecture at Sandhurst until 1986. Moreover, besides providing the budding military historian with a steady income, Keegan's position at Sandhurst also provided him the opportunity to do independent research and to write. And write he did, turning out numerous papers and historical monographs, along with two books, in his first decade-and-a-half as a teacher at the Royal Military Academy. However, this early body of work, worthy though it may have been, was still well within the mainstream of military historiography. In 1976, Keegan finally broke with the conventions of his field and gave voice to ideas that had been percolating in his mind for years regarding the intense psychological and physical effects of combat on the men who ultimately decide a battle's outcome: the ordinary soldiers of the line. The title of this groundbreaking look at the "micro" versus the "macro" human variables that often tend to take control of events when organized groupings of armed men clash on a battlefield was "The Face of Battle", and it's wide-spread popular success quickly catapulted Keegan from a position of relative obscurity to one of international renown. Perhaps equally important, his unsentimental and honest look at the different and often conflicting pressures that common soldiers were subjected to in the crucible of combat also established Keegan as a writer of exceptional grace and deep humanity. An accomplishment all the more remarkable because, at the time of its writing, Keegan — by his own admission — had never worn a uniform; never heard a shot fired in anger, or even visited a battlefield in the immediate aftermath of an engagement. Yet, even for those of his readers who had actually done these things, Keegan's narrative rang true.
In "The Face of Battle", Keegan examined three separate engagements from three very different historical eras that all, conveniently enough, occurred within the same general region of Europe: "Agincourt", a clash between British and French (25 October, 1415); "Waterloo", which pitted the French against a polyglot force of British, Dutch-Belgians, and Prussians (18 June, 1815); and the "First Battle of the Somme", the British and French versus the Germans (1 July - 18 November, 1916). [For a more detailed review of "The Face of Battle", please see the link at the bottom of this page.] The Battle of Agincourt was mainly fought using edged weapons (swords, battle axes, etc.), the shock power of massed cavalry, and archers; Waterloo was largely decided by infantrymen and mounted cavalrymen — both groups equipped with single-shot firearms and edged weapons (bayonets and swords) — and by the lethal power of smooth-bore, muzzle-loading artillery; the men who fought and died (in appalling numbers) during the First Battle of the Somme — unlike their predecessors — had to contend with magazine-fed rifles, machine guns, barbed-wire, entrenchments, and rifled, breech-loading artillery. Nonetheless, and in spite of the differences in weaponry, Keegan showed (rather convincingly) how — from the common fighting man's perspective — the overall physical and mental stresses engendered at the soldier's level by the three very different (at least in appearance) engagements had more similarities than differences. In this sense, Keegan's work was both an historical chronicle of three important military events, and a study of the seemingly-unchanging group psychology of the battlefield.
Interestingly, although more than three decades have passed since "The Face of Battle" was first published, it has never once been out of print. Moreover, while Keegan continued to write for most of the rest of his life and followed "The Face of Battle" with some seventeen additional books — many of which were well-received, while, it must be admitted, a small number of others were criticized for either small historical inaccuracies or political naivete on the part of the author — this work remains his masterpiece.
It should be noted that while official honors were a little slow in coming to the Sandhurst lecturer, they did come in the end. John Keegan's many contributions to the world of British letters were formally recognized in 1991 when he was awarded the "Order of the British Empire" (OBE). Nine years later, in 2000, the son of the Clapham school inspector, whose demeanor and appearance seemed more in line with those of a publican than those of a British Peer, was added to the rolls of the English Nobility when he was Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
One final observation probably needs to be made regarding both the life and works of John Keegan, and that is this: Keegan grew up during a time when the casualties from the "Great War" (over 8,000,000 dead among the European belligerents alone) were still a source of deeply-felt loss in virtually every village and town in England and on the Continent; but in which — incomprehensible though it seemed on its face — the world had, barely a generation after the First World War, nonetheless plunged headlong back into the abyss of yet another multi-continent existential struggle over the future of Western Civilization. Given his times, it is thus not surprising that Keegan's work consistently reveals a deep personal ambivalence towards warfare: on the one hand, the author clearly detests the squalid brutality and random violence of war; on the other, he grudgingly aknowledges both that wars are occasionally necessary and, as General George Patton once famously observed, that the extraordinary demands that they place on individuals and on nations make "all other forms of human endeavor pale to insignificance when compared to war." Moreover, in Keegan's view, the ordinary soldier — contrary to the popular conceit found in the writings of far too many modern historiographers — is to be admired and respected; he is neither a victim nor a dupe; instead, he is an actor with free will who, whether for reasons of loyalty to his comrades or his general, simple stubbornness, or even a desire to bring his misery and danger to an end, chooses to do battle with other men who, although wearing different uniforms, nonetheless share the same motives and fears as himself. This last is, in some ways, the mystery that both puzzled and fascinated Keegan for much of his adult life: Why, when the instinct for self-preservation urges one course of action, do the soldiers of every era, resist its call and choose, instead, to stand and fight? It is a question that puzzles us still.
John Keegan is survived by his wife of over fifty years, the biographer Susanne Everett, and by their four children.
Related PostsBOOK REVIEW: 'THE FACE OF BATTLE' John Keegan’s Unsentimental Celebration of the Common Soldier
BOOK REVIEW: 'THE FIRST WORLD WAR'
14 commentsRead On
NOW THAT THIS YEAR'S WBC CONVENTION IS OVER, I CAN AT LAST RESUME A REGULAR SCHEDULE OF NEW POSTS FOR "MAP AND COUNTERS"
The good news, for those of my readers who regularly follow my eccentric musings on "Map and Counters", is that, for this old grognard, the 2012 convention season is finally over, and my two online tournaments are on temporary hold while the last few pairings finish their matches. What this means, in terms of my future plans, is that I will finally again have time to post new material on my blog. And, given the events of this summer, I am hopeful that visitors will find these soon-to-be published articles an interesting and informative mix of both old and new. To that end, what follows is a very brief preview of some of the essays that I hope to have in readable form within the next month or so.
Among the articles that are either planned or already in the works — given that the events are still fresh in my mind — are chronicles of my experiences at this year's Consimworld Expo and recently concluded WBC Convention. In addition, along with the usual collection of reviews on movies and books, as well as additional profiles on older games, I also plan to post more essays on the history of wargaming and on the evolution of popular game platforms (a la "Roads From Smolensk"). Moreover, for those players who, like me, still have a soft spot for the older Avalon Hill games, I intend to publish a piece on easy-to-use "player metrics" for several of the classics (e.g., how to tell whether you are winning or losing while there is still time to do something about it), as well as an analyis of the pros-and-cons of various low-odds attacks in STALINGRAD. Looking farther down the road, I hope to be able to complete the first "After Action Report" (AAR) on at least one of my finished PBeM tournament matches and, if this initial outing is well-received, to follow it up with others as my two online tournaments progress from one round to the next. In something of a break from my past practice, I have decided to make a concerted effort to add a few new voices (and, quite possibly, different viewpoints) to my blog through the publication of "guest" essays from individuals in the hobby whose opinions, although sometimes at variance from my own, I nonetheless respect.
Last but not least, I want to thank those of my readers who have stuck with me through this long "dry spell" in my blogging; your ongoing support is much appreciated. That being said, it is my sincere hope that the articles that will find their way into print in the coming weeks and months will again serve to make "Map and Counters" both an interesting and an informative destination for gamers of almost every stripe.
Helpful Wargame Blogs and Links
1812 1815 1815 THE WATERLOO CAMPAIGN 1870 1914 1939-45 1940 1942 1944 3W A HOUSE DIVIDED A Study in Command A Time for Trumpets Aachen Acre ACROSS SUEZ ADVANCED THIRD REICH advice AFRIKA KORPS After Action Reports AFTER THE HOLOCAUST AGINCOURT ALESIA Allied Allies ALMA alternate strategy American American Anniversary American Army American Civil War American Revolutionary War analysis anniversary ANZIO Arab Israeli War ARABIAN NIGHTMARE The Kuwait War ARMADA Armistice Day Army of Northern Virginia articles ATLANTIC WALL atlas ATTACK IN THE ARDENNES AUSTERLITZ Australia Austria Avalanche Axis AXIS and ALLIES: EUROPE BALACLAVA Barbarossa basic resource points BASTOGNE BATTLE FOR GERMANY BATTLE FOR MIDWAY BATTLE OF BRITAIN Battle of Nations BATTLE OF THE BULGE 91 battlegroup Birthday board economic game board political game board simulation board simulations board war game Boardgame Players Association boardsimulations Boer War bomb disposal book BORODINO BPA BREAKOUT and PURSUIT BREAKOUT: NORMANDY British BULGE '65 Burma CAESAR CAESAR'S LEGIONS Cambrai Carnage and Culture CASE WHITE CASSINO CAULDRON Central Powers CG Charles S Roberts CHINESE FARM Christmas Churchill's Generals CIVILIZATION classics COAG Coalition COBRA Cold War combat results Command Game Series comment components Computer problems confederate ConsimWorld Continental Congress convention counters Crimea D-Day DAGC Danny S. Parker DARK DECEMBER Darwin air raid David Chandler Decision Games Declaration of Independence description DESERT STORM UPDATE design DG Don Greenwood DRESDEN DRIVE ON STALINGRAD DUNE EAST FRONT Eastern Front eBay auctions Eisenborn Ridge Eisenhower EL ALAMEIN EMPIRES AT WAR EMPIRES IN ARMS Entente ERIC GOLDERG'S KURSK errata Europa European Excel EYLAU Fall Gelb fantasy Father's Day Festung Europa Finland Finnish FIRE IN THE EAST FIREFIGHT Flag Day FORTRESS AMERICA FORTRESS EUROPA founder FRANCE 1940 Frank Chadwick FREDERICK THE GREAT French FULDA GAP game analysis game design game system GDW General Ger German GETTYSBURG '64 GETTYSBURG '77 GLOBAL WAR GMT GOLAN Great Siege GRENADIER grognards Guadalcanal guest post GULF STRIKE Gulf War HANNIBAL HBO history holidays hypothetical Independence Day INDIAN OCEAN ADVENTURE INKERMAN interpretation Into the Storm INVASION SICILY inventor Iraqi Italy Japanese Jean Lartéguy JENA JENA-AUERSTADT John Churchill John Keegan July 4th June 14th kampfgruppen Karl-Heinz Frieser KHARKOV KOREA Korean War KORSUN POCKET KURSK LA GRANDE ARMEE LEE MOVES NORTH LEE vs. MEADE LEE'S LIEUTENANTS LEIPZIG LEIPZIG REVISED Lille links LOST BATTLES Lost Command magazine MAHARAJA Malta MANASSAS Mans' Best Friend Manstein Plan map Map and Counters MARENGO Marine Corps Birthday Marlborough as Military Commander MBC Memorial Day MIDWAY MISSLE BOAT MODERN BATTLES monster game MonsterGame.Con Moscow Mother's Day movie MUKDEN MUSKET and PIKE NAPOLEON AT LEIPZIG NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO NAPOLEON'S LAST CAMPAIGNS Napoleonic NAPOLEONS ART OF WAR NATO naval Near Eastern New Year Normandy Normandy Landings North Africa North Vietnam notebook OBJECTIVE MOSCOW OMAHA BEACH Operation Bagration Operation Cobra OPERATION CRUSADER OPERATION TYPHOON optional rules OSG Overlord Pacific Theater PANZER ARMEE AFRIKA PANZER BATTLES PANZER LEADER PANZERBLITZ PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN PANZERKRIEG PBeM PBM Pearl Harbor Personal Notes Personal Notes. WWII play aide play balance production Prussia PWG quadrigame railroad repair rules Rand Game Associates reader comments Recent Break in Blogging RED SUN RISING remembrance review RGA RICHTHFEN'S WAR RIFLE AND SABER ROAD TO THE RHINE Robert Cressman Roman rules Russian RUSSIAN CIVIL WAR S and T SAMURAI SARATOGA: 1777 Saxony science fiction SEA LION SEELOWE September 11th 2001 Series 120 set-up Sevastopol Seven Years War Sicily siege SIEGE OF CONSTANTINOPLE SINAI SOLDIER KING SOLDIERS SOLOMONS CAMPAIGN SOUTH AFRICA South Vietnam Soviet SPI spreadsheet SQUAD LEADER ST #49 Stalingrad Strategy and Tactics tactical TAHGC TANNENBERG TCHERNAYA RIVER template TGI Thanksgiving THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION THE ARDENNES OFFENSIVE THE ART OF SIEGE THE BATTLE FOR MOSCOW THE BATTLE OF LOBOSITZ THE BATTLE OF MOSCOW THE BATTLE OF NATIONS THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE The Blitzkrieg Legend The Centurions THE CIVIL WAR THE CRIMEAN WAR The Face of Battle The Fall of France THE FALL OF TOBRUK THE FAST CARRIERS THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR THE GREAT WAR IN THE EAST THE GUNS OF AUGUST THE MARNE The Mask of Command THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN THE NEXT WAR The Pacific The Praetorians THE RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN THE RUSSO-JAPANESE WAR THE WAR IN EUROPE MODULE1: THE FIRST WORLD WAR The War in the West THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN THE WINTER WAR THEIR FINEST HOUR THIRD REICH TO THE GREEN FIELDS BEYOND TOBRUK Toland Torgau tournament Tradition TSR turn record chart TURNING POINT TURNING POINT STALINGRAD TYPHOON Tyre union US Constitution USMC USN variant Velikiye Luki VERACRUZ Veterans Day VG Victor Davis Hanson Victory Games Vietnam VON MANSTEIN WACHT AM RHEIN WAGRAM WAR AND PEACE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES war game War in Europe War in the East WAR IN THE EAST 1ST EDITION WAR IN THE EAST 2ND EDITION WAR IN THE WEST War of the Spanish Succession Wargame Conventions wargaming Wargaming Events and Tournaments Warsaw Pact WATERLOO WBC WBC Convention WBC Tournament Results WBTS WELLINGTON'S VICTORY Western Front WHITE DEATH WOODEN SHIPS IRON MEN WORLD WAR 1 WORLD WAR II WORLD WAR II: European Theater of Operations WURZBURG WWI WWII YEAR OF THE RAT Yom Kippur Zitadelle ZunTsu