A PERSONAL ASIDE TO THE GAMING COMMUNITY: CELEBRATED HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR, JOHN KEEGAN, PASSES AWAY

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.

JCBIII

JOHN KEEGAN DEAD AT 78

Sir John Keegan, OBE, internationally famous as an historian, author, and lecturer on military affairs, died on 2 August 2012 at his home in Kilmington, England. The widely-respected student of warfare and the psychology of the battlefield had, after years of poor health and the amputation of one of his legs, ultimately been forced to rely on a wheelchair in order to get around. He was 78 years old at the time of his death.

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 Posts

BOOK REVIEW: 'THE FACE OF BATTLE' John Keegan’s Unsentimental Celebration of the Common Soldier
BOOK REVIEW: 'THE FIRST WORLD WAR'

15 comments:

  • So sad to hear of his passing. I can still remember the joy of finding Keegan's memories of wartime Britain in an oral history of D-Day. (He's identified as "John Keegan, prep-school boy, aged 10.")

  • Greetings devilofhistory:

    Yes, unfortunately we are all of us getting older and, although I was aware of the fact that Keegan had been in poor health for some time now, I still held the image of him in my mind's eye from when I had last seen him speak many years ago.

    So very sad ...

    Best Regards, Joe

  • I enjoyed how, in The Face of Battle, Keegan showed that, while the battlefield experience was substantially the same from Agincourt to Waterloo to the Somme, the *battlefield* itself had evolved from a small, set-piece locale in action for a limited duration to an all-encompassing environment outside of which the individual had little chance to see, with no discernible end in sight. He will be missed.

    As were you, Joe. Nice to know it was an excess of fun that kept you away. Now, back to work! [grin]

  • Greetings Eugene R.:

    Yes, I didn't see eye-to-eye with Keegan on some of the ideas that surfaced in a few of his other books, but I felt that he was "square on the mark" when it came to his observations in "The face of Battle".

    John Keegan was both a wonderful writer and a very decent and humane man. He will be missed.

    And yes, it's nice to be back to pounding on the keyboard; now if I can just finish a few of the pieces I have working, I'll be very happy indeed.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Good grief..... I didnt see this either until today. Keegan is a fantastic writer, even if one doesnt always agree with him. The Face of Battle, Price of Admiralty, Mask of Command, The First World War.... Fields of Battle... Six Armies... He also wrote a few of the old Ballantine Ill. History of WWII books, including the one of the German General Staff and von Rundstedt.... all in all a distinguished body of work.

    I think Mask of Command is really my favorite after reading them alll several times.

  • Greetings Anon:

    yes, I also found "The Mask of Command" quite interesting, even if it was not as compelling as "The Face of Battle".

    His passing renders all us who admire Keegan's superb scholarship, his graceful writing, and his wonderful knack for bringing history alive much poorer than we were before.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • JCBIII,
    Hello! When can we expect another article or two from you? :) Hope that all is well!

  • Greetings Anon:

    "Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa; Mea Maxima Culpa!"

    I apologize for the complete dearth of recent posts for "Map and Counters"; I wish that I could offer a more compelling explanation but, alas, my recent inactivity in the "blogging" arena has been mainly due to my admittedly selfish focus on "playing" rather than "writing about" games of late. That, and the fact that I gave up smoking awhile back and, perhaps not unexpectedly, I have found it somewhat difficult to resume the disciplined "writing regime" that I had previously observed.

    On the plus side, I have gradually been easing my way back into writing and, with a bit of increased effort on my part, should be in a position to resume publishing new material before too much longer.

    Thanks again for your interest and
    Best REgards, Joe

  • Even more personal to the gaming community was the unfortunate passing of S. Craig Taylor. I first met Craig when, as a teenager I joined the Atlanta Miniature Battlegaming Society, an ad hoc group of guys who met Saturdays in a hobby store in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur. This group was headed by a Kool cigarette chain-smoking, Coke swilling bundle of energy.............Craig Taylor. During his years in Atlanta, the group played miniatures games of the ACW period, the Napoleonic period both land and sea, the WW2 period, land, sea and air, ancients, 7YW, and several more periods. House rules written by Craig and used by us eventually morphed into what the gaming world came to know as Wooden Ships and Iron Men, Napoleons Battles, Dauntless and Air Force, Flat Top, Machiavelli, and Ship of the Line. In the mid 70's Craig along with a fellow gamer Steve Peek started Battleline Publications to publish and release the above mentioned games and roughly 2 dozen more. The company was bought out by AH, where Craig took his talents to the benefit of many gamers for decades. His mini rules were always a fantastic balance of historical accuracy and easy to play fun. The man's genius in game developement made him one of the true leaders in our hobby. He died a very young 66, and I truly miss him, his humor, candor, passion for gaming and friendship made him something special. Hunter Baker

  • Greetings Hunter:

    Yes, I remember hearing the news -- probably from Don Greenwood -- of Craig's unexpected passing. And you are correct that, had I personally known as much about Craig's background as I knew about his game designs, then I would most certainly written a commemorative piece for my blog. As it is, thank you for sharing your personal recollections of one of the truly gifted individuals whose presence helped to color and shape the outlines of our somewhat eccentric hobby.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Hello there,

    I have really enjoyed reading through your blog. I think you have some real quality content there and I do hope you will carry on writing.

    I am looking for passionate writers to join our community of bloggers and I was wondering whether you would consider sharing your posts on Glipho and become a member?

    It might be a good idea to give your writing and your blog more exposure while having fun and meeting fellow writers.

    Please check us out at glipho.com and give me a shout at hubert@glipho.com for any questions.

    Best!
    Hubert

  • Very nice style of writing, thank you for sharing your insights.

  • Greetings Miesto:

    Thank you for visiting and for your very kind words.

    Alas, I confess that I have been remiss when it comes to "Map and Counters" during the last year or so. Among other things, I and my "Better half" have been tied up with a number of other rather mundane -- but time consuming -- projects (completely renovating our home, for one thing) and hence, I have found it very difficult to find the time to add new posts to my blog. However, assuming my wife and I can finally bring some of our many domestic chores to some kind of satisfactory conclusion, I hope to return to the keyboard -- on a fairly regular basis -- after the start of the new year.

    In the meantime ...

    Best Regards and Happy Holidays,
    Joe

  • Joe, how do I contact you off line or in private email?

  • Greetings Hipshot:

    I can be reached via email at jcbeard1@cox.net.

    Best Regards, Joe

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