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
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