Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Face of Battle

The Face of Battle
By John Keegan

John Keegan is essentially the alpha and omega of military history between the 14th and 20th century and virtually the god of all writing concerning World War I (well, at least in my eyes) so I was excited to get into this book. I know how pathetic that sounds. I was excited to get into a book about military history. What can I say, I'm a nerd for this stuff.

The Face of Battle is an in depth look at three defining battles in the history of warfare (and more specifically, British warfare): Agincourt, Waterloo and Somme. Rather than sticking to the tried and true historical tradition of recounting the battle, movements and tactics, Keegan attempts to delve into the humanity of the chaos. He spends a lot of time on the battlefield attempting to give the reader a sense of the emotions and psychology of soldiers and officers in the field as well as the aftermath and clearing of the battle field in the days following. A real left turn in terms of traditional military history, especially in 1976 when this book was first published.

The Face of Battle is an up and down affair. Chapter One deals with a lot of historiography which, even for the most avid devotees of history, can be tedious reading. Historiography is a very important study, but one that attracts the bare minimum of fans, even among history nerds so it took me a while to trudge through this morass. But once Keegan settles into the three battles proper it begins to roll forward with a momentum that rarely lets up. This momentum is primarily due to the increased amount of source material available to Keegan as he makes his was from Agincourt (1415), tthrough Waterloo (1815).

Agincourt is particularly worthy of note in that King Henry's withered and starving army could defeat the mammoth (for the time) French juggernaut. I read an exceptional piece of historical fiction called Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell that covers a lot of the salient points of this battle. It was interesting to see how closely the Cornwell's fiction mirrors historical accuracy. And while Keegan's treatment of Waterloo is even more detailed, my distaste for all things Napoleonic had me nodding in and out of interest. But the chapter on the Battle of the Somme (1916) is Keegan at his absolute finest.

I've always been a World War I buff and John Keegan is the best writer on the subject, bar none. So it was no surprise that the chapter devoted to Britain's failed Battle of the Somme was the highlight of the entire book. It is a real treat to listen to Keegan dissect the battle and its implications on the the soldiers, the officers and the psyche of a nation. You can practically smell the trenches, hear the continuous ballast of the week long bombardment, feel the crippling anxiety of the soldiers about to go "over the top" and the abject horror of No Man's Land. Never mind the nightmares experienced by the soldiers that survived and the imagined terrors of those who did not.

In the end, the Somme cost Britain 60,000 souls (21,000 in the first hour of the battle). The mind boggles at the catastrophic (and senseless) loss of life. Keegan handles the subject to deftly. For me the entire book culminated in a passage as sublime (if a little melodramatic) as any that appears in print concerning the butchery of World War I. With apologies to Paul Fussell, this is Great War history at its pinnacle. Allow me to quote it here, word for word. It's worth it:
Accounts of the Somme produce in readers and audiences much the same range of emotions as do descriptions of the running of Auschwitz - guilty fascination, incredulity, horror, disgust, pity and anger - and not only from the pacific and tender-hearted; not only from the military historian, on whom, as he recounts the extinction of this brave effort or that, falls an awful lethary, his typewriter keys tapping leadenly on the paper to drive the lines of print, like the waves of a Kitchener battalion failing to take its objective, more and more slowly towards the foot of the page; but also from professional soldiers. Angeris the response which the story of the Somme most commonly evokes among professionals. Why did the commanders not do something about it? Why did they let the attack go on? Why did they not stop one battalion following in the wake of another to join it in death?
If only I had the ability to write half as well as that about history. I'd be teaching it at a post-secondary institution somewhere rather than blogging my opinions about Keegan's work into the electronic void.

Anyone with a remote interest in military history should read this book, if they have not already. It goes a long way toward understanding the way pitched battles work and what it might be like to be involved in one. Probably the closest I'll ever get to an engaged battle and, judging by Keegan's words, that's close enough.


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