In this major and wholly original contribution to military history, John Keegan reverses the usual convention of writing about war in terms of generals and nations in conflict, which tends to leave the common soldier as cipher. Instead, he focuses on what a set battle is like for the man in the thick of it—his fears, his wounds and their treatment, the mechanics of being taken prisoner, the nature of leadership at the most junior level, the role of compulsion in getting men to stand their ground, the intrusions of cruelty and compassion, the din and blood. Set battles, with their unities of time and place, may be a thing of the past, but this anatomy of what they were like for the men who fought them is an unforgettable mirror held up to human nature.
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As explained at length in his opening chapters, Keegan, a professor at Britain’s Sandhurst military academy (in 1976, when this book was published), felt that the understanding of war propagated by those who studied it was often overly academic and abstract, or too focused on the actions of “great men”. Left out was the experience of combat for the average soldier, which, although represented in novels, movies, memoirs, and paintings (with lots of artistic license), wasn’t really examined in a systematic way.
The opening expository, unfortunately, is a little dull, spending a lot more pages harping on the above themes more than I found necessary, but things pick up once Keegan actually gets to his main focus. At the core of this book are three important battles for the British: the 15th century Battle of Agincourt, the 19th century Battle of Waterloo, and the WWI Battle of the Somme. Through these clashes, examined in order, Keegan traces the evolution of warfare over the centuries.
This is definitely a work with the student in mind, drawing on quantifiable metrics like how many men stood in a line, how wide the lines were, how many shots (or arrows) were fired per minute and what their range was, and how often men employing different types of weapons actually engaged each other on the field (and what the outcome usually was). Keegan also paints a pretty good picture of the average fighting man in each era, covering his education, his motives, his cultural attitudes, his sense of ethics, and the distinctions between officers and regular soldiers. There are some pretty interesting lessons, such as the fact that running away often had a worse survival outcome than standing to face fire, that medieval infantry lines didn’t usually charge forward and crash into each other a la Braveheart (yes, a few teensy inaccuracies in that movie), that the strict drills of the musket era were necessary to keep men from shooting their own comrades, and that World War One helped break down class divisions in Britain, as officers came to empathize with their less refined men.
Keegan conveys the confusion and lack of big picture information that a man looking at a trench wall or the back of another soldier would have had, and their effect. And a good sense of the horror and carnage comes through in descriptions of the wounds inflicted by different kinds of weapons, or of the dicey chances of surviving a battlefield surrender. The final chapters, which consider the future of warfare, argue that modern weapons have made the prospect of full-scale battles so lethal to the ground soldier that no rational government is likely to engage in them. History since 1976 seems to have borne this out (so far), though briefly-stated minor points about insurgencies and about the risks of moral detachment from killing turned out to be more prophetic.
If you’re enough of a history buff that you don’t mind the dry, academic style or the datedness, this is a good read. I appreciated the British perspective as well -- when you’re a country that’s had a huge chunk of your youth wiped out in one battle (the Somme), it seems, you tend to view war through a different lens than certain countries whose citizens have been known to confuse it with Rambo movies.
- Ryan "Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good."
Amazing! But probably better in print.
This is one of those books that you instantly recognize as a classic whether you knew it had that status or not, and then resent the world for not previously introducing you to it. The book is an exploration of the human dimension of war told through the experience of three reasonably well-documented battles: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. But it's not some namby-pamby celebration of the common soldier or anything obnoxious like that. Rather it's an erudite analysis of the cold reality: just how close were the soldiers together and in how many lines deep, and what happened when a cavalry charge actually crashed into the lines? How did the soldiers get to the front lines and how did they spend the night before, and so were they tired, cold, hungry, damp? The overarching strategic narrative of each battle is presented briefly, but for the most part each chapter focuses on the narrow tactical dimension: what happened, for example, at Waterloo when cavalry met cavalry, infantry met infantry, infantry met cavalry, or when artillery sprayed infantry or infantry or cavalry overran artillery. Some of the broader context is also discussed: how did the role of leadership evolve, how important was religion, and were the soldiers drunk?
Keegan is forthright about the limitations of his book. He focuses on three Western European battles fought by English troops. Near the end of his work, published in 1976, he discusses how tanks changed the role of individual battles--many of which were truly sieges he concludes--in WWII, and speculates about the future face of battle, clearly having WWIII against the Soviets foremost in mind. He doesn't anticipate, although it seems unreasonable to expect him to have, the increasing significance of counterinsurgency warfare. Perhaps the age of the true battle really is past and this book is of mere historical significance. Let's hope so. But if so, that makes the experience of reading about this lost world and imagining oneself in it all the more remarkable.
I highly recommend this book, but I will note that it's a little hard to follow on audio. It might work better on a long car-ride, but if you'd really interested, I think I'd suggest getting the print version.