- Keegan. John.
The Face of Battle.
New York: Penguin, 1976.
As the author, a distinguished military historian, observes
in the extended introduction, the topic of much of military
history is battles, but only rarely do historians delve into
the experience of battle itself—instead they treat
the chaotic and sanguinary events on the battlefield as
a kind of choreography or chess game, with commanders
moving pieces on a board. But what do those pieces, living
human beings in the killing zone, actually endure in battle?
What motivates them to advance in the face of the enemy or,
on the other hand, turn and run away? What do they see
and hear? What wounds do they suffer, and what are their
most common cause, and how are the wounded treated during
and after the battle? How do the various military specialities:
infantry, cavalry, artillery, and armour, combat one another, and
how can they be used together to achieve victory?
To answer these questions, the author examines three epic
battles of their respective ages:
and the first day of the
Offensive. Each battle is described in painstaking detail,
not from that of the commanders, but the combatants on the
field. Modern analysis of the weapons employed and the injuries
they inflict is used to reconstruct the casualties suffered and
their consequences for the victims. Although spanning almost five
centuries, all of these battles took place in northwest Europe
between European armies, and allow holding cultural influences
constant (although, of course, evolving over time) as expansion
of state authority and technology increased the size and
lethality of the battlefield by orders of magnitude. (Henry's
entire army at Agincourt numbered less than 6,000 and suffered
112 deaths during the battle, while on the first day of the Somme,
British forces alone lost 57,470 men, with 19,240 killed.)
The experiences of some combatants in these set piece battles
are so alien to normal human life that it is difficult to imagine
how they were endured. Consider the Inniskilling Regiment,
which arrived at Waterloo after the battle was already underway.
Ordered by Wellington to occupy a position in the line, they
stood there in static formation for four hours,
while receiving cannon fire from French artillery several hundred
yards away. During those hours, 450 of the regiment's 750 officers
and men were killed and wounded, including 17 of the 18 officers.
The same regiment, a century later, suffered devastating losses
in a futile assault on the first day of the Somme.
Battles are decided when the intolerable becomes truly
unendurable, and armies dissolve into the crowds from which
they were formed. The author examines this threshold in
various circumstances, and what happens when it is crossed
and cohesion is lost. In a concluding chapter he explores
how modern mechanised warfare (recall that when this book
was published the threat of a Soviet thrust into Western
Europe with tanks and tactical nuclear weapons was taken
with deadly seriousness by NATO strategists) may have so
isolated the combatants from one another and subjected
them to such a level of lethality that armies might
disintegrate within days of the outbreak of hostilities.
Fortunately, we never got to see whether this was correct,
and hopefully we never will.
I read the Kindle edition using the
It appears to have been created by OCR scanning a printed copy of the book
and passing it through a spelling checker, but with no further
editing. Unsurprisingly, the errors one is accustomed to in scanned
documents abound. The word “modern”, for example, appears
more than dozen times as “modem”. Now I suppose
cybercommand does engage in “modem warfare”, but this is
not what the author means to say. The Kindle edition costs only a
dollar less than the paperback print edition, and such slapdash
production values are unworthy of a publisher with the reputation of