The Face of Battle

2 February 2017

The Face of Battle examines warfare from the viewpoint of the common soldier by analyzing and comparing three well-known battles. Starting with Agincourt, moving on to Waterloo, and finally the Somme, the author describes warfare as experienced by the warrior of the day. Characterizing the campaigns and planning which led up to each battle, Keegan provides background for each engagement he then seemingly details from the very midst of the carnage.

His expert knowledge and engaging style allow the book to make its point without losing the attention of the reader. The book’s fresh approach to battlefield history stems from Keegan’s overwhelming experience in the subject. Keegan taught at Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as the Senior Lecturer in Military History for many years. In addition to writing numerous books on military history, Vassar College has named him a Delmas Distinguished Professor of History, he has been a Fellow of Princeton University (“Vintage,” Keegan), and is currently a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

The Face of Battle Essay Example

Though he admits to never actually being in battle, Keegan’s extensive personal research, interviews, and scholarship on the subject of military history lend him plenty of credence to speak on the subject of battle. However, Keegan believes the men who fought in them should ideally relate their own histories. “…Where possible, an essential ingredient in battle narrative and battle analysis,” he says, “[is] allowing the combatants to speak for themselves. ” Keegan does, in fact, focus on a more immediate view of battle, as seen from the eyes of a common infantryman.

He uses both primary and secondary sources to reconstruct a certain picture of each battle in his book. However, both primary and secondary sources have pitfalls. As John Mundy, author of Europe in the High Middle Ages 1150-1300, in a review of The Face of Battle notes, “…soldiers present at an engagement usually exaggerate the numbers facing them… ” (679). One must also question his use of secondary historical sources. For instance, his rendition of Waterloo takes much of its information from the writing of Captain William Siborne, a British opographer who is credited with changing how the world perceived the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo. After Siborne alleged that the Prussians had far more impact on Napoleon’s eventual defeat then previously believed, the Duke of Wellington lost much of his previous favor (Adamson). If Keegan had wanted to add more credibility to his work, he should have avoided controversial sources and dwelt more on the ideas his book attempts to convey, circumventing any possible impact to his own efforts.

However, his choice of historical material should not be used as a means to discredit his admirable conclusions. Keegan finds, through his study of the three chosen battles, that the central nature of warfare over the years remains unchanged. It is still today, despite advances in technology and tactics, an overwhelmingly man-to-man affair between individuals in a gruesome and horrific contest of violence.

Although mechanization and wireless communication have changed the character of battle, the principles of courage, fear, and leadership still dominate the battlefield. What battles have in common,” he states, “is human: the behavior of men struggling to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation, their sense of honor, and the achievement of some aim over which other men are ready to kill them,” (303). In his analysis of war through the ages, despite its many consistencies, Keegan notes several trends in the character of battle. For instance, in the uncertain examination of war he remarks that, “One statement can be safely made…battles have been getting longer,” (308).

At Agincourt, the English forces repelled a numerically superior French force in a matter of hours. The Battle of Waterloo found Napoleon defeated in a matter of days, while the battle of the Somme lasted months. Employing a creative analogy of the sport mountaineer, Keegan remarks on the exposure, technical difficulty, accident rate, and objectives dangers faced by modern soldiers as opposed to combatants of the past. Along with the increased duration of the average battle over the years, according to Keegan, the number and severity of “objective dangers” has gone up.

Waterloo and the Somme, with fatal casualty rates of 27 and 43 percent respectively, show on a small scale how technology and efficiency have increased the killing power of armies in the modern day and expanded the killing zone of the typical battle. The expansion of the killing zone, due in part to artillery, mines, and chemical agents, means that, today, troops cannot just “veer off into the neighboring wood,” or “take refuge in equally convenient woods,” (315). Partially out of duty, and partially out of necessity, they cannot just remove themselves from the killing zone.

Identifying trends like these, especially as they relate to the changing face of mountaineering, Keegan relates to his audience how battle changes while it simultaneously remains the same in many other respects. Keegan’s findings may conflict, though rightly so, with the common assumption that, as technology increases the firepower of common soldiers, battles are subsequently conducted through less and less close-range combat. Deeper examination of Waterloo, the Somme, and naturally Agincourt reveal, however, that infantry still do, even in modern warfare, engage in close-range combat.

Bayonets, in the Napoleonic era, caused a large portion of the casualties in each conflict. In WWII, even as tanks began to change the character of war, armies still fought and won battles with their infantry. Despite the mechanization of warfare, close combat still dominates the battlefield. Though he backs his claims and details his battles using many worthy and authoritative sources, Keegan’s writing falls short where he fails to cover a sufficient amount of each conflict.

According to John Beeler of the University of North Carolina – Greensboro, “The account of Agincourt (October 25, 1415) lacks the conviction of the later studies…” (1229). He explains further, regarding the chapter on the Somme, “Keegan has limited his coverage largely to the first day of the offensive,” (1229). The historical critic, therefore, finds fault not so much in what Keegan included in his text, but in what he left out. However, the author’s purpose was not to detail every part of each battle, but rather to expose battle as a whole for what it really was to the average soldier.

In choosing the three battles he did, battles with little in common, Keegan exposed how similar battles can be when seen through the eyes of a professional solder. The fight for life and victory, we find, is the same in the fifteenth as in the nineteenth century. The Face of Battle increased my knowledge of medieval, Napoleonic, and modern warfare. Additionally, the book offers an analysis of the trends of warfare over the past half millennium, a discerning investigation regarding current trends in warfare, and intelligent speculation on its future.

Keegan’s strongest writing comes from his analogy of mountaineering as it relates to combat and through his depiction of war as seen through eyes of the solder as opposed to the general. Through this relationship, he accurately translates the picture of battle to an arena where the common man can more easily grasp its significance and wrap his mind around its concepts. After all, the book aims to educate the student officer about the inevitable, timeless idea of conflict between men.

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