“The Face of Battle” by John Keegan


Keegan spends the first hundred pages or so going into various methods of military historiography, in particular the writings thereof.  His purpose of doing so is to point out that everyone has missed a key point of view: that of the common man on the battlefield, the guys literally “in the trenches,” doing the dirty work.  Much traditional military history focuses on the decisions of generals and the big picture, which is important, but frequently it is difficult to grasp a true understanding of what occurred and why unless one digs deeper and examines what the individual soldiers actually saw and felt.

Keegan then goes into three battles: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme.  The choice is purposeful; each was a major English/British engagement which took place in roughly the same geographical area, but are separated in time by some 500 years; so we get three snapshots of what warfare was like during these vastly different periods.

A few main points stood out to me.  One was that cavalry, those knights in shining armor or the “medieval tanks,” as they are sometimes depicted, were actually quite ineffective against foot soldiers.  At Agincourt, each longbowman counted a long, sharpened stake as part of his battle equipment.  When they got in position to await the attack, they pounded these stakes into the ground, forming a formidable forest of pokey sticks, more or less randomly spaced and very difficult for the attacking horsemen to navigate at speed.  A slow moving guy on a horse is kind of easy to pick off with a longbow, go figure.  Again during Waterloo, the cavalry attacks were tried again and again but were uniformly ineffective against the infantry square.  And during trench warfare in WWI, no one even attempted cavalry maneuvers against enemy machine gun emplacements, or at least they didn’t attempt them for very long.

Second interesting point is the crux of the matter, why do soldiers fight?  They face deprivation, starvation, exhaustion, discomfort and disease, and that’s even before the actual fighting starts!  Once in battle, of course, they face death or grievous wounds.  So why would any rational human being face such risks?  The answer is probably different for each soldier, but in general a few themes seem evident.  First, before the fighting begins, there is some motivation to join up.  Medieval soldiers could become wealthy with ransom monies obtained after a successful battle in which prisoners were taken.  Throughout history, cutthroats facing prison were pardoned to serve in the military.  And closer to our day, recruiting efforts focus on pride and honor, both individual and national.

Ok, so the boys join up and head off to war.  Then the real battle comes.  Suddenly faced with the all-to-real risks of battle, the envisioned rewards don’t seem quite as enticing anymore.  Now what rules is, ultimately, fear.  Fear of death certainly, but also fear of seeming a coward or fear of the risks wartime buddies will face if one shirks from fighting.  There is also fear from the fate of a deserter; in Waterloo there were some units whose job was to push others back towards the front line, and during the Somme more than one deserter was summarily shot when discovered.  Another kind of fear that propelled the men forward was that sometimes it was perceived to be safer — during the assault on German trenches, the Brits who made it past no-man’s land were better off pressing on, following the rolling artillery barrage rather than retreating back through the maze of barbed wire they had just traversed.

But even still, there is an almost built-in abhorrence in man to taking a life.  There’s an oft-quoted (but sometimes disputed) assertion that only 25% of Western soldiers during WWII actually took a shot towards the enemy.  This is presented as evidence that the common soldier really doesn’t want to fight; he recognizes that the “enemy” on the other side are really just guys like him.  A lot of what generals and armies try to do is overcome this innate respect for human life; look at human silhouettes used for target practice, or man-shaped practice dummies which are stabbed with bayonets in training.  But maybe times are a’changing?  Are violent “shooter” video games inoculating future soldiers against a reluctance to take the enemy’s life?  What about unmanned systems?  When taking a life is accomplished through clicking your mouse 6000 miles away, ….. whoa.

What do you think?

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