Facing up to the Face of Battle
By now most of you have already heard of the death last week of John Keegan (1934-2012). A prolific author whose interests ranged widely through time and space, he spent the last decades of his life writing about modern military history, as well as current conflicts in the Daily Telegraph. An instructor at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, best-selling author and newspaper columnist, he wrote broad surveys of military history, including The Mask of Command (1987), A History of Warfare (1994), and Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America (1997).
For academic military historians, however, his career was defined by his earliest work, The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme (1976). Simply put, chapter 1 – “Old, Unhappy, Far-off Things” – is required reading for anyone with any interest in the history of war, while the successive chapters illustrate his attempt to recover what the experience of battle was really like. Whether you’re a pacifist, military professional or gunhead, his call for a more realistic view of the face of battle from the fighting soldier’s perspective resonates, and this chapter deserves frequent rereading. On his passing, allow me to honor his work by providing my personal assessment of his influence over the field, one that diverges slightly from the encomia elsewhere.
In reading various online commentary prompted by his death, one facet of the discussion has struck me as not-quite-correct: the claim that his Face of Battle revolutionized the way military historians have written military history. In an abstract sense FoB certainly merits all the praise it has received and more; he’s undoubtedly among the best known of military historians, both inside and outside the field. Both my wife and I were assigned to read the book in different courses while still undergrads at Carleton College in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and these weren’t even military history courses. Given the insights on offer, FoB should have revolutionized the field. But what strikes me is how few early modernists have actually imitated FoB, whether in word or deed. To exaggerate slightly, FoB is the one military history book non-military historians will mention more frequently than military historians actually apply, if only because that’s the only military history book known outside the field. Undoubtedly the work itself is cited as frequently any other part of the military historiography canon, if not more. But citation is not the same thing as influence, and its influence has largely been confined to popularizing the metaphor of the face of battle. I’ll spell out my thinking and we can discuss how wrong I am in the comments.
Keegan’s Conceptual Framework
First, I’d argue that military historians have paid surprisingly little attention to his framework, particularly his argument that the rhetorical ways in which historians have described battle fundamentally oversimplify the reality of combat. Keegan even provides a useful phrase to sum up the idea: the “rhetoric of battle history.” I’ve always found this an incredibly important and useful idea (even if my own work hasn’t focused much on it), yet if measured solely by the use of the expression, few have noticed. A regular Google search of “rhetoric of battle history” turns up a paltry 67 hits, with this blog leading as the first two results. Removing the quotation marks and switching the order of the search string doesn’t improve the results – in fact, you’ll find more results relating to the rhetoric of battle speeches/battlefield orations than Keegan’s felicitous phrase. Switching to Google Books halves the number of results, with my Vauban under Siege one of only three military history books to use the phrase. Even my own use is not exactly what Keegan had in mind. I have (until recently) been more interested in siege than battle, adapting his concept as the “rhetoric of siege history” because I argue in VuS that early modern sieges are described in a similar rhetorical vein that hides their more complicated underlying reality, i.e. the early modern (read Vaubanian) siege as scientific and ritualized, just as battle is described (à la Keegan) as ordered and its participants as unitary. And even this re-purposing is rare: a search of the 1300 articles/book chapters on early modern warfare in my PDF collection (thank you automatic document feeders, OCR, and Acrobat global search!) similarly returns only two works that use the phrase: FoB and VuS. If these search results are robust, and they may not be, it seems that I have been (almost uniquely) influenced by the rhetorical nature of battle descriptions, or at least the only one to find the phrase a useful shorthand. Nor does this disinterest appear to be limited to print: from all the various military history panels I’ve attended, I can’t remember the term ever being part of the discussion. I’d argue that this phrase encapsulates the analytical heart and soul of FoB, yet it has left almost no visible traces. [Let me know in the comments if there is a more useful search term, or even some other aspect of FoB that has received more attention.]
Keegan’s Approach to Battle History
A more difficult yet more robust method would be to count the cases where Keegan’s idea was used, even if not his exact phrasing. To the extent that we can quickly survey the arguments made in the historiography, I find a similar disinterest, or at best a passingly-superficial interest. As usual, I’ll focus on early modern warfare since that’s what I know best, but it is worth noting that Ancient military history seems to have been the most influenced by Keegan’s idea, witness Victor Davis Hanson’s various works on hoplite warfare in Archaic/Classical Greece, and even more explicitly in J. E. Lendon’s “The Rhetoric of Combat: Greek Military Theory and Roman Culture in Julius Caesar’s Battle Descriptions.” The Ancient historiography’s interest in rhetoric is to be expected, given the linguistic requirements needed to learn dead and archaic languages that evolved over centuries, the paucity of Ancient sources, and Ancient historians’ corresponding need to closely analyze every textual fragment they can find. It also helps that practically all their sources are digitized, providing a uniquely searchable corpus. I haven’t been able to keep up with all the medieval military history that’s been published over the past 37 years (beyond being aware of various works published on Hastings and Agincourt), so I’m not sure how Keegan’s analysis of Agincourt 1415 has held up – let me know. Certainly medievalists have spent decades arguing over the relative importance of battle and siege across the Middle Ages, but this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the face of battle. I can note that, at least, Cliff Rogers’ “Tactics and the face of battle” chapter in European Warfare, 1350-1750 (2010) explicitly references Keegan’s work. However, his usage here appears to be representative of the dominant way in which historians have adopted Keegan’s FoB: as a general metaphor for describing the tactical combat experience. There are a couple of pages that discuss the morale of the average soldier (Cliff’s Soldier’s Lives through History: The Middle Ages undoubtedly discusses this more), but again, the focus in on understanding the tactics: the ‘face of battle tactics’ might be a more appropriate phrase. Keegan’s more specific insight about how narrative descriptions shape our understanding of the battle experience is much less remarked upon.
Moving to the early modern period, the obvious question is: which works adopt Keegan’s rhetoric of battle history? It’s always difficult to trace influence when there is no explicit acknowledgment of Keegan’s influence, but I would suggest that the answer is ‘surprisingly few.’ Closest would be the broad works of Yuval Harari: his Renaissance Military Memoirs: War, History and Identity, 1450-1600 (2004) as well as his The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000 (2008). Both of these focus on interpreting what the combat experience meant to contemporaries through their memoirs – exactly the kind of discussion prompted by the rhetoric of battle history. Other than that, I can’t think of any other works that directly adopt Keegan’s insight about rhetoric shaping early modern views of battle.
We can broaden the question a bit: which recent works focus on the experience of field battle, regardless of whether or not their narrative/analysis discusses the rhetorical descriptions of battle? The answer seems to be ‘More, but not that many more.’ Despite a lapse of more than 35 years since FoB‘s initial publication, you can count the number of book-length works that focus on the early modern battle experience on a single hand (feel free to correct me in the comments). First is John Lynn, The Bayonets of the Republic: Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France, 1791-94 (1996, orig. 1984) – predating Keegan’s work, as it was based off of a dissertation completed in 1973. More directly attributable to Keegan is Rory Muir’s Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon (1998), published fifteen years after FoB. A decade after that came Matthew Spring’s With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 (2008.) All excellent books in their own way, but to my knowledge the only books to try to analyze the tactical experience of field battle in the early modern-ish period. Their respective prefaces seem to confirm the impression that little has been written on the subject in their own fields beyond their own efforts. This in spite of the wild popularity of field battles among the reading public. Christopher Duffy’s The Military Experience in the Age of Reason (1988) and Charles Carlton’s Going to the Wars: The Experience of the British Civil Wars, 1638-1651 (1994) also include sections that discuss the experience of combat, against based off of the various memoirs and accounts left for posterity. We could even stretch it a bit further to include works that compare battlefield application with prescriptive theory, e.g. J.A. Houlding and David Lawrence. Even doing so, and given the frequency with which FoB is cited and the influence attributed to it, I expected more than one or two books every decade.
But maybe the French specialize in such issues – we all know about their long-standing preference for ‘war and society’ studies. In the first chapter of FoB Keegan speculated that 20C England’s love of military history and the French apathy towards it stemmed from their differing experiences: Britain won most of its recent wars and France lost most of its recent conflicts, often to the British. Another explanation is provided by Muir: in his preface he notes that the number of detailed battle accounts written by English participants during the revolutionary/Napoleonic (and, I should add, early modern) period far outweigh those written by their French neighbors. Yet, perhaps ironically, French scholars have been almost as interested in the battlefield experience as the English world, although they rarely seem to cite or mention Keegan. (As an aside, it looks like Keegan’s FoB was first translated into French as L’Anatomie de la bataille in 1993.) Most notable here is the doyen of the ‘new military history’ in France, André Corvisier. He first expressed interest in the topic in a 1977 article on battlefield morale at Malplaquet, and twenty years later expanded this to a book on the same battle, La bataille de Malplaquet 1709: L’effondrement de la France évité (1997). Other French scholars have discussed battle in their work and published case studies, particularly Jean-Pierre Bois and Hervé Drévillon’s Batailles. But to my knowledge only a single French author has closely followed the specific question which motivated Keegan, and expanded Corvisier’s vision to the Spanish Succession war as a whole: Dorothée Malfoy-Noël, L’épreuve de la Bataille (1700-1714) (2007). Not a very impressive list, but not too bad given the source advantages enjoyed by English military historians.
Journal articles/book chapters would be the next place to look, and we would expect their numbers to be far greater than books. This is far too much for me to go through now (other than my earlier search for the term “rhetoric of battle history”), but I don’t recall being overwhelmed by analyses of how early moderns talked or described battle (but let me know what I’m missing!). A notable example that actually addresses Keegan’s “rhetoric of battle history” is Michael Wolfe’s “Writing the City under Attack: Siege Warfare as Vicarious Experience during the French Wars of Religion” in Cities under Siege (1999), where he argues that (civilian) accounts of sieges were used to create and reinforce a self-identity among the inhabitants. This is the only early modern article/chapter I can find that uses a rhetorical analysis of combat narratives.
The most interesting test of my theory would also be the most time-consuming: to reproduce Keegan’s rhetorical analysis of battle narratives on battle narratives published post-FoB (found on pages 30ff, esp. 36 on, ‘The Battle Piece’). I haven’t done this, although I might for my battle book. I would not, in any case, be surprised if recent battle narratives are found to be similar to the rhetorical techniques Keegan criticized. If this were to be the case, it would be so in spite of the fact that Keegan’s general warning is well-known to military historians, particularly to the extent that it reinforces the Clausewitzian idea of friction. One useful recognition of this idea comes from Paddy Griffith’s The Art of War of Revolutionary France (1998):
In conclusion, I would argue that FoB has been wildly successful in providing a metaphor for labeling the topic of battle studies. So widespread has this become that Kimberly Kagan explicitly challenged the very metaphor in her own The Eye of Command (2006). Therein she argues that the ‘face of battle’ may be important if you want to know how soldiers experienced battle, but if you want to know why a battle was won, you need to focus instead on the ‘eye of command.’ This well-crafted shift in metaphor is a telling example of where the focus of battlefield studies continues to reside. I would argue that the ‘eye of command’ describes the recent military historiography on battle far better than Keegan’s ‘face of battle.’
In practice Keegan’s influence has been limited to a renewal of military historiographical interest in battlefield tactics. Think of all the debates EMEMHians have had about battle over the past thirty years: the drillground vs. the actual battlefield, the relative strength of infantry vs. cavalry, the roles of pike vs. shot (and the various commanders that represent their evolution, whether its Maurice of Nassau or Gustavus Adolphus or Frederick the Great…), the methods of firing (platoon fire and all that), the incorporation of light unit tactics and personnel, artillery reforms, unit articulation and C3 (i.e. command, control, and communication), not to mention the debates over specific decisions made by commanders on various fields of battle. Compared to all this, vanishingly little attention has been paid to the personal experience of the soldier, and even less emphasis on the ways in which narrative descriptions of battle shape our understanding of the event.
In the next post I’ll posit some explanations for why this is the case. Feel free to comment.