Review Corner:”The Face of Battle”

29 Sep

The Face of Battle. By John Keegan. Penguin Books Ltd: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1978. ISBN 0-14-004897-9. Photographs. Maps. Bibliography. Index. Pp. 365. $14.95.

Reviewed by Simon S. Sundaraj-Keun


Sir John Keegan’s book-The Face of Battle is an excellent piece of work in analyzing key battles from a soldier’s tactical viewpoint to a commander’s operational perspective. Methodically, he adds a scholarly interpretation to the overall battle strategy in each of his case study. Drumming to the rising significance of today’s military operations against terrorists, this book is one of the best to exemplify a soldier’s ordeal, it is also essential in conveying a systematic rundown of a battle singularity.

The author, John Keegan, a former Senior Lecturer in Military History at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, starts the book out with a brief chronological evolution in understanding, scripting, hypothesizing, and initiating military history. He continues with the moral dilemma of military history by questioning the artistic freedom of authentic literature. (pg 53) The book hint historians to remain objective and be aware of myths or nationalize history.

The Face of Battle academic strengths lay within three major case studies (Chaps. 2-4) of battles in Agincourt (1415), Waterloo (1815), and Somme (1916). Keegan’s format in sizing up each campaign from the ground up gives the reader an added sense of chronological dimension in the battlefield. He uses key terms like “Archers versus Calvary and Infantry” (pg 92) in Agincourt to “Artillery versus Infantry” (pg 160) in Waterloo and finally to “Infantry versus Machine-gunners” (pg 247) in Somme. These terms break down the tactical role of the deployment of soldiers and weapons in each campaign. This book also describes the evolution of personalize warfare from the age of chivalry to long-range killing of faceless enemies in the era industrialization.

While this book was dedicated in analyzing historical battles and the nameless soldiers who fought them, but Keegan also questions the ability of the fighting men, weapon proficiency, battlefield strategies, and command decisions. By the final chapter, he poses personal insights form a historian perspective on the future of battle by analyzing terms like “The Moving Battlefield” (pg 290), “The Nature of Battle” (pg 301), and “The Trend of Battle” (pg 303). Then Keegan ends the book by characterizing morality in “The Inhuman Face of War” (pg 320) and “The Abolition of Battle” (pg 331) illustrates the evolution of war into an impersonal killing game.

Unfortunately, The Face of Battle does not have footnotes or end-notes to demonstrate which sources Keegan obtain his information. However Keegan’s book contains an index section and with an extensive bibliography that is subdivided into a Historiography, Agincourt, Waterloo, Somme, and the Warfare, Conflict, and Society along with Battlefield Stress, Combat Motivation, and Military Medicine section.

The strength of the Keegan’s book is in describing and exemplifying the individual soldiers in the heat of battle. In this book Keegan has provided a comprehensive diagnosis of military history. It is excellently written for young military historians to grasp the necessity of being accurate scholars of historical events. I would strongly recommend Sir John Keegan’s The Face of Battle to fellow military historians, students of history, and enthusiasts in general.


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