In a special treat this week, Michael Taylor, Associate Professor of History at SUNY Albany is back (he has written here once before). This time Michael is taking a look back at what is probably “he most influential book on any aspect of military history in the last fifty years” and I’d argue probably the most influential English-language book on the topic in a century, John Keegan’s The Face of Battle. As Michael is going to discuss, Keegan’s book is not without its faults and shortcomings, but it is one of those works that every military historian has to consider, because of the influential approach it spawned (often called, as shorthand, ‘face of battle studies’), so Michael’s primer here is really valuable for both understanding Keegan’s work, but also its theoretical roots as well as its enduring influence.
The rest of the post really doesn’t require much introduction so, with that, over to Michael…
Perhaps the most influential book on any aspect of military history in the last fifty years has been John Keegan’s The Face of Battle first published in 1976. Given that the book revolutionized the field of military history in the late 20th century, it is worth considering the nature and impact of this now classic monograph.
When Keegan wrote, military history as a field was at a nadir. In Germany, the crushing defeat suffered in World War II, which led to a stark rejection of militarism, dampened enthusiasm in a place that had been the global epicenter of military historical studies prior to World War I (Hans Delbrück’s Geschichte der Kriegskunst im Rahmen der politischen Geschichte was arguably the most influential work of military history during the early 20th century).1 In the United States, opposition to the Vietnam War helped to discredit the project of military history in the 1960s and 70s, likewise because the field was seen as promoting the crass militarism that had bungled the country headfirst into the quagmire.
The 1960s had also seen the advent of the so-called “Cultural Turn,” as historians increasingly focused on cultural history over matters of war, diplomacy and politics that had previously been the essential stuff of history. Cultural history was by the 1970s increasingly powered by incorporating the insights of Continental theorists, mostly Francophone and often coming from the world of literary studies: Pierre Bourdieu, Jaques Derrida, Paul Du Mann and especially Michel Foucault.
Military history, while in a state of relative decline, went with the flow. This period saw the emergence of the so-called “New Military History,” which incorporated contemporary trends in social and cultural history into the study of militaries and warfare. Now no longer new, this tack is today often referred to as a “War and Culture” or “War and Society” approach.2 Armies could be studied as societies in miniature, with their own distinct subcultures. It helped that most active practitioners of military history in the 1960s had served in World War II, but as conscripts or short-term volunteers rather than professional soldiers. These military historians therefore had a sense for what an alien society and foreign culture their own national armies could be. The “New Military History” leveraged exciting and fashionable methodologies of social and cultural history to explore new problems. To this day, a great deal of military history is written in this vein. Early practitioners of New Military History, perhaps because of the generally precarious position vis-à-vis the broader field of history, were surprisingly quick to denigrate other methodologies within their own subfield, sneering at histories of battles and campaigns as “Drum and Trumpets”-style military history, while popular accounts of military campaigns were contemptuously labeled as “Guts and Glory.”
Enter John Keegan, a professor of military history at Sandhurst, the British military academy. Keegan was increasingly dissatisfied by the way that the New Military History largely excised battle and combat from the study of war. He once, somewhat dyspeptically, described a museum curator presenting a set of historical weapons and armor solely as objects of cultural display and self-definition, while completely ignoring their practical functional weapons whose design and efficacy had life or death implications in combat. Yet Keegan himself was also impatient with traditional schematic reconstructions of battles, not only the dull litany of red arrows puncturing blue lines,3 with the narrative of the battle generally told from the point of view of the senior commanders. He recoiled against reconstructions of combat that treated soldiers as automatons who would move across the battlefield according to the expectations of high command and continue to fight until physically disabled.
Operating at a time when all historians seemingly needed a French theorist in their back pocket, Keegan found his in Ardant Du Picq, a French artillery officer killed on the first day of the Franco-Prussian War.4 Du Picq’s treatise Etudes sur les combat (often translated as “Battle Studies”) was published posthumously in 1880. Du Picq emphasized the role of morale in battle; battles were won and lost not when one side was beaten or blasted into submission, but rather with the implosion of an army’s psychological state. For example, Du Picq, beginning with an essay mobilizing ancient exempla, thought the prime advantage of the three lines of the Roman legion (the triplex acies) was that it kept soldiers in the rear removed from the fear and panic of the front line, making them more psychologically reliable when they finally entered the fight. Du Picq believed that with the increasing firepower of modern warfare, morale would prove an even more critical aspect, as only the most spirited troops would be able to advance against rapidly escalating modern firepower.
Keegan’s other go-to theorist was an American, S.L.A. Marshall. A Brigadier General in the US Army and official historian, Marshall had conducted a series of interviews with combat veterans in both World War II and Korea, often after men had recently come off the front line. Marshall concluded that solidarity among a small primary group of four or five men was essential for holding units together under the stress of combat, with these interlocking social bonds constituting the overall cohesion of the unit.5
Abjuring the commander’s eye view, Keegan also wanted to focus on soldiers at “the point of maximum danger” and how social and psychological pressures determined if they stood and fought or collapsed into surrender or flight. Face of Battle was composed of three case studies, all British battles, and all fought in close geographic proximity to one another: Agincourt in 1415, Waterloo in 1815 and the Somme in 1916. At Agincourt, the decisive moment for Keegan came when the dismounted French nights finally assaulted the positions of the English archers. Mired in mud and the anti-personnel stakes, the French knights became easy targets for English archers, who killed them with clubs and daggers. The French knights were immersed in a culture that glorified honorable death in battle. But they were embarrassed to be butchered by rank social inferiors: fighting to the death was tolerable so long as one was gloriously killed by a fellow knight or noble, taking a knife through the eye-slot from a peasant was beneath their dignity. And so, Keegan argued, the French knights retreated, even as their assault had put the English line under considerable pressure.
A different dynamic prevailed at Waterloo. For Keegan, the critical moment was the charge of the Imperial Guard, who had been stacked in a deep column in the hope of finally punching through the British center. Under heavy musket fire, the columns of Guard broke and fled in a panic, the key moment in the collapse of Napoleon’s entire army. But Keegan notes that the rout of the Imperial Guard began at the rear of the column, rather than at the front where the men were exposed to the most intense hail of bullets. Keegan suggested the issue was a psychological panic among the men in the rear ranks. Dimly aware of the slaughter taking place ahead of them, the Guards in the rear fled, even as the men most exposed to British musketry continued to advance, and did not retreat until they sensed the mass of men dissolving behind them. Psychological collapse, rather than physical annihilation, ended the battle. Conversely, Keegan emphasized the psychological steadfastness of British officers, owing less to their connection to their regiments (there was little social connection between officers and men), but to a very abstract notion of honor deeply inculcated into the British elite more broadly: this was the decisive enculturation effected on the “playing fields of Eton.”
Finally, the bloody British disaster at the Somme. Here even Keegan has to note the impact of physical annihilation, and how the sheer motives of survival motivated the soldiers on both sides: the British had every reason to not only follow their rolling artillery barrage across the no-man’s land, but to keep attacking forward least a counterattack push them back into the shatter of the no-man’s land, while the German defenders best chance of defeating the British was to rush from their dugouts to defend the trench, rather than risk being grenaded if the the British assault managed to get to the trench line first. Nonetheless, Keegan cites lack of communication and cohesion between British units as a major reason the attack bogged down. Considering the “will to combat” of British regiments, he again notes the role of British public schools (in fact elite private schools) in enculturating a generation of officers in a vaguely militaristic and hierarchical environment so that as graduates that they could readily step in to replace the massive losses among junior officers, facilitating a constant regeneration of the junior officer corps by leveraging the embedded elite within British society.6
The Face of Battle had an extraordinary effect on military history. Two examples of its influence will suffice: James McPherson, the renowned historian of the US Civil War, who sought to explain the exceptional actions of United States and Rebel troops, where units consistently assaulted and defended in a manner that involved extraordinary casualties. In McPherson’s Keegan-inflected analysis, Civil War soldiers were at once highly motivated by social cohesion of their units (which were often composed of men from the same location, so men served with neighbors and were often led by elected officers drawn from the civic elite of their hometowns). But McPherson emphasized that the sacrifice exhibited for their soldiers was not simply because they cared about buddies and were worried about being seen as cowards (these were powerful motivations): they also were deeply ideologically invested in the cause. Common soldiers wrote passionately about fighting for “liberty (albeit with very different definitions)” and US soldiers increasingly embraced the abolition of slavery as a righteous cause worth dying for. Strong bonds between soldiers thus leveraged informed ideological motivations––the product of the most democratic society of the modern age––underlay the grim heroics evident across Civil War narratives from Gettysburg to Petersburg.7
Keegan also exerted a significant influence on ancient military history, especially through the scholarship of Victor Davis Hanson; Keegan approvingly read early drafts of Hanson’s Western Way of War.8 Hanson sought to explain why and how Greek heavy infantry men fought as heavily armed infantry (hoplites). Hanson’s views on hoplite mechanics is highly controversial among military historians of ancient Greece,9 and Hanson himself proved controversial as he subsequently established himself as a reactionary pundit. But Keegan was deeply imprinted on Hanson’s reconstruction of hoplite warfare. For Hanson, Greek hoplites were land-holding farmers who were willing to fight precisely to keep opposing armies from ravaging their farms, the source of their income, status and self-esteem. To that end, they fought in a compact formation (phalanx) with their relatives and neighbors, bound by local connections and mutual self-interest. Commitment to social cohesion among peers explained for Hanson why the Greeks long neglected military forms used by both the upper classes (cavalry) and lower classes (archers and slingers), preferring instead the muster in a homogeneous mass of infantry. Hanson revived an old and previously discredited notion that hoplite warfare had largely served to constitute the Greek polis, as the social cohesion between hoplites generated political cohesion between citizens. These are simply two examples; it is not hard to read any subfield of military history without soon stumbling on some attempt to apply Keegan’s “face of battle” to various military contexts.
But Keegan’s methodology has also come under scrutiny.10 DuPicq wrote with a strong political objective. In the early 1860s, the French emperor Napoleon III considered introducing conscription to increase the size of the French army to match the conscript based Prussian Army. Professional French officers profoundly opposed this reform, which they felt would dilute the quality and cohesiveness of the army. Thus Du Picq had reason to propagate a theory of warfare that emphasized psychological steadfastness and cohesion, a quality that could be expected from spirited and dedicated professionals but that would be lacking in low grade draftees and reservists. Whatever Du Picq’s merits as a historian and theorist, Du Picq was blatantly wrong on policy, even if he was on the winning side of this particular policy debate. Napoleon III’s conscription plan failed due to military opposition, but France was soon handily defeated by the Prussia’s conscript-based army. The war cost Du Picq his life and Napoleon III his throne. The coming World Wars would be dominated by mass conscription armies.
S.L.A. Marshall, Keegan’s other theoretical inspiration, has been subject to even harsher critique. Marshall based his various claims on empirical evidence, citing a large corpus of interviews and debriefs conducted with American soldiers. This gave credence to many of his most famous claims, from the notion that few American soldiers fired their weapons in battle during World War II to the almost mystical assertion that soldiers were driven by care and affection for their buddies. But a reevaluation of his methods show that his research was largely unscientific and haphazard. Marshall kept poor records, and many of his statistics seems to have been made-up from whole cloth. While the interviews Marshall conducted were real, he seems to have cherry-picked his conclusions and even guided his subjects to affirm his own hunches.11 Furthermore, it is clear that American combat units continued to function even after suffering massive casualties that would have grotesquely disrupted primary group bonds. Many infantry divisions lost 200% of their assigned strength, and yet these units did not collapse despite the loss of so many buddies. Platoons and squads containing an assortment of recent replacements and a rotating cast of short-lived junior officers nonetheless found an assortment of other motivations to slog forward, ranging from patriotism, to professionalism, to personal honor, to compulsion.
My own critique of Keegan was that he too quickly dispensed with consideration of tactics, and how specific tactics, both at the small unit level and at the grand tactical level, shape the “face of battle.” He also de-centered operational aspects of combat, especially logistics, communications and transportation, from the story of battle. There is some risk of overstating psychological impacts, although no one denies the importance of social cohesion and morale for effective military operations. Units and armies do collapse in panic or dissolve in apathy. But they also collapse because of physical exhaustion, hunger and dehydration, lack of ammunition, because units have been irrevocably infiltrated or disrupted by the enemy, or because so many have been killed and wounded that they can no longer resist effectively. And of course these physical factors intersect strongly with social and psychological factors, in curious and sometimes unpredictable ways. To offer a famous example from outside Keegan’s three case studies: the US 20th Maine at Gettysburg triumphed with a bayonet charge down Little Round Top after it ran out of ammunition on July 2nd, 1863. The social cohesion of a locally recruited volunteer regiment, the charismatic performance of its recently promoted commander, and the sense that the battle would be decisive to the cause all explain why the men were willing to charge down the hill rather than turn tail and flee once they ran out of bullets. But the success of the charge also hinged on the sheer physical exhaustion of the badly dehydrated 15th Alabama, which had marched nearly twenty miles directly into the fight, whose soldiers could barely stagger up the hill, let alone resist the momentum of the Mainers rushing down. Note the operational factors lurking behind the scenario: the ammunition supply to the 20th Maine, and the marching schedule and water provision to the 15th Alabama. In short, Keegan’s insights explain part of this encounter, but hardly the entire outcome.
Despite the underlying theoretical flaws and the inevitable limits in argumentation that any book-length study must accept, The Face of Battle remains a corner-stone of military history well into the 21st century. Much of his importance stems from the simple fact that Keegan re-centered battle in military history scholarship, making it respectable again for academic military historians to think and write about battles, a topic that had been almost taboo amongst the New Military Historians. I find myself a military historian very much in Keegan’s debt: my own research into the dynamics of battle in the Roman Republic has been taken seriously by fellow scholars precisely because it was written under Keegan’s protective aegis. Keegan’s classic work only examined three English battles, but its greatest impact can be seen in the quality and quantity of scholarship in military history that has followed in the subsequent two generations.
- “The Art of War in the Context of Political History.” For English translation, see Walter Renfroe (trs.), History of the Art of War, 3 Volumes. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976.
- Editor’s note: We’ve discussed these terms and trends briefly here.
- Editor: Because Keegan is British and when you are British it is always the red arrows which puncture the blue lines and never the other way around!
- Editor’s Note: He also saw service in the Crimean War as well as in Algeria.
- SLA Marshall. Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command. Washington: Infantry Journal, 1947 (multiple reprints, including 2012 and 2020 by University of Oklahoma Press), but see below on its limitations!
- Editor’s note: I would be remiss if I did not note that of course J.R.R. Tolkien was one of those generation of officers gestated in the vaguely militaristic and hierarchical environments of elite British schools. Tolkien fought in the Battle of the Somme and its influence on his work is marked.
- McPherson, James. For Cause and Comrades, Why Men Fought in the Civil War. Oxford, 1997.
- And wrote the introduction to it.
- Note in particular Hans van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (2004). Also worth reading as an effort at synthesis, E. Wheeler, “Land Battles” in The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare (2007).
- For example, Everett Wheeler “Greece: Mad Hatters and March Hares” In L.L. Brice and J.T. Roberts, edd. New Perspectives on Military History. Claremont: Regina Press, pp. 53-104.
- J. Spillar. ‘SLA Marshall and the Ratio of Fire.” RUSI Journal (1988): 63-71, one of several negative considerations of Marshall’s methods and conclusions. Marshall nonetheless retains scholarly defenders.
116 thoughts on “Michael Taylor on John Keegan’s The Face of Battle: A Retrospective”
Great article – very interesting. But Ardant du Picq was an infantry officer, not artillery. While serving as colonel of the 10th regiment of the line, he was mortally wounded by artillery fire in the opening stages of the Battle of Mars-la-Tour (almost a month after the start of the Franco-Prussian War), dying two days later.
I wonder what prof. Taylor thinks about Keegan’s “A History of Warfare”. I get the impression he wouldn’t be impressed by the “the Greeks invented the pitched battle” claim, given his reaction to Hanson’s ideas about the hoplites, so I wonder if the other two would get taken down as well: “horse-riding pastoralists were the first to dehumanize warfare” and “knights with couched lances were the third major breakthrough in warfare, uniting the first two into a pitched battle on horseback”.
I’m not even a historian.
– Pitched battles: what were all the agricultural empires (of the Fertile Crescent, to ignore “but independent invention”) that had large armies for sieges doing, if they don’t count as having invented a concept of “pitched battle”? (Mostly sieges, yes. But the authors would have to do an implausible amount of footwork in the vein of “the battle of Kadesh was a disorganized encounter engagement, and/or the people at the time didn’t conceptually distinguish it from a raid”.)
– Pastoralists: what does “dehumanize warfare” even mean, never mind whether there was a sharp distinction in it? (Is this about harnessing something beside human muscle?)
– Knights specifically with couched lances were the third major breakthrough. This goes in the “IMO there is more wrong with it than right” bin.
1) Couching lances, rather than just holding them underarm, seems like an incremental improvement to me (not that I’m a historian). Personally, I suspect this specific thing was chosen in order to disqualify all previous shock cavalry, because “perhaps the #3 Big Thing were the Seleucid cataphracts” would be just silly.
2) More importantly, the implied clean distinction between the categories of “major breakthrough” and “minor breakthrough” isn’t a natural one. Saying that “I think we should draw a line right here, calling everything larger than that “major”, and therefore knights would be the third major thing” would be perfectly respectable, just boring.
3) Even with a correspondingly watered-down claim, the dividing line looks extremely unintuitive to me. The heavy cavalry press (or whatever they were thinking of) counts as a fundamentally new type of battle, but there are no comparably fundamental (or for that matter, decisive) infantry or “artillery”/engineering advances since going from “not a battle” (or not having a concept for it) to “battle”?
I wasn’t impressed with much of the book*, but his argument about pastoralists was actually pretty interesting and at least “colorable,” as our host would say.
His point is that actually, killing people is hard. It’s not a natural and obvious thing to do. “Those guys have some nice farmland, let’s go stab them all to death and take it” is not actually a course most humans will take if they have other options, *even if those options are, in a cold-blooded analysis, worse.* Now, if there are other things happening, if Those Guys also stole your canoe or your daughter married one and he beat her up, then the odds go way up.
There are a couple of factors in the pastoralist/farmer situation that might change that analysis. First, pastoralists are bloody-handed to begin with: they kill animals for a living. Not some deer from the woods, either, but their own herds, with whom they’ve lived for months or even years. That’s not, of course, the same as killing humans… but it’s not wholly different either. (Witness, for instance, the occasional exemption of butchers from juries because the bloody nature of their work might prejudice their verdict.) Second, they live very different lives from farmers, which makes it easier to dismiss any empathy you might have had for the guy on the other end of the stick: he’s not “just like you,” he’s actually kinda different from you. The horse probably exacerbates this: you are literally above him. (See also Keegan’s argument about cavalry vs. infantry at Waterloo.)
*In particular, his claims about women in combat are flat wrong. If he’d stuck to generalizations, that combat roles have always been dominated by men, I’d have agreed. But he felt the need to claim that there have never been exceptions in any militarily-significant number, and that’s just not true. They are exceptions! You could claim that they prove the rule, if you wanted: they are rare enough for that. But there were more women flying in one regiment in the Red Army than Japanese pilots at Midway, and I have to say that “one side of the Battle of Midway” seems like a militarily-significant force to me.
“My own critique of Keegan was that he too quickly dispensed with consideration of tactics, and how specific tactics, both at the small unit level and at the grand tactical level, shape the “face of battle.””
I agree. I wrote a war studies dissertation on the Tactics of the Napoleonic War in, I think, 1979, which was heavily influenced by the Face of Battle. I was quite critical of Keegan, especially in his insistence that cavalry vs cavalry shock didn’t exist. In my analysis, this was because he selectively quoted a very small number of examples from not very reliable, non-cavalry witnesses in often special circumstances (light cavalry in open order, for example), while ignoring or disparaging cavalrymen witnesses from engagements other than Waterloo. He was keen to demonstrate that lines of horses couldn’t charge into each other en bloc, whereas in fact they were trained to do so, could and did.
That is not to say that John Keegan was not a crucial writer – as you say, “its greatest impact can be seen in the quality and quantity of scholarship in military history that has followed in the subsequent two generations.” I wouldn’t have written my own dissertation without Keegan!
That, to be honest, tends to be a lot of “important” scholars. A lot of time the importance is not so much in them getting the answers right as in getting people to ask new questions (or at least ask old questions in a different way)
Marx might be the ultimate example. He’s wrong about tons of stuff, but he’s still hugely important (even aside from the political significance of his disciples) because his emphasis on the role of economic factors in history was something that had not been given sufficient credence by earlier scholars. (Though there may be exceptions)
Recently i realized that:
1) 1/3 of the English at Agincourt were heavily armed men-at-arms, not archers.
2) The French reached the English and melee ensued
3) The terrain, with narrow funnel and earthworks, favored defense and negated numerical superiority.
So, i cannot but think, that tje English would win even if 2/3 of their army, the archer component, was not present.
(Crecy is somewhat similar too, though one needs to get rid of Genoese too and factors are different)
You could step back even further and say that the English won because their superior command structure and operational mobility let them choose the time, place and character of the battle.
With that said, the English archers had an important role to play. They obviously weren’t able to stop French men at arms from entering close combat by fire alone, but they were by all accounts able to inflict casualties on the French prior to the main close-combat engagements.
In addition to killing or wounding French men at arms, arrows could damage armor, particularly on the fine articulations that allow joint mobility. This along with the psychological toll of being hit with arrows while unable to retaliate would have had a negative effect on French performance once they finally reached English lines.
Being able to put the French under fire also exacerbated the French army’s command and control problems; English arrows forced the French to attack before they were ready and to close their visors, limiting vision and communication. This would have made it difficult for the French to assume any coherent formation and likely contributed to the “press” where French heavy infantry was so closely crowded together that many were killed by crushing or trampling.
Effectively, English arrows provoked the French into attacking before they were ready, prevented effective command and control on the French side and inflicted significant damage on personnel and equipment. It seems fair to say that they were important to the English success.
The YouTube channel Tod’s Workshop tried to replicate an English longbowman shooting a French knight, and I was shocked by how extraordinarily loud it is when an iron-tipped arrow shatters against a cuirass. The archer had a very tough (/nearly impossible) time penetrating the armor, but even the arrows bouncing off harmlessly must have been deeply disorienting and frightening. (Also, it turns out those little Vs below the neckline are apparently crucially important for deflecting arrows that would otherwise jugulate you)
I think in the popular imagination Agincourt has been somewhat confused/conflated with Crécy.
Where at Crécy only the vanguard under the Prince of Wales was engaged in protracted melee, at Agincourt there was prolonged conflict right across the front line for most of the day, won by the English men-at-arms (rather than the archers). The French army at Agincourt advanced mostly on foot and in good order (although there were some doomed cavalry attacks later in the day by French reinforcements), unlike the disorganised charge of the cavalry under the Count of Alençon at Crécy. And while Agincourt was a decisive victory in the end, it was a much more close-run affair with many more English casualties, compared to the one-sided turkey shoot at Crécy.
Perhaps critically, too, Agincourt was a rare instance for the period of an English army going tactically on the offensive. Where at Crécy the English model was something of a novelty, by Agincourt its capabilities were well-known, Boucicaut and Charles d’Albret were veteran commanders who knew the terrain favoured the English, and had no intention of attacking… until Henry defied the English playbook and advanced out of his prepared defensive position, precipitating the engagement.
But the popular belief seems to be that Agincourt was a standard defensive victory for the English with the French foolishly advancing, usually on horseback, against archers: I’ve even seen the French running down their own archers mentioned (which happened, if at all, at Crécy), and being shot to pieces. The only Agincourt-specific features that seem to make it into the narrative are the ploughed field and the massacre of the French prisoners.
Can any of you explain why the English lost at Bannockburn in 1314, I think it was? Granted Edward II may have been a fool, but he had experienced commanders with him.
I’m not sure if Bannockburn has been rethought by recent scholarship, but my basic understanding is something like this:
– The Scots were very well prepared. They were besieging an important castle, which the English army was coming to relieve, and had plenty of time to prepare and pick a strong position, on a hill behind a marsh and the stream (the Burn), meaning the English would have to cross the bad terrain to attack them. The Scots were presumably also high in morale from several previous successes (although they’d lost the latest major battle at Falkirk, that was 16 years ago and they’d had good success taking back English conquests in the years between).
– The English were demoralized by the initial clashes, between their mounted vanguard and the Scots army, going badly.
– The terrain, as mentioned, was unfavourable. Although the English did manage to cross the marsh during the night, by the morning the cavalry wasn’t fully deployed yet and the infantry, coming up behind them, even less so. Seeing an opportunity in the enemy’s poor order, the Scots surprisingly went on the attack. This made things even worse since the English cavalry – still their main strength at this point – got crowded in against each other, their infantry and the bad terrain and couldn’t exploit their superior mobility nor the striking power that depended on it.
One of the critical reasons the 100 Years War(s) could never finish is that the English/Welsh longbow was a decisive defensive weapon in the tactical sense, but provided no operational or strategic advantages and was nearly useless as an offensive tool, tactically.
The English, until the deployment of field artillery in the 15th Century, would almost uniformly trounce any French force, regardless of numerical superiority, when defending a prepared position against a hostile charge.
The problems for the English were (1) being able to force a hostile charge, contrary to popular history the French actually learned the lessons of Crecy quite well and generally refused to attack English armies that had prepared defensive positions; and (2) absent a strong prepared position, the archers and their men-at-arms were incredibly vulnerable, thus making them largely unable to advance on enemies and force battle.
So, most of the conflict for 100 years throughout France consisted of small English armies marching uncontested through the French countryside trying to get attacked. While French cavalry would follow and harrass their supplies, to the extent the force was large enough to not be able to subsist off of forage.
Every now and again a French commander would believe that they’d caught an English force detached an unprepared and force battle. One of two things would happen either (1) the French would correctly deduce when they could attack the English before they prepared their defenses and have a tactical victory; or (2) the French would incorrectly analyze the situation and suffer a catastrophic defeat that would set the French military effort back for a generation.
This tacitcal dominance v. operational/strategic inferiority stalemate would last untill the French finally were able to deploy early field artillery. With field artillery, finally one of the two combatants could both (1) force battle in the operational and strategic field; and (2) succeed in tactical operations to destroy a prepared defensive position.
The war was mostly an affair of raids, assaults against castles, minor sieges and political pressure. The French more than held their own in this, in that between the major defeats English holdings in France steadily diminished. The Burgundian alliance and French division allowed Henry V to actually mount a series of campaigns that took and held territory, but this was beyond England’s strength and diplomatic resources to sustain. As usual, strategy trumped tactics.
Yep. The quick high points tends to kinda miss that each english victory in battle tended to end with them having to retake all the territory they’d lost since the last phase of the war.
Mud had its role at Agincourt too.
It would be more complete to mention Bardunias and Ray contribution to the whole hoplite question, no?
treatise Etudes sur les combat > Etude sur le combat
dismounted French nights > dismounted French knights
Interesting to see a museum object (if one may call it that) that I have seen as cover of an internationally-renowned history book!
Thank you to Michael Taylor for this analysis of John Keegan’s work! I only have one question: how can an infantry division take 200% casualties? That seems flatly impossible.
Presumably because of reconstitution. So you start with 100 troops, lose 20 to enemy action, and get them replaced when you get pulled off the line. Repeat this a few times, and you have a full strength unit that suffered 60% casualties. (20 x 3) / 100
That’d be casualties over the course of the war; they take casualties, get replacements, take further casualties, get more replacements, and this continues until they’ve taken twice as many casualties as they originally have troops
I considered this, but surely a study of cohesion is a study of what happens to a unit during a single battle. Once a unit is no longer in mortal peril it’s motivated by morale, not cohesion.
The bonds between members of a unit contribute to cohesion, and replacements don’t have the same bonds.
In The Guns of Normandy, George G. Blackburn estimates that the Canadian infantry battalion he was attached to as an artillery officer had its rifle strength wiped out and replaced twice in the course of the battle of Normandy, and that it had to be rebuilt a third time during the allied pursuit of the Germans afterwards.
Admittedly, the Canadians happened to be close to the point where the allied attempt to expand the bridgehead, and the German attempt to obliterate it, smashed right into each other. Their experiences were probably unusually extreme. But hardly unheard of. Every battle has its most intense point.
Start with 100 men, lose 50. Replace them, lose another 50, repeat.
I assumed that was a typo.
I’ve seen similar numbers in a history of war written by Albion right after WWI (I forget the name just now; it’s a little red book, fascinated me in college). He provides a similar rational to what folks above state: they’d suffer casualties, get reinforced, suffer casualties, get reinforced, so that the unit never dissolved and never very far below its paper strength but it had 200% or more casualties. In fact, he argues that when the USA entered WWI that was what the Allies wanted to do with our troops–they didn’t trust us to have our own fighting forces at first, and instead wanted to use our soldiers to reinforce existing units. Didn’t go over well with our brass.
You see something similar in marine biology. Phytoplankton make up a huge amount of biomass over any time period, but if you grab a unit of water at a specific time (doesn’t matter when, outside massive blooms like red tides) they don’t make up nearly as much of the biomass. The reason is that they have extremely rapid turnover–they’ll go through ten generations while the other organisms are still in infancy.
There is some fascinating discussion about how that was probably good for the US army, but bad for US soldiers: If they’d been used as reinforcments they’d probably have suffered fewer casualties than they did (since the US army basically had to learn everything their allies had already learned on their own)
Did they? They were winning victories quickly, even if against a worn foe.
Depends how it was done, perhaps. Van Creveld suggested that individual replacements in existing armed formations in intense combat in WW2 suffered massive psychological casualties (he suggests that this is why the WW2 US armies suffered far more psych casualties than the Germans who usually deployed reinforcements in the form of entire units). But presumably they would have deployed doughboys in at least companies, rather than individuals reinforcing British & Canadian units
“They were winning victories quickly, even if against a worn foe.”
And suffered heavy casualties to do it. According to Albion (the book is “Introduction to Military History”, I had a chance to look it up last weekend) the USA was pretty heavily criticized for that–the Allies argued at the time that the losses were predictable and avoidable, since we were basically trying to re-invent the wheel while surrounded by people who were already familiar with the concept. The Allies complained that the only reason the USA was able to pull off some of the attacks we did was because our troops were fresh, not battered. The USA’s reply was more or less “Yeah, that’s the point, isn’t it?”
I will emphasize that I’m summarizing, and that the points are MUCH more nuanced in the book, which frames the discussion in terms of the principles of strategy.
I forget the unit size that the Allies were going to use Americans to replace. The main thrust was that Americans didn’t want to do it at all, they wanted to have their own crack at the Germans. This echoes the attitude shown in letters I’ve read from that time period. (I have not done a thorough examination of the topic, I just happened to inherit a few books on the subject.)
” he argues that when the USA entered WWI that was what the Allies wanted to do with our troops”
IIRC from Aimee Fox, the British Army usually partnered newly-raised battalions with experienced ones on a quiet sector for a bit, and then partnered new divisions with old ones in the same way. And did this even when moving divisions from one front to another, on the grounds that experience on one front is not experience in another.
This would make it natural to do the same with new American battalions.
Even for old units, I imagine there would be quite a difference between chasing Pancho Villa, and a direct attack on the Imperial German Army.
There was precedent for doing this with allied regiments, too — e.g., Wellington in the Peninsula used to brigade Portuguese and British regiments together so the former could learn from the more experienced latter.
Keegan in one of his books suggests that armies “break”–he is thinking of the last years of World War I–when the army as whole has taken 100% casualties, although he notes that the Germans somewhat surpassed that before their final collapse.
I don’t think that’s a very meaningful rule without some serious hedging. Especially not as you go farther back in history.
A turnover rate that eventually reached 200%. Incidentally, veterans/survivors eventually stopped trying to socialize with or befriend newcomers because they were probably going to die soon anyway; a phenomenon also seen in bomber crews which suffered heavy casualties. How did this affect unit cohesion, or indeed the psychological health of the soldiers?:
It gets worse. The casualties were concentrated in the front-line infantry companies (cooks, drivers, mechanics, signals and so on were much less exposed). These companies were where experience counted most. Martin van Creveld makes the point that the German practice of withdrawing whole units, reconstituting them well to the rear and allowing the newcomers and veterans to integrate over several weeks before returning to the front was more effective than the US one of feeding in individuals as replacements (a policy which also worked badly in Vietnam).
At the top, would you link to Prof. Taylor’s other article that he wrote for the site? 🙂
“Meet a Historian: Michael Taylor on Why We Need Classics”
“US divisions in WWII took 200% casualties,” which I’m assuming refers to unit reconstitution. But doesn’t that ring hollow as a criticism of Marshall’s hypothesis? After all, shouldn’t a reconstituted unit be essentially viewed as a new unit, with new primary unit social ties?
I don’t dispute Marshall’s bad use of stats, but it seems like the heavy casualties counterpoint has more to unpack.
Because of the US Army’s ‘ReplDepl’ system- every man was interchangeable so a unified Replacement Depot would distribute men as necessary to replace losses across many units, the new men did not have time to build those primary bonds. 3 men would get distributed into a platoon to replace the losses of the past week, and expected to fight as normal tomorrow. It was the widespread failure of this system that largely drove SLA’s primary bonds thesis.
But even if you in one unit and wounded seriously enough that you were in a hospital, then you would go into the ReplDepl and be sent to a totally different unit with different soldiers that you had no primary bonds with and expected to fight again, and this often utterly failed. Soldiers who had been effective in their first unit were not as good in the second, sometimes even deserting to return to their first. (The British Army, straining under the pressure of a generational war for the second time in as many generations, was not nearly as good at keeping units together as the American army thought, incidentally. The Germans nominally used a similar territory based system the British used, but I don’t know much about how it worked in practice.)
If I recall correctly, one component of the Repple Depple system was that men who went to the hospital returned to their original unit if they spent less than 90 days in hospital. There are numerous stories of men leaving the hospital early so that they could return to their original units instead of being farmed out by the replacement depot.
I’m thinking in particular of Band of Brothers, where Private Webster returns from the hospital after the Bulge. He comes back to Easy Company because he’s spent a limited amount of time under medical care.
Band of Brothers also provides the other example, too: E company gets depleted down to around 50% strength three times over the course of the war, and I assume that ended up being more than 150% casualties because not all the replacements came in at times when they were pulled off the line. (There is also an interview with someone specifically mentions not wanting to get to know the new kids after awhile because so many of them would die.)
“The British Army, straining under the pressure of a generational war for the second time in as many generations, was not nearly as good at keeping units together as the American army thought, incidentally.”
Sort of. What they ended up doing was disbanding divisions in order to get the manpower they needed to refill other ones.
I was actually thinking of the Salerno Mutiny in 1943, where 1500 wounded veterans of the 50th and 51st Division, thinking they were being sent back to their units, were instead shipped to Salerno to replace losses suffered in the 46th and 56th Divisions, and the result was the largest mutiny the British Army has ever had. But since I’m not as well versed on the British Army replacement system, I didn’t want to get into the details, and as I said, even my limited knowledge of the British Army situation is an order of magnitude better than my knowledge of German or Soviet practice.
I don’t think so. At least in the US Army of WWII the original unit when it was stood up would have gone through significant training together before being sent overseas for combat, so each soldier has time and shared experience to form bonds with the other members of his unit (or at least the ones closest to him). But when a unit suffers casualties it often stays on the front lines with the fresh replacements sent over piecemeal from the “repple depple” so the replacements don’t know each other, don’t know the rest of the unit, haven’t had time to learn the history of it (all the things that encourage cohesion and morale); nor are they likely to know or have formed bonds with any of the other piecemeal replacements.
Even if the unit took enough casualties it got shifted to the rear, or to a quite sector, to reconstitute the new replacements still don’t get anything like the time to integrate into it that the original soldiers did.
The reconstitution was an ongoing gradual process — it wasn’t not pulling the unit back and rebuilding it from scratch as a new unit that shared only a name and tradition with the formers version.
Luttwak in his critique of the American performance in Vietnam says that soldiers served individual tours of duty, so that at all times each unit comprised an assortment of men many of whom had just met. Is that really true? That seems even worse than the World War II system described. What does the army do now?
In the Civil War, in contrast, regiments were generally not replenished, because politicians preferred to create new regiments. So the units were often way understrength, but the men were all long-time comrades.
Sounds like Luttwak is correct. To take one example, the 1st Brigade, 101st Airmobile Division was deployed to RVN in 1965, the other two brigades followed in 1967, first unit left in 1971 and the final units left in 1972. So for seven years at least part of the division was deployed in South Vietnam, but any given individual would generally only do a 1 year long tour until you got enough points to leave. This points system- first used for demobbing after WW2 then modified for Korea, was tracked for each individual, and when you got your points you went home, on a plane full of strangers whose points had also reached the limit. It was considered necessary for a citizen-soldier army to distribute the dangers widely across the population, so they adopted this policy, knowing that it was destructive to military cohesion. (They had read SLA Marshall just like we have, they knew what it meant, but decided to do it anyway.)
The professional, All-Volunteer-Force that fought the past 20 years generally did train, then deploy as whole units (generally Brigades), then went home, got broken up (people get promotions and sent to different units on different bases) and then repeat, with much less political stress because it was a AVF rather than a draftee army so there was no pressure to distribute the risks equally. The modern Army had the tremendous advantage that the losses were of far lower scale- if you add in the dead on the September 11 attack plus the American military dead from the invasion and entire occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and even the fight against ISIS… you get basically the average monthly dead for the US from WW2. The modern All-Volunteer-Force could not have sustained the scale of combat for WW1 or WW2.
One more thought on the modern experience of the US Army and how it dealt with losses: the rotation of whole Brigades every so often (generally a year for the US Army, 7 months for the USMC) led to the joke that the US Army didn’t have 20 years of experience in Afghanistan: it had 20 different times had units get their first year of experience in the war. Because a new commander and soldiers with no experience in a given area came in to replace some other commander and men, so there was no consistency to the American side of the war. Civilians would build relationships with soldiers necessary for stability operations, and then those soldiers would go home and the civilians would lose heart at having to do it all over again from scratch. The USMC tried to stack all of their Afghan deployments to the same area for years, hoping that people rotating back to at least the same area would help mitigate this problem, but it doesn’t seem to have helped much: the war had changed so much that when you came back in a year and a half it was all different.
It was observed that the US did not fight the Vietnam War for seven years – it fought it for one year seven times.
Ideally, “politicals,” i.e., officers responsible for liaison, propaganda etc. would stay in a position for years, like the British Army did in colonial India. They might even learn Hindi (or Pashto). (They might even notice that it was the same, sort of, as the Greek and Latin they had learned in school, thereby initiating the study of historical linguistics.) But as I understand, unfortunately, careerism among the current US officer corps precludes keeping officers in one assignment for any significant length of time.
Still, in terms of combat effectiveness, rotating and replacing units rather than rotating individuals and replenishing units, surely produces units with better morale and cohesiveness.
The British imperial system was to have a tiered system – at the bottom were the ‘politicals’, District Officers and agents, who were picked for ability to get on with the locals, who learned their languages and customs and were the local face of British power. Behind these were local units (such as the Pathan Guides), under British officers (again with languages and local knowledge). Both these typically served 20 years or more in one area before retiring on modest pensions. Behind them was the regular army – whose actions were always guided by the politicals, whose units rotated every two years or so.
Which worked great until a single devastating battle would nearly exterminate all the men who had enlisted together from a single small town or county. The Old West meme of the mail-order bride was based on the fact that some locations were virtually denuded of young bachelor males.
As the song says, “War is hell on the home front too,/God only knows what a woman goes through . . . .” Aristophanes said the same.
There’s a famous study done in Bygdeå parish in northern Sweden: 1620-1640 saw 255 soldiers conscripted. 210 died. Population in the parish fell from 1900 to 1700, and the gender imbalance became pretty massive.
Another fames case is a regiment from Östergötland who started out as 1086 men in 1631, at a review in Erfurt they were down to 750 a few months later and when they were returned back in 1633 they’d suffered 710 casualties, only 181 of which were in combat.
Large losses of men from relatively small geographical areas were also seen in the context of the Pals Battalions in the 1st World War. There’s a reason why the policy was quietly dropped post-Somme, and was never reinstated during the 2nd World War…
The reason being that after the Somme (and after the start of WW2) the British had switched from voluntary enlistment to the draft, and there is no point in encouraging people to volunteer together when you are drafting them anyway.
As others have noted above, they went to some effort to try to keep people together anyway.
Wisconsin kept its regiments up, so that there was an army saying that a Wisconsin regiment was worth another state’s division.
Sending green troopers among veterans allows them to learn more quickly, too.
Looking at this later…
This practice of sending green recruits to reinforce veteran units by “filling holes” probably worked better during the American Civil War than during the World Wars. With a few exceptions after the start of the Overland Campaign in 1864, a soldier in the Union Army wasn’t continuously within firing range of the enemy for more than a few days at a time, and there would often be weeks if not months of encampment and maneuver between battles. This gave veteran units time (in principle) to integrate new recruits in a system like Wisconsin’s.
Speaking of DuPicq considering the cohesiveness of a professional army to be worth more than the bigger numbers of a conscripted one, I find it interesting to note, that the Prussians saw the same problem. The Prussians used to have huge numbers of deserters when they used what could basically be described as manhunts to get random men they could get their hands on to meet the demands of their army. This changed drastically when they introduced the “Kantonsystem” in 1733 and started to recruit men from the same villages to serve in the army together. The social bonds between these men and the repercussions for desertion (in addition to the punishment for desertion a relative of the deserter would be forced to join the army) improved morale and cohesion of the army significantly.
I recall this one being on the junior officer reading list back in the mid-90s, and it appears to still be there today:
I still have my copy!
Given France’s history of military failure from the mid 19th through 20th century it mystifies me that French military expertise remained an item of faith. Napoleon cast a long shadow.
Tolkien wrote the nightmarish ‘Fall of Gondolin’ while recovering from his wounds from the Somme.
There’s only really two defeats in that period, they’re just major ones, and there was a victory in-between.
WWI? Not much of a victory!
“If this is victory, then our hands are too small to hold it.”
US troops fought with French 75s and flew with French Spads. It was a victory bought at enormous cost, but a victory none the less. Halting the German onrush at the Marne was a considerable military feat.
That’s true. But one gallant effort doesn’t win an entire war. To be fair though all the European combatants slogged themselves into exhaustion.
The French also held at Verdun, participated fully in the triumphs of 1918, and managed to keep up production and innovation (eg they were the leaders in aero-engines). It’s worth recalling that Foch was the Allied Supreme Commander for a reason.
They also lost in Algeria.
How many clear-cut victories have Britain or the United States had since, say, 1945?
Just one big one: the Cold War.
In terms of military victory we defeated Iraq twice. We royally screwed up the political side the second time, but that’s a whole different thing. The same can largely be said about Afghanistan–we won the battles, but we lost the war.
Not sure how to judge Kosovo. I don’t remember enough about that conflict.
As I understand it, a major issue with Korea is that the objectives kept changing. We achieved the original objective–keeping North Korea out of South Korea–but failed the later objective of uniting Korea into one non-Communist regime.
We’ve also prevented a fair number of battles, which should count. Basically the only people going up against us are people who either have or believe they have a reasonable shot at beating us and who really, really don’t like us. There are a large number of countries that hate our guts, but either love our money or know that we’ll wipe them off the face of the Earth fairly easily, and thus keep their heads down. Sun Tsu argued that this is better than a battlefield victory, though it’s harder to see most of the time.
In Britain’s case, the Falklands war is arguably a most complete and unambiguous victory any nation has achieved since 1945.
Indeed. But how does that one clear and unambiguous case of military victory compare with, for example, late 19th-century France conquering most of North Africa, West Africa, and South-East Asia?
Talk about moving the goal posts! Surely the apt comparison to that would be Britain’s conquest of 1/5 or so of the globe in the 19th century (plus the defeat of Napoleon).
ey81, the goalpost I was initially thinking of was the comment I first replied to: “Given France’s history of military failure from the mid 19th through 20th century it mystifies me that French military expertise remained an item of faith.”
Late 19th century France conquered quite large parts of Asia and Africa. I’m not convinced we can say the same of late 20th century Britain or America.
I concede that France continued to win against non modern opponents. Of course so did the other European powers
As near as I can tell WWII was the last war fought by the west with a clear determination to win.
Surely the first Gulf War was a virtually unqualified win for the USA? I personally think of it as “The War That Made US Interventionism Safe Again”.
Translation nitpick: “Geschichte der Kriegskunst im Rahmen der politischen Geschichte” should be “History of the Art of War in the Context of Political History” for a complete translation (the “History of” is missing in the footnote).
‘Keegan’s classic work only examined three English battles’
Waterloo and the Somme are hardly *English* battles! I thought at least the editor was a pedant.
All three involved Englishmen and are part of English history, even though they all took place in France.
I think he was aiming for the pedant note that those were British rather than English battles – although to be fair in two directions; this one wasn’t written by Our Pedant In Chief, and secondly it could just be the continental habit of referring to the UK as English/England showing up. (I don’t know Micheal’s background.)
if one want to continue with the pedantry, they’d add that Waterloo is in Belgium (at
the time the Netherlands), not in France.
“The Face of Battle” impressed me sufficiently that I bought several of Keegan’s subsequent books as they were published. But the ‘face of battle studies’ book that made the deepest impression on me was Leo Murray’s “Brains and Bullets”. I still re-read it now and then.
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I find it interesting to contrast this to warfare psychology in gaming. I was an Eve Online player back in the day, so that game’s warfare stands out to me as a very interesting data set. The big advantage over real wars is that it’s easy to get really big data sets and start to spot trends more easily than we can with extremely source-limited ancient warfare.
The classic article on this is “Inside the Failure Cascade”, by a fellow known as The Mittani in-game, who was the spymaster (and later the leader) for one of the big player alliances. It’s heavy on Eve jargon, but you can probably get the gist of it. https://imperium.news/20-inside-failure-cascade/ (as a bit of context: the high-end warfare in the game is mostly huge alliances of thousands of players duking it out to take sovereignty over large parts of the game map. Those alliances often fall apart as effective fighting forces very suddenly, and Mittens was the first one to really look at how and why.)
Long story short, it’s all about psychological defense mechanisms. If you feel like you’ve been let down by your allies, then you start to build a new identity separate from them, based on the idea that “we” (the smaller subgroup you’re starting to identify with) have done a great job, but “they” (the larger group you’re part of) screwed up and wrecked the whole war for your side. Problem is, everyone does this at once, and you have no more cohesion any more. Nobody wants to take nasty losses in a war that you’re just going to lose anyway (since ship loss is permanent, losses can cost you quite a bit), so they all wander away, and the enemies raise their flag over your apital in triumph.
Obviously, this isn’t real war, but it’s a nice funhouse mirror to look at sometimes. And I think it fits well with this Keegan-esque mindset.
Has a whiff of Sengoku to it.
There’s a lot of fun to be had in the morale factors of games (of all sorts). I’ve seen shock apply in e.g. shooters and RTS games where rapid losses (or even just visually impressive ones!) cause panic and paralysis. Interestingly first/third person games centered on melee combat have noticeable morale elements that shooters do not, particularly around mass. In team games reversal of fortunes can have a significant impact on team effort, as can confident leadership.
Dominions 5 players tend to talk about “player morale” as well as “unit morale”, in that there are things that will target the will to continue of the *player* rather than the units (whose morale is all dictated by the computer) things like raiding, or otherwise doing things that puts a mental strain on the player even if the actual trades aren’t in your favour.
Similar things happen in online Diplomacy (famously the board game most likely to destroy friendships, it’s basically a “diplomacy in the run-up to WW I board game” that is famously cutthroat). One of the most effective strategies is to hit someone so hard and so suddenly that they ragequit. Of course there’s the danger that the betrayed person turns on their betrayer in a rage and leaves all their other borders open (making “if I go down I’m bringing you with me” threats can also be effective). So an effective (is not very nice, but then Diplomacy is famous for not being very nice) strategy is to hit one guy with a big coalition all attacking him right off the bat, then he quits and you can pick over his corpse easily while people on the other end of the map are embroiled in an actual war.
On the other hand if you play with some committed players that absolutely refuse to quit they can delay the inevitable for a LONG time if they have a good corner defensive position and take forever to root out while you’re having to watch your other flanks. This tends to make face to face play pretty different from online play as face to face players are less likely to quit, which makes (in my experience) face to face play more freewheeling while online play tends to have more stable coalitions and fights to the death.
The more I learn about Eve, the more convinced I become that it’s actually an elaborate social experiment disguised as a game.
Wait, it’s disguised?
Hilmar has a story about being surprised how much he cared about replacing a Thorax that he borrowed from a friend, so it may have come as a surprise to the devs. On the other hand, the content of The Danger Game has me thinking none of them should be surprised.
Alright, so that’s a good post, but quoting Mittani or Imperium news (disclaimer: haven’t played since 2016) is taking propaganda at face value. Any criticim of “de Bello Gallico” as a propaganda tool & self-agrandizing tale can be applied a thousandfold to him/them (and to anyone playing the propaganda game in Eve).
The issue with their very serious analysis and the limit of applying real-life military & political concept to Eve is that players in Eve can just log off. An alliance defeated can’t be coerced into sending their titan fleet to “space-scapa flow”, it can just keep them offline and “in-being” (albeit with a severe disadvantage if their position is known, and it probably is). You can’t even plunder the station you just conquered to seize your opponent assets, at best you can make them an offer to firesell it to you at a discount. If your opponent don’t want to fight you, he’ll log off. And except for capital fleets (and by now I half-expect some madman is multiboxing supercarriers), they’ll probably be able to log in another place, en masse, on their alt account.
And don’t get me started on morale. It may have been an issue back in the days where alliances didn’t fully reimburse wartime losses (and players would want to avoid losses), but even the worst pvp player -hey that’s me- was able to anchor & press f1 until he died (sometimes hoping he does because between the ingame insurance and the alliance scheme, he’ll make some money). My carrier survived B-R5RB not because I ran in panic, but because it was 4 in the morning and I had been logged for over 10 hours and wanted to go to sleep.
Oh, sure. It’s not the same thing, and I agree that Mittens is a big-time propagandist. But for an article like that, where he’s mostly discussing broad patterns of behaviour instead of specifics, I think he’s basically trustworthy. It also matches what I saw, back when I still played, and seems very plausible in psychological terms.
I don’t remember The Face of Battle being as focused on morale as this post claims, I remember more it going over exactly what happened physically when one specific kind of soldier clashed with another specific kind of soldier and then running down a list of that, but then it’s been a while since I read it.
> British public schools (in fact elite private schools) in enculturating a generation of officers in a vaguely militaristic and hierarchical environment so that as graduates that they could readily step in to replace the massive losses among junior officers, facilitating a constant regeneration of the junior officer corps by leveraging the embedded elite within British society.
It was sobering to read in Nevil Shute’s (1899-1960) autobiography about how the expected career path for boys leaving his school (including his brother, who died in 1915) was to get a commission and go to die in Flanders.
For years my understanding of military strategy was founded on “Strategy: The Indirect Approach” by B. H. Liddle Hart. Does anyone here have an opinion on the views expressed in that book (throw off your enemy by doing something he doesn’t expect) and how it fits within this literature? It was written long before “The Face of Battle.”
Very little overlap with “The Face of Battle”. As the title suggests, it’s about strategy and what Bret in earlier posts has called doctrine. Not the experience of an individual soldier in combat. What a New Military Historian (before Keegan) might sneer at as “Drum and Trumpets” methodology.
It is stated “Hanson’s views on hoplite mechanics is highly controversial among military historians of ancient Greece” — can you mention a source which espouses the current wisdom on this topic?
If it’s not bad form to mention my own book – ‘The Greek Hoplite Phalanx’, by Richard Taylor (me) covers the current state of play, and offers some criticisms of the Hanson view.
Fascinating essay, thanks! On the topic of France and conscription, I feel obliged to mention that Napoleon III probably did not expect the Franco-Prussian war to be the existential threat that it turned out to be. Nations facing a war that is an existential threat (U.S. Civil War, WW1 and WW2, etc.) do almost always turn to conscription, but quite often do not when the war is not seen as that (e.g. US in Iraq and Afghanistan). My impression was that Napoleon III thought he was “nipping in the bud” the problem of the upstart Prussia, and did not anticipate that almost all of Germany would join it, and also thought he would be able to bring other nations worried about Prussia’s rise into the war on his side. I don’t think his rejection of conscription was necessarily that he didn’t understand it to be necessary in some wars, but rather that he did not realize how big of a fight he was getting himself into.
Great article, I find the idea of focusing on morale and cohesion rather than weapon systems as the main way battles are won very informative. I hope to see more book retrospectives like this in the future.
“the main way battles are won”- I’d say more “not lost”. Morale and cohesion are necessary ingredients for a unit to function well, but they won’t magically make soldiers immune to machine gun bullets and shells, as was bitterly found out in WW1. The lesson of 20th century industrialized war was that to a first approximation armies CAN be simply erased from the map if they insist on advancing into unsurvivable fire.
A bit of a false dichotomy: as Bret has noted, one element of morale is the soldiers’ belief that they can win, and one potential source of cohesion is a shared professionalism. The English at Agincourt had a system of combined arms (heavy infantry and missile infantry) which was superior to what the French had, and this system enhanced both morale and cohesion.
A bit of pedantry of my own: “Paul Du Mann” should be “Paul De Man”.
And pedantry being its own reward, I gave Paul de Man the capital “D” he did not use.
I am not here to defend Victor Davis Hanson, but – how, exactly, is he a “reactionary pundit”?
If anything, Hanson is most strongly associated with the neoconservatives whose philosophy is radical and revolutionary (which is why they were able to draw support from many former reds and socialists, most famously Christopher Hitchens). And were notoriously opposed by genuinely reactionary type like Pat Buchanan.
Words mean something! A blog that calls itself “A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry” should respect that.
I just read your post here prior to reading this commentary on the current Ukraine situation here:
Partway down all of that, he discusses that due to precision targeted weapons, soldiers are highly dispersed with minimal interaction with each other on the front line, a kind of more extreme “empty battlefield”. It will be curious to eventually learn how the morale aspects play out when it’s just you an one or two other guys hiding in a basement rather than a larger unit.
“ So, here you have a detailed explanation of the nightmare that is modern warfare. Everything from brigades and battalions on down has to be split at most into 20-40 men, and most preferably 2-10 men in one place. This, as you can imagine, creates a nightmare headache for logistics and grouping people together for assaults/offensives.
This is one of the reasons why such small units end up being used in general. Everything is fractured and atomized in a sense due to the overhanging threat of precision weapons which can wipe out a whole unit as they did once last year in the infamous strike where anywhere from 50-200 Russian troops perished all at once.
So it’s every commander’s job to figure out the billeting for all his troops, and it becomes a sort of artisanal, every man for himself type of task, requiring every respective commander to get creative and work extra hard to find properly secure billeting for his men.”
The Somme was an “English” battle?
Certainly in John Keegan’s mind it was. Some of the rest of the participants may well have disagreed.
Excellent article covering a lot of ground. I think the criticism of S.L.A. Marshall was even-handed, but I was hoping to see a critical response to his Vietnam books about the battles in II Corps, e.g., Battles in the Monsoon, Bird, West to Cambodia. In learning about the history of the war in which I would soon be engaged, I found Marshall a good follow-on to Bernard Fall’s books about the First Indochina War.
All these discussions and debates are interesting, altho’ I often wonder about the blind men and the elephant poem when it comes to academic arguments about historical unknowables. Military history is subject to the same shifting ideas and opinions and pet theories as any other liberal arts field. And as someone who worked at a major American research university (in a support position, not faculty) I saw enough academic behavior and characteristics and motivations firsthand to develop a somewhat cynical view of the process that rewards argument and squabbling for the sake of it if only to stand out and be recognized and perhaps parley a controversial stance into career advancement. After all, no one rewards academics for agreeing with other academics — to “prove” yourself, you must challenge orthodoxy or a prevailing opinion. The tenure system is set up to encourage this. And this may have its useful aspects, but at the same time, doesn’t it also encourage divisiveness and revisionism for the sake of it?