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.