Sir John Keegan

Keegan’s Challenge

I hope that everyone reading a blog like this has read the late John Keegan’s Face of Battle. In 1976, Keegan interrupted the quiet field of military history with some rude questions: Why was it that so many “battle pieces,” however detailed and colourful they sounded, did not explain what happened and how? Just where did the idea of the decisive battle come from? How much did we really know about famous battles? Using a few carefully chosen examples, he demonstrated how conventionalized and unrealistic many stories about battles were, even those by “serious historians” writing “technical accounts.” And then he suggested that two things had to be done: historians needed to study the “battle piece” as a genre and consider the tropes and assumptions which shaped it, and they needed to ask what individuals and small groups actually did in battle. He then explained that he did not have the energy, skills, and ambition to write a history of the battle piece as genre. Thus the next three chapters of his book are studies of what happened on three different battlefields in northern France, beginning with a sketch of the strategic situation and the course of the battle then narrowing in to focus on how and why the men on both sides fought. He borrowed some exciting new ideas from psychology and sociology and literary criticism, and added a fifth chapter with an extended comparison between soldiering and mountaineering to make the point that for the last century or so combat had come to demand more and more of soldiers to the point that it was difficult to envision what a clash between two modern armies would look like, even before the first nuclear weapon went off.

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