War has been the scourge of human history. In the 20th century alone it killed over 100 million people and brought untold misery to countless others – the bereaved, the refugees, the wounded. For those fortunate enough never to have had to go to war, the experience of battle is almost impossible to imagine.
Historians and writers, artists and film-makers alike, can rarely give the full story. Eschewing the traditional stereotypes of military history, The Face of Battle transformed the subject when it was first published in 1976. It revolutionised our understanding of the nature of combat by concentrating on the actions and experiences of soldiers rather than passing judgement on the strategies of generals. At its heart are trenchant reconstructions of three of the most notable battles in history – Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme – which strip away the veneer of romance to reveal the raw reality faced by their combatants.
Keegan shows how the victory of Agincourt, immortalised by Shakespeare, was characterised by a lust for riches, slaughter-yard violence and outright atrocity; how at Waterloo, Wellington’s redcoats stood before musket volleys delivered from mere yards away; and how the sheer size of the Somme battlefield determined the ‘kill or be killed’ ferocity of the German defenders in the face of the British infantry’s massed attacks.
Technological advances may have changed the nature of warfare, but Keegan’s masterful study shows how the face of battle has remained resolutely human: a matter of fear and courage, the issuing and following of orders, cruelty and compassion, solidarity and self-preservation – a matter of ordinary men confronted by the most extraordinary of circumstances.