Monday, September 01, 2008

The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme

The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme
John Keegan (Penguin Books, 1976)

This book was a classic long before I read it. It may seem a departure from the others on this list, but it served as inspiration of sorts for Victor Davis Hanson's The Western Way of War. In this book, Keegan seeks to move past simple discussion of tactics and strategy, the usual staples of military history, to comprehend the experience of soldiers "on the ground": what was it that made up the life and stresses of the foot soldier, the calvalry man, the man-at-arms?

Keegan purposely confines his examination to one specific geogrphic area (Northern Europe), and one specific cultural type (Europeans), I suspect largely for the purposes of scale: anything broader would be too much.

As we progress from medieval style combat, with men-at-arms, mounted knights, and archers to the more industrial style of combat of the Napoleonic era, to the mechanized warfare of WWI, the scale increases, as does the degree of violence (one useful feature Keegan includes are battle maps, with insets of the previously covered battle to scale -- it is truly mind-boggling to realize how vast the Somme battlefield was in relation to Agincourt). We are left with an impression that the epithet "medieval", when applied to combat, applies to the mechanized age more truly than it does to the era of knightly combat.

In examining all three battles, Keegan looks for similar themes, or dissimilar themes that point out the change. He seeks out the "Will to Combat" -- that "something" that keeps men in line, facing a hostile enemy. In Agincourt, it was Religion: Henry V heard three masses in succession. At Waterloo, it was Rum. At the Somme, it was Religion again, but it was also the sense of solidarity with the otehr fellow (especially in the case of the "Pal's Brigades"). Also, showing a shift in the relationship between commanders and soldiers, Keegan traces from Agincourt, where kings led by examples of personal prowess in battle, to Waterloo, where an officer was expected to expose himself to danger, but not fight himself (most of Wellington's adjutants were wounded or killed by the end of the battle), to the Somme, where the overall command was held by the "Chateau Generals".

One theme that works its way through is the utter misery suffered by soldiers in battle. If there is one theme about all three battles, it is the wet: Agincourt came after days of rain, it rained the night before the battle of Waterloo, and water was a constant threat at the Somme. What is dissimilar is the danger faced by soldiers. In Agincourt, violence was as extreme as the strength of one's arm, at Waterloo, although the volley fire of the British was intense, the casualties were not extreme, except in case of paniced retreat. At the Somme, however, the degree of violence committed is horrific. The Somme stands as a supreme example of the inhumanity of mechanized warfare. The firepower of a regiment of Wellington's soldiers is condensed into the person of the machine-gunner.

Keegan's final chapters examine the "Future of Battle", and looks at WWII in general, examining some of the lessons learned by the generals who served in the trenches, but also the lessons that they did not learn. In this chapter Keegan makes the point that the "climactic battle" between mechanized forces will not happen again, if only because the nations capable of such exercises also possess nuclear weapons, and no one is willing to use them.

Keegan ends his book on a cautiously optimistic note:

The young have already made their decision. They are increasingly unwilling to serve as conscripts in armies they see as ornamental. The militant young have taken that decision a stage further: they will fight for the causes which they profess not through the mechanisms of the state and its armed power but, where necessary, against them, by clandestine and guerrilla methods. It remains for armies to admit that the battlees ofthe future will be fought in never-never land. While the great armoured hosts face each other across the boundary between east and west, no soldier on either side will concede that he does not believe in the function for which he plans and trains. As long as states put weapons in their hands, they will show each other the iron face of war. But the suspicion grows that battle has already abolished itself.

Because battles have become more horrific, Keegan argues, battles themselves are going by the wayside. In one way it is easy to agree with this. The "decisive battle" sought out will most likely not return. What we are left with is the "low-intensity conflict", which Keegan aludes to above.

What makes this book timeless is its examination of the "fighting man" and his commander. We are able to understand what it is about the human heart and human courage that makes it possible to endure the unendurable in support of a cause that we can rally to. But we can also see what there is that can shake that resolve. Ultimately, this book is about the individual soldier, the dangers he faces, the suffering he endures, and the nobility he exhibits.