This is one of those books that you instantly recognize as a classic whether you knew it had that status or not, and then resent the world for not previously introducing you to it. The book is an exploration of the human dimension of war told through the experience of three reasonably well-documented battles: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. But it's not some namby-pamby celebration of the common soldier or anything obnoxious like that. Rather it's an erudite analysis of the cold reality: just how close were the soldiers together and in how many lines deep, and what happened when a cavalry charge actually crashed into the lines? How did the soldiers get to the front lines and how did they spend the night before, and so were they tired, cold, hungry, damp? The overarching strategic narrative of each battle is presented briefly, but for the most part each chapter focuses on the narrow tactical dimension: what happened, for example, at Waterloo when cavalry met cavalry, infantry met infantry, infantry met cavalry, or when artillery sprayed infantry or infantry or cavalry overran artillery. Some of the broader context is also discussed: how did the role of leadership evolve, how important was religion, and were the soldiers drunk?
Keegan is forthright about the limitations of his book. He focuses on three Western European battles fought by English troops. Near the end of his work, published in 1976, he discusses how tanks changed the role of individual battles--many of which were truly sieges he concludes--in WWII, and speculates about the future face of battle, clearly having WWIII against the Soviets foremost in mind. He doesn't anticipate, although it seems unreasonable to expect him to have, the increasing significance of counterinsurgency warfare. Perhaps the age of the true battle really is past and this book is of mere historical significance. Let's hope so. But if so, that makes the experience of reading about this lost world and imagining oneself in it all the more remarkable.
I highly recommend this book, but I will note that it's a little hard to follow on audio. It might work better on a long car-ride, but if you'd really interested, I think I'd suggest getting the print version.
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