In this major and wholly original contribution to military history, John Keegan reverses the usual convention of writing about war in terms of generals and nations in conflict, which tends to leave the common soldier as cipher. Instead, he focuses on what a set battle is like for the man in the thick of it—his fears, his wounds and their treatment, the mechanics of being taken prisoner, the nature of leadership at the most junior level, the role of compulsion in getting men to stand their ground, the intrusions of cruelty and compassion, the din and blood.
Set battles, with their unities of time and place, may be a thing of the past, but this anatomy of what they were like for the men who fought them is an unforgettable mirror held up to human nature.
©1976 John Keegan (P)2001 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
“The most brilliant evocation of military experience in our time.” (C. P. Snow, British novelist and scientist)
Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
As explained at length in his opening chapters, Keegan, a professor at Britain’s Sandhurst military academy (in 1976, when this book was published), felt that the understanding of war propagated by those who studied it was often overly academic and abstract, or too focused on the actions of “great men”. Left out was the experience of combat for the average soldier, which, although represented in novels, movies, memoirs, and paintings (with lots of artistic license), wasn’t really examined in a systematic way.
The opening expository, unfortunately, is a little dull, spending a lot more pages harping on the above themes more than I found necessary, but things pick up once Keegan actually gets to his main focus. At the core of this book are three important battles for the British: the 15th century Battle of Agincourt, the 19th century Battle of Waterloo, and the WWI Battle of the Somme. Through these clashes, examined in order, Keegan traces the evolution of warfare over the centuries.
This is definitely a work with the student in mind, drawing on quantifiable metrics like how many men stood in a line, how wide the lines were, how many shots (or arrows) were fired per minute and what their range was, and how often men employing different types of weapons actually engaged each other on the field (and what the outcome usually was). Keegan also paints a pretty good picture of the average fighting man in each era, covering his education, his motives, his cultural attitudes, his sense of ethics, and the distinctions between officers and regular soldiers. There are some pretty interesting lessons, such as the fact that running away often had a worse survival outcome than standing to face fire, that medieval infantry lines didn’t usually charge forward and crash into each other a la Braveheart (yes, a few teensy inaccuracies in that movie), that the strict drills of the musket era were necessary to keep men from shooting their own comrades, and that World War One helped break down class divisions in Britain, as officers came to empathize with their less refined men.
Keegan conveys the confusion and lack of big picture information that a man looking at a trench wall or the back of another soldier would have had, and their effect. And a good sense of the horror and carnage comes through in descriptions of the wounds inflicted by different kinds of weapons, or of the dicey chances of surviving a battlefield surrender. The final chapters, which consider the future of warfare, argue that modern weapons have made the prospect of full-scale battles so lethal to the ground soldier that no rational government is likely to engage in them. History since 1976 seems to have borne this out (so far), though briefly-stated minor points about insurgencies and about the risks of moral detachment from killing turned out to be more prophetic.
If you’re enough of a history buff that you don’t mind the dry, academic style or the datedness, this is a good read. I appreciated the British perspective as well -- when you’re a country that’s had a huge chunk of your youth wiped out in one battle (the Somme), it seems, you tend to view war through a different lens than certain countries whose citizens have been known to confuse it with Rambo movies.
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.
I really enjoyed the book being someone who is actively engaged in the military. It was nice to have perspective from different times of history, as well as different points of view - the nice thing about this book was that it gave what is the everyday soldier / officer would experience during a battle. Although, I am Not sure that it applies 100% to combat nowadays - it still is a good read and I would recommend for those who are engaged in a military.
No B.S. reviews. I'll never soft-pedal bad writing or inept narration.
For any fan of military history, this book seems an essential read. It delivers key insights into human psychology as much as into the foibles of war.
The writing, however, is not quite as compelling as it might be. There's lots of good information, but somehow the imagery lags.
Furthermore, Simon Vance is a consummate narrator, but this is not his best work by far.
Still, as a history buff, I'm glad to have listened to it.
I had reservations about listening to John Keegan on audiobook because he is so academic and studied (nobody wants to hear a science textbook read aloud)...and yet this was a great book.
Keegan is THE expert when it comes to combat and war as a subject of academic study.
And Simon Vance is a great narrator.
Not only was this audiobook a way to relax and spent a few hours while walking, but it was very educational as well.
Auto Repair shop owner. I love Yoga, and playing my Fender Stratocaster. I Walk my dogs twice a day.
I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed this book. The descriptions of how soldiers die, and the hardships they faced was presented in a way that wasn't stomach turning but enlightening.
The description of Henry the 5th's victory of Agincourt showed how long range (archery) changed the face of battle. The tactics used, the way the archers rallied makes this portion of the 100 years war come to life.
Wellington's victory of Waterloo brought us into the artillery age. His description of one soldier's death from starvation two years after his injury was shocking. This man had his tongue and jaw blown off and it still took him years to die.
The WWI battle of The Somme showed how far the artillery age moved and how it was defeated by the introduction of the machine gun. Keegan made me feel the dust and shaking ground in his description of the artillery barrage that lasted 3 days!
If you are a history buff, or specifically war history buff you will be glad you bought this book.
Did not read the book.
He is writing this aimed at other war historians. So it can get a bit annoying.
Simon Vance is the man.
No, some of it was good, the first and last chapter are too long. The rest is good.
Classics, history, historical fiction, marketing, Napoleonic stuff and of course 'Boys own Adventure'. This is my bent. Occasional self help as well.
All students of war, battle, fighting and especially the officer cadet should read/study this book. John Keegan brings to light some interesting thoughts that any man-of-arms should know and have learnt from. Many people see battle as a breakdown of human nature whilst others the heights of achievements but I believe John Keegan has put it into perspective that shows it as part of human nature and a by-product of the society we live in. Industrialisation, mechanisation have played their roll however so has culture like religion and honour. I do find his assumptions of the future of battle a little naive but his study backs-up his summary.
I loved this book as it was so much in tuned with my own study in this area however I do need to read not only his source material if possible, but continue to read my own pursuits. I will never complete this hobby reading but it is a passion. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view with my studies, I have never been in combat and so this will hopefully always be an armchair study but this book is excellent in helping me move to a little more understanding of the face of battle.
I hope his other books are made into audio format.
I have been a fan of John Keegan for some time; I don't think this is one of his best but it remains very lisnable , and informative. In my view it falls down in that it tends to repeat and repeat. However that said at the discountered price it is worth a listen
A scholarly examination of warfare as told by a British scholar who has never been to war.....Also, the book was written in the 1970's. Thus, the author relies on WWII much too heavily for his examination.
"excellent historian work"
Fantastic recreation of what each of the three battle must have been. John Keegan looks in from as many aspects as possible to give the reader the chance to piece as complete a picture as possible.
Backed by solid research, he zoom in and out of focus by switching from a broad cultural expose of the spirit of the age to the words of the people who actually took part in the events, making this one of the most vivid and interesting work of history I have come across.
Being French myself I couldn't help but notice a recurring theme, two of the three battles being famous french defeat, and the french crowd stands out somehow as a rather aloof bunch in both circumstances... I suppose those battle being so famous, they may be the ones for which most records were kept, and they may also have been the most studied and taught, John Keegan being an instructor at Sandhurst.
"Why isn't all history written like this?"
Keegan successfully attempts to place the reader in amongst the action at Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme with vividly immersive results. This not only makes for a thoroughly fresh and gripping perspective on familiar events but also also offers fascinating insights into how histories are written. Highly recommended; especially to anyone with an interest in how history makes it onto the page.
Insightful, thought-provoking, ahead of it's time, singular, inspiring, truthful.
You couldn't do it.
I have read this book several times and will continue to do so.
"Takes a while to get going!"
I bought this as its known as a classic.
It takes a long time to get going!..- John Keegan starts by explaining he is not a soldier has no military experience etc.. All fair and right to do.. He then explains why he can write the book..- again all fair and right to do.
Then he takes the next two hours justifying those two points and setting out his methodology. - In a painstakingly accurate and almost metronomic way. Its a tedious and unnecessary process he puts the audible book reader through. Were it a real book I could have skipped through the pages after Id read the first 30 ish and understood his procedures and reasoning.- Cannot do it on Audible!
Once you get to the 'meat' of the book its superb. His thinking and interpretation is superb- he rids the history of its hyperbole and examines it almost forensically. Its a soldiers view and a 'warts and all' one.
I just wish he had saved this detail and approach for the battles he examines and not for his methodology.
Its a superb 'listen' And I recommend getting it.. But find a way to listen to the first 30 mins.. the nskip the next 1 & 1/2 hours until he starts on Agincourt.. The brilliance starts there!
"Content good vocabulary too daunting."
While the author has produced a very good account of battles, I feel he is also attempting to test our vocabularies.
Far too much use is made of obscure language, and I became fed up of looking up my dictionary.
And I do not believe myself to be particularly thick.
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