The Face of Battle

People always say that history books place too much emphasis on such and such a battle on such and such a date when they ought to be looking at the underlying conditions that lead to war and the impact war has, not just on soldiers, but on ordinary people.

I agree with this, to a point, but one also has to recognize that some battles reshape societies by determining who is going to run them and so they have an enormous impact that is felt for centuries. If Cortes had lost the battle of Mexico City… If the Incan emperor Atahualpa had crushed Pizzarro, as he easily could have… If Charles the Hammer… you get the idea.

Other battles, though, like the Battle of Fredericksburg, were utterly meaningless. A few hundred yards were taken and retaken, so the lines ended up where they were first thing in the morning, but 70,000 soldiers were dead. In the two world wars, of course, you had decisive and indecisive battles that were even more costly in human terms.

So the study of battles is kind of interesting if you’re interested. A lot of people are. Look at all the time and trouble people put into reenactments.

When I read an account of a battle, though, when I get to the part where so and so deploys his light infantry upon an oblique with his left hinging upon a wooded ridge near the village of such and such, my eyes begin to glaze over and I start skimming. I’m interested in tactics and strategy, but I’m much more interested in what the battle was like for the grunts in the front line.

That’s why I really like The Face of Battle by John Keegan. I think Keegan is brilliant and so does my friend Ed. And, incidentally, so do the New York Review of Books and the Times of London. He takes three battles Agincourt (England v. France, October 25, 1415), Waterloo (France v. England, Prussia, Russia, Austria et al., June 18, 1815) and The Battle of the Somme (Germany v. England, France et al., July 1, 1916) — notice how Al changes sides in these things? — and reconstructs what the battle was like for the blighters in the trenches.

This is a really really good book. At one point he explains why you can’t really get a full account of a battle from any one person, even the generals. No one sees the whole thing. He gives the example of a British regiment at Waterloo known as the Inniskillings:

“They did not go into bivouac until about eleven o’clock on the morning of the battle. There, about three quarters of a mile from the front, they lay down to sleep. Many were still sleeping when at about three o’clock, after the battle had been in progress for four hours, they were ordered forward to La Haye Saint crossroads.

“Near that spot they formed columns of companies and stood until the general advance was ordered four hours later. During that four hours, over 450 of the regiment’s 750 officers and men were killed or wounded by the fire of cannon several hundred yards away or by the musketry of French skirmishers in concealed positions.

“So heavy were the casualties among the officers (only one out of eighteen went untouched) that very little about those four hours was ever written down. But it seems unlikely that any Iniskilling had eyes or thoughts for much but the horror that was engulfing him and his comrades.”

They went and stood behind the front lines for four hours and more than half of them were killed or maimed. You see why people who have actually seen war don’t talk much about bravery or glory, and don’t think much of people who do. You’re standing there and the guy beside you gets blown to bits. Does that make you brave? Does that make him brave?

The only kind of person who could see glory in war would be a person who had never seen war up close, a person insecure about his manhood, a person ashamed of being a deserter (or in the case of the vice president, a shirker) who aimed to improve his own personal political position and make himself look like a man through the suffering of thousands, and eventually hundreds of thousands of others.

This would be the kind of person who could say, “Well thousands of children will die in the arms of their parents, and thousands of parents will die in the arms of their children, but Karl and Dick say this war will make me look like a big shot!” You know the type. You see his loathsome visage every day.

Anyway, Keegan works very hard, using a wide variety of historical sources, and considerable amounts of deduction and insight, to help the reader learn what a battle was like for the people involved from the fifteenth century to the twentieth. Another great read for a quarter.