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The Face of Battle

Narrated by: Simon Vance
Length: 11 hrs and 45 mins
Categories: History, Military
4.1 out of 5 stars (9 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

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.

Critic Reviews

“The most brilliant evocation of military experience in our time.” (C. P. Snow, British novelist and scientist)

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Conflicting between entertaining & information.

A dry reading or perhaps writing style , yet bursting with quotable information ,fascinating. I feel like I just sat through a long lecture at uni.

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Obtuse

Just smacked a bit of pretension and I'm not left very clear what his point was.

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  • D. Martin
  • 20-04-2013

Amazing! But probably better in print.

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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  • Randy
  • 12-07-2012

The way the British look at war

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.

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  • Ryan
  • 08-06-2013

Worthwhile for history buffs

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.

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  • peter
  • 08-09-2020

Yawn

This reads like a thesis for a doctorate which I guess it might be since the author has been a lecturer at Sandhurst - but maybe not. The first 3 hours seem to be the author explaining in pretty tortuous prose how he has never personally experienced a battle, and then explaining how he has never personally experienced a battle, and then in case you didn't get that amid the overwrought verbiage explaining how this book about battles is being written by an author who has never experienced a battle himself. At that point I fell out of the headphones and have yet to climb back into them. The reviews seemed to promise something interesting so I'll probably try again since this is a free listen and not something I should return, but in the interests of giving an honest report I am so far discouraged enough to wonder about all the rave reviews...

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  • Charlie Hovenas
  • 05-09-2017

Anything written by Keegan, anything read by Vance

Exquisite and rich, great in scope and in detail. I found myself rewinding often, either to hear Vance express the language or to marvel at Keegans writing.

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  • Obsydian
  • 29-08-2020

Required reading for military history

Required reading for military history breathtaking scope across time and levels of description. from weapons soldiers units armies and the mind and face of what it is fight, live, die in war

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  • Jeff Lacy
  • 24-07-2020

Exceedingly instructive

Keegan brings together a wealth of information to provide exceedingly instructive commentary on battles. The Audible is a singular resource. Simon Vance, as usual, does a great job, his sophisticated voice, his talent in narrating makes him one of the best.

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  • Stef
  • 06-04-2019

Gritty and broad viewed

Keegan manages to explain the grand strategy of why a battle is important, what happened in said battle, and (most importantly) focuses on the experience of the individual soldiers. Details like "the men suffered from diarrhoea but where in formation, so not allowed to move, had to relieve themselves where they stood"; this puts things into perspective.

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  • Dain Cason
  • 25-12-2014

good read for those with a military mindset.

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.

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  • Trevor
  • 24-09-2012

Keegan = THE expect on war. Vance = top narration

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.

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