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The Face of Battle

John Keegan

Keegan, John;

The Face of Battle

Viking Adult 1976-11-11 (Hardcover $13.95)

ISBN 9780670304325 /0670304328

topics: |  history | military | postmodern

Considers the "heroic" reconstruction of history, unfolding an impossible
advance, against impossible in lyrical, hagiographic prose (see the beautiful
choice of Napier's account of an 1811 battle below. .  Argues for a
less flowery approach to history.

The narrative of history

General Sir William Napier's account of the Fusilier Brigade at the Battle of
Albuera, May 16 1811, generally regarded as the crucial moment of the battle
(of which Napier was not an eye-witness, having been wounded at Fuentes
d'Onoro a fortnight before. 37

   Such a gallant line, issuing from the midst of the smoke and rapidly
   separating itself from the confused and broken multitude, startled the
   enemy's masses, then augmenting and pressing forward as to assured
   victory; they wavered, hesitated and, vomiting forth a storm of fire,
   hastily endeavoured to enlarge their front, while a fearful discharge of
   grape from alltheir artillery whistled through the British ranks. Myers
   was killed, Cole, the three colonels Ellis, Blakeney and Hawkshawe, fell
   wounded, and the fusilier battalions, struck by the iron tempest, reeled
   and staggered like sinking ships: but suddenly and sternly
   recovering, they closed on their terrible enemies, and then was seen with
   what strength and majesty the British soldier fights.  In vain did Soult
   with voice and gesture animate the Frenchmen; in vain did the hardiest
   veterans, breaking from the crowded columns, sacrifice their lives to gain
   time for the mass to open out on such a fair field; in vain did the mass
   itself bear up, and fiercely striving fire indiscriminately upon friend
   and foes, while the horsemen hovering on the flank threatened to charge
   the advancing line.  Nothing could stop that astonishing infantry. No
   sudden burst of undisciplined valour, no nervous enthusiasm weakened the
   stability of their order, their flashing eyes were bent on the dark
   columns in their front, their measured tread shook the ground, their
   dreadful volleys swept away the head of every formation, their deafening
   shouts overpowerd the dissonant cries that broke from all parts of the
   tumultous crowd, as slowly and with a horrid carnage it was pushed by the
   incessant vigour of the attack to the farthest edge of the height.  There
   the French reserve, mixing with the struggling multitude, endeavoured to
   restore the fight but only augmented the irremediable disorder, and the
   mighty mass, giving way like a loosened cliff, went headlong down the
   steep: the rain flowed in after in streams discoloured with blood, and
   eighteen hundred unwounded men, the remnant of six thousand unconquerable
   British soldiers, stood triumphant on the fatal hill.  From Napier's
   "British Battles and Sieges" 37-38

Now as romantic prose passages go, this is clearly a very remarkable
achievement, rich in imagery, thundersous in rhythm, and immensely powerful
in emoptional effect; it almost vibrates on the page, towards its climax
it threatens indeed to loosen the reader's hold on the book...
descriptive account... has become a
firm favourite with compilers of military anthologies.  But 'descriptive'
begs, of course, an important, not to say vital question.  Just what does it
tell us about the Fusiliers' advance; and is what it tells us credible?  [Was
the episode indeed] as extraordinary as he makes out - by comparison with
everyday human behaviour and the norma of military performance? If so, he as
a veteran was in a position, he owed it to the reader, one may think, to make
that clear.  As it is, he seems to suggest that it is by no means abnormal
("The was seen with what strength and majesty the British soldier fights")
that a leaderless brigade of infantry (brig dead, 3 cols injured) should
overcome, at the cost of over half its number, a very much stronger combined
force of infantry, cavalry and artillery led by one of the foremost soldiers
of the age (Soult). 39

Also: the extreme uniformity of human behavior : the British are all
attacking and with equal intensity ('no sudden burst of undisciplined
valour...') the French are likewise all resisting, no individual turns tail
and rusn, drops down to sham dead or stands thuder-struck at the
indescribable horror of it all.  How exactly do the French go "over the
steep"?  The British soldiers are "gallant line", but the French are "dark
coluimns". Also the British are individual Fusiliers; the French are merely
part of a
"crowded columns" or a "tumultous crowd" or a "struggling multitude" a
"mighty mass", or, a "loosened cliff".

Napier: "It is the business of the historian... to bring the exploits of the
her into broad daylight... the multitude must be told where to stop and
wonder and to make them do so, the h8istorian must have recourse to all the
power of words" 41