War Classics: ‘The Face of Battle’

Jonathan Eaton recalls one of the great works of military history.

In 1947, the journalist turned military historian S L A Marshall published Men Against Fire, a study of the combat experiences of US troops during the Second World War. Drawing on his interviews with combatants, Marshall made a number of extraordinary claims. While emphasising the importance of social cohesion in encouraging soldiers to fight, he stated that no more than 25% of soldiers actually fired their weapons in combat, even when under direct attack.

Marshall’s claims received widespread attention and had a significant influence on the training of contemporary military forces, particularly in nurturing aggression in soldiers for battle. Marshall continued to receive recognition and renown from the US military for his work, eventually retiring with the rank of Brigadier General. His research on behalf of the army continued for decades, and included the American experience of conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.

Nevertheless, Marshall’s conclusions are deeply controversial and have been contested in more recent studies. While his conclusions have been frequently restated as fact, his findings have proven difficult to replicate, and his contemporary research notes indicate that exploration of ratios of fire was extremely limited in his veteran interviews, suggesting that his conclusions were significantly exaggerated.

Yet, despite the problematic nature of his findings, Marshall’s intensive focus on the experiences of soldiers in battle stimulated thinking across the field of military history, which had perhaps in the past been overly focused on the intricacies of command, grand strategy, and the manoeuvring of forces over large theatres of war.

In the second half of the 20th century, the study of military history began to be influenced by what has been described as ‘the cultural turn’, namely a greater emphasis in research and teaching on the interface between armies and society, including the impact of warfare beyond the battlefield, which was mirrored across humanities subjects in general. The Vietnam War and associated public distaste for military intervention also provided a challenge as to how the study of warfare was conducted and presented.

Sir John Desmond Patrick Keegan

Born: 15 May 1934
Died: 2 August 2012
Nationality: British

John Keegan was born, five years before the outbreak of the Second World War, to an Irish Catholic family in London. He struggled with tuberculosis as a young man, an illness that hampered his studies at school in Wimbledon and later at Balliol College, Oxford. Keegan served as a lecturer in military history at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst for many years, later working for The Daily Telegraph as a defence correspondent. He was appointed an OBE in 1991 and was knighted in 2000. Although he wrote extensively on warfare, publishing more than 20 books on the subject, Keegan witnessed conflict up close only once: in Lebanon in 1984, an experience that he described as ‘physically disgusting and very frightening’.

Combatants’ perspective

Within this context of controversy, challenge, and change, a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst published a book in 1976 which would transform the field and become arguably one of the most important works of military history of the century. John Keegan’s The Face of Battle sought to resituate the study of warfare on the battlefield itself and, in particular, to do so from the perspectives of actual combatants.

Keegan’s approach was driven by his experiences teaching cadets at Sandhurst, through recognising that they (and indeed Keegan himself) had no personal experience of the specific activity for which they were being intensively trained – namely the pressures of combat. Moreover, Keegan critiqued a prevailing trend in military literature to ignore the human elements of battle and focus instead on the impersonal movements of units across a landscape and the impact of a relatively few individuals in command positions.

For Keegan, the question of why soldiers chose to fight, kill, and die under horrific circumstances took precedence over abstract approaches to understanding warfare that ignored the strengths and weaknesses of the human character.

Alongside Marshall’s Men Against Fire, Keegan’s thinking was also influenced by Marshall’s intellectual predecessor Ardant du Picq. While serving as an officer in the 19th-century French army, Du Picq developed an intense interest in the role of psychology in battle, and its impact on morale and the willingness of soldiers to fight, which he sought to understand by canvassing the thoughts and experiences of his fellow officers.

Although du Picq died from wounds received in combat with Prussian troops in 1870, his work remained influential throughout French military thinking. In The Face of Battle, Keegan sought to deepen understanding of the importance of psychological and other human factors in the outcomes of combat by exploring three crucial battles in British history through the lens of the experiences of individual combatants.

Keegan selected Agincourt (1415), Waterloo (1815), and the Somme (1916) as his case studies. This selection was driven by two key factors: the availability of evidence for these specific battles and the range of different types of combat that they represented. For each battle, Keegan briefly established their context both geographically and within the setting of a larger military campaign. He then focused intensively on the perspectives of combatants, particularly at key points of engagement between different types of forces, predominantly infantry and cavalry.

While exploring the psychological factors that contributed to the willingness of soldiers to fight, Keegan also analysed the physical factors that contributed to the dynamics of combat. For example, he drew on an understanding of the behaviour of horses in the face of physical obstacles to assess the impact of French cavalry charges on English archers at Agincourt.

The Battle of Agincourt, 25 October 1415. John Keegan chose the battle – at which the English under Henry V unexpectedly beat the French – as one of his case studies for understanding human factors in combat. Image: Wikimedia Commons

His treatment of each battle ends with the fates of the wounded and the immediate impact of the aftermath on survivors. This includes, for example, how the pitiable sight of wounded horses aroused the sympathies of British infantrymen after Waterloo. While his treatments of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme may only be relatively brief compared to individual studies of these battles, his thinking offered new and compelling insights.


The Face of Battle is not without its detractors. Inevitably, Keegan’s case-study approach ensured that his treatment of each battle was narrowly focused on the specific elements he sought to emphasise – namely those factors that had an impact on the experiences of combatants and their willingness to fight. In doing so, Keegan did not take full account of the other factors that may affect the outcomes of combat, such as the importance and complexities of logistics and support functions.

A focus on experiences at the point at which combatants clash obscures the wider experiences of battle, and the contributions of those away from the front line. It is now widely recognised that an over-reliance on the recollections of individual veterans can prove problematic. The factual accuracy of recollections can vary, not necessarily through deliberate falsehood but rather the vagaries of time and human memory.

Keegan later went on to explore the importance of effective military command in his book The Mask of Command, which in many ways served as a companion to The Face of Battle in providing a more rounded picture of the complexities of warfare – as the complementary titles suggest.

Over the almost 50 years since it was published, The Face of Battle has remained influential in shaping approaches to battle narratives and the experiences of soldiers in combat. It has directly influenced more recent studies ranging from hoplite warfare in Ancient Greece to the dynamics of contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The importance of the approach advocated by Keegan has been underpinned by the wealth of testimony from veterans of 20th-and 21st-century conflicts. In 2021, Keegan’s work was supplemented by The Other Face of Battle: America’s Forgotten Wars and the Experience of Combat by Wayne Lee, Anthony Carlson, David Preston, and David Silbey. Drawing on three battles involving American troops from 1755 to 2010, this new text utilises Keegan’s framework to explore the experiences of combatants in asymmetrical warfare. In doing so, it demonstrates the sustained impact of Keegan’s thinking in helping us understand war across a diverse range of contexts in the modern world.

While communicating a cogent intellectual argument for the centrality of the individual experience at the cutting edge of war, Keegan’s writing remains accessible and engaging. In reading The Face of Battle for the first time, students of military history will recognise the intellectual roots of many recent studies of warfare, particularly those with a focus on the experiences of individual combatants.

While it was shaped by a period of intellectual change in the decades after the Second World War, its impact and legacy remain timeless. •