John Keegan, A Scholarly Obituary

August 6, 2012, 4:49 pm

3656Sir John Keegan has died, aged 78. With his book, The Face of Battle, Keegan was the pioneer of a new form of military history, somewhat uncreatively called the “New Military History.” This looked at the ground level of war, focusing on the experience of soldiers in three battles, Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. It contrasted explicitly with the more traditional form of military history, which looked at the leaders and generals and institutions fighting the wars. Tommy Atkins replaced Arthur Wellesley.

This is not to say that there hadn’t been books that looked at the experience of the ordinary combatant before, but Keegan did it as a self-conscious distinction from the technical and (often) emotionless accounts of military history, which took all human feeling out:

One school of historians…[Keegan noted], the compilers of the British Official History of the First World War, have achieved the remarkable feat of writing an exhaustive account of one of the world’s greatest tragedies without the display of any emotion at all.

Keegan aimed to put the experience of battle at the centerpiece of his military history, and he did so. Choosing Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme was cunning, as it gave him three battles of which British readers of his book could be expected to have some knowledge (Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and D-Day would be rough American equivalents), and it gave him three critically mythical battles in British history (e.g., the St. Crispin’s Day speech, the “nearest run thing,” and the First Day of the Somme).

Keegan succeeded, and The Face of Battle was seen as ground-breaking. The book was published as military history (as an academic sub-discipline) was being born. Military history had been written for time immemorial, of course, but military historians (trained in a program focused on military history) really dated in a sustained way only from the 1950s and 60s. Keegan and the “New Military History” gave them, in some sense, an organizing design for their discipline (another being the “Military Revolution” thesis of Michael Roberts). Keegan’s analysis, moreover, connected this new generation of military historians with the then dominant historical focus on social and cultural history, and thus usefully linked it to the viewpoint of the academy (useful discussion here, though subscription required, sorry!). The integration may well have helped the number of military historians in American institutions slowly increase in the years since Keegan’s work.

Like many pioneering scholars, Keegan’s later work was not seen as equally earth-shattering. He tried to continue in the same thematic vein in his next books, but they were less successful. After that, he turned to a mix of thematic works and more chronological, such as his works on the First and Second World Wars. He could write flowing prose like few historians, and whatever the subject, readers could count on a smooth and compelling tale. His sense of the historiography–again, as with a fair number of historians–tended to remain at what it had been when he had done his early studies, and so many of his later works hearkened back to a previous generation of scholarship. This was most notable in his book The First World War, which remained firmly in the Western Front-centric, “lions led by donkeys” school that dominated the 1960s and ignored the wave of World War I historiography that was broadening out to other theaters and taking a much more sophisticated look at the western front itself, even Keegan’s own battle of the Somme.

Still, most any historian, I think, would take Keegan’s career as a scholar, one in which he defined one of the critical approaches of a new sub-discipline, and one whose work remains a crucial part of the training of any military historian. He wrote one of the books of military history.

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