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Posts Tagged ‘John Keegan

The history of ‘warriors for the working-day’

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As a teenager I cut my teeth reading military history. John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1976) came as a revelation. Keegan wrote of three great battles (Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme) at the level of ordinary soldiers – Shakespeare’s ‘warriors for the working-day’ – rather than that of generals and staff officers, as had been the case. 

“I do not intend to write about generals or generalship….I do not intend to say anything of logistics or strategy and very little of tactics in the formal sense.”

More recently the pendulum has swung back, with historians writing very good books that balance the perspective of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ with the operational, strategic and political levels of war. Casting an eye across my book shelves (not my anti-library, I hasten to add), I spotted Adam Zamoyski’s 1812 and Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad, both of which exemplify this approach to military approach.

A few days ago I was dipping into Carl von Clausewitz’s On War and came across an interesting discussion about approaches to the study of military history (chapter 5, Book 2). Clausewitz considered whether military history (and by this he meant the actions of the great generals) should be studied from an omnipotent vantage point (the eye in the sky perspective that the gods enjoy in The Iliad). Or whether it should be studied “as nearly as possible” from the point of view of the general, watching the battle unfold through his eyes – with all the noise, confusion, uncertainty and danger that entailed. 

When you think about it, most military history is written as though we are Olympian gods. Beevor’s Stalingrad, for example, takes you from front line combat to the Russian and German formation headquarters and on to the war councils of Hitler and Stalin. This makes for great comprehensive coverage. But it strikes me that a variation on Clausewitz’s idea (and Keegan’s approach), of following a battle or campaign through the eyes of an individual or a group of men – ‘warriors for the working-day’ – would be something fascinating and different. 

This has been done in fiction, war memoirs, such as Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier, and film (‘Band of Brothers’ springs to mind). But I haven’t come across any military histories like this. Have you?

Cross-posted at Kotare: The Strategist

Written by kotare1718

October 21, 2008 at 9:26 am