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"The Face of Battle, Waterloo and the playing fields of Eaton" Topic

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Duc de Brouilly10 Jan 2021 2:51 a.m. PST

This of course is a reference to John Keegan's book, The Face of Battle and, in particular, the section on Waterloo.

Reading it for the first time in many years caused me to have a couple of ‘double-takes', which surprised me, as I believe the author, indeed this work, to be highly regarded. It wasn't because of the reference to the "armoured cavalry" of the Imperial Guard or to the frequent suggestions of the unreliable/cowardly nature of the Belgian and Brunswicker units (unfair?). Rather,

Firstly, the premise that D'Erlon's assault was repulsed by the British infantry, only "accelerated" by the cavalry. Now I've always thought that D'Erlon's attack was on the point of making a breakthrough, that there were no infantry reserves to hand and that it was the perfectly timed cavalry charge that drove back the assault and saved the day.

Secondly, the conclusion that the Duke of Wellington's famous phrase was true: the Battle of Waterloo really was won on the playing fields of Eton. By which I think John Keegan means, it was the British officer corps and their code of honour, which allowed them to prevail over the French:

"the French had not been beaten by wiser genereralship, etc, etc, … but by the coolness and endurance, the pursuit of excellence and of the intangible objectives … which are learnt in game playing – that game playing which was already becoming the most important activity of a gentleman's life."

I won't say that this conclusion sounds risible but will content myself with pointing out that Keegan's conclusions are entirely based on contemporary British accounts; not a single one from the French. Surely this conclusion is based, at the very least, on very incomplete evidence. Sibourne (mentioned in the beginning of the section) had better instincts: he sought to base his conclusions on Prussian and French accounts as well. Not to mention the recent excellent works by Andrew Field.

After many years on my bookshelves, decades even, I fear this volume is destined for the refuse (or re-cycling) pile, which is a shame because some of the analysis of the nature of Napoleonic warfare is interesting and insightful. Perhaps others can persuade me that I've got it wrong?

(Apologies for the typo in the title).

Personal logo Artilleryman Supporting Member of TMP10 Jan 2021 3:16 a.m. PST

It was a work of its time. History, unsurprisingly, moves on. As you will know, there has been a lot more work and publication based upon 'foreign accounts' which have balanced the Anglo-centric view of the 'Great Battle' which has been prevalent in the United Kingdom for so long. Bylandt's men are a case in point. They actually acuitted themselves quite well at Quatre Bras and were not the 'no-hopers' that popular history (and the film) described them as at Waterloo itself.

Keegan's work is still a strong publication, but with more modern study as a balance, it has to be read selectively.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP10 Jan 2021 4:47 a.m. PST

As a person of that time, Artilleryman, I disagree. I was in grad school as a military historian when Face of Battle came out, and I think a lot of us--the military historians in training--were less impressed than our professors and classmates with other interests. There were other, better accounts of all three battles already out there, and Keegan didn't spend a lot of time giving them the credit which was their due. (Compare The First Day on the Somme with his "Somme" section, for instance. But there are better pre-1976 books on Agincourt and Waterloo as well.)

Keegan wanted to do everything--different periods, different continents--which meant his accounts always lacked depth. He'd find The Source and miss those who disagreed--or he'd find something true for the particular circumstances of one battle and generalize to the entire period. He was a really good popular military historian, but never an authoritative historian. Can you name any battle or war for which the Keegan book is THE book? Probably Six Armies in Normandy came closest--and it wasn't all that close.

But Duc, if you start purging your shelves of books which are insightful in places and wrong in others, you'll be able to tuck your library under your arm. Get better accounts of Waterloo by all means, but don't neglect what's true and original in Keegan. Remember, he wasn't writing an account of Waterloo, and it's not altogether fair to judge him by that standard. Keegan was very clear that he was talking about what it was like to be in battle in the medieval horse and musket and modern periods--"the experience of battle" not Napoleon's generalship, or tactical value of units on a ten-point scale. Anything we're truly interested in, we should have in multiple books, and view from different aspects.

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP10 Jan 2021 5:27 a.m. PST

When I first read the book in the mid-1980s, I was not impressed at all with the Waterloo chapter, and less by the source material consulted as it was too one-sided.

His book on the American Civil War was even less impressive.

advocate10 Jan 2021 5:27 a.m. PST

What Robert said.

mildbill10 Jan 2021 5:31 a.m. PST

Keegans' point was to examine what the battle was like to those who were there and what they felt and knew at the time. This point of view is common in history now, but was pretty unheard of when Keegan wrote the book. Sure, there were memoirs (starting with mass literacy), but not from an historians viewpoint. Keegans book is very useful from that viewpoint. Another point that Robert alludes to is to read multiple accounts and since every author has a bias, try to figure that bias out. Then you can come up with your own bias :)

Nine pound round10 Jan 2021 6:28 a.m. PST

He can be a perceptive and sometimes an interesting analyst and an entertaining writer, but he is not particularly fastidious with his facts. I remember reading somewhere that he once published a piece on Arnhem and got taken to task so roughly by General Sir John Hackett that he swore off writing about Market-Garden while Hackett was still alive.

But he does sometime bring out things that make his works worth the read, even while you're grouchily toting up the errors (as I admit I am prone to do). His insight about the centrality of geography to the all of the strategic problems of the American Civil War is the one thing that stuck with me. It's that everyone sort of gets, but few people really manage to make the core problem- the enormity of the country and the dispersion of its population- easily comprehensible. I gave the book away years ago, but I still remember the impact of that particular insight.

That and he liked beach parties on the Gulf Coast.

arthur181510 Jan 2021 8:13 a.m. PST

As the quotation about the playing fields of Eton refers to Keegan's examination of the motivations and moral codes of honour that encouraged British officers to do their duty at Waterloo, and thus by implication in other battles of the Great War with France, I doubt that consulting Dutch-Belgian, Prussian or French sources would have been helpful on that particular point.

As an analysis of the behaviour and morale of the British Army at Waterloo &c., I think his book still has great merit.

Marulaz110 Jan 2021 9:43 a.m. PST

I got the book when it came out. I didn't care for it then. I tried the Waterloo portion again many years later but didn't bother to finish and never picked the book up again.

I found that whole line of thought about the playing fields of Eton a bit hard to swallow.


YankeeDoodle In the TMP Dawghouse10 Jan 2021 1:05 p.m. PST

Doesn't matter whether it was "the playing fields of Eton" or not – they won. End of story.

42flanker Supporting Member of TMP In the TMP Dawghouse10 Jan 2021 2:43 p.m. PST

I found the book thought-provoking when I read it, very early in historical studies but my father and brother, both former soldiers by then, hated the book, almost wretching with disgust when I mentioned it. By no means historians either of them, by training or temperament, they said they found him just "too bloody pleased with himself." I never really got to the foot of their visceral reaction, though.

Marulaz110 Jan 2021 2:51 p.m. PST

I was under the impression that Keegan thought it did matter how they won or he wouldnt have included the chapter on Waterloo in his book.

"The Allies won, end of story" would make for pretty dull reading, I would think.


YankeeDoodle In the TMP Dawghouse10 Jan 2021 3:03 p.m. PST

""The Allies won, end of story" would make for pretty dull reading, I would think."
That's the drawback with reality – hence the predilection for playing "But Napoleon would have won if…" on this site?

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP10 Jan 2021 10:13 p.m. PST

Keegan--according to his introduction--was looking at the individual soldier's experience rather than the entire battle narrative. He did have some interesting observations. A couple I liked were:

1. Artillery cannonades were harder for infantrymen to bear than any other form of combat because they couldn't respond…and the wounds were horrific.

2. Waterloo was two or three hours of combat by formed troops interspersed between seven to eight hours of skirmishing.

3. Artillery could be effective even when the French lobed cannon balls over the slope on unseen British troops.

Whirlwind11 Jan 2021 1:12 a.m. PST

Waterloo was two or three hours of combat by formed troops interspersed between seven to eight hours of skirmishing.

I don't think any game I have ever played has ever reflected this. I reckon if someone could solve it so that players naturally did this, then they would really have a workable model.

Tentatively, the way I feel about this is that it has to be an almost enforced reaction, because if it isn't, it will always be in the interest of one of the two sides to 'not' do it.

Marulaz111 Jan 2021 5:26 a.m. PST

The recounting of the details of campaigns and battles is the stuff of military history. If we just dismiss every military encounter with the winner won, end of story, there would be a lot of unemployed military historians wouldnt there?

I love playing "But Napoleon would have won if". My friends love playing "But the Austrians would have won if". Seems like the nature of the beast to me.


Nine pound round11 Jan 2021 7:57 a.m. PST

The whole point of gaming is to explore the possibilities for alternative outcomes.

YankeeDoodle In the TMP Dawghouse11 Jan 2021 10:36 a.m. PST

Those who don't write that the winner won aren't military historians, they are fantasy fiction writers. "What if" isn't history, it's fantasy – but quite a few on this forum don't realise it.

Nine pound round11 Jan 2021 10:56 a.m. PST

It can also be modeling. War gaming is essentially primitive mathematical modeling. Defense departments routinely keep and run models of various kinds for planning purposes. Investigating multiple scenarios is an integral part of that type of analysis. This is a gaming site; exploring alternate possibilities is inherent in the activity.

YankeeDoodle In the TMP Dawghouse11 Jan 2021 3:57 p.m. PST

We are all currently seeing the limitations of believing in modelling. The entire population of the UK is supposed to have been dead three times over by now.

Nine pound round11 Jan 2021 4:51 p.m. PST

Well, in my experience, people who understand models make models. People who don't understand models make policy.

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