I hope that everyone reading a blog like this has read the late John Keegan’s Face of Battle. In 1976, Keegan interrupted the quiet field of military history with some rude questions: Why was it that so many “battle pieces,” however detailed and colourful they sounded, did not explain what happened and how? Just where did the idea of the decisive battle come from? How much did we really know about famous battles? Using a few carefully chosen examples, he demonstrated how conventionalized and unrealistic many stories about battles were, even those by “serious historians” writing “technical accounts.” And then he suggested that two things had to be done: historians needed to study the “battle piece” as a genre and consider the tropes and assumptions which shaped it, and they needed to ask what individuals and small groups actually did in battle. He then explained that he did not have the energy, skills, and ambition to write a history of the battle piece as genre. Thus the next three chapters of his book are studies of what happened on three different battlefields in northern France, beginning with a sketch of the strategic situation and the course of the battle then narrowing in to focus on how and why the men on both sides fought. He borrowed some exciting new ideas from psychology and sociology and literary criticism, and added a fifth chapter with an extended comparison between soldiering and mountaineering to make the point that for the last century or so combat had come to demand more and more of soldiers to the point that it was difficult to envision what a clash between two modern armies would look like, even before the first nuclear weapon went off.
Keegan was half successful, which is as much as any of us can hope for. A whole field of military history dedicated to asking how combat worked sprang from the earth at his call. It is now widely accepted that how and why armies fight is at least as interesting as who wins or where they are recruited from. But the response to his call that battle pieces should be studied as literature and not just mined for facts was much quieter. He himself sometimes chose not to ask awkward questions if something in his sources made for a good read: his account of Alexander in The Mask of Command more or less swallows Arrian’s picture of Darius the coward in one bite, without asking whether it could be just as misleading as British stereotypes about martial races and cowardly Italians, or whether Arrian might be using his experience in the Roman army and reading of later tactical handbooks to help fill out his main sources.
If one speaks to historians over coffee or in the breaks at conferences, its not too hard to find ones who say frankly that they don’t know how to use ancient histories and chronicles to get at what actually happened on a battlefield, so they focus on other questions. There is a widespread feeling that many of these stories are shaped at least as much by literary pressures as by anything which people in the battle saw and heard and felt, and that without alternative sources which have been less polished to shape, its hard to separate convention and reality. Some medievalists like Anne Curry are focusing on archives and letters and other primary sources in hopes of escaping the limits of the battle piece. But attempts to nail down just what was conventionalized in different battle pieces, and how people drew on earlier stories as they struggled to make sense of the confusing and horrifying things which happen in combat, are harder to find. One can find a few comments here and there in studies of the Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions or Diodorus Siculus, but I don’t know of any general studies.
The first chapter of The Face of Battle ends with two challenges. Historians, gamers, and re-enactors have more than met the second. But the first awaits the scholarly hero who is willing to step out of the ranks and take it on.
Further Reading: R. Bichler, “Probleme und Grenzen der Rekonstruktion von Ereignissen am Beispiel antiker Schlachtbeschreibungen,” in M. Fitzenreiter (ed.), Das Ereignis. Geschichtsschreibung zwischen Vorfall und Befund (= Internet-Beiträge zur Archäologie und Sudanarchäologie X, 2009) http://www2.hu-berlin.de/nilus/net-publications/ibaes10/publikation/bichler_ibaes10.pdf This post was inspired by conversations with another colleague and written hastily in a break from sewing.