Thursday, 15 August 2013

Keegan's Waterloo

John Keegan´s Face of Battle was major influence on my thinking about warfare as it was for so many others. I read it in university as part of a military history course. I Can see more flaws in it now, but compared to the 'drum and trumpet history' that had gone before this was a significant step forward.

My well worn copy

At about the same time Geoffrey Parker's The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road was published. Together with several other historians, they formed the start of big changes in the study of military history. A turn from the view from above to the view from below, a turn towards primary sources, towards questions of 'how' and towards a more scientific approach instead of jingoism.

I picked up Keegan again recently for my research on Waterloo, and there's many valuable lessons in The Face of Battle, or at least things I will be looking at:
  • Each participant only sees a fraction of the whole. He sometimes hardly even sees the enemy. Smoke, terrain obstacles and friendly or enemy troops obscure his vision, and combined with the noise and smell of battle distracts him from anything further away. However, the appearance of general officers in the own or enemy lines is frequently noticed.
  • The effect of hunger, thirst, tiredness, rain and sun, corn fields and mud, alcohol and the experience of combat on a soldier's emotions
  • Formations are more open than we tend to assume and even more open than implied in the descriptions by the participants. Movement is also slower. Few cavalry charges are made at the gallop; obstacles and casualties can slow them down to a crawl.
  • The fate of those trying to surrender depends on the circumstances. Early in the battle there is room for capture, but rarely during the crisis. Distance always matters, because combat has a territorial quality, especially in and around buildings.
  • Flight is not just a matter of casualties: the Imperial Guard suffered fewer casualties than many of the regiments opposing them.
  • Also, flight seems to start at the rear of the unit (especially columns), rather than at the front. Even though Keegan can't really prove this (he only has accounts from British observers, not from French survivors) nor explain.
  • Looting was pervasive, and more profitable than soldiering. It could be a threat to the order of the formation, so officers tried to prevent it during battle.
  • The prospect of loot, personal honour, courage, alcohol, physical coercion might have been motivations for individuals to stand instead of run, but Keegan sees two factors as paramount: group solidarity and individual leadership.
  • The formation, especially the square, provided a sense of safety in numbers (false, as Keegan notes). The integrity of the formation was symbolised by the regimental colours and they were attacked and defended with great effort.
  • Officers were primarily motivated by their reputation among their peers.  Honour was highly individual, and less tied to the regiment than in later days. In a sense it was a professional code of conduct and stoic acceptance of risk was the measure of it. Getting wounded in the execution of duty and continuing in the field was the highest form of honour for officers to aspire to. 

I can see now that there are severe limitations to the Siborne files, with their disdain for and ignorance of the other participants in the battle. But in the early 1970s it was the easiest accessible corpus of eyewitness accounts on the battle. We're very privileged to have so many other accounts readily available now from Dutch, French and German participants.

This of course has changed the narrative of the battle as a whole (Keegan falls into the same traps as Wheeler and other people who just looked at British and the odd French accounts), but I think the parts on the nature of battle can stand the test of time much better and that of course was his main object with the book. To get an idea of what it was like.

Keegan's book may not have found all the answers, but it was the first to ask the questions.

This last point is one that I think is very important and actually goes against what Keegan says about the lack of loyalty in the new Dutch-Belgian army. The picture of the professional officer he paints is as valid for other armies as it is for the British. Officers were motivated by professional pride, and therefor served as well and as loyal in foreign armies as in that of their home country. Jomini, Clausewitz and the Prince of Orange are well known cases, but many French émigrees served abroad, Irish and Swiss served with credit in the French army. They took their professional alignment very seriously. In 1813-1814 Dutch officers didn't just walk out of the French army, but waited until released from their duty or formally gave up their commission.

This is proved to a large extent by their conduct in the 100 days campaign, where officers generally served their armies faithfully, as did Dutch, Belgian and German officers in French service. Of course we don't know what would have happened had Napoleon won at Waterloo, but I think the amount of officers changing sides would have been small.

The loyalty of the general officers and rank and file was another matter. For the former, loyalty was not to their duty but to their political masters: monarchs (or parliaments). Their relation to the regime could have significant impact on their carreers, especially if they also had political roles or ambitions. Ney's flip-flopping is a case in point (more about that some other time). Napoleon had many reasons to distrust his marshals.

For the rank and file, conscripts in most cases, there was little expectation of loyalty. National sentiments were not by any means as developed as a century later, and few could be expected to foster warm feelings for the ruling elite. Draft dodging was common, especially when the regime was unpopular or the chances of success were deemed low. And once conscripted, many went absent without leave. But as they were loyal to no one, they could also not be expected to rapidly enter the opposing army of their of free will. I think Napoleon would also be disappointed in the number of soldiers joining his eagles should he have proved triumphant.

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