John Keegan - The Face of Battle
John Keegan - The Face of Battle

Vulgar, stinky, without poetry – John Keegan and the “face” of the Battle of the Somme

“Death is a vulgar and stinky thing without any poetry” – wrote Ignotus in his necrology of Sándor Bródy, but the quote could also be the motto of recollections about the Battle of the Somme. After four and a half months of killing and the death of 1.2 million people, the front got only 11 kilometres closer to Berlin, i.e. more than a hundred soldiers were lost per each meter. Traditional military historiography using neutral and distancing expressions could not depict the reality of the battle that has become the synonym of meaningless bloodshed, until the arrival of John Keegan, renewing military historiography, who presented the true “face” of the Battle of the Somme in his book The face of the battle, published in 1976.

A. J. P. Taylor aptly explained that the way the posterity sees the First World War was formulated at Somme: “brave, helpless soldiers, bungling, incompetent generals, nothing achieved”. The Entente attack at Somme launched on July 1, 1916 did not live up to the expectations at all: it turned out already in the first hours that the attack – launched partly to ease the burden on the hard-pressed Verdun, but instead of a breakthrough, turning to be a “war of resources” – is a self-defeating action: only 5 of the altogether 17 attacking divisions achieved their goal and reached the German trenches, the rest were stopped already in the “nobody’s land” between the enemy trenches. By the end of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 20 thousand out of the 100 thousand attackers were dead, 40 thousand were wounded – the British army had not and has not lost so many people in a single day. The massacre was so brutal that the German were shaken too, since the losses of opposing forces were incomparable: while the German 180th regiment lost 180 people of its three thousand soldiers, 5321 people of the the British 4th division’s 12 thousand people were lost. The German offered a ceasefire already in the afternoon to enable their opponents to transport their wounded.

Sir Douglas Haig, leading the attack at Somme, however, continued to push for a breakthrough even after the “black day” of the British army. After one month of fighting, by July 31, the British and French lost 200 thousand, the German lost 160 thousand people. They realised on November 19 that they could not be heroes there and stopped the offensive at Somme, the warring parties lost a total of 1.2 million people, the British and French some more than the German. The front line moved ahead only slightly more than 11 kilometres, and the German defence line, built in depth, remained intact, even more, the German could establish better machine gun nests than ever in the shell holes from continuous bombing. The British, the “lords of the sea” – who had not had land losses since human memory – were once and for all shaken in their pride and lost their optimism that they are the only winners of creation. Paul Fussell, in his book entitled The Great War and Modern Memory published in 1975 demonstrated that after the Battle of the Somme, words like “glory” and “honour” could not be mentioned without irony in British public.

“Traditional”, “official” or “Chief of Staff” (often avoiding its tasks and rather studying the military forces of “peace times”) military historiography, aestheticizing and rationalizing the fights, did not know what to do with the meaningless massacre at Somme, but from the works of John Keegan (1934–2012), the former teacher of the Royal Military Academy and Sandhurst, we can learn what horrors are hidden in the distancing terms like “opposing fire”, “own fire”, “air strike” or “company-sized attack”. The British historian renewed military historiography with his work entitled The Face of the battle, published in 1976 – analysing the battles of Agincourt in 1415, Waterloo in 1815 and Somme in 1916 – without ever enjoying the bloody stories like authors writing “gun porns” – as called by Keegan, “pornographies of violence” – as opposed to clean historiography.

How did “official” historiography describe the Battle of the Somme? As Keegan cited in his book as a deterrent example from the report of the British Official History of the First World War about the Battle of the Somme:

“Some confusion arose on the left brigade front, where the 166th Brigade (Brigadier-general L. F. Green Wilkinson) was replacing the 164th – a very difficult relief – and although the 1/10th King’s (Liverpool Scottish), keeping close behind the barrage, approached the German wire, it lost very heavily in two desperate but unavailing attempts to close with the enemy. Nearly all the officers were hit, including Lieutenant-Colonel J. R. Davidson, who was wounded.”

Keegan asked the question if this “technical history”, “a chronological record of a military incident” is capable of understanding what happened to the three thousand British soldiers participating in the confrontation, and what they felt meanwhile? Obviously not. Keegan highlighted: “The soldier is vouchsafed no such well-ordered and clear-cut vision. Battle, for him, takes place in a wildly unstable physical and emotional environment; he may spend much of his time in combat as a mildly apprehensive spectator, granted, by some freak of events, a comparatively danger-free grandstand view of others fighting; then he may suddenly be able to see nothing but the clods on which he has flung himself for safety, there to crouch – he cannot anticipate – for minutes or for hours, he may feel in turn boredom, exultation, panic, anger, sorrow, bewilderment, even that sublime emotion we call courage.”

Keegan, raising military historiography from the ground, dissected the canonized rhetoric of traditional battle descriptions and showed the “face of the battle” in a more human-like manner. Contrary to the traditional battle descriptions born from the viewpoint of the “warlord” – their classic created by Julius Caesar in his “objective” notes on the Gall War, talking about himself in third person singular to praise his own genius and brave deeds –, Keegan primarily “exploited the subsequent reminiscences of the battle’s commoners as sources”, and “brought together several different perspectives simultaneously to bring the reality of the battle as an event closer for posterity” – as Gábor Gyáni summarized Keegan’s significance in historiography.

How much more the next extract of remembrance quoted by Keegan tells us about the reality of the Battle of the Somme:

“When we arrived at the German’s wire, I was aghast to see that whatever we had been told, the obstacle was completely intact. The Colonel and I found shelter behind a small mound, but then the Colonel slightly stood to all fours to see more. He was immediately shot with a lonely bullet in the forehead.”

Or when Keegan presented the destruction caused by the bullets with such detail and naturalism as we can see the raspberry falling into the milk in today’s microfilmed yoghurt advertisements:

“Among killer tools […] bullets took the prize both over short and long distances. The slow, non-rotating bullet of the front-loading riffle only drilled itself a ‘clean’ channel into the soft body tissue, but the fast, conical projectile, which quickly rotated around its longitudinal axis, could cause a number of extremely serious injuries inside the body. In the luckiest case, it left a clear channel behind, with a same-sized ‘outlet’ as the ‘inlet’. However, if, for some reason – either as it hit a bone or for some ballistic reason – it ‘nodded’ in the body, the channel expanded to a great extent, and the outlet wound – mistaken to be an inlet by incompetent eyes – looked as if torn by an explosion. If the projectile began the unstable movement because it hit a bone, its effects were increased by breaking bone chips which, becoming secondary bullets, severely damaged the surrounding tissues. Some projectiles had hydraulic effects as well. As they progressed, they pushed out body fluids from around the channel – with a pressure that surrounding tissues could not withstand.”

John Keegan, in his multilevel analysis of the Battle of the Somme, answers the question of what caused the total failure of the Entente attack on July 1. First of all, the location selected was not a favourable choice since the German posts were located higher. Specifying the neighbourhood of the River Somme was justified only by the fact that this was the meeting point of British and French front sections, i.e. it made it possible to launch a joint attack. However, since there had not been any serious clashes in the neighbourhood, only minor British actions, the repelling of which always resulted in a strengthened defence line, the German built almost insurmountable positions: their trenches were often 9 metres deep under the ground, and grenades could not damage such secure shelter. Though the Commander of British forces, Sir Douglas Haig hoped that the – so far unprecedented – artillery preparation – they accumulated nearly 2.5 million grenades nearby and fired the German for five days – would destroy the defence by the time the attackers arrive.

The destructive artillery preparation would have also been necessary since the majority of British forces were made up of inexperienced, poorly trained volunteers organized around a factory, charity organisation or football team, called“Pals battalions”: these soldiers, joining the military for patriotic reasons – or hopelessness due to unemployment – mostly held a gun only shortly before the departure to French. They tried to relieve British soldiers from stress with the rum distributed on the morning of the attack on July 1, but it also resulted in unexpected consequences, since a lot could not eat that morning due to the tension, and the number of abstainers who gave their dose to their companions was significant as well. So may of them drank the double dose of rum on an empty stomach, as a result of which complete sections were reported to be unable to walk by the time the attack was launched. Though walking was not the simplest for sober soldiers either, not to mention attacking: trusting in an overwhelming attack, nearly 27 kilograms of equipment (food, shovels, etc.) were hung on British soldiers so that they can build their own defence positions after the successful attack. This proved to be unnecessary.

Regardless of the five-day artillery preparation, 25% of grenades did not even explode owing to technical deficiencies, and their majority were of smaller calibre than required, therefore they did not only fail to damage the built-up trench system, but they could not demolish barbed barriers either. Thereby the attackers rushed to their death.

Of course, there were still a few who managed to get to the German stands and could even capture them for a few hours, but they remained isolated due to the massacre of their companions and the German barrage. John Keegan recalled the case of the Scots from London:

“By 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Captain Sparks realized that his small team, squeezed by that time by thirteen infantry companies of three different German regiments, came to the edge of destruction. He sent the following message back to the other side of nobody’s land: ‘I have to face the following situation. I have collected all grenades and ammunition of the wounded and dead. We have used them all. I have three alternatives: a, to stay here with my men that are still alive and get us killed,; b, surrender to the enemy; c, to retreat with as many people as possible. I am repelled by the first two options. I suggest choosing the third.’ The captain, with four officers, using abandoned German weapons and ammunition, kept up in the first German trench, while the rest of the people still living could escape to nobody’s land. Their majority – including Spark himself – were hiding there while they could return to the British lines after darkness. There remained 266 London Scots, whose number was 856 at dawn: the rest were dead or wounded.”

So this was the real “face” of the Battle of the Somme: “vulgar, stinky and without any poetry”.



Gyáni Gábor: Elbeszélhető-e egy csata hiteles története? Metatörténeti megfontolások. In: Uő: Relatív történelem. Budapest, 2007. 220–240.

John Keegan: A csata arca. A közkatonák háborúja, 1415–1976. Agincourt, Waterloo és a Somme. Budapest, 2000.


Written by: Csunderlik Péter