The Face of Battle

I’ve just finished reading John Keegan’s 1974 book, The Face of Battle, a stunning study of warfare and its human cost.

As a writer of what are, for the most part, fairly violent stories, I sometimes find myself becoming a little bit blaise about the repercussions of violence (something in which I am certain I am not alone, since heroic fantasy/ sword and sorcery is by its very nature a violence oriented medium) so a book like The Face of Battle is useful in reminding me about its realities.

Taking three famous battles as case studies – Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme – Keegan delves deeply into those aspects of warfare which other historians all too often gloss over, or in some cases ignore entirely beyond a simple statement of who won and who lost.

With Agincourt – probably the battle of most interest to fantasy writers – Keegan does not flinch from the more visceral aspects of medieval combat: the damage inflicted by sword strokes, arrows and assorted blunt force weapons,  the often agonizing fate of the wounded and, perhaps more importantly, the attitude of the combatants to battle itself. Taken together with Poul Anderson’s witty and intelligent essay  ‘On Thud and Blunder’ (surely one of the finest pieces ever written on the subject of fantasy fiction) it is almost essential reading for anyone interested in creating a gritty, down n dirty fantasy (and for that matter, even those writers who might be tempted to gloss over the more violent aspects of medieval combat).

This is not to say that the chapters on Waterloo and the Somme would not be of use in creating a ‘realistic’ fantasy, more that Agincourt hits the nail directly on the head in sword and sorcery terms.

Such considerations to one side, however, The Face of Battle is highly recommended for anyone interested in military history – a brilliant book that serves as a reminder that battle is never glorious despite what historians may sometimes claim.

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