Two Articles on Military Historian John Keegan
There was an obituary in the Telegraph about a man whom I’ve never read, John Keegan, a military historian—but what an interesting life he seems to have had, despite his health difficulties. I’m also posting, beneath this excerpt, another article from PJ Media that features a more personal anecdote about Keegan. The anecdote serves, I think, as a reminder that talent isn’t the only thing that makes someone memorable.
The hip grew worse again, and he found himself taken back to hospital, encased in a plaster corset. This time he was not among children, but cheerful cockney veterans in a men’s ward of St Thomas’s, near Westminster Bridge. The Anglican chaplain taught him Greek; a polio victim coached him in French; and, thanks to a well-stocked library, Johnnie, as he was known there, was able to read much history and almost the entire works of Thomas Hardy.
On emerging from hospital two years later, his hip immobilised with a bone graft, Keegan won a place to read History at Oxford. But on going up to Balliol he developed TB again, and was away for another year while being treated with new drugs. He then returned, walking with a stick, to find himself among a highly talented intake, which included the future Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham, Northern Ireland Secretaries Patrick Mayhew and Peter Brooke, historian Keith Thomas, the Benedictine monk Daniel Rees, and the Prince of Wales’s Australian schoolmaster Michael Collins Persse.
Keegan was tutored in the Middle Ages by Richard Southern and in the 17th century by the Marxist Christopher Hill. Although there was no chance of a military career, he observed the confidence of those who had done National Service and decided to take “Military History and the Theory of War” as a special subject.
After a long tour of the battlefields of the American Civil War with his future brother-in-law Maurice Keen, the medieval historian, he returned home to find work writing political reports for the American embassy in London for two years, then obtained a post as a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. It was Keegan’s first proper job.
The academy had some similarities with an Oxford college, including beautiful grounds and buildings as well as good company. But while Oxford encouraged debate, Keegan found himself, as a civilian, lecturing on Military History to motivate young men who were part of a chain of command, trained to accept orders.
The rebellious streak that lurked within him meant that he did not always find this easy; nevertheless, he discovered how liberal and open-minded the Army could be (as long as its core values were not undermined). It tolerated the Keegan family donkey, Emilia, which kept breaking into the student officers’ quiet room. But while writing half a dozen 40,000-word potboilers for “Ballantyne’s Illustrated History of the Violent Century”, he was constantly aware that neither he nor his charges had any personal experience of war.
As a result, his first major book, The Face of Battle (1976), asked: what is it like to be in a battle? Instead of adopting a commander’s perspective, seeing every conflict as an impersonal flow of causation, currents and tendencies in the way favoured by contemporary historians, Keegan concentrated on the experience of the common soldier.
After elegantly discussing why history is usually written by victors and the limitations of survivors’ accounts, he examined three battles: Agincourt in 1415, Waterloo in 1815 and the Somme in 1916. Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including priests’ eyewitness accounts of the first, a post-conflict questionnaire sent out by an officer after the second, and the flood of letters, diaries, poetry and official reports written during the last, he described what in the past had all too often been skated over: the deep fears, the lust for killing, the willingness to risk one’s life for a comrade — characteristics common to the soldiers of all three battles. He evoked the sights, sounds and smells of war, vividly bringing home the experience for both veterans and civilian readers.
The book was an immediate success, and has never been out of print. It marked out Keegan as the most sparkling writer among the talented lecturers of the Sandhurst war studies department. This led to some jealousy, but he was able to use the vital addition to his income to educate the two sons and two daughters born to him and his wife Susanne Everett, later the biographer of Alma Mahler and Oscar Kokoschka.
His next venture, an attempt to produce a military version of the annual Jane’s Fighting Ships, called World Armies (1978), lasted for only two editions. But Six Armies in Normandy (1982) opened with a moving prologue which was his finest prose passage, and was to be much anthologised. This outlined his assured, child like perceptions of a rural society in which the horse was still the main engine of farm work and Britain enjoyed the assured support of a vast empire before being severely buffeted by the onrush of uncomfortable reality in the 1950s and after. In it he recounted the story of the invasion of Europe from D-Day to the liberation of Paris to show how selected experiences of the Americans, Canadians, British, Germans, Poles and French reflected both the diverse natures of their societies and the particular factors that characterise all armies amid the chance of war.
More on Keegan over at PJ Media, from which the below is excerpted:
A far better man — in both the ethical and literary sense — died this last week, Sir. John Keegan. The Face of Battle is the most beautifully written and imaginative military history of the last 50 years. For a period in the 1980s and 1990s, about every two years a new military history followed from Keegan — Six Armies in Normandy, The Price of Admiralty, The Mask of Command, A History of War, etc., as well as general histories of World War I and World War II, and dozens of other titles too numerous for instant recall.
It is true that some of these books were written quickly, but they were written with engaging prose, were full of ideas, and were usually right in their main assessments. Keegan was a British public figure in the best sense of the word, writing newspaper columns, editing volumes, offering pocket biographies, at service to a larger society he loved. As a classics graduate student, who preferred sneaking around military history to the required fare of the manuscript tradition of Aeschylus’s Suppliants, non-literary Hellenistic Papyri, and moods and tenses in Xenophon’s Hellenica, I came across Keegan’s name in the late 1970s in a number of his original, now-obscure academic studies of the Waffen SS and German generals on the Russian front — before the breakthrough of The Face of Battle.
He was a master of the personal voice, but in such a way that was never chatty or self-indulgent. It never seemed to bother him that his unapologetic pro-Americanism, support for the idea of the Vietnam and Iraqi wars, and general British conservatism might imperil his literary career — perhaps because he judged rightly that his historical acumen, innate humanity, fairness toward historical figures, and above-the-fray temperament made him exempt from ideological vendettas. Keegan’s success, fame, and productivity at times earned scorn from academic historians who could spot occasional errors of fact, but usually their nitpicking was not so much over matters of substance, and so their criticism often, in boomerang style, becomes self-reflective.
Here I confess a bias toward Keegan, because I knew him somewhat and owed him much. To know him was to like him. In 1983 a small Italian academic press published my doctoral thesis Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (in elegant but cumbersome folios with the pages uncut) — to zero readership. By that time I had finished graduate school and abandoned a stillborn academic career. I liked farming full-time and had no plans to reenter academia or write again. But when the publisher wrote from Pisa and said I could send 10 free copies to journals, I instead sort of randomly picked the names of ten well-known military historians.
None ever wrote back — except one John Keegan, at the pinnacle of his post-Face of Battle success. A postcard in elegant ink arrived to the farm, with something like “Dear Dr. Hanson. Accept my gratitude for the publisher’s copy of your engaging thesis. Are there plans for more of the same?”
In those dark days (raisins had just crashed from $1400 to $400 a ton, and we were trying to figure out how to repay a $150,000 crop loan shortfall accruing at 15% interest), that brief note seemed to make all the difference in the world. At night after tractor driving, I suddenly started to write what would become The Western Way of War, coming in about 6 p.m. from hours on the tractor and littering the floor with Greek texts. In my newfound confidence (remember, authors, what a single act of kindness can do for others), I began applying for jobs at local JCs and California State University, Fresno.
The next year I was hired at nearby Fresno State as a part-time Latin teacher (one class, $375 a month), which was a godsend, after peaches and plums hit $4 a lug and our income dipped to about 30% of what it had been in the early inflation-roaring late seventies and early 1980s.
Those were busy years. I would get up in the morning to do farm chores and help with the kids. Then I would drive 30 miles to CSUF, teach, rush home, spray, irrigate, or fix things, and run inside to work on the book until 1 a.m., drinking a six-pack of Pepsi to stay awake. By 1985, I was a full-time lecturer (with a soon-to-be family of five now comfortably living on $22,000 a year) and the book then-titled The Experience of Battle in Classical Greece was finished.
Then what? I wrote to a few publishers, but a farmer who taught as a temporary lecturer at Fresno State and who had one Italian monograph published was not in high demand by academic presses. So I wrote the following note to John Keegan: “Dear Mr. Keegan, You kindly once wrote me a note and asked what was next. I did write a second book. Would you ever be interested in reading it?”
Three weeks later, the following postcard in the same fountain-pen script arrived: “Send it to….. Regards, JK.”
I did. Six months later, another postcard came: “I like it. Would you like me to write the forward? If so resend the ms. to E. Sifton at Alfred Knopf, my editor. Regards, JK.”
I did. Three months later, Ms. Sifton wrote and agreed to publish it for an advance of $5,000, with a forward from John Keegan. The book did very well and everything after it was not so difficult.
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