Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Keegan, The Face of War

This gives some idea of the style of the book:

[Military histories, we may infer, must in the last resort be about battle.]

That certainly was Clausewitz's view. In an economic analogy, which delighted Engels and has helped the ensure this Prussian (admittedly vaguely Hegelian) general an unobtrusive niche in the Marxist Temple du Génie, he suggests that 'fighting is to war', (the paraphrase is Engels') 'what cash payment is to trade, for however rarely it may be necessary for it actually to occur, everything is directed towards it, and eventually it must take place all the same and must be decisive.' (p 30)

Historians, traditionally and rightly, are expected to ride their feelings on a tighter rein than the man of letters can allow himself. One school of historians at least, the compilers of the British Official History of the First World War, hae achieved the remarkable feat of writing an exhaustive account of one of the world's greatest tragedies without the display of any emotion at all. A brief, and wholly typical, extract will convey the flavour; it describes a minor trench-to-trench attack by infantry, supported by artillery, on August 8th, 1916 at Guillemont, in the second month of 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. Next on the left, the 1/5th Loyal North Lancashire (also 155th Brigade) was late through no fault of its own; starting after the barrage had lifted, it stood no chance of success. Subsequently the 1/7th King's attached, from the position won by its own brigade (the 165th) on the previous day, but could make no headway.

Agreed that this is technical history; that it is intended as a chronological record of military incident to provide, among other things, material for Staff College lectures and authoritative source references for other historians to work from. But is this featureless prose appropriate to the description of what we may divine was something very nasty indeed that happened that morning at Guillemont fifty-eight years ago to those 3,000 Englishmen, in particular to those of the 1/10th Battalion of the King's Regiment? That it was something very nasty is revealed by a footnote: 'The Victoria Cross was awarded to the medical officer of the 1/10th King's, Captanin N.C. Chavasse, for his exceptionally gallant work in rescuing wounded under heavy fire.' For most of know, even if nothing else about the British army, that the Victoria Cross can be won, and then very rarely, only at the risk, often at the cost, of death. If we also know that Chavasse is but one of three men ever to have won the Cross twice, his second being a posthumous award, and that his battalion was a Kitchener unit, composed of enthusiastic but half-trained volunteers; if we guess that 'could make no headway' and 'stood no chance of success' mean that its neighbouring battalions returned precipitately to their trenches or did not leave them, then we can glimpse, in this episode in no-man's-land at Gullemont on August 8th, 1916, a picture in miniaturre of the First World War at, for those compelled to fight it, almost its very worst.

1 comment:

Jenny Davidson said...

I remember reading Keegan's book for a class on WWI my second year of college, it kind of blew my mind...