John Keegan on the Battle of Agincourt

One of the first books I remembering reading about medieval warfare was The Face of Battle by John Keegan. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this book has been very big influence on the writing of military history.

John Keegan (1934 – 2012) has received much praise for his work as a historian - one obituary called him the “foremost authority of his generation on warfare”. He also had his share of critics, partly for his conservative views and for not being a big fan of Carl von Clausewitz, but overall he is seen as a leading historian on the Second World War.

However, my encounters with Keegan stem mainly from his book The Face of Battle, first published in 1976. The book takes a look at three battles - Agincourt (1415), Waterloo (1815) and the Somme (1916), all of which involved English armies. When this book was written - now more than forty years ago - military history was usually told through the eyes of generals and commanders. What was the strategy and tactics of the armies, why were commands given, which leader deserved praise (or blame) for his actions on the battlefield? Keegan’s book was very different - it took a bottom-up approach to these battles, trying to describe events as the ordinary soldier experienced them.

One of the most memorable sections for me was how he described the French and English armies before the Battle of Agincourt:

The period of waiting - three or four hours long, and so lasting probably from about seven to eleven o’clock - must have been very trying. Two chronicles mention that the soldiers in the front ranks sat down and ate and drank and that there was a good deal of shouting, chaffing and noisy reconciliation of old quarrels among the French. But that was after they had settled, by pushing and shoving, who was to stand in the forward rank; not a real argument, one may surmise, but a process which put the grander and the braver in front of the more humble and timid. There is no mention of the English imitating them, but give their very real predicament, and their much thinner line of battle, they can have felt little need to dispute the place of honour among themselves. It is also improbable that they did much eating and drinking, for the army had been short of food for nine days and the archers are said to have been subsisting on nuts and berries on the last marches. Waiting, certainly for the English, must have been a cold, miserable and squalid business. It had been raining, the ground was recently ploughed, air temperature was probably in the forties or low fifties Fahrenheit and many in the army were suffering from diarrhoea. Since none would presumably have been allowed to leave the ranks while the army was deployed for action, sufferers would have to relieve themselves where they stood. For any afflicted man-at-arms wearing mail leggings laced to his plate armour, even that may not have been possible.

Keegan's work came at a time when historians began to gain interest in telling the stories of ordinary people, and in this case, regular soldiers. Since the 1970s, the field of medieval military history has greatly expanded to cover the experiences of those who took part in warfare, not just those who led armies.

While some of the Keegan's work on the Battle of Agincourt is somewhat dated, his chapter on those events in The Face of Battle remains an excellent read. It has been republished numerous times and remains widely available.

You can read more about the Battle of Agincourt in the latest issue of Medieval Warfare.

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