This 1976 military history book seeks to answer what can we know not just of battles themselves, but in the experience of fighting and participating in battles. To do this, John Keegan primarily looks at three historical battles that the English (and then the British) military engaged in: Agincourt (the Saint Crispins Day battle we know from Henry V in the Hundred Years War) in 1415, the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon’s famous defeat, and the battle of the Somme during WWI.
He begins by addressing the question of “What is a battle?” and does not come to a wholly concrete answer to this. In part this has to do with the vast difference among the three battles in this book, but battles in general. If you took Agincourt, you would see the battle segmented into several different events together in place, but over all that battle took place over the course of a matter of hours. But even this battle, contained within a small geographic location, a small amount of time, and with several historical observers there, the concept of the whole of the battle itself is not fully coherent. Keegan details the various specific engagements within the battle (longbows, charges, etc) but he also looks at the specific kinds of engagements among individual participants and kinds of participants. What was this battle to an archer, to a pikeman, to a knight? Keegan is interested in the experience of battle then.
To further answer this question, he begins to think about the different kinds of evidence we have for this. Do we trust the accounts of the observers, who didn’t see the whole battle? Do we trust the military commanders whose own experiences are influenced by their own subjectivity?
In both Waterloo and the Somme, the complexities of time, space, and technology continue to complicate our abilities to tell these stories. But that’s still what Keegan is doing here is trying to do just this, just with the full honesty of these complications.