Thursday, 26 May 2016

Sir John Keegan (1934-2012)

Sir John Keegan (left)

John Keegan has been described as the twentieth century's pre-eminent military historians with "a rare ability to describe warfare from the standpoint of the frontline soldier" (1)  and as "an original thinker who opened up an entirely new historiographical vista and spawned many imitators" (2).

John Desmond Patrick Keegan was born in Clapham, south London on 15 May 1934, the son of Irish immigrants.  His father had served in the Royal Artillery in the First World War, but by the time of John's birth was a school inspector.  Accordingly, when the Second World War broke out in 1939 the family moved to Somerset where Keegan senior had charge of some 300 evacuee children.  The joint experience of living in the country and during wartime had a big effect on John - particularly the huge build-up of troops in preparation for the Normandy landings (experiences he was to recall in the prologue to his Six Armies in Normandy).  It probably also influenced his strong support of Anglo-American alliances - in 1994 he was the only non-American among the historians invited to brief President Clinton in advance of the 50th Anniversary of D-Day.

John was taught at Taunton College before returning to London to the Jesuit-run Wimbledon College, where his education was interrupted at the age of 13 by a tubercular hip which meant that he spent the winter of 1947 in TB ward (alongside many ex-servicemen) exposed to the open air.  A bone graft left him with a frozen hip, giving him a permanent limp and leaving him unfit for National Service.  He attended Balliol College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1957.  He then toured the Civil War battlefields of the United States before accepting a job as a political analyst in the American embassy

In 1960 he was appointed a senior lecturer in military history at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, where he was to stay for 26 years.  This was a time of great change both in the teaching of military history (his subject and department were re-titled 'war studies' during his time at Sandhurst) and in the education of future officers.  Nevertheless, Keegan found Sandhurst a congenial place and earned the respect and liking of many of his students - useful contacts for him as they rose in seniority and he moved into journalism.

Less easy was the relationship with his colleagues, which became even more troubled on the publication in 1975 of his first major book, The Face of Battle.  In this book he took three battles - Agincourt (1415), Waterloo (1815) and the Somme (1916) and used them to address questions such as "What is it like to be in battle?".  He expressed a loathing for 'anecdotal history', 'the inanimate landscape of documents', and what he called rhetorical 'battle pieces' that had dominated Western historiography since Caesar.   Thus "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". (3)  

The instant success of the book, and calls on him to do external work did little to enamour Keegan to his colleagues - especially his head of department, the Napoleonic historian David G Chandler, who saw such barbs as addressed against himself.  Matters came to a head when Keegan returned from a visiting professorship at Princeton to find that Chandler had put him before a disciplinary panel.  Journalism came to his rescue.

Keegan had already written for the press, notably during the Falklands War (under the pseudonym 'Patrick Desmond' to preserve Sandhurst's blushes),  When his friend the war correspondent Max Hastings became editor of the Daily Telegraph in 1986, Keegan asked for a job and was appointed defence correspondent (later defence editor until his retirement in 2009).  This enabled him both to continue his own writing (his duties apparently didn't extend beyond Wednesdays), but also gave him the ability to further foster the contacts he had built up over the years.

Keegan was the author of more than twenty books. though he perhaps never again reached the heights he had scaled with The Face of Battle: his ODNB biographer states that some of the later works were carelessly put together and "he competed with himself, with [that] one incomparable book, by which he would always be remembered, but which most historians could not write one half as good if they laboured for six professional lifetimes."   Some criticised his easy dismissal of von Clausewitz and others his reluctance to consider the fruits of historical revisionism.

Keegan was appointed OBE for services to journalism in the Gulf War; he was knighted in 2000.   He served on such bodies as the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

In the words of the ODNB:
Keegan's legacy was uneven but his achievement indisputable. He was an original thinker who opened up an entirely new historiographical vista and spawned many imitators.  He was the author of arguably one of the two most important books on military history written in the second half of the twentieth century. (4)

1. Dan van der Vat, Guardian obit, 5 Aug 2012.
2. Brian Holden Reid, 'Keegan, Sir  John Desmond Patrick  (1934-2012)', ODNB.
3. The Face of Battle, cited in ODNB entry.
4.  ODNB.  The other book was Michael Howard's The Franco-Prussian War.

So which of Kegan's books do we have in stock?

It of course depends on when you read this, but if I've done the search and link right you should be able to find out here.

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