In Memoriam: Sir John Keegan

I was saddened to read today of the death of Sir John Keegan, defense correspondent for the Telegraph in London, former lecturer at Sandhurst, the British Army’s officer training academy, and prolific author on military history and strategy.  He was probably the pre-eminent authority in the English-speaking world on those subjects over the past two to three decades.

The Telegraph writes in its obituary:

Whatever the subject before him, Keegan wrote with close knowledge of the military arts and a personal acquaintance with many senior serving officers who had been his pupils; above all, he demonstrated a deep awareness of the human aspects of warfare, which was cruel, confusing and frightening, if occasionally glorious.

. . .

[As a young man, he] … 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.

. . .

With his ability to touch souls and stir consciences, Keegan found himself being offered large publishing contracts for writing on ever grander themes . The Mask of Command (1987) concerned the ability of leaders such as Alexander the Great, Wellington, Ulysses Grant and Hitler to weave a spell over their troops with a combination of energy, tenacity and ruthlessness. The Price of Admiralty (1988) took him into less familiar waters with an account of the evolution of naval warfare from Trafalgar to the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War.

Critics responded favourably to A History of Warfare (1993) — which was awarded the Duff Cooper Prize — in particular admiring the vastness of the book’s scope (it ranged from Genghis Khan, the Romans and the Japanese samurai to the soldiers of the 19th century).

. . .

John Keegan was knighted in 2000, and among the professional honours heaped on him, he was made a visiting fellow at Princeton and a member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He was invited to give the Lees Knowles lectures at Cambridge and the Reith Lectures for the BBC, which were published in 1998 as War and Our World. Perhaps the most remarkable recognition came during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Normandy campaign, when he was invited to brief President Bill Clinton at the White House.

He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Historical Society.

There’s more at the link.

I finished reading Mr. Keegan’s last book, ‘The American Civil War‘ (2009), only a few weeks ago.  It’s an interesting overview of that much-described conflict, benefiting from an external perspective and, above all, from an emphasis on the geography of North America, which shaped the conflict to an extent seldom recognized by other military historians.  It’s been criticized for many minor flaws, which are perhaps attributable to Mr. Keegan’s prolonged ill health and advancing years.  Nevertheless, I still enjoyed it, and feel that it’s a useful addition to the Civil War canon.

I feel a personal sense of loss at Mr. Keegan’s death.  I’ve been reading his books for so long (from shortly after ‘The Face Of Battle‘ was published in 1976) that I feel as if a hole has been left, both in my library and in my mind, knowing that he won’t be writing any more.

May he rest in peace.



  1. I could be misremembering, but I seem to recall that Kenneth Branaugh drew on "Face of Battle" for the battle scenes in his film version of "Henry V." The film certainly emphasized the mud, chaos, and bloody misery of Agincourt over the glorious victory aspect.

    Keegan will be missed. In many ways he raised the bar for military historians, and opened the field to far more than the original battles and commanders view of the subject.


  2. oh, this is sad. I am a bit of an obsessive on the American Civil War, and really loved his book on the subject. Yes, I found a couple of things that weren't quite accurate but they were easy to overlook as the rest of the book was magnificent, as all his books are.

    he is my favorite military historian, I'll miss him

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