War memories: John Keegan's life and times
John Keegan, Britain's leading military historian, talks about a career devoted to the study of war, his own physical challenges and how his new book was nearly his last.
At first it was a distant roar. As the noise swelled, John Keegan remembers his parents running out into their Somerset garden and how he stood awestruck between them as a great migratory flight of aircraft blackened the sky and rocked the earth under their feet.
"The noise! The grinding!" he recalls. "Hundreds of aeroplane engines directly overhead. The grinding sound crushed you to the ground. I knew something extraordinary was happening."
They had witnessed the airborne divisions heading for Normandy on the night before the D-Day landings. To a patriotic 10-year-old boy, already a keen student of military matters, the experience triggered both excitement and menace.
Until then, the preparations had seemed pretty much a Boy's Own adventure. Hundreds of thousands of GIs had poured into Somerset with their amphibious trucks and giant transporters laden with tanks and bulldozers.
"A little boy couldn't fail to be fascinated. It was like Legoland, only military." Now there was a different note altogether. He says he was gripped by the power, majesty and terror of the moment. The next day, the Americans had gone. "My parents didn't talk to me about it at the time, but I think they realised it was D-Day. It couldn't have been anything else."
At the outbreak of war, the Keegans were living in Clapham Park, south London. "I was five, but I remember the barrage balloons because they made my sister cry."
John's father, Frank, who had been a gunner in the First World War but was now too old to enlist, was a schools' inspector, responsible for transferring hundreds of pupils from south-east London to the relative safety of the countryside.
His wife and three children moved with him. "We weren't evacuated to Somerset all at once," he says. "A lot of people trailed round staying with friends, getting their bearings, working out what they should do. I was transplanted in an intact family from one reassuring fireside to another. I loved the English countryside. We lived a sort of Arthur Ransome life."
Today, Sir John Keegan, distinguished military historian and man of letters, lives on the Wiltshire-Somerset border, not far from the village to which he was evacuated.
He has spent his life in the theoretical pursuit of war, first as a lecturer in military history at Sandhurst, then as an author of 20 books, and from 1986 as defence editor of The Daily Telegraph. It has always seemed an unlikely obsession for a man of such pacific gentleness and courtesy.
His 1976 best-seller, The Face of Battle (a study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme) established his exceptional ability to enter the heart and mind of the fighting man, as though he had actually experienced the horror of combat and understood why soldiers put their lives on the line.
The quality of his insight into the military psyche is so unusual that it's assumed he would have been a soldier if he had not been left permanently disabled by TB of the hip.
"No, no", he protests. "I am disobedient and rebellious. I would not have made a good soldier. It's just that I decided early on that you could only write properly about war by willing yourself into the shoes of the participants and letting them determine what you thought and what you did.
"It's roughly what I've always done. I talk to soldiers a lot. I talk about the difficulties to them. They like being questioned, too. I have learnt a great deal from them. I've also got a vivid imagination."
Sir John's latest book, The American Civil War: A Military History, is the belated fruit of a grant-aided trip he made to the US battlefields when he was a 23-year-old undergraduate, and where his love of America took root. His account of the American Civil War is a captivating narrative, huge in scope, covering a vastly mismatched conflict that lasted four years.
A month after he finished it, in April, he had a stroke and was not expected to live. So poor was his prognosis that the doctors had stopped feeding him and were instead concentrating on making his last hours comfortable.
But Sir John, 75, has been confounding medical opinion for most of his life. For nearly four of his teenage years, he was incarcerated in an orthopaedic hospital with TB and spent the freezing winter of 1947 in an open-air ward with snow drifting under the iron beds.
At night, the nurses lowered canvas screens that flapped and banged in the winter gales "like the sails of a man-o'-war". When he eventually got out, it was with a hip immobilised by a bone graft.
But hospital was his education in every sense. The chaplain taught him Greek, the schoolmistress kept up his French and he read the whole of Thomas Hardy as well as numerous volumes of history. "It was the formative experience of my life," he says.
For many months, he was in a plaster cast from shoulder to thigh. "The odd thing was that I wasn't unhappy at all. The ward was full of chaps in their twenties who had been in the war and came from Borough, the Elephant and Castle and the Old Kent Road. I found the company very interesting. These south Londoners had a wonderfully positive attitude to life. Today's culture of dependency would have been anathema to them."
While at Balliol College, Oxford, where he read history in the early Fifties, his hip fusion broke and he had to return to hospital – but by then there were antibiotic drugs, notably streptomycin. Years of limping eventually wore out his spine but his habit was, and still is, to dismiss pain as a minor inconvenience, incidental to the general gaiety of life.
Eighteen months ago, he had a leg amputated to help his circulation but maintained a stoical fortitude and continued to work on his book.
"I've had a lot of illness in my life and I think it makes you resistant," he says. "It's just part of what happens to you. I had quite a remarkable recovery from the stroke. The doctors said to Susanne: 'Your husband is going to die.' She called a priest and three times I was given the Last Sacraments. I don't remember anything of that at all."
Two days later, he suddenly started to speak. "I had a very limited period of unconsciousness," he says. "I have false memories. I thought I was on Streatham railway station where I used to get the train to school. I also thought I was at a dinner party. After that, I knew exactly what was going on – or at least I thought I did."
Dressed and groomed as crisply as ever, Sir John is taking lunch in a wheelchair in a sunlit room next to his bedroom. Susanne, the biographer to whom he has been married for nearly 50 years, has laid a table of smoked salmon, quail's eggs and asparagus.
From the window of his manor house, there is a view of Kilmington churchyard and a smell of farmyard manure. He is avid as ever for office news, a thoughtful host, and typically engaged with world affairs.
"It's not our war," he says of the fighting in Afghanistan. "It's run by the Afghans. They determine how intense it is and where it's fought. We have got to be jolly careful. It may leap up and bite us very seriously, this war. I think there is a good reason for our being there but I don't think it's understood.
"I am astonished that soldiers go on doing what they have to do in Afghanistan because it's such a truly unpleasant business. The roadside bombs are particularly horrible. They are hand placed. Unless you are there at the time, there is nothing that can be done. It must be very, very frightening indeed for soldiers."
If the British and the Americans were to pull out now, he says, it would not only be an insult to grieving families whose young men have died there but the situation would rapidly deteriorate. "As soon as we turn away, it will get worse."
Sir John, who received an OBE in the 1991 Gulf War Honours and was knighted for services to military history in 2000, is working on a further book, about the Second World War in Italy. He says of his modus operandi: "I get a picture of the book in my mind. That's all I need.
If I lose the picture, the book starts to go wrong and I have to stop and rework it. Some parts are easy. They have a sort of independent existence. If you don't have a guiding light you're in trouble. I've never talked to another author about how to write a book. Nor have they talked to me. It is a very private matter."
A decade ago, I interviewed him on the eve of his Reith Lecture, entitled War and Our World. Describing himself as 95 per cent pacifist, he suggested that war would play a diminishing part in human affairs and might even become obsolete. How does he feel today? "I've got a bit hardened since then", he says. "It's much more difficult to be optimistic."