British Military Intelligence, 1870-1914

Title:                      British Military Intelligence, 1870-1914

Author:                 Thomas G. Fergusson

Fergusson, Thomas G. (1984). British Military Intelligence, 1870-1914: The Development of a Modem Intelligence Organization. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America

LCCN:    83017094

UB251.G7 F47 1984


Date Posted:      November 11, 2015

Date Posted:      November 11, 2015

Review by Robin Higham[1]

[Note: This review also includes a review of West, Nigel (1983). MI6:British Secret Intelligence Service Operations, 1909-45. New York: Random House]

Colonel Fergusson’s and Nigel West’s books are as different and night and day, in that they reflect both the nature of their subjects’ and their authors’ attitudes towards sources. British Military Intelligence is a careful, thorough, well documented piece of intelligence gathering, analysis, and reporting, while Ml 6 follows in the tradition of the author’s previous work on MI 5 , The Circus[2] which is based upon clandestine interviews with persons who are named in the acknowledgements alone.

These two books, then, raise immediately for us the matter of the image of intelligence. On the one hand is that to be found in Fergusson, in Major S.R. Elliot’s Scarlet to Green: Canadian Army Intelligence, 1903-1963 (1981), and above all in the on-going set of volumes from Prof. F.H. Hinsley, et al., British Intelligence in the Second World’ War[3]. These are works which deal with documented materials patiently gathered from printed, visual, and oral sources. In fact in both peace and wartime a great deal of it is and should be available from allied, neutral, and enemy sources to those who know where to look for it. Its usefulness as well as its availability when needed depending to a large extend upon commonsense gathering, winnowing, and filing in pre-operational periods. In fact, much intelligence work is not at all unlike working on a dissertation, except that it has constantly to be updated, that the officer responsible in Britain may be saddled with watching Russia, Turkey, the Balkans, the Near East, and America all at the same time! Solid, well- trained military, naval and air intelligence officers ideally spent some time in their careers travelling unofficially in the territories they were watching and with luck also had an extended period of duty there as an attaché, All of this would be above·board. One of the most famous of the recent air intelligence officers, Group Captain Frederick Winterbotham, whose 1974 The ULTRA Secret[4] first revealed that the British had been privy to the German codes during much of World War II, actually spent a number of years before the war travelling lo Germany where he was a well-known guest of the Luftwaffe, a series of experiences he has recounted in The Nazi Connection[5] (1978).

In sharp contrast to these uniformed intelligence gatherers is the image left behind by the Secret Intelligence Service operating out of the respectable St. Ermyns Hotel in World War II because it was easily taken over next to Queen Anne’s Gate and Tothill Street , the location of various offshoot government offices close Whitehall. And it owes its James Bond image to Ian Fleming, and another one of its fictional images to his fellow denizen of the St. Ermyns, Graham Greene. Fleming has given us the impression that all secret agents in British service bear a charmed and satisfying life, while Graham Greene suggests that they are more ordinary, troubled people. Neither image has been improved by the real-life post-war revelations of scandals associated with names such Burgess, Maclean, Philby, and Blunt. The impression from reading about Fleming’s secret agents is that they either gather vital intelligence or foil dastardly ploys and plots all by themselves. While an excellent cover story, such has rarely been the case.

The differences in the two principal works under review here are partly also cultural. Colonel Fergusson took his Ph.D. under the noted Theodore Ropp at Duke and got the broad training which the US academic discipline requires. Nigel West uses more the approach of a British journalist. Fergusson’s work is replete not only with several pages of footnotes in small type at the end of each chapter, but also with a long and helpful bibliography. Thus the reader can evaluate for himself the sources and the author’s understanding of what he has used. Not so with the West. In sense, it hides behind the Defence of the Realm Act and the necessary anonymity (?) of oral sources, leaving the reader unable even to be sure whether or not—without endless checking—familiar material has not appeared other places in print, including Hinsley, the memoirs of those who have been at times engaged in intelligence and other covert activities, and the like. In other words, from the point of view of an academic researcher, this is a frustrating way in which to get stories. The methodology tends to arouse rather than allay suspicions that a lot is being said for effect and that there might be two sides to the story in many cases because the bulk of what is recorded is after all oral history.

A common theme, however, does exist in both books. It first arises in Fergusson whose love of the subject was inspired by his lieutenant-general grandfather and nurtured by his colonel father. This theme is that intelligence must be gathered and agents must be in place before trouble arises. Moreover, Britain suffered both in the nineteenth and in the twentieth century from an over concern with the Russian threat. This caused the small staffs employed in intelligence offices to spend too much time in that area and not enough on balance covering the rest of the world. Fergusson notes this especially about India and West about Britain in the 1930s. And the same can also be said for other areas. In 1940 Wavell was still held in Egypt to nineteenth century rules that forbade him to build up a network of agents in a potential enemy land: thus he entered the war against Italy in Libya with no agents Tripoli and none in Istanbul. But with his ties going back to the old army of G. F. R.Henderson, one of Fergusson’s heroes, he established his own intelligence system in Cairo and it soon came to rival London’s, as Hinsley notes.

Fergusson’s concentration is on the development of a modern intelligence organization from the Crimean War to the First World War. He shows effectively how in a very small establishment it was crucially important who was appointed, what was his training, and whom he knew. The Crimean expedition was sent out with Russian maps privately bought on the Continent , printed, and sold to the Army by an interprising former Ordance Survey officer in the topographical engineering tradition of being the intelligence arm. From there the Army was influenced by the victory of 1871 and the work of the Prussian Great General Staff , but Britain did not adopt the concept until after 1900. The Intelligence Department rose to 1879, then slumped to 1885, when it was revived. The disasters of the relief of General Gordcon were not its fault (317 days were lost for other reasons) nor were those of the BoerWar (no money for surveying and map-making). And so it was able to march confidently to 1914, as the author relates. Before he gets to that final chapter, Colonel Fergusson provides a most useful pair of chapters surveying the development of tactical intelligence in the British Army from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. All in all, then, this is an admirable book which does much to provide addition background on the British Army in the nineteenth century in both its home defense and its colonial roles.

Nigel West’s work covers about the same length of time (1909-1945), includes perhaps the same number of persons, though the impression is rather more kaleidoscopic as there are often several new names to a page in a cast of characters that changes very rapidly. The main theme is that this vital intelligence organization which immediately after the First World War was passed to the Foreign Office and given the cover of Passport Control Office, never had enough money to do the job and was often ill-served by its agents. On the other hand, West also fairly claims that the small force headed by “C”, eventually Stewart Menzies, did do a fair amount of good work. MI 6 gives an overall picture of how the organization functioned under various directors and particularly of the disastrous impact of the German conquests in 1940 which caught the organization flat footed. The ramifications of this are then covered, mostly in terms of the personal stories of agents.

Both these books talk about intelligence, and bureaucracy British Military Intelligence, 1870-1914 is a sound scholarly study of how the job could be and was done. Ml 6 is a more sensational oral history.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[6]

Walk north on York Buildings, turn east into John Adam Street and south into Robert Street. Here, facing the river, the Adam brothers built the Adelphi, an elaborate embankment arcade supporting a terrace of 11 houses. Popular with literary notables throughout the 19th century, the Adelphi was mostly demolished (for “improvements”) in the 1930s.

Imagine, here, 9 Adelphi Terrace. While Britain’s intelligence organizations be said to date from the time of William the Conqueror, the first permanent overseas spy network dates only from the reign of) Elizabeth I (when intelligence efforts led to the discovery and defeat of the Spanish Armada). The secret services have had their ups and downs since then, with the 19th century clearly a low point. The Depot of Military Knowledge, so bravely launched in 1803, fell into disrepute when its patron, the Duke of York, suffered a personal scandal. By mid-century, the government considered spying utterly distasteful. Let those on the Continent indulge in the indecent pursuit. Britain would not—except, of course, to keep tabs on the Irish.

And then came the Crimean War. “Most of the catastrophes o that campaign were due to an almost total lack of informatioi about the enemy,” writes Richard Deacon in A History of the British Secret Service[7]. Warnings had been sounded for a decade by Major Thomas Best Jervis, a cartographer for 30 years with the Bombay Engineer Corps. “Great Britain,” he argued, “is the only country of note which has no geographer attached to the government and no national depot of geographical maps and plans.” He pleaded in vain for a topographical department in the Foreign Office. In 1854, at the start of the Crimean War, when he obtain two rare military maps while on holiday on the Continent and these proved of immediate value, the War Office set up a Topographic and Statistical Department under him in 1855. He had facilities here in a converted stables and coach house, according to Thomas G. Fergusson’s British Military Intelligence, 1870-1914[8]. Larger quarters were needed within a year.

The emphasis at the T&S Department was on making maps maps more than on gathering or analysing statistics; 26 of the 28 men under Jervis were civilian lithographers. But the Department fell on hard times in 1857 when Jervis died, and by the mid-l860s even the once-strong topographical mission was reduced. By 1869 the Department had only two officers, one of them its head, and in 1873 it was absorbed into the new Intelligence Branch.

“Much has been made of the creation of the T&S Department writes Fergusson. He is more cautious, pointing out that the The Department didn’t accomplish much outside of cartography, had no real ability to process its meagre statistics, and had little or no, access to the Secretary of State for War. Undoubtedly the former coach house and stables here saw the beginning of a modern intelligence capacity but, as Deacon observes, it was “a very modest beginning.”

[1] Robin Higham. JSTOR, e/4049242?seq 1#page_scan_tab_contents, pp. 237-240. Downloaded November 11, 2015. At the time of writing, Robin Higham was at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas.

[2] West, Nigel (1983). The Circus: MI5 Operations, 1945-1972. New York: Stein and Day

[3] Hinsley, F. H. (1979-1990) with E. E. Thomas, C. F. G. Ransom, and R. C. Knight. British intelligence in the Second World War. New York: Cambridge University Press

[4] Winterbotham, Frederick William(1974). The Ultra Secret. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

[5] Winterbotham, F. W. (1978). The Nazi Connection. New York: Harper & Row

[6] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 271-273.

[7] Deacon, Richard (1970). A History of The British Secret Service. New York: Taplinger

[8] Fergusson, Thomas G. (1984). British Military Intelligence, 1870-1914: The Development of a Modem Intelligence Organization. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America


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2 Responses to British Military Intelligence, 1870-1914

  1. Pingback: MI6–British Secret Intelligence | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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