Under Every Leaf

Title:                      Under Every Leaf

Author:                  William Beaver

Beaver, William (2012). Under Every Leaf: How Britain Played the Greater Game from Afghanistan to Africa. London: Biteback Pub

LCCN:    2012427162

UB271.G7 B43 2012


Date Posted:      April 27, 2016

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

In February 1855, the British Secretary for War created the Topographical and Statistical Department, subsequently renamed the Intelligence Department (ID). It was staffed by specially selected military officers and made answerable, over the outraged objections of army generals, to War Department civilians. Its mission was to furnish analyzed intelligence directly to the department, bypassing senior generals, if necessary. The secretary could do this because he controlled the military’s purse strings. The ID had a very impressive record and became a part of the newly created General Staff before WWI. The ID’s story, based mainly on memoirs and letters, has been summarized in several intelligence histories.[2] Working with new material found in the British National Archives, Oxford historian William Beaver provides the first complete account in Under Every Leaf.

The title of the book is taken from a Farsi expression that reflects the pervasiveness of Victorian empire: “Anywhere in the world that a leaf moves, underneath you will find an Englishman.” (p. 7) Managing the empire fell to the War Office, and that required intelligence. The ID was created to provide it in finished form, unprejudiced by military biases. One example of how the ID worked in practice concerned the “Great Game” in the mid-1880s. The generals in India foresaw a major threat from Russia on the northern frontier and proposed moves to thwart it. The ID was tasked to assess the situation and concluded a “Russian attack on India would be so difficult as to be unlikely … [and] well nigh impossible.” (p. 56) The Army turned its attention to Afghanistan and was supported by the ID with maps and other essential data.

The ID did more than make assessments. It established its own agent networks, a library, and a print plant. The presses were a source of real power, allowing the ID to produce its own reports and maps. But the ID’s reports were not heeded. When war loomed in South Africa, ID warnings of upcoming trouble with the Boers were ignored. (p. 278)

The ID’s capabilities were not acquired quickly or without difficulty, and much of the book is devoted to the incessant bureaucratic battles with the Horse Guards and key figures on both sides. The principal lesson from the ID experience is that intelligence without organizational parochialism is critical to sound government policy. This view may sound commonplace today, but Under Every Leaf shows it was not always so.

[1] Peake, Hayden B. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 2, Fall/Winter, 2013, pp. 134-135). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov.

[2] Aston, George Grey, Sir (1930). Secret Service. New York, Cosmopolitan book corporation; Parritt, B.A.H. (1971, 2011). The Intelligencers: The Story Of British Military Intelligence Up To 1914 (3rd ed.). Barnsley, S. Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military; 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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