on 11 March 2014
War is an uncertain business. Unlike a board game, where an opponent’s pieces are laid out for all to see, war is waged with imprecise information, some contradictory, some incorrect, and muddied by the enemy’s deception measures. Haig’s Intelligence: GHQ and the German Army 1916 -1918 is a seminal piece of work that sheds considerable light on the British Army’s efforts on the Western Front to clear the fog, and provide commanders with an estimation of the German forces opposing them on which to base their operational decisions. The depth and breadth of Dr Beach’s research is breathtaking, as evidenced by the copious footnotes on each page. From it he draws a balanced and objective view of this little studied, but important, contribution to winning the Great War. Indeed, it offers a greater scope to the subject than the title suggests.
Presented in two parts, the first addresses the development of the British intelligence organisation from its embryonic, pre-war beginnings, through its growth during the war to the armistice. Admirably presented, it provides a fascinating insight into this neglected area of the Great War, including the leading personalties, their disagreements and influence, the development and evolution of the principal collection means, and their relative value in providing information on the German Army, and broader strategic issues. The analysis of the raw material into the finished intelligence product, a process which steadily improved as the war progressed, rounds out a thoroughly informative portrayal of a system in which many innovations taken for granted today saw the light of day, including signals intelligence and air photography. While the former developed slowly, the latter mushroomed into an astonishing 900,000 prints a month in May 1918. In the shadowy world of espionage many of us are familiar with agents parachuted into occupied France during the Second World War - Dr Beach highlights this first occurred behind the Western Front, together with the less predictable means of inserting them using balloons! The work of these networks provided valuable information on German troop movements.
The second part discusses how the intelligence product influenced operational decisions, and particularly Haig, during 1916 to 1918. Pitched primarily at strategic intelligence, what emerges is the focus on German morale, both on the home front and in the German Army, the losses they sustained, and the means by which they were calculated, including captured paybooks. Together this information fed assessments on the size and locations of German reserves behind the Western Front - indicators of their capacity to defend a specific sector, or as shown in 1918 the size and location of their offensives, - but more importantly in Haig’s mind, their ability to sustain an effective army. Dr Beach demonstrates how these assessments influenced decisions, providing a much more rounded picture on the complexities of operational planning. While not always correct, the British intelligence system, both collection and analysis, steadily improved, and by 1918 was producing reasonably accurate assessments of German capabilities and intentions.
Central to this is the controversial Brigadier General John Charteris, Haig’s Head of Intelligence, generally accepted as providing his chief with overly optimistic reports on the German Army’s morale and imminent collapse. Beach delivers an objective view, suggesting that while Charteris was overly optimistic at times this was not always the case, and part of the problem was Haig’s own optimistic views.
Objective, fair and balanced in its analysis, meticulously researched, and clear in its presentation Haig’s Intelligence is a welcome addition to the historiography of the Great War. It will appeal to those wishing to gain a more informed insight into the complexities of the Great War, than the shallow and fallacious works that have shaped the popular perception over the past 60 years.
on 31 December 2014
What did the British Army under Douglas Haig know about its German adversary during the First World War, and how did intelligence gathered on the enemy impact British war planning? In Haig's Intelligence, Jim Beach (Univ. of Northampton) takes on these questions by examining the British military intelligence system "as a whole", rather than only the relationship between Haig and his chief intelligence officers. By clarifying the many components of British Intelligence, Beach provides original insights into Haig's controversial wartime decisions and the role of intelligence, for good or ill, in the performance of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).
Beach chronicles the expansion of the British intelligence system, its three most important leaders, and the methods and techniques it employed. The War Office had only a few intelligence officers in 1914, but their numbers grew rapidly as the BEF departed for the Continent and set up General Headquarters (GHQ). The first head of GHQ Intelligence, Gen. George Macdonogh, had a strained relationship with his commander in chief, Field Marshal John French, and the men Macdonogh employed at the corps level earned a reputation as "untidy" and "unmilitary" (85) eccentrics whose prewar civilian lives ill-suited them for the armed forces. Beach's evaluation shows that the Intelligence Corps suffered from the perception that it was a temporary organization whose members often lacked proper training, frontline experience, or the respect of their contemporaries. Nonetheless, Beach argues that these unconventional types were essential to the BEF's operations.
Beach provides useful background on early GHQ Intelligence, but focuses chiefly on the period following the appointment of Gen. John Charteris after Haig's promotion to commander in chief in late 1915. Charteris is often portrayed as a villain, who withheld negative intelligence to keep up Haig's spirits even though his selective reporting might distort his superior's judgment and increase casualties. Beach insists, however, that Charteris's missteps "cannot be used to absolve Haig of responsibility for his decisions" (323) and that to do so would be to overlook the complexity of an intelligence network that stretched from the frontlines to GHQ.
Gen. Edgar Cox, "the British army's expert on its main enemy" (56), replaced Charteris in January 1918. Beach demonstrates that, although Haig accepted Cox's cautious appraisals while the German army held the upper hand, he lost faith in them as he became more confident in the BEF's prospects for victory. This divergence, combined with concerns over Cox's lack of experience at the front, led to his marginalization before his untimely death by drowning in late August 1918.
According to Beach, neither Charteris, nor Macdonogh, nor Cox met the idealized standards laid out by the War Office's prewar Director of Military Intelligence. Despite this, the intelligence system as a whole functioned well. Beach details intelligence collection methods used behind and, especially, in the front lines. While flash spotting and observation could yield useful information, the most valuable source of intelligence was enemy prisoners and deserters.
Espionage, too, was a key element of intelligence collection, but Beach notes it carried a high-price for French and Belgian civilians. The interception of enemy transmissions was another valuable piece of the intelligence effort, but the utility of signals intelligence in predicting future German operations was minimal. The weakest link in the system, Beach contends, was the actual interpretation of information, which suffered from a "blurring of analytical responsibilities between GHQ and the War Office" (191).
The six chapters of the second part of the book elucidate the place of intelligence in shaping British assessments of the German army in particular campaigns and battles. At the Somme, Charteris's staff routinely overestimated Germany's ability to reinforce its front and accordingly expected breakthroughs that never materialized. GHQ Intelligence became ever more interested in the ebb and flow of German morale. Despite British setbacks at the Somme, captured German soldiers and materials provided much clearer insights into the mood in the German trenches. Before the Arras offensive, Haig had a firmer grasp of the state of German reserves, but his failure to anticipate the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line exposed the continued unreliability of British intelligence. Even so, Arras signaled a shift and British estimations of enemy strength were ever more influenced by indications of sinking morale and political strife on the German home front.
Owing to Haig's belief that the German home front was wavering, the British were more sanguine in 1917: The Third Ypres offensive was a "key moment in the development of British intelligence on the Western Front" (261). Improvements in intelligence methodology and personnel meant the British could size up the German army as never before. Charteris's optimism was misplaced, however, and GHQ trusted too much in reports of the Germans' low morale, misjudging their fighting spirit at Cambrai. When a German counterattack caught the BEF by surprise, Charteris's reputation suffered an irreparable blow and he eventually took the fall in order to protect Haig.
When the German army began the spring offensive of 1918, British intelligence officers remained overly confident. Beach maintains that they did often anticipate the locations of German attacks, if not the BEF's ability to counter them. British Intelligence, having learned from its mistakes under Edgar Cox in spring 1918, played a major part in the successful planning of the "Hundred Days" offensive that helped bring the German army to its knees. The British went into the war's final months with a mature, yet imperfect, intelligence system. Haig's enthusiasm grew even as his intelligence officers became more cautious in their appraisals. A clear indication of his waning faith in their abilities was his reliance by war's end on his own assessments of the German army's strength.
Haig's Intelligence convincingly shows that British Intelligence must be evaluated in its entirety, with due attention to the numerous methods of forming an accurate picture of the German army. The author concludes that the British intelligence system was "fundamentally sound," and possibly "better than those of its enemies and Allies" (326). Additional research is required to confirm the latter claim, but Beach has forced us to reconsider traditional evaluations of British operations on the Western Front—"operational decisions which have been painted as inexplicable, or assigned obtuse explanations, now appear to be straightforward responses to an intelligence picture that was sometimes changing on a daily basis" (321). The British understood that circumstances far beyond the battlefields influenced Germany's military morale and combat effectiveness.
Commendably, Beach enhances the appeal of a rather dense volume by sketching the personalities of the unconventional officers who worked for British Intelligence. He also gives us a salutary reminder of the obstacles posed by social class or religious affiliation to those who sought advancement within the hidebound British military establishment.
Although Beach's thoroughly researched book is not meant to be a comparative study, some discussion of German perceptions of British Intelligence would have added nuance to his analysis. German officials understood that there could be devastating consequences when soldiers revealed useful information after falling into enemy hands. Documents in German archives might have shed light on German knowledge of enemy intelligence and the measures taken to prepare German soldiers to deal with British interrogators. But these are only quibbles, however, about a book that deepens our understanding of the World War I battlefield and the intelligence activities that determined how commanders approached it.