Intelligence officers on the front line

IMG_0865At the beginning of World War One approximately fifty men received a telegram inviting them to join the newly formed Intelligence Corps. Amongst their number were officers from the Metropolitan Police.  Many of them worked behind enemy lines, others identified enemy agents and sabateurs. Some of the intelligence officers had motor bikes so that they could get to out of the way sites in order to find out what the enemy was doing.  They were particularly interested in maps and papers that might have been lost by the enemy.  As the war evolved they also questioned prisoners of war.  Initially this task might have fallen to the battalion intelligence officer but as the war progressed it became a more centralised role.


Other forms of intelligence gathering involved the battalion intelligence officer going into no man’s land and raiding enemy trenches in order to gather information – again this might involve finding maps but more usually it meant collecting a prisoner. This meant going into the darkness lightly armed with a small group of men who would be prepared for hand-to-hand combat.  Orders from further along the chain of command required a prisoner.  It was also regarded as important to know which regiments and battalions faced you on the other side of the battlefield.  Most ordinary soldiers, from first hand testimony kept in the Imperial War Museum, dreaded this kind of intelligence gathering not least because it was often seen as a waste of time and life.  Other testimony suggested that even if it didn’t gain the required information it was seen as a way of preventing ordinary soldiers from becoming trench bound and hardening them to the realities of No Man’s land – an eyebrow raising comment in these times.

On other occasions the aim was not to raid the trench and take a captive, the sole aim of this was often to find out which troops were in the field but simply to cut the wire, in advance of an attack or to listen to what was being said by the enemy – so a German speaking intelligence officer was presumably a helpful addition to a battalion.

Fans of the of black and white Sherlock Holmes films may know that Basil Rathbone, who played Holmes, was a battalion intelligence officer during the First World War.  This meant that twice a week he led patrols into no man’s land and then had to report on what he had found.  The report which Rathbone talked about in his autobiography was often vague but the idea was that not only should he observe what was happening in enemy lines but talk to different patrols and snipers and record what they had seen.   It was his responsibility to know the lay of the land and it is recorded in some instances that the intelligence officer placed markers in No Man’s land before his battalion attacked the enemy. It was also his responsibility to know what was happening and feed it back up the line.

In some cases it appears to have been the Intelligence Officer who kept the war diary which was not his role at all.  Different intelligence officers seem also to have had different skills which were not necessarily limited to intelligence gathering but which would have been useful additional skills.  Some had links with scouting and patrols which makes sense.  There is also evidence to suggest that some officers were trained to deal with signals but these were different branches of the service and would not have been performed by one officer.

For those who are interested A. A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh was a signals officer during World War One as was JRR Tolkien.  Milne was eventually withdrawn from the front line due to illness and spent the rest of the war as a different kind of intelligence officer in Whitehall dealing with propaganda.

Ultimately Rathbone suggested that night time patrols were of limited value.  He suggested something more radical. He found himself sent out during the daylight hours dressed in camouflage.  This involved going into No Man’s land before dawn and then staying very still indeed.  Rathbone was eventually rewarded with a Military Cross.

Other forms of intelligence gathering involved listening posts and, of course, the air force. Beach’s study of General Haig’s intelligence considers the way in which the British perceived the German Army and why they thought that they were winning in 1916.  He reflects on the way that the growth of intelligence gathering influenced strategy.

Beach, Jim. (2015)  Haig’s intelligence : GHQ and the German Army, 1918  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Rathbone, Basil. In and Out of Character.