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Victoria's Spymasters: Empire and Espionage

Victoria's Spymasters: Empire and Espionage

by Stephen Wade

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Covering the lives and achievements of five English intelligence officers involved in wars at home and abroad between 1870 and 1918, this exceptionally researched book offers an insight into spying in the age of Victoria. Including material from little-known sources such as memoirs, old biographies and information from MI5 and the police history archives, this book is


Covering the lives and achievements of five English intelligence officers involved in wars at home and abroad between 1870 and 1918, this exceptionally researched book offers an insight into spying in the age of Victoria. Including material from little-known sources such as memoirs, old biographies and information from MI5 and the police history archives, this book is a more detailed sequel to Wade's earlier work, 'Spies in the Empire'. The book examines the social and political context of Victorian spying and the role of intelligence in the Anglo-Boer wars as well as case studies on five intriguing characters: William Melville, Sir John Ardagh, Reginald Wingate and Rudolf Slatin, and William Roberston. Responding to a dearth of books covering this topic, Wade both presents fascinating biographies of some of the most significant figures in the history of intelligence as well as a snapshot of a time in which the experts and amateurs who would eventually become MI5 struggled against bias, denigration and confusion.

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Victoria's Spymasters

Empire and Espionage

By Stephen Wade

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Stephen Wade
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7588-2


Intelligence in the Empire,C.1850–1918

In the first phase of the gradual establishment of a dedicated staff with intelligence duties in the context of administration, there was some uncertainty about how the various aspects of the work could or should be organised. This confusion arose from the fact that the primary areas of field intelligence and general intelligence (such as the accumulation of relevant knowledge) had been managed in Wellington's army by the integration of the various services such as the work of reconnaissance, scouts, and, above all, by dragoon couriers for communications. The most noticeable deficiency was in cartography. Wellington on one occasion even had to write home to request Cassini's map of France in 1806.

To understand the situation in 1880 we must first summarise the development of military intelligence from the early years of the century. So many different kinds of influences made the intelligence department of 1876 one of complexity. Matters are further complicated because the Anglo-Boer Wars proved that the War Office still had not properly thought out the nature of intelligence in an increasingly technology-influenced imperial regime.

Following the Napoleonic War, there was no perceived need for change and it took a major crisis – the Crimean War – to change attitudes. By the late 1850s there was a fresh importance given to maps and mapmakers, and the Topographical and Statistical Department was set up, first conceived in 1855 with the backing of Lord Panmure. Thomas Best Jervis took control and his established knowledge of maps in Europe became invaluable. Yet even that was an uncertain step. The notion of intelligence as a discipline, as well as a principal element in army organisation, was still somewhat overshadowed by traditional officer-class organisation and attitudes. But blame also has to be apportioned to the general feeling on the subject, beyond the army itself. As Sir George Aston wrote about this new T&S: 'The history of its origin is illuminating in connection with the "stupid John Bull" legends. Between the battle of Waterloo and the Crimean War very little interest was taken by the British public in the efficiency of its army.'

To understand how a genuine and effective intelligence department was conceived and created, we need to consider several influences. The changes happened in the 1870s, and the subjects of the following biographies emerged from that period, in the sense that very influential men began to realise how important a body of knowledge was to the commander; Sir Garnet Wolseley is perhaps the clearest example. In his own journals from the Ashanti campaign, and in his creation of a cadre of officers with outstanding intellectual qualities, he demonstrates this concern for a dependable access to any kind of knowledge that might impinge on a specific theatre of war.

In terms of a wider influence, the impact of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was significant. When William Robertson went to the Staff College to do further study, he visited some of the battlefields, and his tutors used that context for case studies. The influence of that conflict on the more theoretical element in military intelligence cannot be overlooked. A useful example of this is the contents of The Journal of the Household Brigade for the year 1871. This publication always had the usual sports and recreation features, such as amateur dramatics, polo and shooting, but in this year there was a feature on the Kriegs Spiel or 'Game of War'. The significance of the piece is that it reflects the burgeoning interest in military education in such a wide sense that our modern concept of 'enrichment' might apply to the thinking behind it. In 1871, Major Roerdanz, military attaché to the German Embassy in London, gave a talk on the Game of War to 'a crowded audience', the journal reports.

Roerdanz had already been on a tour of military establishments on the subject; he had visited London, Aldershot and the Staff College previously. The activity was the precursor of modern war gaming, but in the context of 1871, the important statement is that 'it was not a game that could be played out by cadets, but that it required a considerable knowledge of military science on the part of the commanders.'

The new interest in professionalism within the army is also observable in the increasing number of civilian commentators at this time. Journalists, editors, correspondents and academics all had access to ways of mediating their views on tactics, army reform and the Empire. The 1870s as a whole were arguably the period in which revolutions took place at all levels in the army, most notably in the consequences of the Cardwell reforms of 1868–72. Edward Cardwell was at the War Office at the time and took the whole system of purchasing promotions and other issues into consideration in order to establish wide-sweeping reforms. A two-battalion system was created, and the purchase of commissions was abolished. By 1881 the work of Childers, following Cardwell, made the two-battalion structure of each regiment, with each county base at home and a rota for overseas duties. While such reforms were going on at a practical everyday level, intelligence was also finding a proper place in the structure of the army. This was a stunning contrast to the period of the 1820s when the Senior Division at Woolwich where training was then concentrated, as at that time there was no perceived need in the upper echelons of military thinking for training in such topics as learning languages, studying troop movements or intelligence techniques.

In the field, throughout most of the nineteenth century up to the Zulu War, the limits of intelligence work were seen as controlling spies and using reconnaissance in an ad hoc way. It may be argued that it was in the Ashanti campaign, led by Wolseley in 1873–74, that a mainstream revolution in the applications of intelligence was brought about. Much of this stemmed from Wolseley's belief in gathering the best men around him, and the 'Wolseley Set' of handpicked men who worked closely with him became a celebrated and sometimes criticised group in the army generally. By the time he had experienced war in Africa and Canada, he emerged as a powerful figure in the debate on reorganisation under Cardwell, and he tried to create a new concept of a general staff, for which he found himself in opposition to Queen Victoria's son, the Duke of Cambridge, then commander-in-chief. Wolseley played an important part in the development of the new respect for the 'intellectual' officer, something that had always taken second place to the 'true blue' fighting man and adventurer image of the officer on campaign at the edge of Empire.

Around 1880, before his expedition to Egypt, Wolseley had made the group of officers around him into a breed apart, all devoted to the chief. As Joseph Lehmann wrote in his biography of Wolseley:

From the first campaign in Burma, Wolseley carefully noted those officers who were able and efficient. Each selection was studied, polished and fitted like a precious stone before it became a permanent part of his 'ring'. He carefully distinguished between fighting leaders and regular staff officers. Each had a speciality. One was a scout, another added dash to the attack. A third was a positive genius when it came to prompt organisation.

An important part of his organisation was the emphasis put on learning and close study of all cultural features of the places in which an army was to serve. He liked to be with well-read and articulate peers; he moved in the literary coteries of poets and novelists, and he valued the writings of historians and cultural commentators. When he began the Egyptian campaign against Arabi, he had his team with him, and representative of the kind of officer he valued for analytical knowledge was Lieutenant (later General) Sir John Maurice. He, along with others such as Richard Brackenbury, represented the kind of establishment the Hartington Commission of 1875 had wanted – a War Office in which there were departments that would spend their time collecting information. Innocuous though that sounds, it was absolutely crucial to the growth of a well organised and respected military intelligence arm in the services.

Before the 1870s, there had been a massive body of cultural and topographical knowledge of the many states and territories of the British Empire, but this knowledge was amassed in such things as learned journals and was often the work of gentlemanly enthusiasts and dilettantes. Many of these were officers, men who had learned several Indian languages for instance, and had spent their leisure time gathering information which would be potentially of real value in a wartime situation. But essays on anthropology and basic maps of trade routes or drawings of tombs and temples were not easy to catalogue for military purposes. On the other hand, it is a simple matter for historians today to look at the numerous small wars in the nineteenth century, all across the globe wherever the map was red for Empire, that more knowledge of such people as the Maoris or Zulus would have helped the situations a great deal. When the Intelligence Department finally arrived, the priorities were maps and languages. But it was also recognised that there was latent value in simply gathering and ordering a huge amount of information, mainly geographical and geomorphological. It was decided, fifty years after Wellington wrote home to buy a map, that something should be done to make such desperate measures obsolete.

In the Crimean War, the work of Charles Cattley had been an object-lesson in how cartography is integrated into the scheme of things in a major war. He was commissioned to ascertain details of the topography of the area. He began to question Russian prisoners and that became one of the primary information sources for the staff. In addition, Lord Raglan had local spies, of course, but he was never really convinced of their usefulness. Cattley, a man described by some sources as an interpreter working on the Raglan staff, had a profound knowledge of all Russian activities. What became apparent with hindsight was that in such a major campaign, with a massive investment of infantry in vast and vulnerable locations, a store of relevant knowledge, easily and quickly accessed, was extremely valuable to the high command.

Colonial wars ceased to be distant, privately run affairs when the press expanded and it is necessary here to recall how the revolution in printing and production of journal and periodicals changed the knowledge of warfare for the general public. A mass of popular publications felt it was a commercial necessity to engage experts to write about military affairs. There was an interest in the paraphernalia and dress of the army, of course, along with contempt for men in uniform as expressed by Rudyard Kipling in his poem, Tommy:

We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barracks, most remarkable like you;
And if sometimes our conduct isn't all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barracks don't grow into plaster saints

After all, even the general public back home could read astonishing tales of Russian spies and their tendency to outwit the British (and of course the whole war was totally understood and witnessed by the nation, via Russell of The Times), such as this account from the Illustrated London News of 1855:

Spies in the English camp – Some time ago a soldier of the 44th Regiment, a Pole by birth, informed against the keeper of one of the canteens of the 62nd Regiment, as having been employed in the Russian Secret service at Warsaw, and that he suspected him to be engaged at present as a spy. The charge was investigated by a board of officers, but no conclusive evidence to support it could be adduced ... He was known to speak the Russian and German languages, and it did not appear very satisfactory that with such attainments he should choose to enlist as a private soldier ...

This shows very clearly how different the British were in this business. Russia had had a well established police element working to counteract spies long before the Crimean War. This report made the army seem merely comparative to the new detectives working in London since 1842, men learning their trade of suspicion and investigation merely from common sense. The professionalism was to come later – and the same applies in the army.

It was realised by the new men at the Staff College, and by the young officers coming through to command, that there were two categories of information in terms of what needs to be stored for potential usefulness: there was the known information that was universally applied in a specific place, such as the lingua franca in communities or religious beliefs, and then there was the shifting, transient knowledge that changed with new political formations. This is why the often esoteric work of intrepid eccentric travellers such as Sir Richard Burton or Sir Percy Sykes proved to be invaluable later: they had talked to the locals and given comments on customs and traditions. Later, when it was essential to have spies who could merge into the background and pass off as anything but British officers, the precedents were there in the travel books as well as in the learned papers from the academies.

The essentially chaotic and contradictory nature of espionage, as opposed to field intelligence, in this period, opened up an age of heroic explorers and gentleman officers who embodied a phrase applied once to an officer in the British Expeditionary Force of 1915: 'He was the absolute embodiment of dash and pluck.' This statement could be applied to any of the five men whose lives in military intelligence are recounted here. In the thirty years before the attempts to rationalise matters of information and wars, a succession of spies, working in the 'Great Game' against Russia's aspirations to power in India, were likewise described. We only have to consider the life of Sir Richard Francis Burton. His biographer, Edward Rice, explains the modus operandi when Burton travelled the borderlands:

Burton was now very much immersed in playing out the Great Game, and the surface show of merchant or dervish was a very skilful way of amassing information. As a wandering trader riding camel, Burton – and other agents – had an excellent means of measuring distances. Unlike the horse, whose pace was irregular, the camel had a steady stride, nearly as regular as a metronome, and made an almost predictable number of paces per hour ... Thus, distances in previously unknown areas could be mapped.

This happened in the context of the years between the first army travellers eastwards in the 1830s up to the years of the Indian Mutiny. After that, matters gradually changed and the scope of individual spies was limited to a certain extent, though the Great Game continued into the first years of the twentieth century.

In the period under consideration – from the 1870s to around 1916 – that spirit of eccentric individuality and adventure was in decline. The top brass wanted a new age of professionalism in all areas. Therefore, this is a good point at which to summarise the areas of activity and interest under the heading of 'military intelligence'. Arguably, there were three:

First there was field intelligence, which included everything from scouting and reconnaissance to the facts of the basis of strategy. This was increasingly a matter of assimilating whatever cartography was available with local knowledge.

Second, espionage. This entailed the 'knowledge of the enemy' factor, along with the work of gathering information from previous experience if that could be located. Under this heading came a whole range of local spies as well as linguists and travellers, such as Burton, who worked for the army. Burton was an officer in the army of the East India Company, and became so immersed in eastern culture and religion that he could melt into the background very easily and find information by subtle and indirect means when required.

Finally, there was diplomacy and politics. The overlap between diplomats, attachés and army espionage became blurred as the century went on. Basically, as will be seen in the case of Sir Mark Sykes, when contrasted with T.E. Lawrence, they could be a source of mistrust and misinformation. The kind of spying that was directly and recognisably military was very distinct from the work of diplomacy, and, of course, communication between the two is always essential.


Excerpted from Victoria's Spymasters by Stephen Wade. Copyright © 2011 Stephen Wade. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Meet the Author

Stephen Wade is the author of 40 books on crime and law.

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