The Cambridge English Dictionary describes ‘ad hoc’ as being:
“made or happening only for a particular purpose or need, not planned before it happens”
‘Doctrine’ is described as:
“a belief or set of beliefs that are taught and accepted by a particular group”
The history of British Military Intelligence has been one of innovation and moribund indifference, success and failure, strength and weakness. Throughout the centuries there has been everything from small groups of intriguers and intelligencers supporting the crown through to multi-facetted Combined Operations structures in times of global war. During much of this history, the delivery of intelligence has been conducted on an ad-hoc basis with the formation, often late, of units tasked to provide an intelligence capability. These units were then disbanded at the end of the campaign with the inevitable loss of expertise and with the need to start all over again for the next campaign.
The Peninsular War
In 1808, in a continuation of the war against napoleon, the British despatched an Army under command of General Sir Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, with a view of affording Spain and Portugal every assistance in driving the French out of their countries. The intelligence organisation followed the tradition of the 18th century whereby the Quartermaster general, who was responsible for logistical supply, was the focal point for intelligence gathering. Information regarding enemy movements was collected by ‘scouts’ or ‘guides’ co-ordinated by the ‘Scout master’.
During the Peninsular campaign Wellington selected a group of officers to carry out reconnaissance deep into enemy territory. The most celebrated of these was Lieutenant Colonel Colquhoun Grant, an officer in the 1th regiment of Foot. Grant spoke fluent Spanish and Portuguese and was an excellent horseman. In 1815 Grant was appointed by Wellington to lead the newly created Intelligence Department for the Battle of Waterloo. No sooner had Napoleon been defeated than the intelligence ability was disbanded.
The Crimea War
In 1854 the Russians crossed the River Danube and advanced into Turkey. As a result, on 23rd march, Great Britain and France declared war on Russia. It is generally accepted that the Crimea expedition was entered into without due consideration of the huge nature of the task, without adequate reconnaissance and no intelligence.
The British Commander later complained bitterly……
“The Crimea was as completely an unknown country to the Chiefs of the Allied armies as it had been to Jason and his Argonauts when they journeyed to the same placed in search of the Golden fleece. I knew it contained a harbour” he wrote “and a city with fortifications, but the nature, strength and resources of the enemy lay almost in the region of speculation.”
In fact, the only reason he did know that the city was fortified was because major Thomas best Jervis, a prematurely retired major of the Bombay Engineers, had found a secret Russian map of the area in a Belgian back street shop whilst on holiday!
The late 1800s
Following the Crimea War, intelligence continued to be conducted in an ad-hoc manner and Great Britain had, largely through the disciplined use of superior firepower, met and defeated brave but poorly armed enemies across the globe. Much of the intelligence activity was centred on the making of maps and the collecting of statistical information about the enemy. Other than the absolute necessity for good mapping, little of the statistical information was of tactical use to a commander in the field when faced with native enemies who were little understood or who did not conform to ‘statistics.’
The first director of military Intelligence, Major General Sir Henry Brackenbury, was appointed in 1887, and a Directorate of Military Intelligence, responsible for collecting and recording intelligence was set up in the War Office.
The 2nd Boer War
In 1899 the Boer War began in South Africa when trouble erupted between the original Dutch settlers, the Boers, and the newly arrived British settlers over goldfields. The British government decided, albeit reluctantly, to send an Expeditionary Force of 10,000 men to ‘settle the problem.’
There was considerable political sensitivity over the possibility of provoking the Boers. This was such that the Force Commander, Sir George White, was not allowed to discuss the situation with the Director of military intelligence, neither did the Intelligence Department have the status to convince commanders of their appreciation of the situation.
Three years later, after the British had suffered unprecedented, bloody and embarrassing defeats, the Intelligence Division was put on public trial and were formally charged:
That they had failed to correctly assess the numerical strength of the Boers;
That it was ignorant of their armaments, especially their artillery;
That it had failed to fathom the Boer’s offensive design on Natal;
That in no case, had warnings as to the above been given to the Government and;
That our troops had been left unfurnished with maps or topographical information.
In defence, there were only two officers in South Africa at the time assigned to intelligence duties and they both had other staff duties to perform as well as their intelligence function.
In July 1899, the War Office sent ten officers to South Africa on ‘Special Duties’ to ascertain “What persons would be available to act as agents, runners, interpreters etc”. One of this party was Colonel Baden-Powell, another was Lieutenant Colonel Henderson, both of whom were to play key roles in the development of intelligence collection and management.
The local authorities however, were anxious that nothing should be done which the Boers could publicise as provocative and the officers were rigorously restricted in their intelligence collecting activities. They had to content themselves with cycling along the frontier pretending to be tourists and surreptitiously making sketches. The situation provided a good example of where unwillingness to take the risk of political embarrassment subsequently resulted in military defeat.
As the war developed so did the Intelligence Organisation. A Head of Intelligence was appointed and Intelligence Officers were attached to each Brigade and Column. Scouting units were created and roamed deep into enemy territory and a network of informants was developed. By 1900 it was decided to form a Field Intelligence Department (FID) which was the first blending into one army organisation of a headquarters intelligence staff, field intelligence officers and units whose sole purpose was to gain intelligence and frustrate the enemy’s intelligence gathering efforts.
Certain scout units, often bearing the title of ‘Corps of Guides’ specialised in intelligence gathering and notable amongst these were units from Australia and Canada, whose self-reliant members were used to long period on horseback and living off the land. It was the contribution to intelligence acquisition made by these dedicated units that eventually led to the conclusion that, in times of peace, it would be sensible to have formally established units known as the ‘Intelligence Corps’.
The beginnings of change
Lessons from the Boer War led to the creation of the Intelligence Directorate, placed under the Director of Military Intelligence, and responsible for overseas intelligence acquisition with one section, MO5, being responsible for protective security and censorship of post and ciphers. In 1909 this section became the Special Intelligence Bureau and subsequently the Security Service (MI5). Despite the MI title, the Service had only two serving officers and became a Service composed of civilian, police and retired officers.
Filling other posts in the Intelligence Directorate was a small number of regular officers who received no intelligence training and did not consider their appointments to be particularly relevant. Between 1902 and 1914 no specialised field intelligence units were formed, but a series of reports highlighted the need for a professional body of intelligence personnel. In 1904 David Davidson, one of the Boer War ‘ten Special Duty’ Officers, and now a full Colonel, wrote a manual titled “Field Intelligence – Its Practices and Principles” which recommended the formation of an Intelligence Corps. This pamphlet can perhaps be considered as the first modern doctrine for the conduct of intelligence. In 1912 the War Office published a staff manual which laid down that “All persons (except secret service agents) permanently engaged on intelligence duties will be formed into a special Intelligence Corps.” However, this recommendation was not actioned at this time.
Acting on this recommendation, lists were prepared of those considered suitable for the new Corps based on their language ability and knowledge of foreign countries. These individuals were not informed of their selection and no training was offered. It was to their great surprise therefore that, on 5th August 1914, eight hours after the declaration of war, scholars, linguists, journalists, businessmen, artists and musicians received a telegram asking them to report to Southampton and join a unit called the “Intelligence Corps”. Hours later they would be in France and Flanders facing the might of armed Germany.
The Boer War changed everything—or at least everything that subsequently mattered’. Field Marshal Sir William Robertson wrote in his 1921 autobiography