Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Secrets of Rue St Roch: Intelligence Operations Behind Enemy Lines in the First World War — Reviewed by Ron Drees

The Secrets of Rue St Roch: Intelligence Operations Behind Enemy Lines in the First World War
by Janet Morgan
Allen Lane, 2004

41 Rue St Roch, Paris, Today

The title of this book, which refers to the address of the Paris headquarters of British spies in the First World War, 41 Rue StRoch, implies much broader coverage than is actually provided. Morgan's text focuses on just a very few of the 6,000 agents who worked for the British in WWI Europe. Their function was to watch and report on trains of German and Austrian infantry, cavalry, and artillery moving toward the Western Front though Luxembourg. This information helped Foch outguess von Hindenburg in the summer of 1918 and contributed to the "black day of the German Army" on 8 August.

Yet this result did not come about easily. There were bitter "turf" wars between the British spymasters; the training of the women who coded the intelligence required considerable effort and then much hand-holding; and there were budget disputes and wrangling in general. The coded messages were sent buried within an agricultural newspaper whose newsprint had to be purchased by the British at considerable up-front expense. There was the constant fear of German capture, and the author gives interesting statistics on those who did not return after the war.

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The reader is not spared either, as some topics receive detailed discussions which border on the enervating. Late in the war, it became necessary to send an agent from France to Luxembourg — by balloon. First the agent, a Belgian Army officer, had to be pried loose from his commanders. Then one learns in excruciating detail about planning, launching, and piloting the balloon from France to Luxembourg.

The French government was quite appreciative of the spies' efforts and awarded the participants with appropriate medals. Ominously, the Germans noted them also, and upon returning in 1940 held unpleasant discussions with some of these heroes of the Great War. Apparently, fame was not fleeting enough.

You may find some of the information in The Secrets of Rue St Roch overly detailed for your taste; nevertheless, this book is an interesting and informative discussion about the underbelly of war that rarely surfaces. It is worth reading, even if you decide to exercise the option of skipping the more detailed sections.

Ron Drees

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