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

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Genesis of New Military Intelligence Methods in World War I

The Basic Problem: "What Is Going On Over There?"

By Terrence J. Finnegan

Military intelligence at the front evolved remarkably during the Great War. Prior to the modern era, intelligence relied on espionage to exploit human frailties for relevant information. Spies and attachés personified traditional intelligence collection, but the rapidly evolving World War I battlefield of 1914 transcended this. Furthermore, the field commander's traditional favorite force arm for intelligence, mobile cavalry, was rendered impotent with the transition to trench warfare. With each passing autumn day in 1914, demand for relevant and timely information increased as enemy forces converged to a territorial stalemate and commenced a strategy of positional war. Come the winter of 1914–15, this static war demanded a constant stream of information, especially, to aid the targeting of field artillery, the most important weapon in the contemporary arsenal. This increased demand for timely and accurate data led to the creation of new sources of intelligence derived from the technologies of the day.

Thanks to the expansion of military intelligence—based on the exploitation of science-—enemy intentions could be gleaned and his forces targeted, and the war evolved into the harvest of death that is remembered to this day. 

One major response to this need for data was met by the air arm. By the end of the first year, the war clearly demonstrated that information acquired from from airplanes was credible and contributed effectively to the conduct of battle. Those who were skeptics about intelligence from aerial reconnaissance at the beginning of the conflict soon became firm disciples for the remainder of the war. 

At the front the military culture was preoccupied with trying to make sense of what constituted success in a stationary environment. They soon learned that whatever advantage there was to be attained required timely access to accurate information. Within the first year French intelligence visionary Capitaine J. De Lennoy De Bissy portrayed information's contribution in simple terms. Data was needed "to follow the destructive work of our Artillery and to register the victorious advance of our Infantry."

To learn more about Terrance Finnegan's books and articles on military history, visit his website at:

1 comment:

  1. Modern warfare and modern intelligence proceeded hand-in-hand.