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

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Sources of Frontline Intelligence: Spies


The Traditional Fate of Spies

Treachery was in the air day and night. This sector was full of German agents and spies. Special orders were issued to us and all were placed on guard, challenging everyone at night, both on cross-roads and at points entering our lines.

Edward D. Sirois, Lieutenant, and William McGinnis, Corporal,  

102nd F.A., 26th Div., AEF

By Terrence J. Finnegan

Spies in the Great War provided intrigue, in the minds of both the combatants and the practitioners of the art. The known quantity of spies maintained by both sides at the front, however, remains an elusive fact. The intelligence officer was responsible for preventing these agents of espionage from finding out anything about "ourselves." Contre-espionage required a disciplined self-controlled existence both in the trenches and the rear echelons. Keeping noise down to a minimum was a requirement. Personal letters became intelligence documents detailing morale, locations, personal observations, and other relevant data. Censorship was imposed to curtail any chance of an enemy acquiring a critical snippet of information. A British intelligence officer commented on this intense intelligence gathering environment, "The enemy has many soldiers who speak English perfectly, and they recognize by our accent what part of the country we come from." In contrast, the trench culture mandated that every combatant played an information-gathering role. "Every man should, therefore, look upon himself as a collecting agent of information."

Spying created a culture of distrust and uncertainty throughout the front. Enemy lurking behind the lines in trenches appeared a common concern. British warnings reflected a somewhat chaotic culture, "Because a man is dressed in British, French or Belgian uniform, do not necessarily assume that he is what he appears to be. Such a disguise is by far the most effective and safe one for a German spy, and there is little doubt that it has been frequently made use of. Not matter who the man is, if he acts suspiciously—wants to know too much about the troops—detain him; do not take his name and number and let him go; detain him and hand over to the nearest Staff for investigation. Do not mind what he says to you; the more he protests the more likely that he is a spy."

Furthermore, French and Belgian citizens near the front were also suspect. "The discussion of moves that you know or think you know are going to take place is absolutely criminal. Barbers, café proprietors, waiters and waitresses may all be looked upon as potential spies, and it is most important that they should have no opportunity of picking up odd scraps of information." 

From "Military Intelligence at the Front," Over the Top, February 2009

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