Secret Warriors – Book Review
Secret Warriors: The Spies, Scientists, and Code Breakers of World War I. Taylor Downing. Pegasus Books, 2015. 439 pages, 16 pages of photographs. Hardback. $28.95.
When we think of the scientific advances that impacted the Great War, perhaps most of us think of poison gases that suffocated and blinded men, machine gun bullets that riddled and tore bodies, or heavy artillery that vaporized entire squads. According to author Taylor Downing, “In many histories of the war, the contribution of science goes no further than this. It was seen as murderous, destructive and entirely negative.” Downing, a British television producer and writer, continues: “Beyond this common view of the war, however, it is possible to see how engineers, chemists, physicists, doctors, psychologists, mathematicians, intelligence gatherers, and propagandists were taking part in an unknown struggle that made a more positive contribution to what happened at home, at the front, at sea and in the air.” This, then, is Downing’s purpose for writing this book.
He begins with an introduction that neatly summarizes many of the life-changing scientific and technological advances of the last half of the 19th century. This synopsis is a concise and helpful review of the state of science and technology on the eve of the war. The rest of the book is divided into five sections, each addressing an aspect of Downing’s overall topic: Aviators; Code Breakers; Engineers and Chemists; Doctors and Surgeons; and Propagandists.
In the first section, he recounts the beginnings of aviation and shows how the airplane developed from an item of experimentation and sport into an effective weapon. In the early days, aircraft were primarily designed for airborne observation of the enemy. According to Downing, “No one had foreseen aerial combat.” Initially many officers felt that using aircraft to peer behind enemy lines was “un-gentlemanly”; that feeling soon passed, and the importance of aerial observation was readily apparent to all. The efficacy of aerial observation caused the enemy to hunt and shoot down the observation aircraft. This in turn required the creation of fighter aircraft to protect the observation aircraft, and a whole new mode of warfare—the dogfight—was born. The need for airborne battlefield reconnaissance resulted in the improvement of the art and science of photo interpretation; the Great War was thus the laboratory for future photo analysis.
In the second section, Downing gives us the history of the Admiralty’s program of code breaking. Early on, the Royal Navy luckily obtained three German codebooks, “an intelligence coup of unique proportions.” Still, the Admiralty struggled to make proper use of the raw intelligence it was gathering. The stories of the code breakers in Room 40 of the Admiralty are an interesting glimpse into the personalities of early British intelligence officers. Another aspect of intelligence concerns the decoding of diplomatic messages, including an account of the infamous Zimmermann Telegram episode and how it helped lead the United States into a declaration of war against Germany.
The third section of the book covers the development of weapons, munitions, and chemicals, including artillery, machine guns, Stokes mortars, tanks, and hand grenades. The sheer variety of explosives and munitions, and the various chemicals involved in their manufacture, is evidence of the industrial and technical underpinnings of the Great War. The initial use of gas against the Allies in the spring of 1915 came as a horrible surprise. The British struggled to come up with, first, some sort of mask protection against the deadly poison, and second, a poison gas of their own. Downing’s recitation of the witches’ brew of poison gas used in the war—chlorine, phosgene, diphosgene, chloropicrin, mustard—is enough to make even a chemist blanche.
The section on doctors and medical advances takes readers on an interesting walk through the British Army evacuation and treatment system, from the point of wounding to arrival in Britain (for those who received a “Blighty wound”). By and large, the medical system expanded and adapted to the situation. Downing writes, “The way in which the medical services approached the hideous wounds arising from a modern industrial war was to show how effective science could be at saving lives in war.” With the improvement in treatment, many men survived wounds, and there were therefore many amputees—about 41,000 in Britain alone. While the science of prosthetics didn’t advance much at that time, the sheer number of men who required them meant that “the scale of the demand for replacement legs, arms and hands provided a generation of doctors with a mass of experience that it would have usually taken a lifetime to pick up.”
Likewise, many more men who had suffered disfiguring head and facial wounds survived, and the book covers this poignant area in detail. The facial reconstruction work of British Captain Harold Gillies in particular saved a large number of men from being consigned to a lifetime of hiding their faces from the stares of passersby. Equally poignant is the plight of those suffering from shell shock. Downing reviews the progress of the treatment of this perplexing condition; again, it seems many of the procedures were made up by medical officers on the fly.
The chapter on propaganda covers the beginnings of the notion that there should be a government agency concerned with the formulation and distribution of “positive” war information to the public, at home and overseas. As in so many other ventures, the men involved had to experiment as they went along. Downing recounts the efforts of British propaganda in words and film, culminating in the highly successful 1916 motion picture, The Battle of the Somme. The successes of British wartime propaganda came despite the disorganization and confusion within and among the various offices created to oversee the effort. This was a testimony to the drive and creativity of the men involved in producing the broad array of information sent out to the public.
A final chapter shows how the foundation laid during the Great War provided for continued cooperation between the government and scientists through World War II. Following the narrative, Downing includes about 23 pages of brief biographical sketches of many of the scientists and “secret warriors” mentioned in the book.
Throughout the book, Downing avoids scientific jargon, making it an easy read. He consulted many primary and secondary sources, and the book is well-annotated. Given the author’s background it’s not surprising that the book is Anglo-centric. It will appeal to those interested in the scientific and technical background of Britain’s war effort, as well as those more generally interested in the topics addressed in each section.
Peter L. Belmonte is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and freelance historian. A veteran of Operation Desert Storm, he has written extensively on immigration and military history, and his current studies focus on the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. His most recent book, Days of Perfect Hell: The 26th U.S. Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November, 1918, will be released by Schiffer Books in October.