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1899-1902: Boer War Intelligence

Ad Hoc to Doctrine

The Boer War's influence on the conduct of military intelligence

1899-1902: Boer War Intelligence

Prior to the Boer War the British Army tended to form ad hoc intelligence organisations during campaigns in order to provide the commander with the necessary information and intelligence to conduct their operations.

John Churchill, The first Duke of Marlborough, an advocate of intelligence, stated that 'no war can be conducted successfully without early and good intelligence'.

The Duke of Wellington also recognised the importance of intelligence and employed Exploring Officers - the most famous being Lieutenant Colonel Colquhoun-Grant (Whose Waterloo Medal resides in the Museum) - and George Scovell, his code breaker.

Despite the influence of these great commanders, the military intelligence organisations were disbanded soon after the end of hostilities.

A variety of information and intelligence gathering units were raised during the Boer War (1899-1901), such as Rimington's Tigers (photo) and the Corps of Scouts amongst many others, and the need emerged for coordinated and systematic analysis of the information collected.

This led to a three-tier system of sources and agencies employed to collect the information; field intelligence officers with the combat units; and staff intelligence officers at formation headquarters to analyse the information.

Whereas before the war no formation below Divisional level had an intelligence officer, Colonel Hume, the Director of Military Intelligence (South Africa) from 1900, identified the requirement for Field Intelligence Departments with scouts and interpreters. By the end of the war the intelligence element of the British Forces had increased from 2 officers to 132 officers and 2321 soldiers.

Hume's recommendations were implemented by Lieutenant Colonel David Henderson, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the author of 'Field Intelligence, Its Principles and Practice' (1904), a manual that described what military intelligence was and how to do it. It is arguably the first piece of modern British military intelligence Doctrine.

However, as usual, the Field Intelligence Departments were disbanded at the end of the Boer War in 1901 although the Intelligence Department at the War Office remained, although it was associated with the Mobilisation Department.

The collection of intelligence on Germany prior to the outbreak of the Great War by the Intelligence Department did not find favour with the more conservative elements in the War Officer and as a consequence the department was under-funded.

However, a small counter intelligence department, later known as MI5, was established under Captain Vernon Kell in 1909, and in the same year the Secret Service Bureau was established, which eventually evolved into MI6, under Commander Mansfield Cumming (the original 'C').

Henderson 's 1904 manual was to prove an important asset in the build up to the Great War as a 'how to' guide to training and organisation which enabled an intelligence capability to be quickly formed to support the British Expeditionary Force that went to France and Flanders in August 1914.

In 1921 Field Marshal Sir William Robertson wrote "The Boer War changed everything, or at least everything that subsequently mattered."

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