First World War

A Tale of Two Articles

Jim Beach reflects upon taking an intelligence history investigation from initial idea to publication.

 

Dil'Se restaurant Dundee

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  Depending on how you voted.  Our project was born in Dundee on the evening of Thursday 23 June 2016.  The Dil’Se restaurant provided some great food, ideas were discussed, questions were half-formed, and possible lines of inquiry scribbled down.

The following morning, we awoke to the EU referendum result.  Although we never consciously entered into a race with the Conservative party, having simultaneously started something that was initially ill-defined and then unexpectedly complicated, we do feel slightly smug in having crossed the finish line before them.

The initial impetus to research and write came from a sense of unfinished business.  Nine months before our meal I had published the diary of a First World War soldier who had been engaged in frontline signals intelligence (SIGINT).

Editing the diary had caused me to do some research on IToc (aye-tok), the British army’s system for intercepting German trench telephones, and to also look for the service records of the SIGINT soldiers whose names popped up in the text.

And it turned out that I’m not very good at rummaging in personnel records.  Enter stage left my old friend, Jock Bruce.  He’s a genealogical ninja and, I think initially out of pity, demonstrated that I was giving up too easily when confronted by hundreds of hits on common names.

Jock’s main historical interest is early Twentieth Century SIGINT and so, while I moved on to other things, he pushed further into the personnel files.  We also batted emails back and forth about another problem; some of the diary evidence just didn’t fit with previously-accepted interpretations.

Jock then had a breakthrough.  From the diary we knew that men who were recruited into this type of work were transferred to the Royal Engineers (Signal Service).  But there were over 200,000 Royal Engineers in the First World War.  How could we identify the couple of hundred who were designated as ‘Interpreter Operators’?

Taking the two dozen names that we had from the diary, Jock tested a hypothesis.  What if these men had been transferred to the engineers in batches?  Administrative logic would suggest they would have been allocated new service numbers in sequential blocks.

Through a process we dubbed ‘numerology’, Jock started searching for engineers with service numbers close to those of men identified in the diary.  This unlocked many fresh targets and we quickly realised that, using their service records, we could build up a useful collective profile of these men.  Or, to give it its proper academic label, engage in some prosopography.

 

Art IWM PST 6976

‘The enemy listens too! Careful on the phone!’

© Imperial War Museum, Art.IWM PST 6976.

 

Over the curry in Dundee we had decided to write a short article which synthesised the existing secondary sources with the evidence from the diary, plus a couple of thousand words on the personnel dimension derived from Jock’s genealogical work.  It all sounded so simple.

But then it spiralled out of control.  We found ourselves investigating multiple leads and producing many more questions than answers.  But we persisted.  Mostly from a combination of curiosity and obstinacy.

The next forehead-slap moment came when we both dug back into our old notes on First World War intelligence.  We found numerous examples of both of us having both looked at documents without realising the potential significance of the trench SIGINT references.

While re-tracing our steps in well-known sources, we also began trawling new ones, such as local newspapers, using terminology found in the diary.  We got lucky in finding, for example, one officer who decided to spill the beans about his secret SIGINT work to a community group in Berwick-upon-Tweed.  We were also aided by the kindness of numerous First World War historians who responded very generously to our strange enquiries about obscure aspects of their past and present research.

Then came the hard part.  Writing up.

It quickly became clear that we’d accumulated too much material for one article.  We wrangled with various configurations, but eventually ended up writing two; one focused thematically on the personnel and the other, structured chronologically, on the SIGINT.

Neither of us had co-written academically before, and it’s fair to say that it was quite challenging.  What we learnt was that, having known one another for many years, we found it relatively easy to engage in a critical-but-creative dialogue conducted mostly by email.  That said, we both realised early on that writing this way takes much more time than flying solo.

Eventually, we submitted to the Journal of Intelligence History and found the peer reviewers to be firm yet fair.  A little further digging thereby ensued and, happily, we were waved through at the second time of asking.

Would we do it differently if we had our time again?  Probably not.  Yes, we made mistakes and could have been much more efficient in pursuing leads.  We also discovered just how strangely obsessive each of us could be in pursuing divergent aspects of the investigation.  But, ultimately, by working together, we have researched and written something that neither of us could have done alone.

Please have a look at our work using the links below.  And tell all your military and intelligence history friends to do the same.  There should be something in there for everybody; perhaps the German intelligence advantage during the Battle of the Somme, security concerns about using immigrants for secret intelligence work, or eavesdropping on the conversations of enemy prisoners.

British Signals Intelligence in the Trenches, 1915-1918: Part 1, Listening Sets.

British Signals Intelligence in the Trenches, 1915-1918: Part 2, Interpreter Operators.

Finally, we are most grateful to the University of Northampton for funding open-access.  And we also thank GCHQ for recently publicising the names of the Interpreter Operators.

Remembering a war after ‘The War’

Jim Beach of the University of Northampton reflects on a visit to the Czech Republic.

Jim blog

 

Speaking neither Czech nor Polish, it was with some trepidation that I accepted an invitation to speak at a workshop on the Seven Days’ War between the Czechs and Poles in 1919.  

The initial invite came from Tomáš Rusek, a Czech historian I had met at the Voices of the Home Fronts event organised by the National Archives and Everyday Lives in War in 2016.  Along with Ondřej Kolář, who had presented alongside Tomáš, a coincidence of historical interest emerged during that conference and the three of us have remained in contact since.

The workshop took place in Ostrava in the Czech Republic on Friday 25 January and was organised by Martin Lokaj of the city’s university in collaboration with the Association of Czechoslovak Legionnaires. My paper discussed the British military officers sent in early 1919 to the Duchy of Teschen; now the borderlands of Poland and the Czech Republic.  

Like my fellow Britons a hundred years ago, I was unsure what to expect but found the experience fascinating.  Particularly as my only personal point of comparison was First World War centenary events in Britain.

The visit was made all the more interesting because I travelled with Ian Dalziel, the great-nephew of one of the British officers sent to Teschen. Like me, Ian had never visited the Czech Republic and we were made to feel most welcome by our hosts.

Another aspect that impressed us was the format and content of the workshop.  It took place in Centrum Pant, a coffee and bookshop which is used as a cultural venue in Ostrava.  This made the occasion less formal than a standard academic conference and seems to have helped the interchange of perspectives.

The audience was a mix of scholars and the wider public, with representation from both sides of the modern border. It is also worth noting that the programme did not shy away from confronting difficult subject areas.  For example, one talk addressed the highly controversial issue of war crimes committed during the fighting.

Although handicapped by our linguistic ignorance, Ian and I witnessed vigorous debates in the Q&A sessions. Catching up on the gist, which was kindly translated retrospectively for us during the breaks, I was struck by a similarity with British First World War-related events between 2014 and 2018.

As in Britain, there was an obvious collision between recent scholarship and ingrained perceptions of the conflict.  And although there was no obvious emergence of consensus, it struck me that it was important for old and new views to be expressed, challenged, and argued in a public historical forum like this one.

In this regard, it must be understood that a broader significance hangs over the Seven Days’ War.  It tainted the early relationship between a re-established Poland and the new state of Czechoslovakia.  As the interwar period played forward this had consequences when the Second World War loomed in Central Europe.

On the Saturday Ian and I joined the Legionnaires association on their visit to the battlefields of the Seven Days’ War in Poland. With temperatures well below zero and an accompanying snow fall, we certainly got a feel for the meteorological challenges facing the two sides a hundred years ago.

The key events of the day’s tour were the laying of wreaths at graves of the fallen.  In simple ceremonies very similar to their British equivalents, a guard was formed by personnel from today’s Czech military and younger legion members wearing reproduction uniforms of 1919.

These uniforms were in themselves an intriguing insight into the conflict. Czech forces of the time wore a variety of dress depending on which army they had served with in 1918.  Czech legion units formerly with the French and Italian armies wore uniforms of those countries, while locally-recruited troops had Austro-Hungarian outfits. The addition of insignia in the then Czech national colours of red and white did not really help with battlefield recognition because Polish colours were the same!

Ian and I were also impressed by the Czechs concluding their day with a double wreath laying at the graves of Polish soldiers in Skoczów.  Reflecting the human complexity of Teschen in 1919, these men had been laid to rest in adjacent Catholic and Protestant cemeteries.  And in the early evening darkness the lighting of candles next to their memorial stones added poignancy to the ceremony.

Reflecting upon the two days, I am struck by the willingness of my Czech colleagues to engage with what might termed the ‘difficult history’ of the Seven Days’ War. It would have been all too easy to let the centenary pass by without historical engagement. 

It was a privilege to witness events over the two days.  I am therefore most grateful to have been able to participate as a representative of the Everyday Lives in War First World War engagement centre.

 

This blog first appeared on the Everyday Lives in War First World War Engagement Centre website

Wolverhampton First World War Conference Report

One symptom of a good conference is that you find yourself struggling to decide which parallel session to attend.  It’s a good problem to have and it plagued me throughout the recent conference entitled 1918-2018: The End of the War & The Reshaping of a Century.

At one point I had to decide between the demilitarisation of the Belgian capital in 1918 or a British Army vegetable show in the same year.  Was it to be Brussels or Brussels Sprouts?

Hosted by the University of Wolverhampton, the conference included six keynote lectures, sixty shorter papers, an after-dinner address, a round-table discussion, and the launch of digital exhibition.  The latter, entitled ‘Aftermath’, was focused on the social, economic, health and political issues affecting veterans. 

 The conference sponsors included the Royal Historical Society, the Western Front Association (WFA), the First World War Network, and the five AHRC-funded engagement centres.

Unsurprisingly given this support base, attendees came from a broad spectrum; WFA members, a variety of students, plus academics at all career stages and from around the world.  Probably because of this mixture, the event was noticeably informal in tone and the Q&A sessions were some of the best I’ve witnessed.

On the second day I was joined by Nick Mansfield, also from Everyday Lives in War.  He made copious notes on Panel 11 and, as you can see, I captured them for posterity.

 

Nicks-notes-1024x699

 

And Panel 11 itself was a good example of the diversity of the conference content.  Tammy Proctor unpacked the uneasy transition from war to peace in Belgium; Peter Stanley offered the hitherto untold story of the Territorials who served in India; while Ian Isherwood showed how the publishing industry shaped the stories told in the immediate aftermath of war.

Of the keynotes, Laura Ugolini’s exploration of masculinity was especially interesting.  I also found Alison Fell’s examination of women veterans very thought-provoking and it has certainly prompted me to reconsider the canon of interwar intelligence memoirs.

The conference was bookended by lectures from two world-renowned scholars of the conflict.  John Horne began by challenging the American/Western European notion that the war ended on 11 November 1918.  Then, at the end of proceedings, Jay Winter suggested that there were, in fact, two overlapping wars; the well-known one that ran from 1914 to 1918 plus another, far more brutal, conflict that began in 1917 and ended in 1923.

This should perhaps give us pause for thought.  In Britain we have just come to the end of a conflict commemoration process that has, generally, been disconnected from the rough and tumble of contemporary politics.  Across East/Central Europe and the wider world, the centenaries between 2019 and 2023 will almost certainly be more contested.  And yet, in many instances, the British were deeply involved in those events.  How might we mark them?

 

Dr Jim Beach, Senior Lecturer in Twentieth Century History

 

This blog first appeared on the Everyday Lives in War First World War Engagement Centre website: https://everydaylivesinwar.herts.ac.uk/2018/09/wolverhampton-first-world-war-conference-report/  

Signals Intelligence under Fire

Dr Jim Beach recently contributed an article for the GCHQ blog, which begins:

 

At five in the morning on 21 March 1918, Vince Schürhoff woke to the thunderous sound of a bombardment. After many false alarms, the much-anticipated German offensive had begun.

Vince was a twenty-six year-old corporal in the British army’s Royal Engineers (Signal Service). In 1914 he had joined the army as an infantryman and two years later, because he spoke fluent German, was seconded to signals intelligence work.

That day Vince was in command of what their inhabitants called an IToc (aye-tok) station and the army called a listening set post. Using metal probes and long loops of wire, Vince and his comrades could pick up German messages leaking from trench telephone lines or Morse buzzer messages sent through the earth…

Click here to read the whole blog on the GCHQ website