The charge of the Bayreuth Dragoons at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg.
Real-time intelligence, except over very short distances, was inherently difficult to acquire in the medieval world. It simply could not be carried quickly enough ahead of the movement of enemy forces. That would remain so for centuries to come. Sometimes critical information did not travel even within the confined space of a battlefield. At Lützen, for example, on 16 November 1632, one of the most important engagements of the Thirty Years War, the Imperial (Austrian) and Swedish armies both made a tactical retreat at the end of the day. The Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus had been killed and if Wallenstein, the Imperial commander, had renewed the attack, the Swedes would probably have lost. Neither side, however, was aware of the other’s movements. Next day the Swedes returned, captured the Imperial artillery, which had been abandoned for want of horses to drag it off, and so turned what should have been an Imperial victory into a defeat.
The European armies of the eighteenth century had become much more professionalised than those of the Thirty Years War. Even so they found real-time intelligence hard to acquire. Fredrick the Great’s campaign of Hohenfriedberg in 1745 was exceptional. The Imperial (Austrian) army was concentrating against him to wrest back the province of Silesia, which the Prussian king had illegally seized in 1740. He got general word of its movement but needed to put himself in a favourable position to resist its attack, by tempting it down into the Silesian plain from the surrounding hills. His first move was to use a double agent he had, an Italian clerk, in Imperial headquarters, to spread the word that the Prussians were retreating. He then concealed his army in broken ground and waited for the Austrians to appear. They made no effort to disguise their movements and so he was able to make use of rules of observation (indices) which were known to provide rough-and-ready real-time intelligence when the enemy was in view. Dust was an important indicator. ‘A generalised cloud of dust usually signified that the enemy foragers were about. The same kind of dust, without any sighting of the foraging parties, suggested that the sutlers and baggage were being sent to the rear and that the enemy was about to move. Dense and isolated towers of dust showed that the columns were already on the march.’ There were other signs. The gleam of the sun, on a bright day, on swords and bayonets was open to interpretation at distances of up to a mile. Marshal de Saxe, Frederick’s great French contemporary, wrote that ‘if the rays are perpendicular, it means that the enemy is coming at you; if they are broken and infrequent, he is retreating’.
Frederick, on 3 June, had positioned himself at a lookout point which commanded the level ground in front of Hohenfriedberg. Towards four o’clock in the afternoon he saw a cloud of dust, through which gradually resolved eight huge Austrian columns advancing towards the Prussian positions, illuminated by bright sunshine. As darkness fell, Frederick ordered a night march. Next morning the Battle of Hohenfriedberg began.
Despite his enjoyment of advantageous intelligence, Frederick did not win an easy victory. His army was outnumbered and the Austrians and their allies had manoeuvred during the night to outflank him. As so often in war, it was superior fighting power that carried the day; Frederick’s preliminary intelligence success was soon negated. It was his own quick thinking in the heat of action and the fierce reaction of his soldiers which turned the tide of battle.
The same would most often prove to be true in wars yet to come. In their wars outside Europe, particularly in the North American forests, where Red Indian allies knew the ground intimately and were masters of the arts of scouting and surprise, European armies were to suffer shocking defeats in the depths of the woods. General Braddock’s disaster at the Monongahela, near modern Pittsburgh, where a large British force was wiped out in a few hours in 1755, was entirely the result of walking blind into an ambush prepared by the French, led by their native American allies, in uncharted and unscouted woodland. In what both sides came to call ‘American warfare’, intelligence remained at a premium and usually provided the basis of victory or defeat. In the familiar campaigning grounds of Europe, during the great wars of the French Revolution and Napoleonic empire (1792—1815), intelligence rarely brought victory solely by its own account. That was true even during the British Peninsular War against the French in Spain and Portugal, 1808–14. Intelligence, however good, moved too slowly to bring a real-time advantage. Indeed, Wellington in the Peninsula depended upon exactly the same means of intelligence as Scipio in his campaign against Nova Carthago (New Carthage) in Spain in the third century BC. Wellington, Caesar and Scipio all operated as intelligence-gatherers in exactly the same way. Their earliest concern was to discover the lie of the land (Wellington was a great collector of maps and almanacs) and the characteristics of the enemy. The collection of tactical intelligence – who was where when, what he intended and of what he was capable – was left to the month, the week, the day.
Wellington had the population on his side, in both Portugal and Spain. France, the invader, was resented; after the excesses of 1808, hated. Wellington did not have to seek intelligence. It was brought to him by the bucketload. The difficulty was to sort wheat from chaff. Much more illuminating, as an example of intelligence-gathering in the pre-electric age, was the organisation of intelligence during his campaigning days in unconquered India. Wellington (Arthur Wellesley) was in active command of armies in India from 1799 to 1804. Britain, through the East India Company, controlled large enclaves in Bengal, Bombay and Madras but huge areas of the sub-continent were under the rule of local warlords or free-booting hordes. The French, by diplomacy, bribe and direct intervention, sought to bring a majority of anti-British elements to their side. Wellington, operating with small armies of mixed British–Indian composition, was mainly concerned to put down such independents as Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali, feudatories of the effete Moghul emperor, who were effectively running their own armies and states.
In order to win, Wellington needed a steady stream of up-to-date information, from both far and near, so as to anticipate the movements of his enemies and gain forewarning of shifts of alliances, the gathering of stores, the recruitment of soldiers and other signs of offensives in the making. The conventional means of securing such a supply of intelligence was to form a reconnaissance corps, either of troops already under command or recruited from the population. The British in India had recourse to another method. They took over a pre-existing intelligence system and made it their own.
The harkara system seems to have been unique to India. Because of the sub-continent’s enormous size, difficult terrain and – until the building of the railways and the trunk roads of the British raj – lack of long-distance routes, power tended to be local. Even when centralised under the Moghul conquerors of the sixteenth century, it remained quite diffuse. The Moghuls in Delhi ruled by devolution, either to mighty provincial officials or by arrangement with local princes, particularly in western and southern India. The system could only be made to work if the court was supplied with regular reports of events at the lesser courts. It came to be supplied by two groups of news-providers: writers, often scholars of high status in the Indian caste system, and runners, who carried verbal or written messages and reports over long distances at high speed.
Over time the system yielded a peculiarly Indian product: the newsletter, usually written in Persian, the language of the Moghul court, in a highly stylised form and on a regular, typically weekly basis. The letters began as official documents but became, as writers and even runners acquired independence, a sort of private newspaper. Eventually not so private; to whom to distribute the newsletter became a decision of the harkara, who himself acquired a blurred identity, part intelligence-gatherer, part distributor. He also acquired odd rights, to be paid, of course, but also to be accepted as a sort of local correspondent at court, known to be working for other powers at a distant centre.
The harkaras survived because, through their indispensability to those at both ends of the system, they established their independent status. It was an uneasy independence; flogging or even execution could follow the provision of dubious or misleading news. The punishment, however, was personal; it was not intended to undermine the system itself. The system, by the time the British embarked on their progressive supersession of the Moghuls at the end of the eighteenth century, was deeply entrenched in the processes of Indian political and military life. Indian government could not work without it. The British, who were committed to re-establishing Moghul power on an efficient basis, ruling themselves while leaving the Moghuls nominally in charge, simply took it over. They ‘reconstituted under their [own] control the classic Indian intelligence system which allied the writing skills and knowledge of learned Brahmins with the hard bodies and running skills of tribal and low-caste people’.
Wellington could not have established himself as the leading sepoy general without the harkaras, whom he both cultivated and tyrannised. His successors continued to do so. Not until the arrival of the telegraph and the establishment of printed newspapers in the middle of the nineteenth century did the harkara system decline; and even so, training in long-distance message-running persisted into the 1920s, sustained by the Indian appetite for news, uncontrolled by official interference, which is such a distinctive feature of sub-continental life. The reason, it has been suggested, why India has become and remains the largest and only real democracy in the Third World is because of its citizens’ insatiable thirst for information.