Strategic Intelligence II


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.


The siege of Tuyen Quang

The siege of Tuyen Quang is ranked in the annals of the Legion heroics only slightly below that of Camerone, and rightly so. However, the strategic role played by Tuyen Quang in the French campaign of conquest is unclear. Grisot claimed that Tuyen Quang formed a “barrier” against the advance of the Yunnan army. In one sense, the prolonged resistance of Tuyen Quang tied down large numbers of Black Flags and Yunnanese regulars who might have caused the French great embarrassment elsewhere. However, the failure of the Chinese to operate against the delta while Brière de I’Isle was heavily engaged in the north probably had more to do with a lack of any coordinated Chinese strategic plan than with the resistance of the Legion at Tuyen Quang itself. For after all, Chinese who invested Tuyen Quang in December 1884 could easily have bypassed the fortress by going down the Red River, or by surrounding the garrison with a small holding force while the bulk of their army operated elsewhere, especially after February 1885 when Brière de I’Isle launched his operation toward Lang Son. In all probability, the Chinese saw Tuyen Quang as a vulnerable target and decided that there they might inflict upon the French a defeat of proportions significant enough to create at least psychological damage.

So if the military significance of Tuyen Quang is unclear, its symbolic importance became immense. And all the more so because the place was virtually undefendable—a square each of whose walls measured three hundred yards built on the banks of the Clear River. The fortress was dominated by a number of wooded hills. Captain Champs, a sergeant-major in 1885, was of the opinion that if the Legion had been sent to garrison Tuyen Quang, “then the post wasn’t worth much.” But the legionnaires and tirailleurs tonkinois defended it for three months with a dogged tenacity that suggested that they valued their reputations, and their lives, even if the place was a strategic backwater.

On January 16, the Chinese began to dig their lines of investment around the garrison, which were complete by the 20th. On the night of January 26-27, a mass of Chinese charged through the Annamese village 400 yards from the garrison, set it alight and then surged toward the French positions. The warm reception they received from the legionnaires drove them back in confusion: “We must have killed more than a hundred,” the Protestant chaplain Th. Boisset wrote in his diary, “and the cannonade does not seem to be finished yet.” This convinced the Chinese to begin more methodical siege operations. Soon trenches began to snake toward the French positions, despite the best efforts of the garrison’s four light cannon to dispute their progress. The Chinese objective was a blockhouse that stood on a small mole 350 yards from the southwestern angle of the French position. When it became obvious to the French that the Chinese had driven mine shafts beneath the blockhouse and were prepared to blow it up, they pulled in the garrison on the night of January 30, and then destroyed the fortification with their artillery.

The Chinese continued their siege with admirable, if unsettling, persistence. During the day they made fascines—bundles of sticks used to shore up parapets—and kept up a constant sniping on the garrison that caused one or two casualties each day. At night they pushed their saps relentlessly forward, while bombarding the garrison with a constant, casualty-producing fire. For their part, the French worked feverishly to shore up their positions, but were hampered by the fact that the garrison counted only twenty-nine shovels. On February 3, an Annamite crept out to take news of the garrison’s predicament to Hanoi, but Boisset speculated that the operations around Lang Son might prevent a relief from being sent. To prevent surprise attacks, the French lowered lanterns from the wall at night. So close were the approach trenches that some enterprising legionnaires snagged a Chinese flag using a cord with a noose tied to the end of a bamboo pole.

On February 8, as the officers dined, a shell burst on the roof of their mess, scattering debris over the plates, the infallible announcement that the Chinese had received artillery. While at first the firing was badly regulated, gradually the enemy gunners became more expert and their shells began to slam into the pagoda that Marc Edmond Dominé, the garrison commander, used as a command post, and hit the shacks that housed the troops, causing casualties. In the early hours of February 12, the Chinese blew a mine beneath the French defenses and a Forlorn Hope—The party sent to seize and hold the breach—rushed forward. A rapid French response killed between thirty and forty of the advance party, which convinced the assault columns waiting in the saps to postpone their attack. Hardly minutes passed when a second mine blew. A Chinese appeared to plant a flag in the breach, only to be shot down by the legionnaires who, brought forward by cries of “aux armes!,” rushed to the defenses. Three subsequent assaults were repulsed, but at a cost of five legionnaires killed and six wounded. The next day, a sortie by the garrison drove the Chinese out of their most advanced saps and allowed the legionnaires to destroy some of the approaching earthworks. But the relief provided by this small success quickly evaporated when it became apparent that the Chinese had added heavy mortars to their siege batteries.

At six o’clock on the morning of February 22, the Chinese sent up a din of trumpets and shouts from their trenches. Anticipating an explosion, Captain Catelin of the Legion began to pull his men back from the positions he knew to be mined. Seconds later, the first of three mines was exploded by the Chinese, the second of which killed a Legion captain and the last of which collapsed almost sixty yards of wall. Groups of defenders kept up a hot fire while their comrades worked feverishly for four hours to repair the damage caused by the mines. They succeeded, but at the end of the day the Legion counted one officer and four legionnaires dead, and one officer, three NCOs and thirty-seven legionnaires wounded.

On the following day, another Chinese assault was repulsed. On the 25th, the deadly Chinese tactic was repeated—a mine blew, followed by an assault that obliged a number of legionnaires to keep the assailants at bay while their comrades worked to repair the damage. Four more legionnaires perished and another twelve were wounded. At eleven thirty in the evening of February 27, more mines exploded, followed by an assault on three different points of the defenses. The Chinese swarmed on the breaches, waving their black flags and hurling grenades and satchels of powder. “For nearly 30 minutes, the fighting continued hand-to-hand on the breaches, the combatants separated only by the bamboo palisades which crowned the defenses,” Dominé wrote in his diary. By dawn, repeated attacks had been driven off, but the Legion had lost another three dead, including an officer, and nine wounded.

The garrison’s situation was desperate. Only 180 rifles were in working order to defend a perimeter 1,200 yards long, 120 yards of which had been destroyed by mines. On March 1, the garrison heard firing to the south and suspected that it was a relief force. But Domine’s troops were too exhausted to mount a breakout. When Chinese firing redoubled on March 2, many must have feared that they might be overwhelmed before the relief could arrive.

In fact, the Chinese firing had masked their withdrawal. On March 3, the garrison woke up to discover that the Chinese had decamped in the night. The reason soon became clear—that very afternoon, the relief column, which had left Lang Son on February 16, stumbled up the track along the Clear River after fighting a desperate action at Hoa Moc against a blocking force that cost more killed than had perished in the entire siege—indeed, Hoa Moc was the most murderous battle fought by the French in Tonkin since their 1883 invasion. For many in the relief force, the sight of Tuyen Quang was a sobering one: “All the approaches [to Tuyen Quang] —churned, blasted, lamentable—were covered with corpses and the carrion rotted in the air,” Huguet complained. “The pestilential emanations of all of these putrid corpses turned your stomach …” “What a spectacle! What desolation! What ruin!” exclaimed Boisset when he emerged from the citadel to walk over a battlefield littered with abandoned weapons and tools of the siege, and furrowed with almost six miles of trenches. “Our liberators cannot believe their eyes.” So impressive was the defense of Tuyen Quang that the government ordered the publication of Domine’s journal in the Journal officiel, while a separate edition was printed and distributed to garrison libraries throughout France and the colonies. But France’s, and the Legion’s, trials in Indochina had only begun.