I first wrote A Matter of Intelligence – Wellington on Twitter last year and as today is the anniversary of the great man’s death I thought I would share it again.
Military Intelligence in the early nineteenth century was a little haphazard to say the least. Wellington made use of local Portuguese and Spanish guerrillas who provided him with information about French troop movements. He also had a Corps of Guides which performed a wide variety of duties of which intelligence and map-making was one.
Initially the Corps only had a sergeant, a corporal and 18 troopers. It was commanded from 1808 to 1814 by Major (later LtCol) George Scovell, seconded from the Portuguese Quartermaster-General’s Department. Wellington expanded and transformed the Corps into a military intelligence corps. Around 15 officers, English and Portuguese, were appointed to the corps between 25 April and 3 June 1809; many more enlisted men were also added and, in 1813, the corps had 12 officers and 193 men. In 1808-1810 the corps was mostly Portuguese, its officers being generally students of the University of Coimbra. All were to speak both English and Portuguese. Later recruits were often foreign deserters or Spaniards, recruited to gather information for the Anglo-Portuguese Army in Spain and southern France.
The Corps employed a number of ‘exploring officers’, chosen for three distinct skills: they were expert horsemen, skilled linguists, and able to express themselves in writing or sketching in the briefest and most concise terms. One of the first duties in the winter of 1810 when there was little fighting, was for the exploring officers to map every bit of the Portuguese countryside four miles to the inch. They accomplished this with the help of local inhabitants who often knew their own immediate area never travelled beyond the sight of their villages or farms.
With the countryside mapped, the exploring officers were sent out on
reconnaissance, moving behind enemy lines, learning troop movements and strategic information and then bringing the information back to Wellington. They led lonely and often dangerous lives and received little reward or recognition for it. Some were even shunned by their former regiments who took the view that they had avoided the dangers of the battlefield but Wellington had enormous respect for them.
These days, so much intelligence is online, and there is a good deal of debate about personal privacy on the internet and how it can be balanced against national security. Wellington’s needs were much simpler. He needed men to gather the information, he needed Portuguese and Spanish partisans to capture French messengers and bring him their despatches. And he needed a code breaker to make sense of them. He found that in Major George Scovell, an unassuming officer of the quartermaster-general’s department who became a crucial player in Wellington’s winning the war.
I find myself speculating, between my writing, my research and reading news reports, on how different things were for Wellington and his army. Messages were sent by semaphore or carried by riders and there was nothing instant about them. News or orders from London took weeks to arrive and the officers of Wellington’s army were often ignorant of the latest news and of their general’s plans which they found very frustrating. Not that modern methods of communication would have helped them. Lord Wellington was notorious for failing to consult or inform his officers, with the exception of a privileged few. He was a private man and it would not have occurred to him to share his thoughts or opinions with the majority of the army. Twitter would not have been for him. But I’ve been amusing myself today, reading some of Donald Trump’s latest efforts, trying to imagine what it would have been like if he had…
Wellington on twitter
@Craufurdlightdivision: Camped at Almeida outside fort
@Wellingtonhq: When you say outside fort do you by any remote chance mean outside the actual fortress? What are you doing on that side of the river General? Did you not understand my very
@Craufurdlightdivision: Sir only 140 characters, remember?
@Wellingtonhq: 140 characters? How can I be expected to give orders in 140 characters? This is completely absurd, where are you? Where are the French? Have you made contact with Picton? You
@Craufurdlightdivision: You need to keep it shorter, Picton an arsehole, think French approaching, might need to go, brb
@Wellingtonhq: What do you mean Picton an arsehole, dear God if the enemy is approaching and you have no support you need to get them out of there! Why are you on that side of the river? Retr
@Craufurdlightdivision: Busy here, sir, retreating over the river, very outnumbered, BFN
@Wellingtonhq: BFN what in God’s name does that mean? What numbers? How are they formed? Do you have cover? How can I give orders without any information, General, this is serious! Get th
@Craufurdlightdivision: Shit the bridge is blocked need to go BFN
@Wellingtonhq: Craufurd listen to me! Are you there? Speak to me! How dare you pi me in the middle of my orders! You forget yourself, sir! You are too rash, too ready to throw your men into bat
@Wellingtonhq: God damn it why will this thing never let me finish a sentence? Craufurd answer me!
@Craufurdlightdivision: #ohshit #thatwasclose #nearlylostlightdivision
Wellington (to his ADC): Freemantle, would you be a good fellow and check those bushes for my phone? No not those ones, Captain, those over there. I threw it quite hard. And send a message to General Craufurd by semaphore, would you?
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