Amazing Historical and Contemporary Facts From Your Favorite Authors
WELLINGTON'S PENINSULAR SPIES
Offered by Elizabeth Boyle, author
All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavor to find out what you don't know by what you do: that's what I called 'guessing what was at the other side of the hill.' ~ Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
At the turn of the 19th century, British military intelligence was all but non-existent. It was considered beneath the dignity of an officer to engage in the rather shady business of spying, which before this time had been the occupation of rather nefarious characters and people willing to sell out their homelands. But with the growing threat of Napoleon's power in Europe and the very real idea of war with France, General Brownrigg, the Quartermaster-General of the British Army, went to the Commander in Chief, Frederick, the Duke of York, with a proposal for the army to develop a unit to be known as the Depot of Military Intelligence. He had a very good example from which to draw on: Napoleon's own highly successful Bureau d'Intellingence.
While Brownrigg's Depot of Military Intelligence seems essential in hindsight, at the time it was viewed with a skeptical eye. He had a hard time recruiting competent officers when promotion and renown was won on the battlefield, not from behind a desk in London. Every capable officer posted to the Depot wasted no time in seeing himself posted elsewhere, so that the intelligence and skill of the remaining staff was deplorably low. As an example of how limited the spread of information was within the Army, when Wellington arrived in Portugal, he was unable to lay hands on an accurate map of the country. The only remedy to this problem? He wrote to his brother-in-law to send him one purchased with his own funds because the Army was unable to provide this elementary necessity. Faced with a lack of information about his enemy, as well as the terrain and countryside, Wellington wasted no time in being able to answer such a simple question as "what is over the next hill," by starting a corps of "Exploring Officers." Wellington recruited men who shared three distinct skills: they were fine 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 the fighting was at a low ebb, was for the exploring officers to map every bit of the Portuguese countryside four miles to the inch. This they accomplished with the aid of local inhabitants who knew their own immediate area, but had often never traveled beyond the sight of their villages or farms. With the countryside mapped, the next duty of exploring officers became reconnaissance--moving behind enemy lines, learning troop movements and strategic information, and return this news to Wellington in a timely manner.
John Waters of the Royal Scots was known as a wily and capable man behind enemy lines. Despite his skill and stealth, he was caught by the French and given up for dead by his regiment. When Wellington was told about his capture and probable execution, he belayed the usual dissemination of a lost soldier's personal possessions, saying that "Waters would be back and would want his things." Wellington was right, for Waters eventually returned. Considering that a soldier or officer caught behind enemy lines out of uniform was immediately shot as a "spy," most of the exploring officers wore their uniforms while they went about their jobs.
However, John Grant was one of the few officers who considered himself a spy and went about in disguise. He identified very closely with the Portuguese people and adopted local dress, much to the horror of his fellow officers. It would seem that these daring men, who took such great risks to aid their fellow soldiers, would have been lauded after the war, but unfortunately they were shunned by their regiments, and in some cases not welcomed back at all. They were regarded by the officers in the units to which they were returning as having been "gading about" while the real business of war was being fought at the walls of Badajoz or on the fields of Salamanca. At least history has been kinder to these heroes, and their exploits and feats of skill and daring are now part of the annals of British history as the founding members of England's military intelligence.
Elizabeth Boyle writes Regency set historical romances for Avon. You can meet her "exploring officer," in her July 2001 release, ONCE TEMPTED.