British Covert Operations in World War I: The History of Britain’s Espionage and Dark Arts during the Great War

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World War I, also known in its time as the “Great War” or the “War to End all Wars,” was an unprecedented holocaust in terms of its sheer scale. Fought by men who hailed from all corners of the globe, it saw millions of soldiers do battle in brutal assaults of attrition which dragged on for months with little to no respite. Tens of millions of artillery shells and untold hundreds of millions of rifle and machine gun bullets were fired in a conflict that demonstrated man’s capacity to kill each other on a heretofore unprecedented scale, and as always, such a war brought about technological innovation at a rate that made the boom of the Industrial Revolution seem stagnant.

Many members of British society viewed war as a sport, a lethal one admittedly, but one played by gentlemen in the spirit of amateurism and fair play as it had been throughout the British Empire in the preceding decades. The bloody stalemate on the Western Front caught them unprepared for the dark arts of covert warfare which would be needed to avert defeat, gain the initiative, win the war and, ultimately, shape the peace. Those operations would witness the evolution of an ad hoc coalition of stakeholders from the military, the political elite, academics, technical experts, various kinds of industry, the media, and even the artistic community, all of which came together to wage a variety of forms of covert warfare. Many of the programs were technically successful, and in some cases, they undoubtedly saved lives and shortened the war. In the process, the administration and execution of covert warfare became increasingly well-organized and sophisticated.