The shadowy eggheads who transformed warfare

Afghanistan in the 21st century: same game, different players (Getty)

Under Every Leaf
By William Beaver
Biteback, 340pp, £9.99/$14.95

Most students of history will be familiar with the enormous extension of European empires in the second half of the 19th century, in which the likes of Russia, France and Britain seized swathes of territory in Asia and Africa. Less well known is the role played by the War Office Intelligence Division in helping the British expand and consolidate their empire, and its role in checking the ambitions of the Russians and the French.

In this lively, witty and meticulously researched work, subtitled How Britain Played the Greater Game from Afghanistan to Africa, William Beaver, former operational combat intelligence officer and present-day Anglican clergyman, outlines how this clandestine body of graduates turned intelligence into a weapon of warfare.

While Britain’s diplomatic machinery was almost powerless to collect the right information, and the Royal Navy unable to act beyond the seas, the Intelligence Division became an invaluable secret service in Perfidious Albion’s imperial scheming.

Gathering and collating information in diverse fields from demography to orthography, the Intelligence Division predicted and planned for the Second South African (or Boer) War – warnings which the War Office ignored. It also rebutted Indian army concerns that the Russians were about to attack Afghanistan and India, telling the prime minister that this would make no sense. The Division had obtained and analysed the annual contract let by the Russian Intendance Branch for flour. There were no plans for any new or expanded flour points towards the south-east and the Hindu Kush. No bakeries meant no bread to feed the troops. Hence, they correctly calculated, no invasion.

Being deskbound eggheads who worked behind the backs of official bodies, Intelligence Division staff weren’t particularly liked, especially by the Army, but their role in shoring up the British Empire in the 19th century was invaluable – even if it was unrecognised. As the Farsi expression put it, “Anywhere in the world where a leaf moves, underneath you will find an Englishman.”