The New Telephone and
The New Airplane at War
Mons, France --- August, 1914
Given the emphasis on cavalry reconnaissance, it is amusing to relate that the most accurate information on the approach of the German First Army was amassed by the simple initiative of a somewhat unconventional intelligence officer, Lieutenant Colonel George Barrow, who made a series of telephone calls from Mons railway station on the morning of 22 August.

    I went into Mons in order to execute a novel plan I had conceived for ascertaining the positions the Germans had reached and of maintaining touch with his subsequent progress and the extent of the great left wheel he was evidently about to make. With the consent of the French authorities, I took possession of the railway telephone office. Here, assisted by Bertrand Stewart, I sat all day and far into the night ringing up all possible and impossible places in Belgium not known yet to be in German hands: Soignies, Braine-le-Comte, Hal, Tubize, Lens, Ath, Ghislenghien, Lessines, and many others. Replies took the following forms: "No signs of enemy here, but rumours they are in A." "Germans are five miles distant on road to B!" "Have just received message from C that enemy close to town. Germans are on outskirts of town; we are closing down!" A German voice or failure to get contact told that the enemy had already arrived. It was easy from these replies to get a fairly accurate picture of the German line of advance. Allenby sent this information on to GHQ. It showed that the German right extended much further west than had been suspected. But GHQ preferred to rely on its own agents and more orthodox intelligence methods. It replied, "The information which you have acquired and conveyed to the Commander-in-Chief appears to be somewhat exaggerated!"

In fact, this exercise gave a good impressionistic picture of the real threat lurking behind the German cavalry screen. It was another sign that modern technology was creating new methods of gaining information and that the day of the cavalry might be all but done. There were a series of small cavalry skirmishes, which loom large in some British histories, but which were trivial in the extreme compared to the mayhem encompassing the French Army the same day. The first British shot was fired, the first casualty suffered in action, but Barrow had gained far more potentially useful intelligence at the Mons station telephone, only to have his initiative ignored by GHQ.

Meanwhile, behind the British cavalry screen, long columns of sweating infantry began to push forward into Belgium on 22 August.

    It was a very hot day and the march proved particularly trying to the reservists --- about 50% of the strength. As soon as the frontier had been crossed, and the column had entered Belgium, the general aspect of the countryside underwent a great change. This district, the southwestern outskirts of the Mons-Charleroi mining area, was industrial, and its Villages were more densely populated than those on the French side of the frontier. For the first time roads paved with cobbled stones, very uneven and trying to the feet, were met with. The inhabitants from outward appearances gave the impression of being less friendly than the French peasants. They watched the passage of troops through their midst with marked indifference. Men of military age were numerous in the villages, lounging at the street corners as the troops passed. The distance marched was fifteen miles.

--- Captain Algernon Ransome,
1st Dorsetshire Regiment,
15th Brigade, 5th Division, II Corps
Up above them all were the aircraft of the RFC. Frail in appearance, they had the power to influence the course of events, by what they could discern of the German plans. Given good visibility, little was hidden from them as they flew searching out the German columns.

    I started out that morning from Maubeuge and we were told to go to a given area --- east --- and we were told we should see advancing German troops. We were very, very excited as we looked for them. You were very limited in your facilities, you had a map strapped on one knee and a pad with a pencil on the other and it was rather wobbling about. As soon as we got over our area instead of seeing a few odd German troops I saw the whole area covered with hoards of field grey uniforms --- advancing infantry, cavalry, transport and guns. In fact it looked as though the place was alive with the Germans. My pilot and I were completely astounded because it was not a little more than we'd been looking for --- it was infinitely more. The main roads of Belgium were pave in the centre, with two areas of a yard or two of dry earth, which in the winter were chewed all up, but which in the summer you could use. The Germans had their guns and heavy transport on the pavé to give them foundation, infantry walking along on this soft earth and on the field on either side in many cases there were cavalry. We very busily covered the area, made marks on the map, made notes as much as we could. After a little while we went away. I was completely horrified! We came roaring back and we landed whereupon I was put into a motor car by my squadron commander and taken off to general headquarters.

--- Lieutenant Cuthbert Rabagliati,
5 Squadron, RFC
Like Barrow, Rabagliati would discover that intelligence is of little value of it is not appreciated or understood by those in command of events.

    As we arrived we were ushered in and we went into a room with a lot of elderly gentlemen covered in gold lace and all the rest of it. All these senior generals, it was Sir John French's own personal conference that was going on. Somebody announced us and he said, "Well here's a boy from the Flying Corps, come here and sit down!" I was put to sit next to him rather terrified! I showed him a map all marked out. He said, "Have you been over that area?" and I said, "Yes, Sir!" I explained what I had seen and they were enormously interested. Then they began reading the figures that I had estimated, whereupon I feel that their interest faded --- they seemed to look at each other and shrug their shoulders. Then French turned round to me and said, "Now, yes my boy, this is terribly interesting, but tell me all about an aeroplane, what can you do when you're in these machines? Aren't they very dangerous, are they very cold, can you see anything? What do you do if your engine stops?" I couldn't bring him back to earth because obviously he wasn't interested. I again tried and he looked at me and said, "Yes, this is very interesting, what you've got but our information --- which of course is correct --- proves that I don't think you could have seen as much as you think! Well of course I quite understand that you may imagine that you have, but it's not the case!"
--- From The British Expeditionary Force
and the Campaign of 1914

Peter Hart
©2015 Oxford University Press
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