The Origins of Modern Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance

Military Intelligence at the Front, 1914-18

Terrence J. Finnegan, Col., USAFR (Ret.)


Military leaders learned that approaching battle through in-depth study and analysis would prove far more effective than reliance on élan.

Military intelligence at the front advanced remarkably during the Great War, adopting methods and technologies that would remain in place through the 20th century. Before the modern era, national and strategic intelligence (renseignement and Nachricht, French and German, respectively) came mainly from espionage. With the introduction of aerial reconnaissance deep behind enemy lines, the tools of a modern era would contribute to shaping strategy and assessing enemy intentions.

On the World War I battlefield, as traditional sources — including the military commander’s favorite force arm for intelligence, mobile cavalry — were rendered impotent, armies became entrenched along hundreds of miles of front. With each passing day of 1914, as opposing forces commenced a strategy of positional war, demand mounted for a constant stream of accurate and timely information to target field artillery, the most important weapon in the contemporary arsenal. This demand created new sources of intelligence derived from technologies that were familiar to Europeans of the day but which had not yet been effectively employed in warfare.

At the front, the conservative military culture was forced to grapple with its tradition and make sense of combat in the new stationary environment. In the face of catastrophic casualties, military leaders soon learned that approaching battle through in-depth study and analysis would prove far more effective than reliance on the élan that spurred the first waves of soldiers to rush forward into walls of lead from machine guns.

They learned that access to accurate and timely information was essential to gain advantage in battle. Their command and control came to depend on constantly collected intelligence from a rapidly expanding list of sources to support decisions from the planning stages to their execution. Leading exponents of military intelligence reinforced this thinking. Within the first year, a French intelligence visionary portrayed intelligence information’s contribution in simple terms — to follow the destructive work of our artillery and to register the victorious advance of our infantry.

By late 1915, intelligence information, especially that acquired from airplanes, had demonstrated that it was credible and contributed effectively to the conduct of battle. Traditionalists, who had been skeptical of new intelligence sources at the beginning of the conflict, became firm disciples for the remainder of the war.

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All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this article are those of the author. Nothing in the article should be construed as asserting or implying US government endorsement of its factual statements and interpretations.

Posted: Jan 26, 2010 11:34 AM
Last Updated: Jan 26, 2010 11:35 AM