Spies in Uniform: British Military and Naval Intelligence on the Eve of the First World War

(Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2006), pp. 272 incl. index. ISBN 0-19-926150-4

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Matthew Seligman, who is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Northampton, sets as his target the claim – recently revived by Niall Ferguson – that the British decision for war in August 1914 was made despite the absence of any compelling evidence that Germany was prompted by a ‘Napoleonic’ design. Focusing on the work of British military and naval attachés in Berlin in the decade and a half before the First World War, Seligmann then fires at this target some hefty broadsides and scores some damaging hits. His long and detailed book will have to be taken very seriously by historians of the origins of this war. It will also be of great interest to historians of diplomacy since the role of service attachés in embassies has been surprisingly neglected. (The only full-length scholarly work on the subject – and that rather ponderous and something of a scissors and paste job – was written by Alfred Vagts back in the 1960s.)

Seligman has long chapters on the social role of the service attachés at the British Embassy in Berlin (a role not to be sneered at, not least because it gave them easy access to Wilhelm II), how they obtained their intelligence and what it contained. His archival research is exhaustive and his analysis lucid and exceptionally systematic. He concludes at the end of these chapters that, though there were naturally some differences of view between the attachés, collectively they were nevertheless ‘harbingers of the German menace’ – arguing, moreover, that it would loom largest in the years from 1913 to 1915. But what can be said of the influence of their reports on government policy? This is the subject of the final and most important chapter, which is as methodical as ever. Here Seligman demonstrates first that the reports of the service attachés were widely distributed at home, surfacing in officer training manuals as well on the desks of senior members of the government. He then documents the evidence to show that they were generally received with great respect, though less so on the relatively rare occasions when they did not support existing preconceptions. And finally he provides a lengthy analysis of two examples of British reactions clearly shaped by the reports of the service attachés: airship development, and naval policy in the context of ‘the alleged “German acceleration” of 1908-9’. His overall conclusion, therefore, is that the service attachés not only warned repeatedly of the German menace but had a receptive audience in government.

There is no doubt that this is an impressive argument, though at the end I felt that the author was not altogether convincing on his third and critical measure of attaché influence – direct evidence of cause and effect. Of course, Seligmann confronted huge problems in this regard because of the massive weeding of War Office and Admiralty files of this period. (He laments this so often and uses the word ‘sadly’ with such frequency that I shall ever afterwards think of him as ‘the mournful Dr Seligmann’!) The research on which his book is based is also so thorough that it is difficult to know what else he could have done. Nevertheless, I thought that the author had slipped a little from his own high standards by providing two examples of attaché influence that the evidence does permit, and then suggesting that these are ‘illustrative of the role of attachés in the decision-making process’ (p. 253). And again: ‘In relation to our third test of attaché influence – impact on government – it can, therefore, be concluded that the service attachés made their mark’ (p. 260). The last sentence is carefully worded but it is clear nevertheless that on this point Seligmann is straining to make a case. The give-away is the word ‘illustrative’ in the previously quoted line. Illustrations, of course, are not proof; they are instances of a general principle proved by some other means. I have some other niggles, among them that the structure leads to some repetition and that the index is not much more than one of proper names (no entry on ‘weeding’, for example, which would have been very useful).

Despite my few reservations, I have no hesitation in saying that this is a very important book. It is also a good read. The detail is rich and interesting and, mournful though Dr Seligmann may be, this does not mean that he lacks a sense of humour. I loved the story about the naval attaché who went to Danzig to meet the British consul, Colonel Brookfield, and was greeted at the station by his ‘sort of an ADC’ – his 12-year old daughter. ‘Baby Brookfield’, as she introduced herself, at once secured the attaché’s luggage and within five minutes they were driving off in a cab. Furthermore, it subsequently transpired that – in the view of the naval attaché – she was the source of the only news of real interest provided by her father. It would be interesting to know if the Colonel supported votes for women.