“Information in War”

A copy of one of my favorite books on intelligence has appeared on Google Books.  This is Information in War: Its Acquisition and Transmission by Colonel George Armand Furse, published in London in 1895 by William Clowes & Sons, Limited.

There are a number of things I find interesting about this book.

It is a remarkably modern work, suffused with a sense that intelligence and reconnaissance can be effective in meeting the information needs of a commander and contributing to success on the battlefield.  Interestingly, Furse draws extensively upon Clausewitz.  The Prussian, of course, was famously skeptical about the utility of intelligence but Furse stands him on his head in this regard.  Furse also makes the entirely sound and modern point that intelligence work requires a lot of up-front effort and the country that wishes to have a good wartime service must establish and maintain this service in peacetime.

Despite his generally modern approach, Furse does have some amusing things to say in his chapter on “Spies.”  On the one hand, he argues that the use of spies is necessary in wartime.    One the other hand, he finds their use distasteful.

In war spies are indispensable auxiliaries; and, when we are precluded from obtaining information by any other means, we must discard all question of morality.  We must overcome our feelings of repugnance for such an unchivalrous measure, because it is imposed on us by sheer necessity.  Necessity knows no laws, and means which we would disdain to use in ordinary life must be employed in the field, simply because we have no other that we can turn to profitable account.  Information has been sought through spies in all wars, and we can plead in our favour that the enemy will not scruple to employ them in his behalf.

Also interesting is Furse’s extensive use of the American Civil War as a source of historical illustrations.  This came at a time when the American experience was not generally thought to be of tremendous interest or relevance to Europeans.  The Europeans, after all, had Prussia’s recent wars and the wars of Napoleon to draw upon.  What could a bunch of amateur American generals have to teach the greatest, most sophisticated military powers in the world?

The final thing I find interesting about this book relates to the specific copy that Google Books has posted.  This copy was at one time in the “Officers’ Reference Library” at the British naval base at Portsmouth.  At some point it was sold off.  It eventually made its way to the Columbia University Library which stamped it as a “Gift of Gen. William J. Donovan APR 2, 1958.”  Donovan, of course, was the head of the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime agency that is generally considered the predecessor to the CIA.

My assumption is that this copy never belonged, per se, to Donovan, but rather that he made a donation which allowed the library to acquire a collection of books of which this is one.  (I’m quite prepared to be wrong here.  I’d be interested in hearing comments on this from readers who may be more familiar with how libraries work.)  However, I have a specific reason for thinking that this copy did not come from Donovan himself.  I know for a fact that Donovan already had a copy of this book and it seems unlikely to me (though it is certainly possible) that he’d have had two in his personal collection.

How do I know this?  A few years ago I requested this work through inter-library loan as part of my dissertation research.  The particular copy that came to me had originally been in the City of Detroit Public Library (entered into their collection on July 21, 1898)  and then later in the Duke University Library.  In between, however, it had belonged to Donovan.  The book was not only stamped  “Gift of Gen. William J. Donovan MAR 17 1958” but it had Donovan’s bookplate in it.

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