The Wireless First World War: A Series
An annotated link post
Before radio technology was invented, an extensive military intelligence bureaucracy had already become the norm in European land armies. This was a new phenomenon in the world, one with social and political implications that became visible in the most infamous miscarriage of justice at the turn of the century.
Because these institutions pre-existed radio, the new technology was adapted to military ends from inception. The man we credit most for this revolution worked hand-in-hand with military men all along, cooperating with them at every turn, even integrating his own stations into their nation-state surveillance systems. So it is little surprise to find the most militant minds of the early 20th Century openly admiring radio for its destructive potential.
Because pre-existing bureaucracies saw the usefulness of radio intelligence before the war, systems of surveillance and code-breaking were already in place before the war broke out. Indeed, it was the Italians who set everything in motion with their aggressive pursuit of an imperial renaissance at the expense of the Ottomans. The first land war to produce significant signal traffic also inspired the Balkan uprising that led to pan-European war.
Then, in the famous July Crisis, radio acted as a lubricant on the slippery slope to war. Signals were intercepted, spurring other signals, which were intercepted in turn, spurring further signals in a feedback loop of decision. If we were to write the First World War as a streaming cable series, the episode in which the war breaks out would be a radio play.
Having played an outsize role in the outbreak of war, radio and radio intelligence played a central role in the formation of the stalemate that followed. Start on the Western Front, where German army communications were weak and the French SIGINT game very strong, providing a force multiplier to stop Germany at the Marne.
Then consider the weakest of the Central Powers, indeed the feeblest of the major combatants, and the crucial role of radio SIGINT in forestalling their defeat by both Russia and Italy. Without “the great secret” of the imperial and royal army, the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have fallen in 1915.
Third, radio SIGINT was essential to the German victory at Tannenberg and the ensuing campaign around the Masurian Lakes that expelled the Russian army. By 1915, the Russian general staff was saddled with failures and desperately seeking scapegoats for them. This was the beginning of the end for the Tsar, with all that implied for the 20th Century.
Fourth, we turn to the British experience, in which radio SIGINT was developed as a secret weapon against Germany at sea. Thankfully, we have a rare memoir from someone who was there, and who carried over that program into the Second World War.
In 1917, the youngest global empire came to Europe and learned the radio SIGINT game very fast, mainly from the French. To coax the Americans into the conflict, British intelligence had spent years propagandizing Americans with sanitized SIGINT.
Finally, the American doughboys were not content to simply imitate their teachers. Instead, they invented mobile SIGINT infrastructure that could keep up with the new, motorized battlefield.
Of course, this series has not covered the topic in full. There are millions of stories in radio warfare, these are just a few of them. Stay tuned!