Review: To Complete the Jigsaw by Nicholas van der Bijl

To Complete the Jigsaw: British Military Intelligence in the First World War by Nicholas van der Bijl (The History Press, 2015) was a roller coaster read.

Having heard about the book, I eagerly waited its publication date – little has been written on military intelligence during World War 1 and even less mentioned East Africa. It’s an area I’d been thinking needs to be addressed and within months of the thought, a book was due to appear.

Opening the book, the ups and downs of the roller-coaster began.

New discoveries of the Western Front, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Of particular interest for me was the setting up of military intelligence and how it developed from the Crimean and Anglo-Boer Wars with not much done in the intervening years. However, there was a recognition that ascertaining what the other side had planned would prove invaluable during a war. How it came about and evolved during the war and around the different circumstances or contexts was fascinating.

Then came the downers. Although the discussion below my suggest they outweigh the uppers, don’t be mislead. This book is definitely worth reading and provides a valuable overview of military intelligence in World War 1. There are, however, a few aspects readers should be aware of.

The first is the poor editing of the book. A basic proofread seems to have been missed, and although generally not a problem, there are one or two instances where a significant word has been missed. Another challenge has been the structure of the writing/content. Thoughts/claims are strung together with no obvious link being made or context set. Where people feature in different parts of the war, no link is made to their other role – the obvious one being Meintertzhagen. The impression is that this is a book wich was put together and published in haste. The sad thing about the haste is that it detracts from what is a significant contribution to the historiography of First World War.

Closer to home, I was rather disappointed in what was written about intelligence in the East Africa campaign. It seemed out of date and a perusal of the books consulted, even Ed Paice’s excellent Tip and Run, proved they were. Much more first hand information is available – by those mentioned in the book – yet Nick has relied on second hand accounts rather than going to Weinholt’s The lion hunt (reprint of 1922 book) and Philip (not Pieter) Pretorius’ Jungle Man to name but two. In some ways, this is understandable. A book of this nature relies on overviews and even those take a long while to work through. To delve into each aspect in depth and detail would take years and would produce a very different book.

Nick has followed the mainstream, again not surprising given the (until very recently) little published on the Great War in East Africa. One of his main sources is Charles Miller’s Battle for the Bundu. Again, I’m not surprised given how many people rate the book. I, too, rate it as an  overview/starting point, but it is not enough anymore. With the information we have today, it is superficial, contains errors and is very Anglo-centric. It provides the basics.

Intelligence bridges the divide between the military, political and social spheres, and apart from chapters dealing with Mesopotamia and Palestine (and even then superficially) the political and social have been largely ignored – despite information having been available at the time the book was being written, albeit not that easy to identify.

My final issue is a related one – that of perpetuating myths. Unfortunately in a book such as this – an overview relying on secondary sources – myths have a tendency to be perpetuated unless challenged in a forthright manner such as Brian Garfield did about Meinertzhagen. I wonder how the narrative of To Complete the Jigsaw would have gone had Nick been aware of Lord Kitchener having completed the first thorough mapping of Palestine. Nick mentions the mapping in passing, focusing rather on the 1913 exercise but made no mention of Kitchener’s involvement in the first. Kitchener had also done his share of intelligence gathering – even allowing himself to be imprisoned as an Arab to obtain information and having to witness a colleague be tortured and killed once found to be a spy. Although Kitchener never spoke Hindi, he had learnt the language allowing him to follow conversations during his time in India before the infomation was translated into English for him. These are just a few points which provide a different image of Kitchener to that portrayed in To Complete the Jigsaw.

I have been overcritical – on areas I have some detailed knowledge. This is not meant to detract from what Nick has done but rather to spur others on to take this first stage further and to delve more deeply into specific areas so that a more complete picture can be put together of the role of intelligence during the First World War. Together with the 1914-1918 Online encylcopedia entry which looks at Europe and the Eastern Front we have the first holistic overview of military intelligence in World War 1.

Thank you Nick for identifying this gap in the historiography and for doing something about it. You’ve laid the foundation for others to build on.

 

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