How Britain Played the Greater Game from Afghanistan to Africa
Author William Beaver
Publisher Biteback Publishing
ISBN 9781849542197
RRP £20.00
Under Every Leaf

William Beaver, the book’s author, may at first appear to be a bookish academic like many others: once a Beit Senior Scholar at Oxford, he’s currently officiating chaplain attached to the Household Division of the British Army. But dig deeper and you’ll find that he’s a decorated intelligence officer.

Under Every Leaf concerns itself with the origins of British intelligence, before the advent of Military Intelligence Section 6 (MI6) in 1909. It’s taken an Establishment Insider to do it — and that’s exactly what Beaver is. The book is concerned with the so-called Intelligence Division of the War Office, whose obscure and somewhat hilarious origins stretch right back into the Crimean campaign in the 1850s, when there was little intelligence — but immense blundering — out in the field.

Most of the archival documentation for such a study doesn’t exist: it was destroyed in an age where secrets were kept unto the grave and Twitter didn’t exist even in people’s craziest imaginations. So for a very long time we didn’t know about British intelligence in the age of maximal imperial expansion, as Beaver’s foreword makes plain. Even the experts at Oxford didn’t know.

It is Beaver who appears to have had the confidence and intuition to probe carton after carton of files drawn from obscure military libraries, and to be rewarded with revelatory gems where technically none should exist. As he explains, Whitehall clerks had no known route for filing what meager paperwork survived from the ID, so one might open up ‘FO Diplomatic/Domestic Various’ to be confronted with reams of marriage licences. But turn one more page, and one “finds a highly classified intelligence summary or plan of action…which…was influential in forming British policy.”

In fact the book has become a narrative of how the Intelligence Division arose from the Topographical & Statistical Department — itself the product of an eccentric cartographer called Jervis who was forced to pay himself for the production of decent maps of the Crimea to help the British forces there — which ends in the first years of the 20th century. It’s a detailed book and a scholarly book, certainly, but it never loses its sparkle.

Even non-historians will feel something of Beaver’s excitement, but also see the extraordinary graft that has gone into his attempt to weave a lively and often humorous narrative around careful scholarship, the product of years of tenacious hunting.