Scientists, Code Breakers and Propagandists of the Great War

Secret Warriors: Key Scientists, Code Breakers and Propagandists of the Great War
Taylor Downing
Little Brown   438pp   £20

Taylor Downing is keen to dispel two misconceptions about the First World War. The first is that it was about ragged troops locked in a muddy stalemate on the Western Front. The second is that science contributed little more to the conflict than deadly explosives and poison gas.

Downing sets about highlighting the positive role that scientists played in the war, as they moved out of their back rooms to become 'secret warriors', providing blueprints and innovatory ideas in the fields of aviation, intelligence and code breaking, engineering and gunnery, chemistry and medicine, as well as in the arcane arts of censorship and propaganda.

Such an omnium gatherum approach can seem superfluous when so much information is available on the Internet. However, Downing's easy style brings clarity to unrelated areas of the war, without forcing his readers along a chronological route march.

Three sections stand out. One is his even-handed depiction of the work of Room 40 in the Admiralty. This was the seat of the cryptanalysts who intercepted and deciphered German naval and diplomatic messages (they were the forerunners of Bletchley Park a quarter of a century later). He gives a solid account of the development of the tank, where advances in fields such as armour plating and tracks came together under the Landships Committee at the Admiralty. His other stand-out chapter is about the psychologists and doctors who identified and treated shell shock, all the while having to fight those who felt that sufferers from such an affliction were shirkers, worthy of court martial, even execution.

Downing clearly likes scientists and is not afraid to give them credit. His book starts with three scene-setting vignettes. One conveys the excitement of cutting the German deep-sea communication cables at the very start of the war; another the exhilaration of the first pilots in the Royal Flying Corps crossing the Channel in a new combat aircraft. The last chronicles a meeting of the Royal Society in November 1914 when, under the august chairmanship of Sir William Crookes, it established a War Committee, pledged to assist the government in all matters scientific.

As Downing acknowledges, these were generally exciting times for western science. Ernest Rutherford had recently mapped out the structure of the atom (and would soon go on to split it); new ideas about the mind were emerging from Sigmund Freud in Vienna and so on.

Nevertheless the scientist had little professional kudos (the word was hardly used) and even those who did acknowledge that title looked down on 'applied science'. However that 'gentleman and players' approach was changing, so a leading physiologist, such as Sir John Haldane in Oxford, for example, was now willing to use his knowledge of poisons and respiration to work for the improvement of industrial health in coal mines.

Although he makes little claim to original research, Downing has done well to thread together these disparate strands and bring a sense of the adventure of war to the life of the questing scientific mind.

Andrew Lycett, the biographer of Ian Fleming, is working on a book about the early years of the British intelligence services.

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