Book Review - Secret Warriors: Key Scientists, Code Breakers and Propagandists of the Great War

Posted on on 01 May 2014
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Author: Taylor Downing
Publication Date: 01 May 2014

Publisher's Description

"The First World War is often viewed as a war fought by armies of millions living and fighting in trenches, aided by brutal machinery that cost the lives of many. But behind all of this a scientific war was also being fought between engineers, chemists, physicists, doctors, mathematicians and intelligence gatherers. This hidden war was make a positive and lasting contribution to how war was conducted on land, at sea and in the air, and most importantly life at home.

Secret Warriors provides an invaluable and fresh history of the First World War, profiling a number of key figures who made great leaps in science for the benefit of 20th Century Britain. Told in a lively narrative style, Secret Warriors reveals the unknown side of the war."

Centenary News Review

Review by: Eleanor Baggley, Centenary News Books Editor

In Secret Warriors Taylor Downing gives us a fascinating glimpse into the other side of the war – the scientific front. Told with a historian’s precision and passion this book demonstrates quite how much the war influenced Britain’s technological advancements. At least some facets of Edwardian Britain were dominated by technophobes, meaning that even now we see early twentieth century England as a technophobic nation. On the eve of war Britain quickly shrugged off this label and in the years of the war made huge progress in aviation, medicine, engineering and chemistry, propaganda and code breaking.

‘This war would be conducted in laboratories and scientific workshops, as well on the battlefields and across the oceans of the world.’

The narrative style of Secret Warriors is particularly vibrant. Alongside captivating factual information, Downing fills his pages with anecdotal evidence that makes Secret Warriors entertaining as well as absorbing. For example, Downing recounts the experiences of Captain Joubert, a pilot who found himself lost somewhere over Europe. Joubert landed and discovered he was in Tournai and after a hearty welcome and a good lunch was on his way again. Once more he found himself lost and landed to refuel. This time however the welcome was slightly less jovial and he was threatened and nearly arrested for being a spy. He was eventually helped out of the potentially dangerous situation by a local who realised Joubert was on their side. It is such additions that make Secret Warriors a particularly compelling human history.

In the prologue, Downing points out that this is a ‘story of many individuals’. It is this focus on the people behind the science, so many of whom are named and given a background, which makes this book stand out from the crowd of World War One history books.

Secret Warriors demonstrates how the ‘boffins’ of World War One transformed the face of science and paved the way for advancements that are still impacting on the world today. This book has everything you would want or expect from a history of the ‘boffins’. There are adventures, mistakes (both clumsy and colossal), secrets, lies, larger than life scientists, and exceptional inventions and innovations. It is a book to read once for the facts and read again for the people and stories. 

To read Eleanor's interview with Taylor Downing, click here.

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