Review: Secret Warriors (Downing)


Secret Warriors: Key Scientists, Code Breakers and Propagandists of the Great War .

The title is a bit misleading: A better one might have been something like “Unknown Warriors.” Except for the cryptologic specialists, there was little or nothing that was secret about these warriors. They just happened to be the largely unacknowledged brains behind the technology of the first modern war.

The nineteenth century had actually been a dynamic period of history: more inventions and discoveries were made after 1805, than had accumulated in the many millennia since the advent of the plough. But these are the stories of the minds that leapt beyond the Victorian attitudes and habits which had lingered after the demise of the queen whose personality had dominated the majority of the century.

After a prologue and an introductory first chapter to set the stage, the players are brought out in their areas of expertise: Aviators, Code Breakers, Engineers and Chemists, Doctors and Surgeons, and Propagandists. There are two glossy sections of photographs, which are mostly portraits of the subjects of the book. It’s interesting to see the faces behind the names, but a few more pictures of the projects they worked on would have been nice, too.

Because of the fate of two of the protagonists of my work-in-progress, The Passions of Patriots, I’m most interested in “Part Four – Doctors and Surgeons” (Chapter 10, “The Body,” and Chapter 11,” The Mind.”) The First World War ushered in the beginning of a more enlightened attitude about healthcare, on the part of the British general public,* because of the horrific havoc that modern warfare wrought on the bodies and minds of loved ones who fought, and because of healthcare shortfalls at home due to the enlistment of so many doctors. This section was well written, although I’d have liked a little more detail.

An epilogue ties the technology of the First World War to the Second. The back matter includes brief CVs of the principal personalities. There are copious end notes and a respectable bibliography, along with a thorough index.

The plastic lamination has begun to loosen along the edges of the cover, and has peeled in two places on the back, but otherwise the physical quality of the publication is that of a good trade paperback.

Secret Warriors provides insights about the advent of much twentieth-century technology, and may serve as a springboard for further study. A worthwhile read for historical novelists and others interested in learning the lesser-known.

* Sadly, this is one area in which the USA still lags far behind much of the developed world, because of its neglect of the need to equitably attend to the physical and mental health of its human capital.

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Filed under Great War, Uncategorized, World War I

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