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Value and Handling of Prisoners in World War I

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

“Prisoners or deserters constitute one of the most fruitful sources from which information of the enemy is obtained.”
Intelligence Regulations, American Expeditionary Forces, October 21, 1918

By the time of the Armistice ending World War I on November 11, 1918, the US held nearly 48,000 prisoners of war. The majority had been captured within the final months as the war moved out of the trenches.  The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) G-2, Maj. (later Maj. Gen.) Dennis Nolan put much emphasis on the information obtained from enemy prisoners. After the war, he remarked, “[A prisoner] can, as a rule, tell you much more than a spy…who is trying to get around and find out about the enemy.  [A prisoner] knows and the other man is frequently guessing at it.”

In mid-October 1918, Capt. Ernst Howald (standing right), the lead interrogator for the 28th Division, Second US Army, used prisoner statements to construct a detailed template showing the enemy facing the division. After the war, his estimates were proven to be highly accurate.

As Nolan shaped his formal intelligence organization in the early months of American involvement, he recognized prisoners could be captured any time on any battlefield, and commanders at every echelon wanted to examine the prisoners they captured.  He also realized that, due to a lack of personnel and the high operating tempo, in-depth interrogations at lower echelons were not practicable or effectual.  Nolan developed a hierarchical system for the examination of prisoners at all echelons and outlined clear guidelines for handling prisoners in the 1918 Intelligence Regulations and Instructions for Regimental Intelligence Service. Those same guidelines were published in the Army’s first (provisional) Combat Intelligence Manual, also printed in 1918.

Nolan’s system started at the regiment.  The Regimental Intelligence Officer, typically a first lieutenant, determined the name, rank, and organization of any prisoners, as well as the time and place captured.  Prisoners were searched and then quickly transferred to division assembly points.  The division G-2 sections, led by a lieutenant colonel or major, conducted limited questioning, with the help of commissioned linguists from the Corps of Interpreters.  This questioning focused on necessary tactical information about the division sector to a depth of two miles behind the enemy front lines.

From the division, prisoners were transferred to the corps collecting centers, where more in-depth questioning began.  The number of prisoners, especially during offensive operations, often stressed the corps G-2 sections.  At those times, Army headquarters dispatched teams of four sergeants and one officer to augment the corps’ interrogation efforts.  During the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives in the fall of 1918, French interrogators also supplemented the US interrogators.

The corps intelligence sections found that simple and direct questioning, combined with kindness and courtesy, was the most effective method for eliciting information.  Many of the AEF’s interrogators had been lawyers in their civilian lives and could coax information out of the most recalcitrant prisoner.  Corps interrogators used a variety of other tactics to elicit information, as well.  One interrogator found that he could get prisoners to talk openly if he showed them aerial photographs with landmarks they recognized. The II Corps G-2, Col. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, recruited a drafted German soldier, who had previously lived in the United States and yearned to return there, to “work the prisoner cages” and glean information from his fellow prisoners.  Additionally, US interpreters donned German uniforms and wandered the collection points to eavesdrop on prisoners bragging about intentionally misleading their interrogators.  This use of “stool pigeons” was common practice throughout the war.

The quality and veracity of the information varied with the rank of the prisoner.  Lt. Col. Walter Sweeney, who served in the AEF G-2 during the war, claimed that “noncommissioned officers were by far the best sources for gaining information” and “few of them resisted insistent interrogation.”  About 60 percent of officers “invoked military honor” and refused to cooperate.  A typical German soldier had little knowledge about the larger battlefield, but he provided details on his own unit, weapons, troop losses, and general morale.  Enemy soldiers from Poland, Denmark, the Alsace-Lorraine region and southern Germany were particularly cooperative.  Unquestionably, the most important information obtained from prisoners was enemy order of battle, but they also gave up their routes of movement; the position and condition of trenches, dugouts and wire entanglements; their capacity to attack; and how susceptible they were to being attacked.

Based on the preceding outline, it is clear that World War I was no different than any other war in US Army history: prisoners of war have always been proven and valued sources of intelligence.  However, formalizing and standardizing the process for handling and examining prisoners in the 1918 Intelligence Regulations and provisional manuals was one more step in modernizing US Army Intelligence.  While field manuals published in 1940 provided more details on accepted interrogation techniques, the system for prisoner-of-war handling Nolan developed for World War I continued, with minor changes, throughout the 20th century.

Counterintelligence In The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF)

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

In 1917, following declaration of war against Germany, the United States began building its one-million-man military force through a wide-spread draft. In the process, all eligible US citizens and resident foreign nationals were swept into the US Army.  The Allies, particularly paranoid of America’s “melting pot,” warned the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) G-2, Major Dennis Nolan, that US forces needed to be safeguarded from internal and external threats of enemy espionage, sabotage, and subversion.

On July 11, 1917, Nolan wrote to the Chief of Staff of the Army requesting “that fifty secret service men, who have had training in police work [and] who speak French fluently, be enlisted as sergeants of infantry in service in intelligence work and sent to France at an early date.” Nolan also requested 50 company-grade officers to assist British and French counter-espionage efforts at French ports and on the front lines.  Both requests were approved the following month and the Corps of Intelligence Police (CIP) became the first official recognition of the counterintelligence discipline in the US Army.

The first 50 CIP agents arrived in France in November 1917.  Two months later, the AEF received authorization to recruit another 700 agents from units already overseas. By the armistice in November 1918, however, the CIP had only reached a strength of 418 agents.

Belgian and American personnel in Wortegheim, Belgium, question a suspected spy charged with signaling to a German machine gun emplacement, November 1918.

One third of CIP agents served in the Front Zone, where the US Army had responsibility for 123 miles of territory adjacent to the fighting. They established mobile checkpoints to prevent entry of non-combatants into the combat zone and secured France’s border with neutral and Allied countries. Other agents served directly with advancing troops of the First and Second Armies where their chief mission was to control the civil population and detect and prevent espionage. Among the first to enter recaptured towns, they immediately replaced any suspect government officials and interviewed inhabitants for enemy order of battle information.

The majority of the CIP agents served with the G-2 Services of Supply (SOS) in the Rear Zone.  They provided security for 14 ports in France, England, and Scotland; 400 miles of frontier along the borders with Spain and Italy; 31 supply depots; and 7 leave centers.  They disguised themselves as laborers and interpreters to detect enemy agents circulating among US troops.  They also warned Soldiers about the consequences of “loose talk” and investigated suspicious behavior or cases of possible sabotage.  The CIP agents in the G-2 SOS investigated 3,706 cases and neutralized 229 suspected enemy agents through conviction, internment, or expulsion from the war zone.

Additionally, a few CIP agents worked “Special Projects” in the Counter Espionage Section of the AEF G-2. In addition to compiling a central file of more than 160,000 names, they provided security for traveling VIPs and, at times, served as General John Pershing’s bodyguard.

The CIP recorded a number of problems that arose during their World War I operations. Foremost, wartime haste left little time to procure suitable personnel, to adequately train agents, or to educate the rest of the US Army about the need for and importance of counterintelligence.  Furthermore, since CIP agents arrived in France several months after the first American combat troops, they did not have time to set up a “protective screen” to safeguard US forces and support services from enemy espionage or subversion.  The secret nature of much of the CIP’s work meant that their successes went unrecognized, which inhibited promotions for officers and commissions for enlisted personnel and negatively impacted morale.  Rank disparity often became an issue when agents interviewed senior officers or interacted with Allied counterintelligence personnel. Finally, the word “police” in the organization’s title led to CIP investigations of more criminal activities than their mission required or allowed, much to the consternation of the Military Police.

Despite these myriad problems, CIP agents were exceedingly proud of their service.  According to their official history, “World War I experiences taught most CIP agents that it was hard, unglamorous and painstaking work that earned for the Corps of Intelligence Police a permanent and honored place in all the future wartime plans of the United States Army.”  This, however, did not protect CIP from post-war reductions along with the rest of the US Army.  While the CIP remained a viable organization, carrying out critical counterintelligence missions in Hawaii, Panama, the Philippines, and along the United States-Mexico border, the number of agents on duty from 1920 to 1940 ranged from just 18 to 40.  Unfortunately, the same wartime haste that plagued effective operations in World War I would cause similar problems in World War II.

Dennis Nolan Builds the First US Army G-2 Section

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

In May 1917, General John J. Pershing had cause to celebrate and lament his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of a “theoretical army which had yet to be constituted, equipped, trained, and sent abroad.”  As his first step in the monumental effort to build the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), he carefully chose his field general staff comprised of Administrative (G-1), Intelligence (G-2), Operations (G-3), Logistics (G-4), and Training (G-5) sections.

While Pershing searched for his most trusted staff members, Maj. Dennis E. Nolan was completing a two-year assignment on the War Department General Staff.  His first experience in intelligence work was preparing products used by the General Staff for planning and mobilization purposes. This included a threat estimate on Germany’s capability to invade the United States.  Nolan had been commissioned a Second Lieutenant in Infantry following graduation from the US Military Academy in 1896.  He received two citations for gallantry in action during the Spanish-American War and commanded a squadron of the 11th US Volunteer Cavalry during the Philippine Insurrection. It was during this latter assignment that Nolan had come to know Pershing and the future AEF Chief of Staff, James Harbord.  Between 1901 and 1915, Nolan held a variety of positions including, instructor of law and history at West Point, director of Southern Luzon in the Philippines, and officer with the 30th Infantry.

Despite his impressive service record, Nolan was hardly holding his breath for a position on the AEF staff.  Consequently, when Maj. Harbord summoned him for dinner one night and informed him of his appointment as the AEF G-2 in charge of the Intelligence Section, Nolan declared himself “surprised and delighted.”  He sailed with Pershing and the rest of the AEF staff less than two weeks later.

Once on the ground in France, Nolan built, from the ground up, the Army’s first multi-discipline theater intelligence organization.  Following the British model, Nolan divided his Headquarters G-2 Section into four divisions: Information, Secret Service, Topographical, and Censorship and Press.  Nolan’s staff, totaling nearly 350 personnel, compiled daily intelligence reports based on a multitude of sources.  In addition to the traditional methods of intelligence collection, such as patrolling, observation, prisoner interrogation, and document translation, Nolan added aerial observation, photographic interpretation, sound and flash ranging, and radio intelligence.  He also played a direct role in organizing the Corps of Intelligence Police, the Army’s first permanent counterintelligence organization.  Venturing outside the normal intelligence arena, Nolan’s press division started up The Stars and Stripes newspaper to communicate orders and regulations, provide news of events, and boost the morale of American soldiers in Europe.

Because Pershing’s General Staff organization was repeated in the tactical units, intelligence officers were appointed at every echelon down to battalion.  To increase their effectiveness, Nolan drafted a set of intelligence regulations applicable to each echelon and established a school at Langres, France, to train all intelligence officers down to division.  Throughout the war, these tactical intelligence sections pushed intelligence up through higher headquarters to Nolan’s G-2 Section, which also pushed intelligence down to give lower echelons a broad picture of the enemy’s situation.

In the closing days of World War I, Nolan was given an opportunity to command the 55th Infantry Brigade, 28th Division, for ten days. For extraordinary heroism in action near Apremont, France, on October 1, 1918, he received the Distinguished Service Cross and the respect of his men, who recalled Nolan was “right up there with us doughboys.”  He then returned to his G-2 Section for the duration of the war.

Nolan’s G-2 Section, the Army’s first theater intelligence organization, unquestionably contributed to the AEF’s success.  Declaring that “no army was better served by its intelligence bureau than our own,” Pershing awarded Nolan the Distinguished Service Medal.  Secretary of War Newton D. Baker praised “the fidelity and intelligence with which General Nolan supplied [Pershing] eyes to penetrate the fog which clouds military actions.”

After the Armistice, Nolan was detailed to the Peace Commission until returning to Washington in July 1919.  After a year instructing military intelligence at the Army War College, he was named as the War Department’s Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2. Perhaps his most important contribution during this assignment was the establishment of the Military Intelligence Officers Reserve Corps—the first formal recognition of the Army’s need to retain professional MI officers.  From 1924-1926, he served as the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, receiving promotion to the rank of Major General in 1925. His final assignment was Commander, Second Corps Area and First Army.  In 1936, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 64, Nolan had served 44 years and was the second-highest ranking officer of the US Army.

 

Dennis Nolan

Dennis Nolan

Col. (later Maj. Gen.) Dennis Nolan sitting at his desk in AEF Headquarters, May 23, 1918.