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First World War spooks

A century ago, the War Office created a shadowy organisation whose remit was to snare enemy spies in Britain and plant secret agents abroad. Michael S Goodman tells the story of the Secret Service Bureau's clandestine war with Germany

Commander Mansfield Smith-Cumming (later head of the British Secret Service), Professor Redwood and Bernard Redwood at the Motor Yacht Club Reliability Trials on Southampton Water, 1907. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Published: December 1, 2009 at 8:00 am
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This article was first published in the December 2009 edition of BBC History Magazine


DISCLAIMER: This article is drawn only from released official records and published sources and the views expressed are those of the author in his capacity as an academic historian and do not represent the views or carry the endorsement of the government.

The journalist Valentine Williams, who served as a secret agent in the First World War, once wrote: “Through many books on secret service published in England since the war a shadowy figure goes gliding. A man of power and mystery looms up, the guiding hand behind our secret service… I used to go and chat with him at his wartime headquarters situated in the attics of a block of residential flats near Charing Cross. A private lift shot the caller up seven floors to a regular maze of passages, steps, and oddly shaped rooms”. Another wartime spy recalled that “I do not know to this day who he is. He is simply known as ‘C’”.

Sir Mansfield Cumming (pictured right) was a spymaster like no other. In October 1909, having accepted the offer to head up the foreign branch of the Secret Service Bureau (SSB), and operating out of a small flat in central London, Cumming would create MI6, an organisation unparalleled in mystique and secrecy.

The Secret Service Bureau was not the first British intelligence organisation – in one form or another there had existed such a system for nearly 400 years, stretching back to the time of Elizabeth I. Yet the SSB was different: it was operated in a new way and had a specific threat to guard against. The result was that the security of the United Kingdom was left to two individuals: one, Cumming, a retired naval commander; the other, army captain Vernon Kell, Cumming’s counterpart for domestic intelligence.

What was the threat? In simple terms, and known to the government and public alike, it was the danger posed by Germany. This fear was fuelled by William Le Queux, a very popular and prolific writer of the day, who, in 1906, published a book called The Invasion of 1910. Although a rather fanciful account of the German invasion of Britain, it became an overnight success and was followed by several other books that described the dastardly Germans and their plots to invade and take over the country.

Despite the obvious point that these were imaginary accounts, before long, fact and fiction became indistinguishable and, from that point onwards, British intelligence developed a shadowy, mysterious demeanour.

The effect of Le Queux’s books was to create mass hysteria. Members of the public began to contact the government about strange gentlemen seen wandering around the country with maps, speaking in foreign languages. By 1908 this had reached a crescendo.

Many within the government believed the hype generated by these fictitious accounts, and the head of military intelligence in the War Office decided something ought to be done. Since the late 1800s there had existed a small 'Secret Service Branch', headed by an Irish resident magistrate, which was essentially a law enforcement outfit, designed to deal with the threat posed by Irish terrorists. The military intelligence supremo now produced a note on the need to create a new secret service, one focused on Germany and based on the reporting and running of secret agents. The backbone of this was a very real fear about what would happen if nothing were done: "unless a secret service system is prepared, we shall enter a war fatally handicapped".

By January 1909 this had reached the highest echelons of the military. War with Germany was no longer considered a matter of ‘if’, but of ‘when’. They considered it to be of “sufficient importance and interest” that it be passed to the Committee of Imperial Defence, at that time the most senior meeting of officials, chaired by the prime minister, and designed to look at future defence issues. In turn, they convened a special group to look at this matter. Of particular importance to them was how other countries had approached the creation of a secret service. Frederick the Great, the legendary Prussian king who had embraced an intelligence system, was recorded as having said to his generals, “When Marshal Soubise [his French enemy whom he defeated in 1757] goes on service he has a hundred cooks following him, when I go I send a hundred spies ahead of me”.

Of course, the basis for any secret service is that it remains secret. Even by 1890, in some instructions by the then head of the 'Secret Service Branch', it was observed that "if questions are asked in the House [of Commons]… I hope you will keep my name from the public, any success I have had has been largely owing to the fact that my name has never come out".

While interviewing, C would stab a letter opener into his wooden leg to gauge a potential recruit’s reaction

The special sub-committee concluded by mid-1909 that Britain did indeed need a secret service, not least because they regarded “with apprehension the increasing amount of German espionage that is taking place in this country”. As evidence they cited 47 instances of such espionage in 1908, with a further 24 cases reported in the first three months of 1909 alone. We now know that these figures were hugely exaggerated, and although there was some limited German espionage in England, it was far less prevalent than the statistics suggested.

The response was to propose the creation of a ‘Secret Service Bureau’, which would have dual functions: monitoring the German threat at home, and gathering intelligence abroad about German military developments. The government approved these plans and measures were taken to locate suitable candidates to head the two branches of the SSB. These were found, and in October 1909 the Secret Service Bureau begun its operations. The two chiefs were dynamic figures, known by their nom du guerres of ‘K’ and ‘C’. Britain’s modern intelligence community began life modestly.

Initially based in the same office, Captain Vernon Kell (K) and Commander Mansfield Cumming (C) faced the daunting task of creating an intelligence system by themselves, with the assistance of a shared clerk. Money was a constant problem, and in the decision to move out and have his own office, Cumming personally contributed the rent for his new premises. There is some debate as to how well the two spymasters got on –and it is certainly not clear from the records. What is obvious is how different their personalities and backgrounds were.

K, the War Office representative, came from a well-to-do family. He had spent a considerable amount of time abroad, was cultured and well versed in foreign languages, speaking French, German, Russian and Chinese. By contrast, C had a more modest upbringing, enrolling in the navy at an early age. Having spent time on various ships, Cumming, rather sadly for a sailor, began to suffer from severe sea-sickness, to the extent that he could no longer spend extended time on the seas. He moved to Southampton and spent a decade working on boom defences, essentially a chain of timber lengths stretched from one side of the harbour to the other, designed to stop a ship passing through. C spoke French, and with the threat coming from Germany, taught himself that language too. He was obsessed with what we might now describe as gadgets, being one of the first aeroplane enthusiasts and regularly racing motorcars.

Losing a son, and a leg

Looking back now it seems odd that K was chosen for the domestic service and C for the foreign branch. Of the two, C was the more dynamic, and certainly the more eccentric. During the war he went to visit his son in France and, speeding back to base, his car overturned, trapping him by his leg underneath. His son was thrown out and knocked unconscious. Seeing that his help was needed, as rumour has it, C took out his penknife and hacked his own leg off. Alas his efforts were in vain, and his son died. Despite a short convalescence, C was back at work in no time, having had a wooden prosthetic leg fitted.

While interviewing potential recruits, C would often stab a letter opener into his wooden leg, concealed as normal beneath his trousers, and gauge the applicant’s reaction to test their suitability. He was also known for racing around the corridors of government departments on an electric scooter, and was famed for not starting meetings until he had finished his cup of tea – surely one of life’s better lessons!

Within a month of the Secret Service Bureau’s creation, C was given permission to move out and take up his own flat. This split marked, in essence, the separation of the Secret Service Bureau into two separate organisations. Kell’s half would become MI5, the fifth branch of military intelligence, responsible for counter-espionage and domestic intelligence. Cumming’s part would initially be known as MI1c, part of the MI1 military intelligence branch of the War Office.

Initially, the all-pervading aura of secrecy had a limiting role on their performance. Situated opposite the army and navy stores, where both were well known, neither officer was allowed to be seen by anyone they knew, could not talk about their present work, and if they were to meet an agent, it had to be at an anonymous address. The frequent result, as C recorded in his diary, was one of solitude and desperation: “office all day – no-one appeared”. Money, too, continued to play a significant role, not just in the ability to have a permanent staff but to pay for informants. While it was recognised that patriotic Britons would help K’s task, for C to succeed he had to have enough money to compensate agents and to pay for the transmission of their information back to London.

One example of the paranoia pervading Britain in those prewar years – and of how the system of snaring German spies often worked in practice – is provided by the ‘Rusper case’. In a report on the first six months with the SSB, K provided further details. The patriotic Briton, a “lady of high social standing”, was in her local post office when she overheard “two foreigners (Herr A and Herr B) having a discussion about a foreign money-order, which they were wanting to cash. Being herself a good linguist, she offered to assist them. In doing so, this lady noticed that the money-order was made payable to a Polish-German name… her interest and suspicions were roused, and after making some enquiries in the neighbourhood, she discovered that these two foreigners were living a few miles from her place; also that they had no visible occupation”.

The lady’s report was passed to the SSB to investigate. It was discovered that both men regularly travelled around the Sussex/Surrey region. Although not explicitly mentioned, it is clear that both were thought to be German spies.

Money always has, and always will, play a central role in the world of spying

Despite all the difficulties encountered in the first years in their new roles, the humble start, and the uphill challenge they faced, both K and C had a measure of success. As the saying goes, money certainly talked. Both MI5 and the infant MI6 were able to recruit a range of spies, at home and abroad, and this network ensured that when war did start in 1914, both could argue that they were prepared for it.

Within the UK, Kell boasted about the number of spies he had rounded up. He certainly met with some success for, by October 1914, the home secretary could claim that German espionage had been “crushed at the outbreak of war”. C had fewer triumphs to report, though arguably his task was far harder. Both had a ‘good war’, and emerged victorious. Perhaps the greatest example of their successes is the fact that they, and their agencies, survived.

‘Intelligence’, as it would have been understood in the first decade of the SSB’s existence, is different to how it is perceived today. Back then, it was a purely military discipline, both in terms of its personnel and its targets. Both C and K were concerned exclusively with capabilities – gathering information on, for instance, German shipyards, weapons, and locations of spies in the UK. There was no real attempt to try and understand German intentions, when she might choose to launch war, where, and why. This was both a reflection of the military environment in which the agencies worked, of the people who worked in them, but also of what was of interest to those in charge.

‘Intelligence’ was also different in the way it was conducted. The primary source of information was through agents, men who ‘volunteered’ their services in exchange for cash. There is very little evidence of the ideological motivation that would characterise the inter-war period – it was all about pure, hard money. Perhaps it is for this reason that C referred to his agents as ‘scallywags’.

Modern intelligence is a far more varied affair. The range of topics are broader, as are the methods of gathering information, and the system is much larger. Yet there are still similarities between 1909 and 2009. Money has always and will always play a central role in the affairs of state, and the role of the spy – the agent on the ground – has never been more important. Since 1909, British intelligence has had mixed fortunes, but at the very least, its creation five years before the outbreak of the First World War meant that Britain was prepared, and had set in place a secret service that was to endure.

C and K would probably be shocked to see how their two-man enterprise has transformed 100 years later, but they would surely be pleased. C in particular would look back with a wry smile on his face, to see just how prophetic their actions of 1909 had been.

Dr Michael S Goodman is a senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies, King's College London and the author of Spinning Intelligence (Columbia University Press, 2009). He is currently writing the official history of the Joint Intelligence Committee. His is also the author of Spying on the Nuclear Bear (Stanford University Press, 2008).

The Ace of Spies

Security service files on the British agent, Sidney Reilly

These British secret service files, released by the National Archives in 2002, relate to the British agent, Sidney Reilly. It's claimed Reilly worked behind German lines in the First World War and took part in a plot to overthrow the Bolshevik government, before being shot by Soviet agents in 1925. Reilly has since gained fame as the Ace of Spies, the subject of a 1983 TV series. The documents here include a photo of him, a newspaper article following his death, and a letter from his wife, Pepita Haddon Chambers, to Mansfield Cumming.

Facing new threats: The secret service from 1918 to 2009

The end of the First World War saw a great reduction in the size, scope and remit of the intelligence services. In 1919 the Secret Service Committee was created to look at the organisation and direction of British intelligence.

The German threat had been defeated, but in its place was a better organised and more menacing foe – the Soviet Union. Bolshevism had triumphed with the 1917 revolution, and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, known as MI6) lost no time in trying to infiltrate agents and spies in an attempt to see what was going on.

The changing threat was also reflected, subtly at first, by a changing definition of intelligence. Although still overwhelmingly military in content, 'intelligence' began to get more involved in political matters: at home a growing concern in the 1920s was Soviet involvement in workers' strikes, while abroad the Comintern tried to spread the communist revolution worldwide.

Not everyone thought that the intelligence services were a good thing. The highest profile opponent was the Foreign Office, which disliked MI6 for two reasons: espionage was seen as ungentlemanly, and the fact that agents abroad were attached to British military missions undermined the gentle efforts of the Foreign Office; similarly, any attempt by MI5 or MI6 to get involved in diplomatic intelligence was seen as treading on their toes.

These views only began to change in the late 1930s and with a resurgence of the German threat. By the outbreak of war in 1939, MI5 and MI6 had been complemented by the Joint Intelligence Committee, an overseeing body designed to bring together the disparate elements of the intelligence apparatus in an attempt to avoid duplicating effort.

Britain's intelligence services again had a good war. Although some elements were terminated after the conflict, SOE being the best known, the intelligence agencies continued to flourish – largely because the foreign threat seemed so real. The Soviet Union once more became public enemy number one, and despite the rise of other foes, it remained the core function of British intelligence. In 1990/1 that all changed with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War. To many people the intelligence agencies had won and were no longer needed, but for those in the shadows the work continued – though the diversified threat required a new set of responses.


Today the work of the intelligence agencies is in the public sphere like never before. The main agencies have websites, open recruitment and, starting in late 2009, authorised histories will be published on MI5, MI6, and the Joint Intelligence Committee. Intelligence is no longer the missing dimension of governmental work, yet its work remains as crucial now as it did 100 years ago.


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