MI5 in the Great War 
edited by Nigel West.
Biteback, 434 pp., £25, July 2014, 978 1 84954 670 6
Show More
Show More

At​ the height of spy mania during the First World War, two British agents were sent to East Anglia in a car fitted with a Marconi radio receiver. Their aim was to intercept illicit messages crossing the sea. ‘They left London at noon,’ Basil Thomson, then head of the Met’s Criminal Investigation Department, later recalled in Queer People (1922). ‘At three, they were under lock and key in Essex.’ After a swift exchange of telegrams, they were freed, but by seven o’clock they were back in custody elsewhere. Released again, they refused to leave without a police escort, but ‘the following morning the police of another county had got hold of them and telegraphed, “Three German spies arrested with car and complete wireless installation, one in uniform of British officer.”’

As the war began, Thomson wrote, paranoia about German spies assumed a ‘virulent epidemic form accompanied by delusions which defied treatment’. The Daily Mail ordered its readers to ‘refuse to be served by a German waiter’: if he says he is Swiss, ‘demand to see his passport.’ At times, Thomson wrote, ‘it was positively dangerous to be seen in conversation with a pigeon … A foreigner walking in one of the parks was actually arrested and sentenced to imprisonment because a pigeon was seen to fly from the place where he was standing and it was supposed that he had liberated it.’

Spy stories were doing the rounds long before 1914. Novels and newspapers provided intricate accounts of the expected invasion, the ground for which was said to have been prepared by a network of German spies assisted by thousands of reservists who on a signal from the Fatherland would commence the mass destruction of Britain’s transport and communications systems. William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910, serialised in the Daily Mail in 1905, plotted the Hun’s most likely route through South-East England – though the editors adjusted the route to allow the Germans to terrorise more of those areas in which the paper enjoyed a high readership.

The early mania was stirred up partly by the uncertain state of international affairs, but was also an effect of a growing sense of Britain’s declining power. ‘We have been too easily content to rely upon the methods which were effective a generation or two ago,’ the Times said in 1901. ‘In this way the Victorian age is defined at its end as well as at its beginning.’ Britain’s relationship with the other European powers came under scrutiny: what chance victory against Russia or the rising German Empire when Britain had made such heavy weather of defeating ‘a tiny rabble of untrained peasants’ in the Boer War?

The question was troubling Parliament, and pressure was put on the Liberal government to organise against German espionage and invasion plans. Yet the government wasn’t of one mind. The secretary of state for war, Richard Haldane, remained anxious to build better relations with Germany and at first didn’t hesitate to express his impatience with the scare: when asked by Sir John Barlow, MP for Frome, whether he was aware that there were 66,000 German soldiers in England and 50,000 stands of Mauser rifles stored in cellars within a few hundred yards of Charing Cross, he thanked Barlow for providing such an excellent example of the ludicrous stories currently in circulation. Haldane’s dismissive manner later lost him his job as lord chancellor – when war was declared he was denounced as a German sympathiser and hounded from government – but in 1909, despite his misgivings and although the police hadn’t yet turned up a single suspect, he gave in to the popular outcry. He set up a subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence to consider ‘the nature and extent of foreign espionage that is at present taking place within this country and the danger to which it may expose us’.

The subcommittee was rapidly persuaded of the spy menace, and on its recommendation the Secret Service Bureau, the forerunner of both MI5 (the Security Service) and MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service), was established in October 1909. Initially, the work was divided between just two officers, Commander Mansfield Cumming (‘C’) and Captain Vernon Kell (‘K’), with no clear structure of authority. But their relationship quickly deteriorated, and they settled on a division of responsibility that is still reflected in the work of MI6 and MI5 today: Cumming would be responsible for intelligence abroad and Kell for counter-intelligence at home.

Kell would go on to become the longest serving director of any government department (before Churchill sacked him early in the Second World War, blaming him for MI5’s chronic lack of preparedness), but to begin with his actions were dominated by a sense of the precariousness of his position. His department, his budget and his job relied on the existence, or at least the appearance, of German espionage, yet despite his bureau’s best efforts, it was unable to locate a single German spy during its first two years of operations.

This did not stop MI5 securing several prosecutions. In September 1910, Siegfried Helm, a German national, was arrested on suspicion of espionage. MI5 had never heard of him, but Kell dutifully travelled to Portsmouth, where he was informed by a Miss Wodehouse, who had helped Helm to secure lodgings, that she had made love to him in order to gain his confidence; she claimed to have suspected him of espionage all along. Helm had indeed made a few ‘rather futile sketches of the obsolete Portsmouth land defences’, but these were for his own interest; the German Secret Service, such as it was, had nothing to do with him. When this was finally realised the judge hastily convicted Helm, sentenced him to the one month he had already served on remand, then discharged him with an admission that the authorities had perhaps been ‘too vigilant’.

Reginald McKenna, the First Lord of the Admiralty, was keen to keep the case quiet, but Kell determined that ‘it was an excellent thing that the arrest should become known as soon as possible.’ He argued that it would have ‘a soothing effect across the water’ – in other words that it would deter other spies. More to the point, the publicity ended any lingering discussion of dissolving Kell’s department. Helm’s case, along with the subsequent trials of Max Schultz and Armgaard Karl Graves, were also sufficient to secure a remarkable restriction of British civil liberties. In 1911 Churchill, then home secretary, began issuing general warrants to examine the entire correspondence of particular suspects (previously the home secretary had had to sign individual warrants for every letter opened). The same year, the Official Secrets Act was amended to reverse the burden of proof in cases of suspected espionage. The purpose of wrongdoing no longer had to be demonstrated. It would henceforth be a crime merely to approach any building or piece of land that had been declared out of bounds. It wouldn’t even be necessary ‘to show that the accused person was guilty of any particular act’.

Lucy Farrer, the author in 1921 of MI5’s official account of its activities during the war (reproduced in edited form in MI5 in the Great War), claims the changes were ‘entirely due to’ MI5’s efforts and complains about the police’s continued presumption of innocence: ‘The police were inclined to consider that if a man was … clear of any criminal suspicion, he could not be a spy.’ For MI5, the significance of the amended OSA was that it ‘greatly facilitated’ its work, but the gravity of the change wasn’t lost on everyone. The Liberal MP Sir William Byles called it a ‘startling innovation’ and when the attorney general claimed in the House of Commons that there was ‘nothing novel’ in the bill, Alpheus Morton, MP for Sutherland, rose and snapped: ‘It upsets Magna Carta altogether.’ Finally, the proponents of the bill were reduced to denying that it created any precedent, to which Byles retorted: ‘Everything that this House does becomes a precedent of what it may do in the future.’

After the Helm case, MI5 was able to present itself as a successful operation largely thanks to the enemy’s shortcomings. Gustav Steinhauer, the German spymaster, consistently hired ex-cons, tricksters and fools. Armgaard Karl Graves, for example, was a con-artist who, after arousing suspicion, called police headquarters in Glasgow and berated the chief constable for having him followed. William Klare was a kitchen porter masquerading as a dentist who lived off his partner’s earnings as a prostitute. Paul Buckwaldt adopted the alias ‘Sherlock Holmes’. And Karl Hentschel – ‘such a nuisance’ in Steinhauer’s view – repeatedly blackmailed the German Secret Service by threatening to reveal the identity of his own source to the British authorities.

Steinhauer’s method of recruitment was to write letters to potential agents he had met on his visits to Britain, requesting bits of information innocent enough to be found in a newspaper. If they were receptive to the initial approach, they would be asked to acquire information of a more sensitive kind. The scheme was uncovered when Kell’s deputy, Eric Holt-Wilson, overheard a man on a train talking about having received one of the letters. It was signed by F. Reimers in Potsdam, a name quickly identified as one of Steinhauer’s aliases. This kind of one-off discovery was catastrophic for German espionage because of another flaw in their system: they made use of a small number of intermediaries, all of whom were linked to a handful of cover addresses. Detection of a single agent could unravel almost the entire network. Indeed, postal checks were one of MI5’s most successful counter-espionage tactics during the war.

In later years, MI5 downplayed these early confrontations. Yet it still loudly celebrates what has been thought of as one of its greatest successes: the rounding up of a supposed German spy ring in 1914. The story goes that in the years leading up to the war, Kell maintained a Special War List (SWL) of suspects, based on MI5’s register of thirty thousand foreign residents. Most of the people on the list, which numbered more than two hundred by the start of the war, hadn’t committed any offence, but they were categorised anyway according to what should be done with them – ‘watch’, ‘search’ or ‘arrest’ – when war began. When the Precautionary Period began on 29 July, MI5 sent out warning letters to police constabularies with lists of suspects. By this time, Kell had moved into his office, where he slept surrounded by telephones. Finally, when war was declared on 4 August, he sent out a coded telegram with instructions for arrests to be made. One suspect had already been arrested the day before and another had escaped a few days earlier, but the rest were swept up on Kell’s signal. The story was put about that he had masterminded the arrest of 21 of the 22 spies present in Britain at the time, crippling the German network.

‘Within the last 24 hours,’ Reginald McKenna proclaimed in the Commons, ‘no fewer than 21 spies, or suspected spies, have been arrested … some of them long known to the authorities to be spies.’ The Kaiser is supposed to have stormed around for hours bellowing, ‘Am I surrounded by dolts? Why was I not told? Who is responsible?’ Asquith announced a ‘major victory’ and Kell’s department was swiftly made a department of the War Office within the Directorate of Military Operations (a move that came with a considerable salary increase for Kell).

More​ recent research by Nicholas Hiley has shown that the operation was a ‘complete fabrication’. Lucy Farrer’s report includes a list of those arrested but there’s something odd about it. It has no recognisable order: not alphabetical, chronological or geographical. In the original, the names are cross-referenced to sections of the report in which they are dealt with in more detail (Nigel West, the editor of MI5 in the Great War, removes the cross-references), but three of them never appear again in MI5’s official history of its activities during the war, while Karl Ernst, an undoubted German agent who was undoubtedly arrested, is omitted from the list.

The explanation of the disarray seems to be that Farrer copied her list from a garbled and abbreviated newspaper cutting published by the Daily Chronicle on the basis of a list released by the director of public prosecutions. This wasn’t because the SWL had been lost: Kell preserved it with great care. The problem was that his list, as Hiley writes, ‘flatly contradicted his story of a “wholesale arrest of spies” in August 1914’. Nine of the suspects on the SWL failed to appear on any of the other lists supposedly documenting the incident – Farrer’s, the DPP’s or the police’s record of arrests. Seven of the people on the arrest list weren’t even thought to be in the country, among them Steinhauer himself. All told, Kell’s telegram resulted in just eight arrests. The likeliest explanation for the ‘remarkable lie’ perpetuated in Farrer’s list is that she was denied access to the SWL.

To read MI5 in the Great War would leave you unaware of all of this. Everyone now agrees that the list produced by Farrer is nonsense, but West doesn’t mention that, either in a footnote or in his introduction. He removes whole sections of Farrer’s report with no acknowledgment, including every annual heading for the prewar years, so that one can be reading about June 1913 and suddenly find that, although the text reads ‘during this month’, the reference is now to 1914. There are errors of fact, too: in the appendix, West claims that Carl Lody, one of the war’s most notorious spies and the first man to be executed in the Tower of London since 1747, committed suicide.

Andrew Roberts’s laudatory blurb claims that West ‘proves beyond doubt’ there was a massive German espionage offensive during the First World War, but this is misleading, as is the claim on the book’s jacket that the archives on which West draws have remained closed until now. This would have been true had the book been published in 1997. In fact, historians have been working on these documents for years, having justly complained about the government’s failure to release them for nearly eighty years after the end of the war. MI5 in the Great War doesn’t provide the definitive account of the organisation’s activities, and West cannot be unaware of this. In commissioning the report, MI5 was struggling to protect what remained of its budget (West concedes this in passing in his introduction), which had just been slashed from £80,000 to £35,000 a year. Damaging information, such as the true story of the SWL, was withheld, and circuitous justifications for MI5’s existence were concocted. Though Farrer did just what was asked of her by MI5, the reality concealed by her report is that MI5’s record in detecting German agents was only middling. The best research suggests they caught 31 of 120 bona fide enemy agents (that we know of).

MI5’s activities throughout the war were driven by the conviction that there must be a German conspiracy of some sort and that they had but to find it. When postal censorship dried up as a source of information at the end of 1915 (the German Secret Service finally recognised the problem with its cover addresses), MI5 switched its attention to the supposed threat of domestic subversion. In search of a substantial enemy, it turned on enemy aliens. Kell lobbied vigorously for wholesale internment and repatriation, an effort that had its reward in May 1915 when the government approved the arrest of aliens who could not prove themselves harmless; 32,000 were interned and a further 20,000 repatriated.

Among the other things from that time that MI5 might have cause to regret, it gave Mussolini, then working in Milan as a journalist, his start in political brutality. He was recruited in 1917 on a wage of £100 a week, equivalent to about £6000 today, in exchange for which he published pro-war propaganda and sent Italian army veterans to beat up peace protesters. When it comes to Britain’s wartime security, MI5 made little difference either way. The insignificant threat from the German Secret Service, crippled by deficiencies in its own system, meant that MI5’s activities were more or less inconsequential. The real shame lay in its invocation of the threat to justify a curtailment of British civil liberties. MI5 protests at the exaggeration of its influence on British legislation, but by consistently misrepresenting the threat from German espionage and lobbying for a strengthening of counter-espionage legislation, it contributed to a drastic tightening of secrecy laws, the consequences of which affect us still. The OSA was amended in 1989, supposedly to remove the catch-all nature of the provisions relating to the receiving and communicating of sensitive information, but when the British government forced the Guardian to destroy the hard drives containing the Snowden files, one of the reasons the paper complied was that it was afraid it would be prosecuted under the act.

Spy hysteria continued right to the end of the war, and reached a climax in the case of Noel Pemberton Billing, MP for East Hertfordshire, who in 1917 produced a list of ‘47,000 highly placed British perverts’ who were being blackmailed by the German Secret Service. The list apparently included the names of privy councillors, cabinet ministers, and the ex-prime minister Asquith and his wife. When Pemberton Billing was sued for criminal libel, he at once added the name of the presiding judge to the list. Conducting his own defence, he denounced the ‘mysterious influence which seems to prevent a Britisher getting a square deal’. ‘Everyone concerned,’ Basil Thomson wrote, ‘appeared to have been either insane or to have behaved as if he were.’ Pemberton Billing was found not guilty and emerged from court to a hero’s welcome.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences