Don’t talk to pigeons

Ben Jackson

  • MI5 in the Great War edited by Nigel West
    Biteback, 434 pp, £25.00, July 2014, ISBN 978 1 84954 670 6

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.

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