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The Failure of British Espionage against Germany, 1907–1914

  • Nicholas P. Hiley (a1)

In June 1907 Arthur Balfour, the Conservative leader of the opposition, was visited at home by a group of civilian strategists. They were led by Charles Á Court Repington, the military correspondent of The Times, and had come to enlist his support for an official inquiry into the threat of a German attack on Great Britain. Balfour was presented with a lengthy memorandum of ‘Notes on Invasion…’ which explained their case, and described how the situation had changed since the committee of imperial defence had reported to him as prime minister on the French threat in 1903. This document explained that in the new circumstances invasion was not only possible, but could be rendered certain if Germany carried out her preparations in total secrecy and at great speed. Under the heading ‘Chances of a Surprise’, the paper noted that circumstances favoured Germany, because the assembly of an invading force could be explained ‘as part of the normal yearly training, manoeuvres, &c.’, and even the concentration of a strong fleet near Heligoland was no longer considered unusual.

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1 Notes on invasion supplied to Mr. Balfour, Public Record Office, CAB 3/2/42C, p. 15. The context of these invasion fears is well explained in Howard Moon's thesis ‘The invasion of the United Kingdom: public controversy and official planning 1888–1918’, Ph.D.(London) 1968, especially pp. 325–50, and in John Gooch's book The prospect of war: studies in British defence policy 1847–1942 (London, 1981), pp. 1–34, ‘The bolt from the blue’.

2 Sir George Clarke, memorandum of August 1907, P.R.O., CAB 3/2/42A, p. 4. Moon, ‘Invasion’, pp. 339–41.

3 There was also a general resistance among officials to anything ‘underhand’, and as late as 1908 the consul at Cherbourg could report that he was offered plans of French submarines for one thousand francs, but ‘would not have anything to do with them’: Slade, diary entry 5 Mar. 1908, Slade papers III, National Maritime Museum, Microfilm, MRF 39/3.

4 Reports from naval attaches were also useful. According to one director of naval intelligence they mainly related gossip, but this was ‘always worth hearing + enables one to appreciate at its proper value what one reads in the papers’; Bethell to Hardinge, 24 May 1909, P.R.O., FO 371/673, file 16182/19826, p. 425. Occasionally they also made specific investigations, and in 1909 the attaché at Berlin was asked to ‘find out more about the “Marine Artillery Range” said to have been established on Barso Island’; Letter of 5 Jan. 1909, P.R.O., ADM 137/3858.

5 See for example report No. 579, Germany. Coast defences and defence ordnance, &c. (Revised) 1902, in the Naval Historical Library, which notes on p. ix that ‘Vague relative terms such as “right”, “left”, &c. should be avoided’. Papers on Naval Subjects, 1902, No. III, ‘Naval Reconnaissance in Time of Peace’ (reprinted from Proceedings of U.S. Naval Institute, Sept. 1901), p. 56. There is a copy in the Institute of Historical Research.

6 Report by Dumas, 25 Nov. 1906, P.R.O., FO 371/80, file 40513/40513, with minutes on pp. 191–2.

7 Slade, War with Germany, 1 Sept. 1906, P.R.O., ADM 116/1036B, p. 5. Slade to Asquith, 8 May 1909, P.R.O., CAB 16/9B, Inquiry into certain questions of naval policy raised by Lord Charles Beresford: appendices, p. 195.

8 Bethell to Hardinge, 17 May 1909, P.R.O., FO 371/673, file 16182/19318, p. 400.

9 Ewart, Memoirs in the Ewart papers held by Sir Hector Monro, M.P., p. 860. With Sir Hector's permission this was consulted at the National Register of Archives (Scotland), Ewart microfilms RH4/84, reel 4. Secret service was at such a low ebb that in 1907 the British were actually exchanging confidential information with the Germans; G. S. Hutchison, Machine guns (London, 1938), p. 97.

10 Ewart, diary entry 11 May 1907, Ewart papers, loc. cit. Edmonds, ‘Memoirs’ in Edmonds papers, Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, University of London, King's College, 111/5, ch. xx, p. 1. The date given in the Memoirs for the transfer to MO5 is a mistake, however.

11 Edmonds, ‘Memoirs’, ch. xx, p. 1, loc. cit. Memo. by J. K. Trotter, 10 June 1902, P.R.O., WO 32/6922, p. 4. Hinsley F. H. et al. British Intelligence in the Second World War (London, 1979), I, footnote to p. 16.

12 ‘Secret’ memorandum, ‘Remarks on Col. Repington's figures by MO2C’ (n.d.), P.R.O., WO 106/47B, p. 8. The head of MO2(C) was Major Thwaites, but a manuscript paper on file by Ewart contains the same points as this memorandum, with similar phrasing.

13 The idea of incorporating commercial sources in an espionage system was not new. In 1890, amid rumours of war, the German General Staff had proposed that they share intelligence on Russia with the War Office, who would in turn use consuls in Russia ‘for the transmission of news in war’, and also monitor financial changes in London ‘to distinguish between movements in the money-market which were merely stock-jobbers’ manoeuvres and those which were caused by war scares or the near approach of war’. Report of 27 September 1890 by Captain Grierson, quoted in Macdiarmid D. S., The life of Lieut. General Sir James Moncrieff Grierson (London, 1923), pp. 101–2.

14 Edmonds, ‘Memoirs’, ch. xx, pp. 8–9, loc. cit.

15 ‘ MO2C’ (n.d.), p. 8, loc. cit.

16 Edmonds, ‘Memoirs’, ch. xx, p. 9, loc. cit. The Germans were using a similar method to recruit their agents in Britain.

17 The story of the dinner is derived from Bernard Newman's books Secrets of German espionage (London, 1940), pp. 48–9, and Spy and counter-spy (London, 1970; ed. Evans I. O.), p. 116. The commercial traveller concerned is clearly Rué, although Newman mistakenly calls his employer ‘a director of a famous whisky distillery’. Newman is an unreliable source, but he did know both Edmonds and Vernon Kell, the first head of MI5; Newman B., Speaking from memory (London, 1960), pp. 62 and 93. For the source and full text of the letter see appendix.

18 Hamburger Nachrichten, 12 Feb. 1912. There is a copy in the Foreign Office files; P. R. O., FO 371/1373, file 7084, p. 41. The salary seems to have been low, for in January 1908 Slade was asked to ‘arrange...for another man at £800 a year’; Slade, diary entry 17 Jan. 1908, Slade papers III, loc. cit.

19 Slade, diary entries for 17 Jan., 24 Jan. and 25 Jan. 1908, Slade papers III, loc. cit.

20 Slade, diary entry 25 Jan. 1908, Slade papers III, loc. cit. Gleichen to 5th meeting of sub-committee, 4 Feb. 1908, P.R.O., CAB 16/3A, question 714, pp. 133 4. Ewart supported him with a memorandum in the hope ‘that the question will receive the attention of the Committee’; ‘Evidence to be given by Count Gleichen’, 1 Feb. 1908, P.R.O., WO 106/47B, p. 2.

21 Allen's reminiscences appeared over fifty years later. His recruitment by the War Office ‘Long before the outbreak of World War I’, combined with his apparent dormancy before 1914, suggest that he was part of this early system of agents; ‘Cloak and dagger in World War I’, Reveille (Magazine of N.S.W. branch of returned sailors’, soldiers’ and airmen's imperial league of Australia), May 1964, pp. 15 and 29. Slade, Diary entry 11 Mar. 1908, Slade papers III, loc. cit.

22 Slade, diary entry 27 Mar. 1908, Slade papers III, loc. cit. Ewart, diary entry 29 May 1908, and Memoirs, p. 918, Ewart papers loc. cit. According to Valentine Williams, a journalist with contacts in the secret service, attempts by both sides ‘to land the other with bogus information or faked plans’ formed ‘a leading aspect of Anglo-German naval rivalry in pre-War days’; Williams V., The world of action (London, 1938), p. 335. His informant was probably Mansfield Cumming.

23 Slade to Asquith, 8 May 1909, P.R.O., CAB 16/9B, p. 195. It seems that Fisher resented Slade's independent co-operation with the War Office, and deliberately got rid of him; Ewart, diary entry 4 Jan. 1909, Ewart papers, loc. cit.

24 Ewart, diary entries 20 Dec. and 31 Dec. 1908, Ewart papers, loc. cit. Ewart found Hardinge to be ‘very good in supplying me with money as I needed it for special investigations’; Ewart, ‘Memoirs’, p. 918, Ewart papers loc. cit.

25 ‘Report and proceedings of a subcommittee of the committee of imperial defence appointed to consider the question of foreign espionage in the United Kingdom’, 24 July 1909, P.R.O., CAB 16/8, p. iv. The war office and Admiralty continued to employ officers on leave to explore the German coast and the area of Belgium where the British Expeditionary Force was expected to operate, but although their work was highly organized and obsessively detailed it was not part of the new professionalism in espionage, and so lies outside the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that despite the war office's secret survey of some 2,250 square miles of Belgium from 1907 onwards, the Expeditionary Force had retreated out of this area by 24 August 1914, and did not return until the end of the war.

26 Edmonds, ‘Memoirs’, ch. xx, pp. 4–5, Edmonds papers, loc. cit. Ewart, diary entry 30 March 1909, Ewart papers, loc. cit. Maurice F., Haldane 1856–1915 (London, 1937), p. 256.

27 Report and proceedings, 24 July 1909, P.R.O., CAB 16/8, pp. (i), 9, 10–11. The subcommittee as appointed was chaired by R. B. Haldane (war secretary), with R. McKenna (first lord of the Admiralty), H. J. Gladstone (home secretary), S. Buxton (postmaster-general), Viscount Esher, Sir C. Hardinge (permanent under-secretary of state for foreign affairs), Sir G. Murray (permanent secretary to the Treasury), Adm. A.E.Bethell (director of naval intelligence), Gen. J. S. Ewart (director of military operations), Gen. A. J. Murray (director of military training), and Sir E. Henry (commissioner of police). The working party, or ‘small Committee’ as Ewart called it, contained Hardinge, Ewart, Bethell, Sir George Murray, Henry, and Major Francis Lyon, the assistant military secretary to the committee of imperial defence; Ewart, diary entry 28 April 1909, Ewart papers, loc. cit.

28 Memorandum by Mr Pearson of conversation with Captain Grant, 28 April 1909, and letter from Bethell to Hardinge, 24 May 1909, P.R.O., FO 371/673, file 16182/16182, pp. 388–90,425. The Foreign Office certainly felt no compunction in disowning spies. When two officers sent by Bethell were found spying in Germany in 1910, Grey asserted the ‘the F.O. + Admiralty + W.O. are entirely innocent of the proceedings’, whilst the agents themselves told the German authorities every detail of their mission and were given four years fortress detention; James W., The eyes of the navy (London, 1955), pp. 89, and note by Grey, c. 31 August 1910, P.R.O., FO 371/906, file 31782, p. 242.

29 Bethell to Hardinge, 17 May 1909, P.R.O., FO 371/673, file 16182/19318, pp. 399–400. Ewart, diary entry 12 June 1909 about Hardinge's fears, Ewart papers, loc. cit. Draft memorandum, 19 May 1909, P.R.O., FO 371/673, file 16182/19318, pp. 408–9, 413–14. A typescript fair copy is also on file at pp. 415–23.

30 ‘Report and proceedings’, 24 July 1909, P.R.O., CAB 16/8, pp. (iv), 11. The report - which also included an estimate of the cost of such a bureau - was signed by Bethell, but according to Ewart was ‘drawn up by Sir Charles Hardinge; Sir Edward Henry; Sir A. Murray; Mr. Buxton, and myself’; Diary entry 12 July 1909, Ewart papers, loc. cit.

31 The initial organization of the bureau is not clear, but Edmonds recalled much later that he suggested ‘the head of the military branch’ and that ‘there was a naval’; ‘Memoirs’, ch. xx, p. 5, Edmonds papers, loc. cit. Evidence about the later history of this ‘military branch’ show that before 1914 its links with the directorate were only ‘for practical and economic reasons (e.g. official address, money &c)’; letter by Eric Holt-Wilson, Edmonds papers, II/I/65a, loc. cit. For the policy of using retired officers see ‘Reduction of estimates for secret services. Memorandum by the secretary of state for war’, 19 Mar. 1920, House of Lords Record Office, Lloyd George papers, F/9/2/16, p. 2. The meeting at Scotland Yard was between Sir Edward Henry, Ewart, Edmonds, Bethell, and his assistant Captain Temple; Ewart, diary entry 11 Aug. 1909, and Memoirs, pp. 953–4, Ewart papers, loc. cit.

32 Edmonds, ‘Memoirs’, ch. xx, p. 5, Edmonds papers, loc. cit. Ewart, diary entries for 18 Sept., 9 Oct., 15 Oct., 28 Oct. and 7 Nov. 1909, and ‘Memoirs’, p. 956, Ewart papers, loc. cit. For the material which Kell had ‘thrown at his head’ when he began work, see the lecture of June 1939, probably by Eric Holt-Wilson, among Kell's papers. This was kindly made available by Mr Robin S. Frost.

33 CUMMING, 1859–1923. Born 1 April 1859 as Mansfield George Smith; serves as A.D.C. during expedition against Malays 1875–6; Lieut. R.N. 1881; serves in Egypt 1883; retires from the navy 1886; marries Leslie Cumming and takes the name Smith-Cumming 1889; posted as retired commander to ‘Victory for special service at Southampton’ 26 Nov. 1898; mobilized ‘for special service’ and becomes C.B. 1914; Acting Captain 15 Jan. 1915; becomes K.C.M.G. 1919; dies 14 June 1923. By 1914 he was using the name Mansfield George Smith Cumming, although in that year he also appeared as Mansfield-Cumming; The Times, 14 Oct. 1914, p. 10. Henry Oliver, who worked with Cumming as director of the naval intelligence division 1913–14, noted that some years before 1909 Cumming had a cover appointment ‘to afford him a reason for visiting the Admiralty without exciting comment’; H. F. Oliver, ‘Recollections’, National Maritime Museum, Oliver papers, OLV/12, II, 95–6 (the period concerned is 1903–6). As the Victory was mainly the personnel of the R.N. barracks at Portsmouth, and included numerous officers attached for administrative purposes, it may have been used to conceal a secret service appointment as early as 1898. For a useful description of Cumming see Williams V., The world of action (London, 1938), pp. 333–9.

34 The historian is hampered both by contemporary secrecy, where secret service officers were not named or became mere initials (Kell being ‘K.’ and Cumming ‘C.’), and by continuing secrecy. Despite rumours, there is no intention to release material relating to the origins of the secret service; Cabinet Office to author, 5 May 1982. The material revealed by official historians on the situation before 1914 is internally inconsistent, being derived ‘from notes made at the beginning of the Second World War of a very hasty kind’ to which it was considered ‘unwise and unnecessary to give a particular reference’; F. H. Hinsley et al., British intelligence in the Second World War I, 16–17, and Hinsley to author, 20 Aug. 1982. There is no doubt however that in 1914 both espionage and counter-espionage remained under MO5, and that the Admiralty had no secret service bureau until November 1914 (see below); ‘A war book for the war office, 1914’, P.R.O., WO 33/688, p. 54. It also appears certain that the division of espionage and counter-espionage had taken place by 1912 at the latest.

35 ‘Reduction of estimates’, 19 Mar. 1920, House of Lords Record Office, Lloyd George papers, F/9/2/16, p. 1. Cited in C. M. Andrew, ‘The British Secret Service and Anglo-Soviet relations in the 1920s. Part I’, Historical Journal, xx (1977), 679.

36 Foreign office to Admiralty, 21 Sept. 1909, P.R.O., FO 371/673, file 16182/32793, p. 449. Memo, by E. A. Crowe, 1 July 1911, P.R.O., FO 371/1123, file 4451/25176, pp. 327–30 (the quotation is from p. 328). This Foreign Office opposition continued until 1914, when it was clear that ‘The F.O. hated their Consular Officers helping us, and the Diplomatic and Consular branches in the F.O. hated each other.’ The result was some espionage work by consuls, despite a Foreign Office ruling that neither they nor the diplomatic officers should become involved; Oliver, ’Recollections’, p. 93, Oliver papers, loc. cit.

37 Bywater H. C. and Ferraby H. C., Strange intelligence - memoirs of naval secret service (London, 1931), pp. 15. This is a rather sensational account by two naval journalists, but it incorporates interviews with a number of former agents, and some material apparently from official papers.

38 Bywater and Ferraby, Strange intelligence, p. 11.

39 Patterson A. Temple (ed.) The Jellicoe papers (London, 1966), I, 13. For a criticism of the Lion's design see Campbell N. J. M., Battlecruisers: the design and development of British and German bcttlecruisers of the First World War era (London, 1978), pp. 2732.

40 Gooch G. P. and Temperley H. (eds.) British documents on the origins of the war 1898–1914 (London, 1930), vi, no. 387 (Grey to Goschen, 29 July 1910 enclosing memo. of 26 July 1910), p. 502, no. 397 (memo. by Captain Watson, 24 Aug. 1910), p. 517, no. 400 (Goschen to Grey with memo. 12 Oct. 1910), p. 521, no. 404 (memo. by Crowe, 20 Oct. 1910), p. 534, and no. 418 (Adm. to F.O. 3 Dec. 1910), p. 560.

41 ‘Reduction of estimates’, 19 Mar. 1920, Lloyd George papers, F/9/2/16, p. 1. Cited in Andrew, ‘British Secret Service’, loc. cit.

42 ‘The espionage trial at Leipzig’, The Times, 14 Dec. 1911, p. 8, col. 4.

43 Col. Walther Nicolai, The German secret service (London, 1924), p. 41, gives what the Germans knew of the Brussels bureau. Bywater and Ferraby, Strange intelligence, p. 3, mention ‘reports from L—in Brussels’ in 1910, and in 1911 the director of military operations referred to ‘L.’ in Brussels in connexion with espionage; Henry Wilson, diary entry 26 July 1911, Imperial War Museum, Wilson papers, microfilm DS/MISC/80 (IV). The Foreign Office files give the names of four men ‘all employed by the Intelligence Department of the British War Office’ on 7 Aug. 1914, working from Brussels, and Oliver identifies the head agent from these four; W.O. to F.O., 7 Aug. 1914, P.R.O., FO 371/2163, file 36776, p. 112; Oliver, Recollections, II, 97, Oliver papers, loc. cit.

44 Winston Churchill, The world crisis 1911–1918 (London, 1938 edition), 1, 33. Wilson, diary entry 26 July 1911, Wilson papers, loc. cit.

45 Wilson, diary entry 27 July 1911, Wilson papers, loc. cit. ‘Espionage trial at Leipzig’, The Times, 1 Feb. 1912, p. 8, col. 4. ‘Heavy sentence on Mr Stewart’, The Times, 5 Feb. 1912, p. 8, col. 1. Hamburger Nachrichten, 12 Feb. 1912 (copy in P.R.O., FO 371/1373, file 7084, p. 41).

46 Churchill to Lloyd George, 4 Sept. 1911, Lloyd George papers, C/3/15/8 (reprinted in Churchill R. S., Winston S. Churchill, II, companion pt. 2 (London, 1969), pp. 1120–1).

47 Memo. of 4 Sept. 1911, P.R.O., FO 371/1127, file 35031/35031, p. 2. Captain William Twiss to Wilson, ‘probably posted in Munich’ and received 4 Sept. 1911, copy in P.R.O., FO 371/1127, file 35031/35088, pp. 8–12.

48 Consular reports of 4 Sept. (received 5 Sept.), 6 Sept. and 8 Sept. 1911, P.R.O., FO 371/1127, file 35031/35041 p. 5, file 35031/35309 p. 14, file 35031/35310 p. 17, and file 35031/35557 p. 21. Wilson, diary entry 7 Sept. 1911, Wilson papers, loc. cit. 3 pp. memorandum sent to Foreign Office by Wilson, 12 Sept. 1911, P.R.O., FO 371/1127, file 35031/35557, pp. 23–5.

49 Lloyd George to Churchill, 15 Sept. 1911, printed in R. S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, II pt. 2, pp. 1125–6. Wilson, diary entry 18 Sept. 1911, Wilson papers, loc. cit.

50 Richard Bolton Tinsley 1875–1944: born Nov. 1875; Sub.-Lt in Royal Naval Reserve 1903; Lieut. R.N.R. 1904; retires early in 1912; becomes retired Commander R.N.R. 1914; retired Captain R.N.R. 1918; C.B.E. 1919; dies 12 Mar. 1944. There is an interesting description of Tinsley in Henry Landau, Spreading the spy net (London, 1938), pp. 31–3.

51 The memoirs of one of the pre-war agents appeared in the Daily Telegraph in 1930, credited to ‘A former member of the service’; ‘Work of the secret service’, 24 Sept., p. 10, cols. 4–6, ‘The secret service - II’, 25 Sept., p. 10, cols. 4–6, ‘The secret service - III’, 26 Sept., p. 10, cols. 4–6, ‘The secret service - iv’, 29 Sept., p. 10, cols. 4–6. This agent and a colleague were then contacted by Bywater and Ferraby. Two of these quotations come from their book Strange intelligence, pp. 37, 86.

52 Class ADM 137 at the Public Record Office contains a number of intelligence log books written in Rotter's small, neat handwriting. The reports from agents are distinguished by being numbered, usually with the prefix ‘S.’. This is confirmed by ADM 137/3880, p. 107, where a report is cited both as ‘S.866 20/1/14’ and ‘Agent S866 - 20.1.14.’. The logs give a useful picture of the range of sources available in intelligence work before 1914.

53 N.I.D. Notes on German Submarine Construction, 1902 to 1912, P.R.O., ADM 137/3905, contains the reports for 1912. Six of the reports are labelled ‘19’, who was cited in 1911 with the comment ‘19-Exct. authority?’. Reports on submarines from this source begin in Feb. 1911, and are regular by 1912. The U.25 ‘history sheet’ is in P.R.O., ADM 137/3883.

54 ‘The secret service - iv’, Daily Telegraph, 29 Sept. 1930, p. 10, col. 4. W.O. to F.O., 7 Aug. 1914, P.R.O., FO 371/2163, file 36776, p. 112. Historical sketch of the directorate of military intelligence during the Great War, 1914–1919, ready for issue 18 May 1921, P.R.O., WO 32/10776, p. 4.

55 Williams, World of action, p. 337. Report by Captain Crosse of M.T. ib, 1 Nov. 1914, P.R.O., AIR 1/550/16/15/27, p. 100.

56 Hall, ‘Rough Notes’, 10 Jan. 1936, and ‘Intelligence in wartime’ (n.d.), University of Cambridge, Churchill College Archives Centre, Hall papers, 2/1.

57 H. Llewellyn Smith to Lloyd George, 6 Aug. 1915, enclosing report of conversation with Col. French ‘about Secret Service information as to Munitions’, P.R.O., MUN 4/3586.

58 Minute by Churchill on transports, 1 Aug. 1914, P.R.O., ADM 137/1013, p. 17. Intelligence report by M.T. ib, 25 Oct. 1914, P.R.O., AIR 1/550/16/15/27, p. 112, section 12,‘Reports from the Continent’.

59 Churchill to Sec. of Adm. and First Sea Lord, 27 Oct. 1914, including fifteen questions ‘drawn up at my request’, P.R.O., ADM 137/965, p. 102, and Q. 11, p. 105. Report by Sir G. Callaghan, 31 Oct. 1914, P.R.O., ADM 137/965, answer to Q. 11 p. 114, ‘Final remark’, p. 117.

60 Churchill to Asquith and Grey, 20 May 1914, printed in Churchill, World crisis, I, 145.

61 Hall (probably in collaboration with Ralph Straus), ‘Draft “B ”Chapter one. The nature of intelligence work’, (n.d.), p. 5, Hall papers loc. cit., 3/1. Bywater and Ferraby, Strange intelligence, p. 124.

62 Memo. of 12 Oct. 1914, P.R.O., ADM 1/8397/365, p. 1.

63 ‘Work of the secret service’, Daily Telegraph, 24 Sept. 1930, p. 10, cols. 4–5.

64 Alfred Vagts, The military attaché (Princeton, 1967), p. xiii.

65 Lord Fisher, Memories (London, 1919), p. 96. Francis Hirst, The six panics and other essays (London, 1913), p. 73.

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