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‘Joy Rides’?: British Intelligence and Propaganda in Russia, 1914–1917

  • Keith Neilson (a1)

The work of one member of the British intelligence mission in Russia was once described as ‘consist[ing] chiefly in passing little notes to other noodles of his calling all over the world to warn them of this or that innocent and bar their exit from or entry to all and sundry countries’. Others, even less charitable, characterized the intelligence mission and the war propaganda bureau as ‘joy rides’ and dismissed them entirely, discounting as worthless their efforts to promote closer understanding and coordination between Britain and her eastern ally.

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1 Gerhardi, W., Memoirs of a polyglot (New York, 1931), pp. 116–17. Gerhardi was a junior officer attached to the military attaché in Petrograd.

2 Knox (the British military attaché in Russia) to Fitzgerald (private secretary to Lord Kitchener, the secretary of state for war), 6 Jan. 1916, Kitchener papers, P[ublic] R[ecord] O[ffice], PRO 30/50/67.

3 The fact that the regular missions are quite well known is largely due to the fact that key members of them wrote memoirs: the most important of these are Sir Buchanan, G., My mission to Russia and other diplomatic memories (2 vols., London, 1923); Lockhart, R. H. Bruce, Memoirs of a British agent (New York and London, 1933), and Major General Sir Knox, A., With the Russian army 1914–1917 (2 vols., London, 1921).

4 Specifically I refer to the communications between the intelligence mission in Russia and the War Office of which little remains; for the general attitude of the British government to secret service records, see Andrew, C. M., ‘Whitehall, Washington and the Intelligence Services’, International Affairs, liii, 3 (1977), 398403.

5 As a recent commentator, French, D., ‘Spy fever in Britain, 1900–1915’, Historical Journal, xxi, 2 (1975), 362, has put it: ‘ The work of the secret service was clouded in secrecy from the start…. The government wanted to be able to say, with an almost clear conscience, that it knew nothing about the British spies working abroad’. The Russian case does little to dispute this view.

6 See, for example, Sanders, M. L., ‘Wellington House and British propaganda during the First World War’, Historical Journal, xviii, 1 (1975), pp. 119–46 and Haste, C., Keep the home fires burning. Propaganda in the First World War (London, 1977).

7 ‘Report by Captain Adrian Simpson’, 19 Feb. 1915, PRO, W.O. 106/1141.

8 Campbell’s time in Russia may be followed, rather sketchily, in FO to Buchanan, 20 Feb. 1915 and Nicolson to Buchanan, 23 Feb. 1915, in PRO, F.O. 371/2449/20135 and 21067. See also, ‘Report on Petrograd’, Gen. H. Wilson, n.d. (but Mar. 1917), the note on Lt. Col. Blair, PRO, CAB 17/197.

9 Buckley (M.O. 2) to Lamb, 10 May 1915, W.O. 106/5128. Original emphasis.

10 ‘Report on Petrograd’, Gen. H. Wilson, n.d. (but Mar. 1917), the note on Maj. Thornhill, CAB 17/197. Thornhill was later to be the head of British intelligence at Archangel; see Ullman, R. H., Anglo-Soviet relations, 1917–1921 (3 vols., Princeton, 1961–72), 1, 246, 250. Ullman is mistaken in assuming that Thornhill headed the intelligence mission during 1917.

11 Sir Hoare, Samuel, The fourth seal (London, 1930), p. 15.

12 Cross, J. A., Sir Samuel Hoare, a political biography (London, 1977), pp. 3940.

13 Ibid. p. 42.

14 Ibid. pp. 42–3 and ‘Report on Petrograd’, n.d. (but Mar. 1917), the note on Thornhill. The former source gives the incorrect date of 1 July.

15 Cross, Hoare, pp. 43–6 and Buchanan’s despatch no. 40, 18Feb. 1917 F.0. 371/3005/48289. War trade and the blacklist had become particularly important at this time due to the attempt undertaken at the Paris economic conference in June to tighten the allied blockade of Germany; see Siney, M. C., The Allied blockade of Germany 1914—1916 (Ann Arbor, 1957), pp. 173—85.

16 There is no adequate published study of the Petrograd conference; see my own ‘Strategy and supply: Anglo-Russian relations 1914–1917’, Cambridge University, Ph.D. thesis, 1978, pp. 268–94 for a comprehensive examination of it.

17 H. Wilson to Robertson, 5 Feb. 1917, CAB 17/197.

18 Robertson to H. Wilson, n.d. (but Feb. 1917); Wilson to Robertson, 15 Feb. 1917 and Robertson to H. Wilson, 21 Feb. 1917, all in Ibid.

19 The suggestion that Hoare was unhappy over the new arrangement is from Cross, Hoare, pp. 49–50, but see the minute by R. Cecil on Buchanan’s despatch no. 40, note 15 above, which states that Hoare supported Wilson’s proposals.

20 For Wiseman and his role in the United States, see Fowler, W. B., British-American relations, 1917—1918. The role of Sir William Wiseman (Princeton, 1969).

21 My account of Maugham’s mission in Russia is based on Ibid. pp. 114–18 and Calder, R. L., W. Somerset Maugham and the quest for freedom (London, 1972), pp. 200, 273–89. The coverage of this event in the most recent biography of Maugham, Morgan, T., Maugham. A biography (New York, 1980), pp. 226—32 is largely derivative.

22 Maugham, W. S., Ashenden: or the British agent (London, 1927).

23 See Sanders, ‘Wellington House’, pp. 119–20; Haste, Home fires, pp. 37–40.

24 Second Report of the Work conducted for the Government at Wellington House, C. F. G. Masterman, February 1916’, as cited in Ibid. p. 38.

25 Minute by Percy, 7 June 1915, F.O. 371/2447/76757. On Percy and the War Department, see Steiner, Z., ‘The Foreign Office and the War’, in Hinsley, F. H. (ed.), British foreign policy under Sir Edward Grey (Cambridge, 1977), p. 520.

26 See the collection of minutes about Pares' mission on F.O. 371/2447/76757.

27 Pares, B., My Russian memoirs (London, 1931), p. 272.

28 Minute by Press Bureau, 3 June 1915, F.O. 371/2447/76757.

29 Minute by A. Nicolson, 9 June 1915, Ibid.; Buchanan to A. Nicolson, 10 july 1915, Nicolson papers, PRO, F.O. 800/378.

30 Buchanan to F.O., 28 June 1915, F.O. 371/2447/85769.

31 Buchanan to F.O., 3 Aug. 1915, Grey papers, PRO, F.O. 800/75.

32 Buchanan to F.O., 23 July 1915, Ibid.

33 Buchanan to A. Nicolson, 4 July 1915, F.O. 371/2447/90874.

34 Pares, Russian memoirs, p. 343.

35 Ibid. p. 342.

36 Cited in Hart-Davis, R., Hugh Walpole. A biography (London, 1952), p. 117. On the matter of the response of the literati to the war generally, see Wright, D. G., ‘The Great War, government propaganda and English “men of letters” 1914–1916’, Literature and History, vii (1978), pp. 70100.

37 Hart-Davis, Walpole, p. 123; Bruce Lockhart, British agent, pp. 100–01.

38 Tyrkova-Williams, A., Cheerful giver. The life of Harold Williams (London, 1935), p. 168. Tyrkova-Williams was Harold Williams’ wife and herself prominent in Russian politics.

39 Sir Dukes, Paul, The story of ‘ST 25’ (London, 1938), pp. 1522.

40 Tyrkova-Williams, Cheerful giver, p. 168.

41 Dukes, ‘ST 25’, p. 15.

42 Hart-Davis, Walpole, p. 148. The actual proposal that Buchanan submitted to the F.O. was drafted by Ransome; see Hart-Davis, R. (ed.), The autobiography of Arthur Ransome (London, 1976), pp. 189–90.

43 Hart-Davis, Walpole, pp. 148–51; Lockhart, British agent, pp. 141–2. Sanders, ‘Wellington House’, pp. 122–4, points out that Wellington House came under the control of the F.O. at this time, but the ‘national’ sections-including that dealing with Russia-remained at Wellington House until 1917.

44 Tyrkova-Williams, Cheerful giver, p. 168; Walpole, H., The secret city (New York, 1919), pp. 199200. Ransome, who opposed the expansion of the mission, referred to it as ‘the elaborately futile British propaganda office on the Fontanka’, Hart-Davis (ed.), Ransome, p. 299.

45 Hart-Davis, Walpole, pp. 151–64.

46 Buchanan to F.O., 30 June 1916, F.O. 371/2750/127636.

48 Hart-Davis, Walpole, p. 170.

49 Bruce Lockhart, British agent, pp. 141–2. Given the fact that Wellington House had been subsumed by the F.O., this was properly intra-departmental cooperation.

50 Ibid. p. 142.

51 Ibid. p. 143.

53 Sanders, ‘Wellington House’, pp. 1378.

54 Ibid. pp. 136–7; Haste, Home fires, pp. 45–6.

55 Sanders, ‘Wellington House’, p. 138.

56 Bruce Lockhart, British agent, p. 185.

57 Neglect of Russia was a constant theme of Lloyd George’s criticism of the Asquith government and the Petrograd conference may be seen as the first step in attempting to rectify this neglect; see George, D. Lloyd, War memoirs (6 vols., London, 1933–6), 1, 461–71; 477–8.

58 For Poole’s mission, see ‘Report of the work of the British military equipment section in Russia’, F. C. Poole, 17 Jan. 1918, W.O. 106/1145.

59 ‘Proposals for propaganda in Russia by Major-General F. C. Poole, C.M.G., D.S.O.’, 31 July 1917, CAB 17/197.

60 On the creation of the department of information, see Sanders,’ Wellington House’, pp. 124–5; Smith, J. A., John Buchan. A biography (London, 1965), pp. 197201.

61 Buchan to Major H. C. Thornton (secretary to Lord Milner, Lloyd George’s expert on Russia in the War Cabinet), 3 Aug. 1917, CAB 17/197.

62 Buckley (now M.I. 2) to Blair, 18 Oct. 1917, W.O. 106/5128.

63 Memo. by M. Basilesco, 27 Nov. 1917, F.O. 371/2999/228812.

64 Minute by H. Nicolson, 2 Dec. 1917, Ibid.

65 Buchan to F.O., 7 Dec. 1917, Ibid.

66 The following paragraph is based on the invaluable ‘Historical sketch of the Directorate of Military Intelligence during the Great War, 1914–1919’, PRO, W.O. 32/10776. For an account of the development of the secret service in general, see Hinsley, F. al., British intelligence in the Second World War. Its influence on strategy and operations (London, 1979), 1, 317.

67 Ibid. p. 6.

68 The following paragraph, except where indicated otherwise, is based on Buchanan to Grey, 20 Dec. 1914, F.O. 371/2446/156.

69 Buchanan to F.O., 5 and 12 Mar. 1915, F.O. 371/2449/26535, 29250.

70 French to Campbell (A. Nicolson’s private secretary), 17 Mar. 1915, F.O. 371/2449/29250.

71 F.O. to Buchanan, 17 Mar. 1915, Ibid.

72 Buchanan to F.O., 26 Dec. 1915, F.O. 371/2457/198874.

73 On Crowe, see Steiner, ‘The Foreign Office and the war’, pp. 517–8.

74 Crowe’s minute, 27 Dec. 1915, F.O. 371/2457/198874.

75 Grey’s minute, n.d. (but 27 or 28 Dec. 1915), Ibid. This attitude of the Russian military authorities may have been due to the notorious indiscretion of the French ambassador in Petrograd, M. Paléologue, a lack of confidence in the security of the allied diplomatic codes, or a distrust of their own diplomats.

76 Cubitt (assistant secretary to the W.O.) to F.O., 28 Dec. 1915, F.O. 371/2444/200236.

78 Major General Sir Callwell, C. E.Expenences of a dug-out 1914–1918 (London, 1922), pp. 237–8.

79 A. Nicolson to Grey, 28 Dec. 1915, F.O. 371/2457/198874.

80 Buchanan to A. Nicolson, 20 Jan. 1916, Nicolson papers, F.O. 800/381.

81 French to Campbell, 18 Feb. 1916, F.O. 371/2747/33270.

82 Knox’s report I 2, 9 Mar. 1916, W.O. 106/1073.

83 Buchanan’s despatch no. 40, 18 Feb. 1917, F.O. 371/3005/48289.

85 For Lockhart’s naive attempts to outwit the Soviet secret police, see R. K. Debo, ‘Lockhart plot or Dzerzhinskii plot?’, Journal of Modern History, xxxxiii, 3 (1971), 413–39.

86 See the reports of German troop movements sent by Thornhill from June to November 1916, W.O. 157/1217. This is the only file I have been able to find containing correspondence from the British intelligence mission in Russia.

87 Knox to Fitzgerald, 6 Jan. 1917, Kitchener papers, PRO 30/50/67.

88 Laudatory accounts of Knox abound; typical are Bruce Lockhart, British agent, p. 134 and Lloyd George, War memoirs, 1, p. 454. After the war, the former Russian chargé d'affaires in London wrote that Knox ‘was better informed than the Russian General Staff themselves’. Nabokoff, C., The ordeal of a diplomat (London, 1921), p. 121.

89 Lockhart, R. H. Bruce, Retreat from glory (London, 1934), p. 28. Such remarks did not seem to offend Hugh Walpole, who wrote an approving forward to Lockhart’s British agent.

90 Hoare, Fourth seal, p. 30.

91 This statement is based on an examination of the circulation lists noted on the reports of the attachés, W.O. 106/987–1132. For the sake of simplicity, I have referred to the various bodies set up to deal with the war (successively, the War Council, the Dardanelles Committee, the War Committee and the War Cabinet) as the cabinet.

92 See, for example, the remarks on Kitchener to Grey, 15 Oct. 1914, F.O. 371/2095/59975; Hanbury Williams to Kitchener, 3 Jan. 1915, Kitchener papers, PRO 30/57/67; and Buchanan to A. Nicolson, 24 Feb. 1915, Nicolson papers, F.O. 800/377. Of course, specific information of interest to other departments had wider circulation. For example, after the formation of the Ministry of Munitions in June 1915, Lloyd George was given material relating to Russian munition requirements; see Hanbury Williams to Kitchener, 14 June 1915, copy in Lloyd George papers, House of Lords Record Office, D/17/6/7.

93 Lloyd George, War memoirs, 1, 420–1.

94 Meeting of the War Committee, 10 May 1916, CAB 42/13/6.

95 Roskill, S., Hankey: man 0f secrets (3 vols., London, 1970–4), 1, 273.

96 Meeting of the War Committee, 30 May 1916, CAB 42/14/12.

97 For evidence of such pruning, see the remarks by G. M. W. Macdonogh (the Director of Military Intelligence) on Blair’s despatch no. 9, 8 Sept. 1916, W.O. 106/1026.

98 Buckley to Blair, 18 Oct. 1917, W.O. 106/5128.

99 Karasavina, T. (the noted Russian ballerina and wife of the head of the British Chancery in Petrograd, H.J. Bruce), Theatre Street (New York, 1931), p. 319 and Hart-Davis, Walpole, pp. 154, 163–4. Not all of Walpole’s acquaintances found him as charming. Maugham, in his novel, Cakes and ale (London, 1930), savagely caricatured Walpole as the complacent, self-seeking author and literary critic, Alroy Kear. See the discussion of this literary cause célèbre in Calder, Maugham, pp. 175–9.

100 Knox to Buckley, 15 Oct. 1917, W.O. 106/5128, original emphasis.

101 Hardinge’s minute, n.d. (but early Dec. 1917), F.O. 371/2999/228812.

102 Buchan to F.O., 7 Dec. 1917, Ibid.

103 Walpole, Secret city, p. 200.

104 This is not to say, of course, that it did not inspire spy novels, only that the novels became more realistic. Maugham’s Ashenden, in particular, had a major impact on the entire field of espionage fiction; see the discussion of this in Calder, Maugham, pp. 203–9.

105 Hoare, Fourth seal, p. 57.

106 On the exploits of the later British codebreakers, see C. M. Andrew, ‘The British Secret Service and Anglo-Soviet relations in the 1920s. Part I: from the trade negotiations to the Zinoviev letter’, Historical Journal, xx, 3 (1977), 673706. The information about Fetterlein is derived from Dr Andrew’s forthcoming book on British intelligence and I am indebted to him for putting this information at my disposal.

107 Such an elitist approach to propaganda was typical of the Foreign Office’s approach in all theatres, not just in Russia; see Taylor, P. M., ‘The Foreign Office and British propaganda during the First World War’, Historical Journal, xxiii, 3 (1980), 896.

108 Pearson, R., The Russian moderates and the crisis of Tsarism 1914–1917 (London, 1977), p. 180.

109 ‘Report on propaganda arrangements by Robert Donald, 9 Jan. 1917’, cited in Sanders, ‘Wellington House’, p. 123.

110 Medlin, V. D. and Parsons, S. L. (eds.), V. D. Nabokov and the Russian provisional government, 1917 (New Haven, 1976), p. 40.

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