Romanticised in books and films, espionage in warfare is a topic of interest to many.
Ian Fleming’s 007 novels have dramatised the dangerous world of spying and originate from Fleming’s time in the Naval Intelligence Division during World War II. and historical accounts of spy operations such as Ben Macintyre’s recent Double Cross and Operation Mincemeat have opened our minds to the fascinating complexity of World War II spy operations. However, less attention has been given to the spy hysteria that emerged in World War One, both on the front lines and at home.
Even in the pre-war Britain of the early 1900s, the growing threat of Germany’s military power created an atmosphere of distrust. Novels about espionage such as William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 depicted a sophisticated German spy network and found a popular audience in the early 20th century. The Bystander columnist H. H. Munro, better known by his pen name “Saki”, similarly wrote the novel When William Came which portrayed London under German occupation.
The hysteria naturally grew after war was declared and a shroud of paranoia fell over Great Britain as “spy fever” became rife. The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News reported on a play named The Man Who Stayed At Home about a German spy in England, which became incredibly popular.
The hysteria developed into a theory that German influence was obstructing the war effort. British society became saturated with Germanophobia. German cultural exports were now tainted and subject to suspicion. German language classes were cancelled and even German music was banned from concert halls. The Sketch reflected this hysteria in an article about spy networks illustrated by children’s toys. The left hand picture shows figurines that illustrate the possibility of a spy network within the governments of the Allies; the right hand image portrays a German woman being woken by a police officer who has discovered ammunition in her trunk.
In reality, between August 1914 and September 1917 only 31 German spies were arrested, suggesting that the degree to which such spies were operating was highly exaggerated. Those that were captured were often incompetent or amateur spies. Carl Hans Lody, a German spy executed by firing squad at the Tower of London in 1914, left a trail of clues to his actions. The Germans wanted to know more about British fleet and defences and so Lody was stationed at the Firth of Forth in Scotland, an estuary of strategic importance as the main seaward approach to Edinburgh. However, it turned out that the information he had been sending back to the German government had been, for the most part, completely inaccurate.
Spy hysteria was equally prevalent on the front lines. It was widely believed among soldiers that French and Belgian civilians living behind the lines would signal to German artillery through fantastically elaborate means. In his auto-biography Parisian-born South African novelist Stuart Cloete wrote that he was convinced that a Belgian civilian, near Ypres, was signalling to the German artillery by switching the position of his grey horse and his brown.
However, The Illustrated London News shows that the hysteria was not completely unfounded. One WWI spy created an intricately detailed illustration of an Allied fort using pictorial code. In his landscape drawing of a hill, a particular tree would represent a field gun position and another type of tree would represent an armoured gun turret. Several articles detailing the events that led to the capture of an enemy spy were also published in The Illustrated London News between 1914 and 1916. One such article reported how a German spy was caught signalling to the enemy from inside a French house. The article noted that:
“German spies continue to abound in France. They are met with all sorts of disguises. Simple looking peasants working in the fields, sham priests, Germans dressed as Sisters of Charity or as hospital nurses…”
Espionage in the First World War was nowhere near as complex and pervasive as it became in the Second World War. Of course, spying occurred, but it was largely unsuccessful and had no real outcome on the Great War.