Spies of the First World War

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Among the most compelling stories Morton describes are the Belgian resistance networks gathering intelligence for the British army against the Germans during the Great War. ‘La Dame Blanche’, run by a British agent named Henry Landau, came up with a number of ingenious methods of counting German trains, who and what was in them and passing this information back to HQ in hollowed-out broom handles.

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Spies of the First World War. Under Cover for King and Kaiser. James Morton. The National Archives, 240 pp.

The genuinely fascinating history of modern intelligence services is all too often written by former spooks who are usually poor researchers with an axe to grind and a romantic image to protect. James Morton’s new history of First World War spies, using material from and published by the National Archives, makes some strides towards correcting this with a detailed and readable account of early European espionage services. Based on declassified documents, Morton chronicles the rise of intelligence agencies from amateurish affairs to those that laid the foundations of the Special Operations Executive, the KGB, the Gestapo and others.

Among the most compelling stories Morton describes are the Belgian resistance networks gathering intelligence for the British army against the Germans during the Great War. ‘La Dame Blanche’, run by a British agent named Henry Landau, came up with a number of ingenious methods of counting German trains, who and what was in them and passing this information back to HQ in hollowed-out broom handles. Beans were used to indicate the number of horses, soldiers and guns passing on trains through Belgium en route to the Western Front. Messages were also carried to agents in tins, adapted packets of chocolate, sewn into clothes and in bars of soap.

There was a high attrition rate for these pioneers of espionage on both sides during the war according to Morton, who highlights a handful of the famous and forgotten cases. The more obscure are often the most interesting with details, for example, of the passeurs who were professional smugglers turned agents (including whole families), who evaded the German border sentries by signalling to each other via a series of wires. The stories of Edith Cavell, Carl Lody and Sidney Reilly are neatly documented, while those of the patriotic aristocrats, quiet patriots, ‘outand- out bounders’ and fantasists provide insight into the difficulty of marshalling a professional service.

Although Morton clearly relies on a wealth of previously unseen documentation, he often lacks enough contextual information to make sense of his findings. References to the ‘sandbagging’ of a policeman, to ‘buboes’ and to ‘the Spartakistes’ left me none the wiser. Elsewhere Morton is plain wrong; he writes that Mata Hari was born in Indonesia (it was Leeuwarden, Holland) and used the name ‘Margarethe Hari’ upon her arrival in Paris. Other glitches include the story of Kenneth Rysbach, who Morton has landing in England from Ruhleben in 1917 and being sentenced to life imprisonment here in 1915.

With a legacy of self-serving amateurish historians, writers of intelligence history like Morton have plenty of scope to set the record straight. It seems a shame that his otherwise very careful archival research and lively writing style should be marred by these occasional confusions and errors of detail.

Read more: http://www.historytoday.com/blog/books-blog/julie-wheelwright/spies-first-world-war

See also: https://www.strategypage.com/bookreviews/637.asp