Saturday, February 4, 2017

Espionage in World War I

"Thomas Tileston Wells, my great grandfather, was falsely accused by Austrian authorities in Riva of being a Russian spy and threatened with immediate execution. There is no evidence that the threatened execution of the “other two” spies referenced in Wells’s manuscript ( ever took place. It was most likely a bluff used in an attempt to make Wells talk.  Many World War I spies were, however, executed.

Mata Hari: World War I Spy
Much of the “surveillance society” in which we live today has its origins in World War I espionage. For example, the British built a sophisticated signals intelligence network designed to monitor German radio traffic during the war. The SIS (Secret Intelligence Service and forerunner to MI6) established monitoring stations from Folkestone to London.
President Wilson
Room 40 was a decryption service of the British Admiralty that would later inspire the codebreakers of Bletchley Park in World War II. Their greatest coup of the war was the interception and decryption of the famous Zimmermann Telegram in 1917. This message, sent by the German minister of foreign affairs to the Mexican government, proposed an alliance with Mexico in the event of America’s entry into the war. Its disclosure enraged many Americans, and was one of the catalysts (along with unrestricted submarine warfare and the violation of Belgian neutrality) for the American declaration of war by the United States Congress on April 6, 1917.
Mata Hari statue
Leeuwarden, Netherlands
Room 40 also decrypted messages that identified Mata Hari, a Dutch courtesan and exotic dancer in Paris who was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, in 1876, as H-21, a German spy. The information was passed to French intelligence, and the femme fatale was arrested, convicted, and executed by firing squad in 1917.

Edith Cavell: British spy
London, UK
In the dawn hours of October 12, 1915, a very different woman, Edith Cavell, was executed in Brussels by a German firing squad. She was an unmarried clergyman’s daughter who was working as a Red Cross nurse in occupied Belgium. Her tragic fate aroused great sympathy in the American public. James Beck, another New York lawyer, declared that “the murder of Miss Cavell was one of exceptional brutality and stupidity.” Both the Germans and the Allies acknowledged that Cavell aided Allied servicemen in escaping to neutral Holland. Only long after the war ended was it revealed, by military historian M. R. D. Foot, that she had, in fact, been an agent of British intelligence. Her life was commemorated with a statue in London that stands near Trafalgar Square, and a mountain peak in Canada was named in her honor. The famous French singer, Edith Piaf, was named after her.
The Germans managed to infiltrate a spy of their own into Benedict XV’s Vatican. Rudolph Gerlach, a Bavarian, became the Pope’s chancellor while betraying Italian military secrets to the Central Powers.
V.I. Lenin: A German Plot?
But the greatest German intelligence coup of the war was arguably the smuggling of Lenin from Zurich to Petrograd on board a “sealed train.” Indisputably, the Germans helped to finance the start of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Somerset Maugham
W. Somerset Maugham worked for British intelligence in Switzerland, whose neutral status made it a hotbed of espionage intrigue during World War I. He would later transform his wartime experiences into the Ashenden spy novels.

Buchan's 39 Steps
The popularity of espionage fiction was boosted by the war. John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps pits Scotsman Richard Hannay against a nefarious ring of German spies in England in the lead up to World War I. This novel, published in 1915, was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935 and dramatized on the London stage, to great acclaim.

Ian Fleming
On May 20, 1917, Major Valentine Fleming of the British Army was killed by artillery on the Western Front. His obituary was written by Winston Churchill. One of his two sons became the assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence in World War II, but he is better known as Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond."

This blog was adapted from An Adventure in 1914.  Published by History Invasions Press in 2016.

You can find signed copies of An Adventure in 1914

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