Spying Before The Great War…

Document date 1909

The National Archives KV 1/4 Director of Military operations ( M.O.5.)
War Office

Whilst researching the National Archives for information pertinent to my second book in the series, I came across this document. Not only was it of historical interest, but would give a great background history to one of my characters from The Windmill. The history of military intelligence in the nineteenth century will be a big part of exploration for Captain, later Colonel Charles Francis Glassbrook….If you’ve read The Windmill you might recognise the name?

By the beginning of the twentieth century, a war with Germany seemed more and more likely. There was a general mood that things were different…serious. The image of spies within the Victorian period had been romanticised and even written about in novels.

Military intelligence was very aware that they needed to be better at collecting intelligence on foreign enemies.

They needed to form an organisation that concentrated in counter-espionage to deal with the situation in Europe. It is no coincidence that the document shown below was produced in 1909 by the intelligence services…as it was the birth of an organisation, better known as M.O.5. or MI5.

Sir George Aston K.C.B. wrote in his personal memoirs, Secret Service, that military intelligence after the Crimean campaign of 1855 concentrated on establishing a ‘Topographical and Statistical’ department that studied the topography of foreign countries. As he put it, ‘the nature and strength of their armies were treated as minor matters.’

From that point, the department enjoyed a long slumber.

Sir George quizzically states that some of the highest authorities in the British Army in those days were more ‘devoted to Dress Regulations’

But later, Sir George noted, ‘after 1870, the whole of Europe sat at the feet of the Germans as the most efficient soldiers in the world.’

News indeed.

As he put it, the ‘Topographical and Statistical’ department ‘awakened from its long repose.

Officers would now obtain and classify information from the field regarding foreign armies, not just produce artistic topographical masterpieces. Army reforms in Britain began after 1873 As Sir George writes, ‘with the obvious corollary that the more that it knew about foreign armies the better‘.

So what happened in 1873?

The result of this newfound understanding was, as Sir George comments, ‘the establishment of an Intelligence Branch (under the adjutant general of the forces) on a separate basis on the 1st April 1873′.

Britain was desperately playing ‘catch up’ but how did we go about this transformation and match the efficiency of Germany and France?

Thirty-six years had passed, and the importance of raw field intelligence was highly significant building on this theme.

Therefore, it was more than interesting to find a document in The National Archives dated 1909 that explores and compares the intelligence methods of the Germans, Russians, French, Other European Systems, Japanese, Indian and British systems. Along with a methodology on ‘procuring intelligence.’

Comparable spy methods as given by secret intelligence from the National Archives:

Intelligence Methods In Peace Time:

The document begins by introducing the main instructions on how to compile and collect information during peace time.

First Instruction;
‘Collecting and compiling of such information as preparation and compiling of maps and plans and compilation of military and navy, i.e warlike, value, concerning other countries as a basis for plans of campaign.’

Second Instruction;
‘The prevention of the compilation of such information regarding one’s own country, by finding out the means used and the persons concerned in procuring and conveying such information.’

Third Instruction;
‘The misleading of other countries by the publication, or the wilfully permitted leaking out (a) of incorrect data regarding one’s own forces, fleet defences or intentions, or (b) of opinions not really held in regarding the forces of some other country, as if they were genuine.’

‘the closest interdependence between the diplomatic and consular services, the secret-services agents, and the police, and the army staff.’

British intelligence continued to account, as illustrated in this document, on the different methods for collecting and collating intelligence by the various nations.

The document is long (93 pages) and detailed, with information on seven countries, but here are a few highlights of the German, French and British intelligence services by the British Intelligence agency M.O.5.

German System

Brief summary:

The embassies and especially the military attaches do a great job in way of procuring information. Drafts of letters torn up and deliberately thrown into wastepaper baskets with a view to the pieces being collected. Therefore, misleading information…(see the document section below)

The mobile agents who operate all over the district with a view to obtaining some clearly defined object…(see the document section below)

Local agents who do not change their location are recruited from, domestic servants, hotel waiters, barbers, restaurant and public house keepers, prostitutes, sometimes school masters, language teachers and even foreign pilots…(see the document section below)

The duty of the class consists in observing every matter…(see the document section below)

Every German abroad, whether thus employed or not, has to keep his nearest consul aware of his address…(see the document section below)

Information on other points which require elucidation, is also obtained by officers and others sent on secret missions…(see the document section below)

Besides this nearly every German officer of the active army or reserve, when travelling, takes notes and makes sketches…(see the document section below)

They are to check:
Depth of water on the bar if any at various states of the tide.
Depth in harbour under the same conditions.
Wharfage accommodation, cranes etc.
Railway facilities and coal supplies at the port.
Supplies of all sorts generally available.
Neighbouring defences and armament and many other important military details.

Documents courtesy of The National Archives, Kew (Zoom in to read these.)Reproduced under Crown Copyright & Open Government Licence.

Even the importance of pigeons!

Documents courtesy of The National Archives, Kew (Zoom in to read these.)Reproduced under Crown Copyright & Open Government Licence.


Documents courtesy of The National Archives, Kew (Zoom in to read these.)Reproduced under Crown Copyright & Open Government Licence.

French System

Brief Summary:

The French in their Intelligence Department to a certain extent carry out the methods of the German system…(see the document section below)

The system however is very thorough…(see the document section below)

The agents des postes on board the messageries maritimes are particularly expert in opening and re-closing letters…(see the document section below)

The du Gast case shows the employment of women by the French…(see the document section below)

The British were concerned with naturalized British persons working for the French…(see the document section below)

Documents courtesy of The National Archives, Kew (Zoom in to read these.)Reproduced under Crown Copyright & Open Government Licence.

British System

Brief Summary: And Lessons to be Learnt

I believe that the British intelligence system has been brought fairly up to date of late years.(see the document section below)

Espionage is carried on wholesale in East Anglia…(see the document section below)

In our War Office until the other day there was practically no supervision of persons entering or leaving.(see the document section below)

The Press in their eagerness to outdo each other in furnishing the most complete details about everything to the public, forget entirely their duty to the nation…(see the document section below)

We have apparently only just woken up to the fact that foreigners have frequently been enlisted in our army…(see the document section below)

Documents courtesy of The National Archives, Kew (Zoom in to read these.)Reproduced under Crown Copyright & Open Government Licence.

Lessons learnt on taking photos and the realisation for stricter security…

Documents courtesy of The National Archives, Kew (Zoom in to read these.)Reproduced under Crown Copyright & Open Government Licence.

And always suspect the least suspicious-looking person…

Documents courtesy of The National Archives, Kew (Zoom in to read these.)Reproduced under Crown Copyright & Open Government Licence.

Be alert to monetary transactions…

Documents courtesy of The National Archives, Kew (Zoom in to read these.)Reproduced under Crown Copyright & Open Government Licence.

There is no doubt that Britain was behind Germany in collecting intelligence, but got much better at the art of espionage and put in place various procedures that were learnt from her mistakes or perhaps primarily her naivety.

It is an interesting document with so much more.

To have a look at document KV1/4 or search among some amazing documents for yourselves then visit the National Archives and enjoy a day lost in exploration.

So, how does all this fit in with The Windmill

K Lewis Adair The Windmill

Captain Charles Glassbrook, has only just started his investigations in The Windmill. We will have to see what and where they lead him as he proceeds to explore further intrigues in the second book in the series…

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3 thoughts on “Spying Before The Great War…

  1. A fascinating read. I love anything espionage-related. I worked at the FCO in Whitehall at the height of the Cold War in the late 1960s and was there when we expelled Soviet diplomats for spying. They expelled ours from Moscow. My PV (positive vetting) was done by a Special Branch Commander who was instrumental in tracking and arresting the Krogers (husband and wife Soviet spies) in 1961 – part of the infamous Portland Spy Ring. I am a crime writer and often add espionage into my stories. My new series, Ms. Birdsong Investigates is about a former Mi5 intelligence officer. I love your photos and the research from the National Archives. We have had some of the best double agents and spies!! I love history too. Good luck with all your writing and books. Fascinating. xx

    1. Hi Jane, thank you so much for your comments and amazing extra insights!! I am like you, fascinated by the odd things that we find out, the many extra details that create the intrigue in a story. Your Special Branch Commander must have had a tale to tell (if allowed.) It is also fascinating that these spies are always ‘hidden’ in plain sight…I look forward to reading Ms Birdsong Investigates and to another chat with you. Take care
      Very best wishes Karen x

      1. Karen, he had a few tales to tell and I was spell-bound. I had to meet with him every few months to check I hadn’t got unsuitable friends, making odd acquaintances and so on – I had East German friends they were not happy about and they were suspicious of my boyfriend and his band – now husband. It was all very cloak and dagger, looking back. Have a fab day and take care xx

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