Status, organisation and expertise

Just over a fortnight after the declaration of war with Germany, a British Expeditionary Force of some forty thousand men had been deployed in northern France. It was an astonishingly successful logistical performance and a tribute to the completeness of the plans which the Directorate of Military Operations had been working on for the previous three years or so. Little thought, however, had been given to the higher direction of this force, beyond the appointment of Field Marshal Sir John French as Commander-in-Chief, and the assumption that, subject to some general instructions concerning relations with Allied forces (principally the French), he would have complete freedom of command in the field. Few people anticipated that from the autumn of 1914 the opposing forces would get bogged down in a costly four-year war of attrition along a line of more or less fixed positions from the English Channel to the Swiss frontier. As the British military commitment escalated into a mass, conscript army, and the ‘butcher’s bill’ of trench warfare mounted, the autonomy of Sir John French and his successor, Sir Douglas Haig, came to be questioned in London where civilian politicians (especially David Lloyd George after he became Prime Minister in December 1916) increasingly sought to assert control over war strategy. For civil-military relations in Britain, the consequence of ‘total war’ and the necessary mobilisation of all national resources was to shift the wartime balance of power away from the armed services (especially the army) and to the political leadership of the country.

The experience of Mansfield Cumming’s infant organisation during the First World War reflected these wider developments. From August 1914 the military authorities’ chief intelligence requirement - from whatever source - was operationally useful information for the Expeditionary Force in the field. Increasingly, both General Headquarters (GHQ) in France and the War Office in London asserted exclusive rights - and control - over the Secret Service. But Cumming argued that he had wider responsibilities beyond the purely military demands of the armies in France and Flanders. As a sailor himself, he was sharply aware of the Admiralty’s intelligence needs, which he actively sought to meet. With Foreign Office support, moreover, he managed to retain his institutional autonomy, seeing off successive military attempts to annex his Service and, by the end of the war, he had conclusively established the independent basis and interdepartmental character of an organisation that was to emerge in the early 1920s as the Secret Intelligence Service.

Serving three masters

Cumming’s relationship with each of the three departments he served - the Foreign Office, the Admiralty and the War Office - inevitably changed in August 1914 with the service ministries’ growing demands for immediate operational intelligence. This was especially true of the War Office. The staffing of British Military Intelligence was immediately affected by the outbreak of war. General Henry Wilson, the Director of Military Operations, who had been very supportive of Cumming, went off to be sub-chief of staff in the expeditionary force and was replaced at the War Office by another Irishman, General Charles Callwell, a fifty-five-year-old ‘Dug Out’, a retired officer brought back (like so many others) to fill a wartime job. He had been Assistant Director of Military Operations in the early 1900s, but had no direct experience of either Cumming’s or Kell’s relatively new organisations. George Macdonogh, who as head of ‘M.O.5’ in the War Office had ‘been responsible for all Secret Service work’, went to France to take charge of intelligence at GHQ, and was succeeded first by Colonel Douglas MacEwan, who stayed two months before also heading for the front, and in October 1914 by Colonel George Cockerill. For the next eighteen months or so, Callwell and Cockerill were Cumming’s principal military masters.1 There were fewer changes on the naval side. Henry Oliver, in charge of Naval Intelligence since November 1913, moved on to be Chief of the Admiralty War Staff at the beginning of November 1914. He was succeeded by William Reginald Hall. Widely known as ‘Blinker’ (because of his nervous twitch), Hall remained Director of the Intelligence Division in the Admiralty for the rest of the war.

From the beginning there were problems of status and hierarchy. No one was very clear who precisely was in charge of the Secret Service, though this ambiguity evidently gave Cumming some useful room for manoeuvre. From the evidence of his diary, between 4 August and 30 September 1914 Cumming visited the War Office and the Admiralty nearly every day, both to brief them about his work and to get approval for spending money. On Sunday 9 August, for example, he ‘called on Col. McE[wan] with last night’s telegrams’. The following Thursday he saw both MacEwan and ‘Roland’ [Admiral Oliver], bringing reports to the former and getting his approval to take on two more officers. On 25 August Cumming noted in his diary: ‘Called on McE & on Roland, with cipher messages’. Over the first three weeks of the war Cumming also visited the Foreign Office five times (generally seeing Ronald Campbell, the Permanent Under-Secretary’s private secretary), but on 26 August Colonel Macdonogh told him that he was ‘not to call at F.O. any more’. During September Cumming had three further meetings with Campbell but on each occasion he was accompanying an officer from the War Office or the Admiralty. Further reflecting War Office concerns about Cumming’s evident refusal to operate within what they regarded as the proper channels, on 25 September, after he had gone to General Callwell about a staffing matter, MacEwan’s replacement, George Cockerill, ‘told him off’ and instructed him that he was ‘not to see Genl. direct’. At this stage, however, there was no attempt to compel Cumming to report exclusively through the War Office and, indeed (perhaps reflecting his own naval background), his regular contact in the Admiralty remained Admiral Oliver, Callwell’s director-level opposite number.

The wartime situation of Cumming’s organisation involved not just the allocation of duties between the War Office and the Admiralty (not to mention the Foreign Office), but also the question of how it would relate to George Macdonogh’s new intelligence branch at GHQ in France, as well as any future liaison with Britain’s French, Belgian and Russian allies. During the first two months of the war Cumming made three trips to the Continent, each time taking his own car, which had to be hoisted on and off the cross-Channel ferry. He went to Brussels on 15 August following an angry complaint from Colonel Fairholme, the British military attaché, to the Foreign Office about Cumming’s man Henry Dale Long, who had ‘made a fool of himself over a “suspect” cyclist’. Here was another potential problem of line-crossing, between the more overt intelligence duties of a military attaché (enhanced by the fact that Britain and Belgium were now wartime allies) and those of the Secret Service. While in Belgium, Cumming and a colleague drove south-east from Brussels towards Wavre where they found the Belgians ‘throwing up entrenchments against expected attack’, and German Uhlans (cavalry) were reported to be in woods close by. Driving on towards Namur, they were turned back by French troops who ‘thought we were TR [German] spies’. At the end of August Cumming motored to Paris for talks with Colonel Wallner and other French Deuxième Bureau officers. At lunch in the Hôtel Grande Bretagne Cumming met an American journalist. Never one to miss an intelligence-gathering opportunity, he offered him $6 a week for German news, but made ‘no arrangement for transmission’.

At the end of September Cumming travelled over to France to consult with Macdonogh. At about nine o’clock in the evening on Friday 2 October, motoring east of Paris in country through which the British Expeditionary Force had passed at the beginning of September on the ‘retreat from Mons’ (before subsequently fighting its way back north), Cumming suffered a serious accident in which his twenty-four-year-old only son, Alistair, was killed and Cumming badly hurt. A telegram from France conveyed the news to May Cumming: ‘Deeply regret to inform you that Lieut. A. Smith-Cumming, Seaforth Highlanders, died the result of motor accident on 3rd October, his father Commander Cumming was severely injured and is in French Hospl at Meaux. Lord Kitchener expresses his sympathy.’ The laconic entry in Cumming’s diary for 3 October reads: ‘Poor old Ally died.’ The drivers in the Intelligence Corps, which had been formed only with the outbreak of hostilities mainly to provide auxiliary assistance for unit intelligence officers, had gained a reputation for risky, high-speed driving. Macdonogh’s deputy at GHQ, Major Walter Kirke, wrote to his wife that ‘last night young Cumming went off to Paris with Commander Cumming in the 60 h.p. Fiat of which I told you before as having given me some hairy rides, & piled it up against a tree. Young Cumming was killed, & the old man has had one foot amputated . . . & he is in a [ghastly?] bad way, so we are all rather sick.’2

The army telegram sent to May Cumming bearing the grim news of her son’s death.

The story of Cumming’s misfortune inevitably grew with the telling and it became part of Service mythology, as demonstrated by the vivid version given by the novelist Compton Mackenzie in his 1932 book Greek Memories. During the First World War Mackenzie worked for Cumming in Greece, where he was told the story by Commander William Sells, the British naval attaché in Athens, who had heard it at a conference in Malta (attended by Cumming, who had by then been promoted to captain) in March 1916:

In the autumn of 1914 his son, a subaltern in the Seaforths, had been driving him in a fast car on some urgent Intelligence mission in the area of operations. The car going at full speed had crashed into a tree and overturned, pinning Captain Cumming by the leg and flinging his son out on his head. The boy was fatally injured, and his father, hearing him moan something about the cold, tried to extricate himself from the wreck of the car to put a coat over him; but struggle as he might he could not free his smashed leg. Thereupon he had taken out a penknife and hacked away at his smashed leg until he had cut it off, after which he had crawled over to his son and spread a coat over him, being found later lying unconscious by the dead body.

‘That’s the sort of old chap C is,’ said Sells.

However it happened, Cumming certainly lost part of his leg as a result of the accident, as confirmed by the rather less dramatic summary in his service record: ‘3.10.14: injured in motor accident in France; both legs broken - left foot amputated’.3

Subsequent telegrams charted his recovery. On 7 October his condition was ‘serious’, but the following day it was ‘satisfactory’, confirmed by ‘report progress satisfactory’ on 2 November. On 12 October Kirke went to visit him and noted that Cumming was ‘out of danger now, I am glad to say, though minus a foot, but the life and soul of the hospital - wonderful fellow!’ For six weeks from the beginning of October there are only very sporadic entries in Cumming’s diary, among other things listing fellow patients in the hospital as well as nursing staff ‘to remember’. But suddenly, on 11 November, Cumming resumed writing up the journal: ‘Arrived at home about 3 & commenced work at once.’ He had a ‘long interview’ with Captain Thomas Laycock, his second-in-command who had held the fort in his absence. Being temporarily immobile, for a time people came to him: on 11 November, ‘Cockerill came over & stayed an hour’; next day the new Director of Intelligence in the Admiralty, Blinker Hall, came ‘& stayed over an hour discussing various matters’. His first venture out (to the War Office) was not until 8 December. On 10 December Callwell reported that Cumming ‘had just been in to see me, wheeling himself in an invalid chair. He is wonderful all things considered and as keen as ever.’4 Cumming’s enforced immobility may have done some good for the organisation at a time when it was expanding rapidly. Obliged to delegate duties which hitherto he had carried out himself - Laycock, for example, was ‘constantly backwards & forwards to Admty & WO’ - Cumming had a chance to get to grips with Service administration. On 23 November he recorded in his diary that the monthly expenditure was £4,310, already four and a half times greater than the prewar figure of some £950. Over three-quarters of this was spent on intelligence-gathering networks in Continental Europe and the remainder on the thirteen-strong Head Office staff, which, he reported to Cockerill on 6 December, comprised himself and three officers, four clerks, two female typists, a messenger and ‘2 outside men’ (one of whom was Ernest Bailey, Cumming’s chauffeur and servant).

According to an in-house history of British Military Intelligence drawn up after the war, Cumming’s accident (which, it asserted, ‘incapacitated him for some months’, an allegation which Cumming would have challenged) had two main consequences. In the first place it meant that the Secret Service organisation was brought more closely under War Office control; and, second, it led to GHQ in France instituting ‘its own independent service’. While this second development reflected the immediate needs of an army in the field for operational intelligence, later in the war it was to provoke disputes about how intelligence-gathering in the battle-zone should be organised and controlled. The intensification of War Office control in London was combined with the incorporation of Kell’s security and counter-espionage branch fully into the Directorate of Military Operations organisation (as ‘M.O.5(g)’), and these developments underpinned successive attempts by the military to take over Cumming’s organisation entirely.5 In the meantime, however, a version of the pre-war arrangement temporarily continued whereby an interdepartmental committee meeting every six months oversaw Cumming’s work. The last peacetime meeting had been in May 1914; the next was in January 1915. Perhaps indicating Cumming’s perceived lowly status, Colonel Cockerill only told him about the meeting just before it occurred. It was held in the Foreign Office, which was represented by the Permanent Under-Secretary, Sir Arthur Nicolson. Callwell, Cockerill and two other officers were there for the army, while Sir Graham Greene (Permanent Under-Secretary) and Blinker Hall attended for the Admiralty. ‘Finance was discussed,’ wrote Cumming in his diary, ‘& I am to limit myself to 5000 a month, with 1000 in addition as margin.’

Although the location and constitution of the January meeting suggests that the Foreign Office retained overall control, Cumming’s day-to-day direction was in the hands of Admiralty and War Office personnel, who themselves did not necessarily follow a common line. The day after the Foreign Office meeting, Cumming had ‘a long yarn’ with Hall at the Admiralty about the position of an officer in Petrograd (as St Petersburg was renamed for patriotic reasons in 1914) over whom the army and the navy evidently disagreed. Hall ‘will back me up if necessary’, noted Cumming, ‘but I dont wish to start friction between Army & Navy & so asked him to do nothing until I came to him for help’. Cockerill’s deputy, Major C. N. French, who from early 1915 was the principal point of contact between Cumming and the War Office (and remained so for the rest of the war), increasingly seems to have conceived his role as one of command, rather than mere liaison. In March, when there was a difference of opinion over the control of agents in Norway, Hall bluntly assured Cumming that he was ‘not in any sense under CF’s orders’. Another complication was that, since the outbreak of war, service attachés across Europe had begun to take a more active part in secret intelligence work. Cumming’s growing deployment of officers and agents in neutral countries such as the Netherlands and in Scandinavia, moreover, ensured that the Foreign Office took a close interest in his work. At the end of January Ronald Campbell informed Cumming not only that the Admiralty was ‘against further extension in Sweden & Denmark at present’, but that ‘the Norway & Sweden organisations’ should be under him (Cumming) rather than Captain Consett, the British naval attaché based in Stockholm. In April 1915, with the increasing volume of General Staff work, the Directorate of Military Operations was reorganised. Colonel Cockerill was promoted brigadier-general and given the title Director of Special Intelligence with overall responsibility for counter-espionage, economic warfare and propaganda, as well as postal, cable and press censorship. Along with the ‘Collation of War Intelligence’, and the ‘investigation of enemy ciphers’, ‘Liaison with Espionage Service’ was given to a new branch, ‘M.O.6’, under the newly promoted Colonel French.6

Scattered through Cumming’s 1915 diary are indications of interdepartmental tensions over intelligence matters, though the Foreign Office remained supportive. On 18 June Cumming had an hour’s talk with Sir Arthur Nicolson: ‘He was very kind & said I might come to him whenever I was in difficulty.’ In August Blinker Hall of Naval Intelligence suggested that Cumming should be ‘independent of Admty & WO’. Ronald Campbell in the Foreign Office did ‘not entirely concur’ but ‘would like to see me more independent’. The following month, faced with GHQ attempting to expand their intelligence operations, Nicolson proposed ‘limiting G.H.Q.’s zones & handing K[ell] & me our £ [money] direct’. Colonel French agreed to the financial arrangement, but did ‘not like limitation of areas’. During the late autumn the issue of War Office control came to a head when, on an attempt by the army to take over his Dutch network, Cumming finally lost patience with the persistent incursions of other departments on his organisation. ‘Ever since the war started,’ he wrote to Nicolson in a long and evidently heartfelt letter, ‘my Bureau has been subjected to attacks which have disorganised and almost destroyed it and which have entirely prevented me from devoting my whole energies to the difficult work I have to do.’ He asserted that, on the outbreak of war, ‘nearly the whole of my existing agents were taken away from their stations and I was left without a staff and with my systems completely dislocated’. Since then his people ‘have been attacked by our own authorities in Belgium, Holland, Denmark & Russia’. The War Office had taken over his ‘admirable organisation’ in Holland, where his work had been ‘completely ruined by the interference of other and rival organisations - controlled by officers who have no experience of Secret Service work and who are apparently not influenced by any consideration for the views of the Foreign Office or the need for tact and diplomacy in so delicate a situation’.

For Cumming, the main threat to his position, and indeed to the whole existence of his Service, came from the army. ‘I am of course an outsider in the War Office,’ he told Nicolson, ‘and since the war I have been put under a sub-section of a Department, with a position so subordinate that I am unable to raise my voice in protest against this or any other action affecting my work . . . I remain’, he continued, ‘outside the pale of the circle in which my duties lie.’ It was ‘apparently only necessary for an officer (junior to myself) to express a wish, and large portions of my work are taken away from me and given to others’. He argued that when he had first been appointed, his ‘duties and limitations were clearly laid down and defined’, but no attention was now paid to them. He believed that his Bureau was ‘being gradually “side tracked” out of its appointed sphere’, and that he would ‘presently find’ that he had ‘nothing left to do but to deal with the degraded individuals who sell their services at such times, while all my work, training and experience of years will go to others who step in to seize the structure built up with so much care’. Cumming asserted that ‘if these changes resulted in better work being done or a better organisation being secured’ he would ‘not have a word to say’ and ‘would cheerfully retire from a task that had obviously proved too much for my capacity’. Naturally he did not believe that was the case. In particular, to maintain the secrecy which he regarded as so vital for his work, he asked that he might be ‘dissociated from personal connection with the Admiralty or War Office and may be allowed to run my own service independently’. As an important initial step he wanted funds to be paid to him direct and that he should have discretion to pay them out as he wished, under a general authority from the service ministries. He said that there were ‘items which it is undesirable should be known to anyone besides those who authorise them’ and reasonably argued that it was impossible to keep them ‘secret if the accounts pass through both departments’. Besides, if money was paid directly to Cumming, ‘my agents would remain unknown and would be able to work safely and secretly and without interference from out side’.

We do not know if Cumming actually sent this long and powerful letter to Sir Arthur Nicolson, as the original top copy has not been found in either the SIS or Foreign Office archives. All that survives is a partial draft annotated in Cumming’s handwriting, along with an undated typescript carbon copy of the entire text. Cumming appears to have shown the letter to the Director of Military Operations, General Callwell, for he wrote in his diary on 2 November: ‘Saw Genl. C. re my letter to Sir A. which he wished me not to send.’ Over the next week Cumming noted that Callwell had ‘written a long minute to French defining my duties’ and he himself had had ‘a long yarn’ at the Foreign Office about ‘Gen C’s letter’. Captain Hall at the Admiralty ‘had seen Genl C. re his minute’ and said ‘that I am to dissociate myself from W.O. command’. Cumming then drew up a short paper embodying the general principles of secret service organisation and function as they seemed to him after some six years of experience. On 10 November he saw Nicolson, who ‘said he was quite in accord with the principles laid down in my minute’ and was ‘very encouraging’. He was ‘writing to the General’ - an annotation in the diary indicates that this was Macdonogh in France - ‘to say that he wishes all S.S. work in neutral countries’ to be under Cumming. This was ‘to apply also to C.E. [counter-espionage] work’.

On 17 November Nicolson signed a statement confirming that the ‘Chief of the Secret Service’ would have ‘sole control’ of ‘all espionage and counter-espionage agents abroad’. When ‘special information’ was required by the Admiralty or the War Office ‘he alone’ was to be ‘responsible for the manner by which it is to be obtained’. Cumming was also to have exclusive responsibility for his own staff and the funds placed at his disposal. He was to ‘keep in constant touch with the War Office and Admiralty’ who were ‘to inform him of their requirements as occasion demands and furnish him with criticisms of his reports in a manner to help towards their improvement where necessary’. Finally, Cumming was to provide Nicolson (as Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs) with ‘a monthly statement of all his disbursements’ and was to be subject to Nicolson’s ‘sole control . . . in all matters connected with the expenditure of Secret Service funds’.

Fending off the War Office

Nicolson’s statement was an extremely important document, which Cumming rightly regarded as a ‘charter’ for his Service. Indeed, the exchanges of late 1915 mark a significant moment in confirming the institutional autonomy of the Service and consolidating the interdepartmental role, under Foreign Office supervision, which was to remain a central characteristic of the organisation as it developed during its first forty years. Securing exclusive control of staff and agents, moreover, meant that Cumming was well placed to maintain that deep secrecy of Service activities upon which he put such great store. Although the Director of Military Operations himself approved the charter, in the battle zone itself GHQ in France continued to assert priority for their own intelligence organisation. At a conference on 29 November about arrangements in France, Walter Kirke ‘adopted a very high tone in saying that G.H.Q. was paramount & F.O. had nothing to say in the matter’.

The following month, to cope with the further wartime increase in business, the General Staff in London was again reorganised and a separate Directorate of Military Intelligence established in the War Office. On 23 December Callwell became Director of Military Intelligence (DMI), but he was merely filling in until 3 January 1916 when George Macdonogh, brought back from France, took over the position, which he held until September 1918. In the new structure Colonel French’s MO6 branch was retitled MI1 and became the secretarial section of the Directorate, with responsibility, among other things, for the distribution of military intelligence as well as for secret service. In April 1916 MI1 was divided into four sub-sections, with the Secret Service Bureau going to MI1(c), an arrangement which lasted for the rest of the war.7 Although the title made it look as though Cumming’s Bureau was a sub-section of Military Intelligence, at the time the name was given ‘it was expressly declared that it had no significance of that nature, but was merely a convenient “nom de guerre”’. From this point on, however, MI1(c) was increasingly used as the cover-name for Cumming’s Bureau. At this time, too, Kell’s organisation (which had been part of MO5 since 1910) became MI5.

During December 1915 someone in the army, possibly Kirke - who may not have been aware of the charter Cumming had secured from Nicolson (though the evidence of Kirke’s diary confirms that he was certainly aware of the Foreign Office’s protective attitude towards Cumming’s organisation) - took the opportunity of these changes to float a plan for the ‘Reorganisation of S.S. in the War Office’. Although in the wake of Nicolson’s minute there was no possibility of these proposals being implemented, they are worth quoting as they embody what might be characterised as the ‘extreme’ army conception of the proper position and role of Cumming’s Service, and provide strong evidence of the kinds of military attitudes Cumming and his colleagues came up against. The plan proposed that the new Director of Military Intelligence should take over the Secret Service entirely: ‘The F.O. should be eliminated, and in any case “C” must have no direct access to it.’ The Naval Intelligence authorities similarly would have to work through the War Office; an arrangement should be made with the Director of the Intelligence Division, whereby he ‘entrusts his interests to the D.M.I., it being understood that the latter is the head of the S.S., and that C is his servant’. C’s functions were described as ‘purely executive’, and ‘consist in obtaining information from S.S. organisations under his control’. He was not responsible for ‘distributing any information’, which was to be the task of the MI1 section in the War Office. C, in any case, would be ‘very fully employed in developing new organisations and keeping existing ones up to the mark by constant correspondence’. C’s ‘sole channel of communication’ with the Director of Military Intelligence was to be through one of the DMI’s staff officers, and the MI1 section was to be the only ‘channel of communication between the S.S. Bureau and all other Government Offices, British or Foreign, other than foreign S.S. Bureaus’.8 Thus was Cumming to be relegated to the position of a glorified secretary and extremely subordinate bureaucrat.

Cumming continued to assert a degree of autonomy, but it was in the face of continual challenge from army officers, especially Macdonogh and Colonel French, who both saw the relationship between the War Office and Cumming’s Bureau purely in terms of military intelligence. In late September 1916 French had written a long letter to Cumming reflecting on the question of secret service and how best it might be organised ‘in the event of any future war’. ‘Any re-organisation or change’, he urged, ‘should be thought out now, while we are all filled with the actual and practical experience of what war may demand of S.S., and not postponed until the end of the war.’ French argued that there should be a single Secret Service responsible for both naval and military intelligence, ‘otherwise we shall always be working at cross purposes, and in almost every area we should have at least two services working, if not against one another, at least in rivalry with one another’. He thought the separation of espionage and counter-espionage was a weakness, and that the position of Cumming and Kell as ‘the servants of at least 3 Government Departments and which is indefinite as regards limitations’ was ‘bad organisation’. French, therefore, proposed that the Secret Service should be controlled by a small joint section of army and navy officers, ‘either under the D.M.I. or the D.I.D. [Director of the Intelligence Division]’, which would ‘settle all matters of policy, and . . . carry out all negotiations with the Foreign Office’. He went on to consider ‘the limitation of secret service espionage’. This, he thought, should deal only with naval or military information. ‘Where we have dabbled in pseudo-diplomatic action [which he did not define] our information has suffered’, and for military missions to deal with ‘questions of war trade and various other points unconnected with secret service’ had been ‘a grevious [sic] mistake’. French further maintained that ‘when naval or military operations are being carried out in any area, the secret service in that area should be handed over to, absorbed and controlled by the local military or naval headquarters’. ‘Secret service based on other parts of the Empire’, he added, should ‘as a general rule . . . not be under you, but under the local intelligence officers, who in their turn are under the local military or naval authority, and not under the D.M.I. or D.I.D.’.

Although French maintained that he was writing in a personal capacity and simply ‘with a view to providing food for discussion’, Cumming reacted very badly, resenting the impertinence of a junior officer writing to him in such terms and evidently perceiving in the letter another direct threat to the existence of his organisation. He sent Sir Arthur Nicolson a copy of the letter, with a sharp covering note, trusting ‘that the authorities who have the power to control the Secret Service will take such steps as will prevent me while in charge of it, from being constantly interfered with and disturbed by such letters as the attached’. Cumming bluntly claimed that the adoption of the proposals which French had ‘sprung upon me’ would ‘mean the wreck of the whole system’. If the Secret Service were controlled by the suggested ‘hybrid’ section it would ‘still have the same three masters to obey’. From Cumming’s point of view, the ‘greatest defect of the present Service’ was ‘the lack of support given to its Chief by the military authorities’, who, ever since his appointment, had ‘permitted constant interference with my work, have undermined my authority and have treated me as an outsider . . . My instructions from the Foreign Office under whose authority I was appointed, have been ignored, and I have been placed in a false and difficult position in consequence.’ Cumming begged, ‘for the sake of the efficient working of this important Service which costs a vast sum of money’, that his ‘present position in relation to the War Office may be put on a more reasonable basis’. Perhaps aware that he himself might be thought to have overstepped the mark with such an openly bitter letter, Cumming concluded by assuring Nicolson that ‘my relations with General Macdonogh and Colonel French have always been of a most friendly nature, and I have much to thank them for. In the security of their recognised positions and support which they receive as a matter of course, they do not realise the great difficulties with which I have to contend.’

In this last sentence Cumming identified a crucial problem about the institutional status of the Secret Service which affected it during its early years (and to a certain extent remained a difficulty for some years to come). It was both a strength and a weakness that the Service did not legally exist, or easily fit into the established hierarchies of the armed services or the government as a whole. Its corporate invisibility, or deniability, was part of the reason it had been established in the first place, so that secret intelligence work could be kept quite separate (or apparently so) from the Foreign Office and the service ministries. Yet in wartime, when the supply of military and naval intelligence became an especially high priority, there were strong arguments for fully (or substantially) incorporating the Secret Service into the inevitably greatly expanded Naval and/or Military Intelligence organisations. For Cumming, more perhaps than his successors as Chief, a further factor was the unproven nature of his Bureau, for which the First World War was undoubtedly a baptism of fire. Of course, one sure way of ensuring that the strongest possible case was made for the survival of an autonomous Secret Service was not just to assemble theoretical arguments about ideal institutional arrangements, but to demonstrate the Service’s actual capabilities by successfully providing the type and volume of intelligence its customers required. In the grand British tradition of muddling through, a pragmatic test of viability was always likely to carry great weight. Cumming was no doubt well aware of this, but his appeals to the Foreign Office demonstrate that he knew, too (as his successors also learned), that institutional rivalries within Whitehall could work to the advantage of his Service.

The anomalous situation of Cumming’s Bureau underlay an effort by Macdonogh in early 1917 once again to assert War Office control, though the Director of Military Intelligence also stressed the importance of the contribution which the Bureau made to the war effort as a whole. Writing to Cumming on 18 February 1917, Macdonogh wanted to ‘make it clear’ that he had ‘never admitted at any time that you were under the Foreign Office. I consider & always have considered that for all military intelligence you are directly under me, &, as I told you a year ago, I have no intention of allowing your theory of F.O. control to come between myself & you.’ Macdonogh was responding to a letter from Cumming (which has not survived) claiming some degree of autonomy for his organisation, and which Macdonogh thought raised two questions: ‘(1) whether I am director of military intelligence, & (2) whether you are under my orders. The answer to the first question is, I think, obvious, & that being so the answer to the second is equally plain.’ Implicitly (and unjustly) taxing Cumming with ‘empire-building’, Macdonogh wrote that ‘the value of any organization does not depend upon its size, the number of subjects it deals with, nor on the extent of its pay list, but on the manner in which it assists the working of the whole machine’. It therefore followed that it was ‘much better to be the head of a section which everyone praises both for the quality of its work & for the absence of friction with which it is performed, rather than that of a much larger one which is a perpetual cause of strife to all connected with it’. So that there should be ‘no further doubt about the matter’, Macdonogh wanted Cumming ‘definitely’ to inform him ‘that you accept the status of being under my orders in all military intelligence matters, unqualified by any control, nominal or otherwise, of any other authority’. If Cumming could not do this, Macdonogh said that he would have to ‘inform the F.O. that I have no further use for your branch & that I propose that the W.O. shall in future conduct its own S.S., War Trade, counter-espionage & identification business abroad without you as its intermediary’. A further result of this would be the withdrawal of ‘all military officers now employed by you’, which was a real threat since a sizeable proportion of Cumming’s staff were seconded from either the army or the navy.

No specific response to Macdonogh’s ultimatum appears to have survived, though evidently matters did not come to a head. Sporadic evidence from his diary indicates that, while Cumming stayed within the ambit of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, demarcation disputes continued concerning what exactly he was to do and with whom he was permitted to deal. In early June 1917, for example, Cumming noted that Colonel Buchan - John Buchan, the novelist, who headed one of the government’s propaganda arms - ‘made an appointment to see me tomorrow but the D.M.I. positively forbade me to see him’. Cumming (or Buchan) appealed to the Foreign Office, for a few days later Cumming received ‘definite instructions’ from Lord Hardinge (who had succeeded Nicolson as Permanent Under-Secretary) ‘to supply J.B. with any information he requires without passing it thro’ W.O.’. On 26 June Buchan came to Cumming’s office where he had ‘a long yarn with me re cooperation which we settled on the lines laid down’. Whatever the joint action was, it was surely not military intelligence, and probably closer to Colonel French’s category of ‘pseudo-diplomatic action’, but what the affair demonstrated was that, with Foreign Office support, Cumming could still sidestep direct instructions issued to him by the Director of Military Intelligence.

During the autumn of 1917, in fact, Cumming’s relations with the War Office improved, while those with the Admiralty worsened. At what was evidently an irritable meeting with the recently promoted Rear Admiral Hall (Director of the Intelligence Division), the notoriously tetchy Hall queried an arrangement Cumming had for Captain Norman Thwaites (who worked for him in New York) and asked whether Cumming was ‘serving the Bureau or the Nation’. Clearly taken aback, Cumming wrote in his diary: ‘I should have replied “the nation through the Bureau - my only means of serving it”’. Hall then introduced Cumming to the new naval attaché for Copenhagen, Captain Dix, but refused to allow Cumming ‘to speak to him about my [Cumming’s] people & work’. Cumming appears to have told Macdonogh about his difficulties with Hall, for the following day he noted that the Director of Military Intelligence had been ‘very heartening about my position & hinted definitely that if sacked by Navy he would take me on with pleasure’. Underpinning the improvement in relations with the War Office (and, in the end, also with the Admiralty) was an internal reorganisation of Cumming’s Head Office, which had been first mooted in August 1917 and came into effect at the end of the year.

Staffing and organisation

Securing staff posed some problems for Cumming at a time when all young men (or nearly all) wanted to do their bit at the battle front. The notion of working in secret service was as likely to put potential recruits off as encourage them to join up. From the start, indeed, Cumming had been faced with the problem that many of the people who most wanted to be involved were among the least attractive prospects from his point of view. In a memoir written in the 1950s, Frank Stagg, a naval lieutenant who transferred from Blinker Hall’s staff in the Admiralty to Cumming in September 1915, recalled that it was ‘difficult to get officers released unless they had been gassed or wounded’. Other individuals, such as Thomas Merton, the celebrated physicist, had been rejected for active service on grounds of health, but he was engaged by Cumming in June 1916 as the Service’s first-ever scientist. He was granted a commission in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and, being independently wealthy, was taken on ‘without pay’.9

Cumming’s early wartime recruits were typically not career soldiers or sailors. When Frank Stagg joined, three of Cumming’s five main staff were Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve officers. One, Lieutenant F. C. Newnum, was an engineer ‘from the Colombia emerald mines’; another, Guy Standing, had been an actor in America before the war; the third, Sub-Lieutenant Jolly, worked for the Tatler, the society magazine. There was a high turnover of personnel. Apart from Cumming himself, Newnum, who had been taken on in November 1914, was the only senior person to remain continuously in Head Office from 1914 to the end of the war. Stagg, for example, returned to naval duties in June 1917 and Standing left for the Ministry of Information in December 1917. Some people, however, stayed on. Paymaster Percy Sykes, who took charge of the Service accounts in November 1915, continued to do essentially the same job for over a quarter of a century.

From the autumn of 1914 Cumming’s expanding Head Office was organised broadly on a geographical basis, reflecting that of the Military Operations directorate. In September 1915, for example, Stagg handled information coming in from Scandinavia, the Baltic and Russia; Newnum took Greece and the Mediterranean; Standing the Americas; and Captain L. N. Cockerell (another mining engineer) was responsible for Belgium and Holland. Later sections were formed for Italy and Switzerland, and South America. A specific Code Section was created in April 1915. In April 1917, Lieutenant H. Brickwood, a volunteer naval officer whose family brewing business was based in Portsmouth and who had been working on coding, was put in charge of a new section formed ‘to assist British Prisoners of War to escape from Germany by sending maps, compasses etc., to them by secret means’. Head Office also began to spread beyond 2 Whitehall Court. An office where prospective officers and agents could be interviewed was established at Central House, Kingsway. It had a ‘fictitious name’ so that the actual work for which candidates were being considered did not have to be revealed ‘until their probity and probable usefulness had been discovered’, and a ‘very secret’ Air Section was formed at 11 Park Mansions, South Lambeth Road. A postwar report surmised that the section existed ‘to work out the course taken by German air raiders from the interception of their wireless signals to one another’, though a couple of MI1(c) ‘Air Reports’ have survived from March 1918, one of which merely contains quotations on aviation matters from the German press.10

At the beginning of December 1915 Cumming took on Colonel Freddie Browning, who had been working in the Ministry of Munitions. The forty-five-year-old Browning, who became Cumming’s de facto deputy, was a celebrated cricketer and one of the best amateur squash-racket players in England. By the time he came to work for Cumming he was also a well-known man-about-town and successful businessman, being, among other things, a director of the Savoy Hotel in London. ‘He lived his life’, recalled Sir Samuel Hoare (who also worked for Cumming during the war), ‘as he played his games – with style, with temperament, and with boundless courage.’ Hoare described him as ‘the most inspiring force behind the most secret branch of our Military Intelligence’.11Frank Stagg also remembered him fondly: his ‘hospitality was unbounded’ and his ‘relations with “C” were inimitable, he brought happy evenings to the old man by having gay parties with all the stage beauties that he had at call – and in more serious ways [though here Stagg expressed himself rather ambiguously] he was the perfect link, seldom doing anything himself but linking up with those who knew what was what in any particular line’.12

Cumming’s Bureau grew steadily throughout the war. By the summer of 1915 he had over thirty Head Office staff, including seven officers, eight clerks and twelve female typists. The women were obviously an important part of the team, though in November one of Cumming’s subordinates accused him of ‘partiality with the typists – particularly Miss C., instanced my taking her & 4 others to Westminster Bridge one Sunday dinner hour’, and alleged that he ‘chose the typists on account of their social position’. Although most of Cumming’s female staff were unmarried, he seems to have had no prejudice against employing married women, nor even of sending them abroad, though this may have reflected a preference only to send more mature women to foreign posts. It was, nevertheless, in sharp contrast with practice elsewhere in the civil service. In the Foreign Office, for example, women were obliged to resign on marrying. In May 1916 Cumming noted ‘Miss [. . .] for Malta; Mrs [. . .] for Alexandria’; in June, ‘Mrs [. . .] (did’nt like her!) taken on for Switzerland’; and in February 1917, ‘Mrs [. . .] & Miss [. . .] left for Italy.’ Cumming, the ace motorist himself, also employed women as drivers. On 28 June 1916 he engaged ‘Miss [. . .]’ to be a ‘chauffeuse’. Evidently she was very capable, for just over a fortnight later she was taking the ‘Merc’ (Cumming apparently having no objection to a German car) from London to Paris. Perhaps reflecting his reputation as a bit of a ladies’ man (and with a penchant for old-world courtesy), he also took an interest in their dress, even to the extent of going to see the Quartermaster-General of the army in November 1917 ‘re lady drivers’ uniform’. He recorded in his diary that a secretary going to Egypt in January 1916 was not only to be paid £20 a month but also to receive an ‘outfit’ grant of £30. Freddie Browning, ‘distressed at the way the female element on the staff had [only] buns for lunch . . . got a canteen built on top of Whitehall Court, extracted a chef from the army – an old savoyard – and used the buying agencies of the Savoy to secure cheap food at a time of food stringency’. Perhaps he overdid it, for in February 1918 Cumming was reprimanded by a representative of the Food Controller for holding excessive ‘Staff Mess stocks’.

By 1917 the geographical organisation of the Head Office was coming under increasing criticism from the army and the navy. As a 1919 review of wartime naval secret service noted, although the officer in charge of a particular section was, ‘as far as possible, conversant with the language and affairs of the country to be dealt with’, this officer ‘had not, as a rule, any technical knowledge whatever of Naval, Military, or Aeronautical affairs (though fairly able to deal with Political and Economical questions) ’. In many cases, moreover, he ‘was not even an officer of the Fighting services before the War’. Nevertheless, ‘according to the best of his understanding’, he ‘separated out the Intelligence coming in, en masse, from abroad, and passed it on to the Admiralty, War Office, etc, through its liaison officer’. He was, however, ‘quite unable to provide the requisite direction of enquiry on technical matters, professional advice, criticism, or commendation to the Agents abroad, all of which are supremely necessary to success in the provision of Naval or any other special Intelligence’. In fact, it was ‘little more than chance that produced anything really useful’ to the Naval Intelligence Division.13

During the late summer of 1917 Freddie Browning started to work on a scheme to reorganise the Service, which he and Cumming discussed on 23 August with a new member of staff, Major Claude Marjoribanks Dansey. The forty-one-year-old Dansey, who came from a family of English country squires, had an unusually wide range of experience. As a youth he had been moved for health reasons from a conventional English public school (Wellington) to a British boys’ school in Bruges, Belgium, and had been seduced by ‘Robbie’ Ross (who later claimed to have been Oscar Wilde’s first lover). Dansey went on to serve in the British South Africa Police during the Matabele Rebellion of 1896, as a colonial policemen fighting bandits in Borneo, and as a British army lieutenant in the South African War of 1899-1902. Between 1904 and 1909 he was a colonial political officer in Somaliland, after which he travelled in Africa and was later employed as resident secretary of a country club in upstate New York. When Dansey worked for Vernon Kell’s organisation in the early years of the war, Cumming had had regular dealings (and lunches) with him, and the two men had discussed the possibility of Dansey coming to work for him, which he finally did on 20 August 1917. 14

Cumming was clearly anxious to accommodate the needs of the armed services, in part perhaps to forestall the possibility of their building up separate secret intelligence services (as to some extent the army had already done), and he began to improve the links between his organisation and them. On 14 September 1917 he saw General Sir David Henderson, the Director-General of Military Aeronautics, and ‘discussed with him the question of a liaison officer to take charge of my Aviation Section’. Henderson also agreed that the proposed new independent air force ‘should not attempt to set up a rival S.S. organisation but should set tasks to ours’. Admiralty liaison was secured by the appointment on 15 October of the first career naval officer to the Secret Service, Captain Boyle Somerville, who was to head a new Naval Section. Somerville came from a famous Irish family (his sister was one half of Somerville and Ross, authors of the ‘Irish R.M.’ stories) and was an expert hydrographer, linguist and astronomer. Nearly twenty years after he retired to live back home in County Cork he was murdered by the IRA for helping local lads join the Royal Navy.

As for the army, Macdonogh, the Director of Military Intelligence, once again asserted his control over the Secret Service. On 22 October 1917 he peremptorily summoned Cumming ‘& told me he was holding a Conference of his Military Staff re my reorganisation which I could attend but not take part in’. He said that he was going to General Headquarters in France the next day ‘to tell them he was going to take over the whole S.S. & before doing this he must make sure that he could assure Sir D. Haig [the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force] that he had absolute control over the Military part of the S.S. Bureau’. Macdonogh, therefore, ‘proposed to do away with divisions Geographical, & substitute Subject divisions, so that the Military would be self contained & his Military Staff would be able to control more directly the Agents (Head) in the Field’. He also ‘said we particularly lacked a good organisation Section resembling that in M.I.5’. Cumming, who also learned on 26 October of Colonel French’s plans to take over the Allied Intelligence Mission which had been established in Italy, clearly felt that a positive response was the best way to fight his ground and retain his authority, telling Browning (who was all for appealing to the Prime Minister) that ‘to bring about a difference between my 2 Chiefs’ was ‘the greatest disservice he could render his country at the present time’. After some negotiation Cumming worked out a scheme which Macdonogh explained on 12 November to Admiral Hall. Each of the main customer departments was to have representatives on Cumming’s staff. Subject to his ‘co-ordination and direction’, they would ‘send instructions to head agents regarding such information as is required by their respective departments’.

As it emerged at the end of November, the new Head Office structure was divided into six sections. Section I, Economics, was put under Colonel Browning, who nominally remained Cumming’s second-in-command. Sections II and III covered Aviation and Naval respectively. Section IV, Military, was headed by Major Dansey, through whom Macdonogh said he would issue instructions to Cumming. This was the largest section, and Dansey not only became responsible for the preparation of military reports and liaison with MI5 and Scotland Yard on counter-espionage and counter-revolutionary matters, but he was also put in charge of the Political Section V, headed by Colonel Rhys Samson, a ‘secret service expert’, experienced in dealing with agents, who had served in Athens and on various liaison duties with the French. Section VI, Organisation, encompassed administration and technical matters, such as coding, which were grouped together, as much (it appears) for convenience as for any other reason. Smaller Prisoners-of-War and Circulation sections remained separate. The latter existed to distribute material to customer departments and other organisations. By the beginning of 1918 the core Head Office staff (not including administrative and clerical support personnel) comprised some forty officers, more than five times the 1915 total.

While Cumming had clearly fallen in with the Director of Military Intelligence’s wishes, he also managed to secure continuing support from Hardinge, who wrote to Macdonogh that the Foreign Office ‘should have been disappointed if we had looked for success from any scheme which diminished the authority of the man at the top . . . Much will depend’, he continued, ‘on the extent to which C asserts himself, but he must be given a fair start. Provided it is clear that he is intended to be master in his own house, he ought to be able to make a success of things.’ But first Cumming had to implement the Head Office changes. ‘This office’, he wrote in his diary at the end of November, ‘is much upset at the new organisation & I have had to reply to a lot of objection and criticism.’ He hoped that the new arrangement, wherein ‘each section officer [would] specialise on his own subject & stick to it’, while he was ‘to control the whole – run the office & co-ordinate the lot’, ought to ‘improve the present system’, which allowed agents abroad merely to ‘send in anything’ so long as there was ‘plenty of it’. This had resulted in predominantly economic reporting ‘with a little second rate C.E. work’. By the time the new system was formally implemented in December 1917, the complaints seem to have evaporated. In the opinion of Boyle Somerville, indeed, the change was a striking success, though the numbers of reports must also have been boosted by the time it inevitably took to build up productive human intelligence sources. In a postwar review of ‘Naval Intelligence secret service’, he recorded that in the three years to October 1917 the ‘total number of Naval reports’ had been 260, while ‘during the 16 months following reorganisation, namely to February 1919, the number was 8,900. From October 1917 [the month he joined the Bureau], the average per month gradually rose to about 700; and in October 1918, when the number of documents dealt with was the highest, the total for the month was 865.’

Professionalism and expertise

In his postwar review of February 1919, Boyle Somerville observed that an important limitation on the ability of the Secret Service to gather and process the most useful information was the dearth of ‘Naval officers, technically qualified to deal with Intelligence’. There were hardly enough of them to provide the staff in Cumming’s Head Office, let alone supply specialist assistance in the foreign stations which directed and debriefed the agents who actually collected the information. ‘Unfortunately,’ he remarked, ‘specialists in Naval Intelligence can scarcely be said to have existed before the war, and in any case, those at all competent to deal with it were required either at the Admiralty, or for Active Service afloat.’

The result of this was that ‘officers for S.S. abroad – sometimes not even sailors – had to be instructed, somewhat hurriedly, in a bare outline of the requirements, and sent out to do their best’. Somerville argued that until intelligence became a specialism in the navy, ‘like Gunnery or Torpedo’, there would never be a proper cadre of officers to ‘supply the needs of the Admiralty Intelligence Division, and of the Secret Service’. These were perennial problems, concerning both Military and Naval Intelligence. The services themselves had so few first-class intelligence officers that, despite a frequently expressed desire to populate, if not actually control, all the intelligence-gathering agencies, they were reluctant to lose them to the Secret Service. Career army and naval officers, for their part, hesitated to opt for secondment lest association with such an apparently dubious specialism might damage their own career prospects.

Well aware of the equivocal position which Cumming’s organisation occupied in what might be described as the British defence community – meeting important needs, while not readily fitting into orthodox armed service hierarchies – but also convinced that the Service had done well during the war, Somerville, as the first ever ‘officer in charge of the Naval Section in the Secret Service Bureau’, considered it his ‘duty’ to record ‘the means and methods that have proved successful during the War; so that my successors may not find themselves on entirely unknown and untried ground, in following up and improving these methods’. Reflecting growing professionalism on the part of the Service and its officers, Somerville’s review not only provides an instructive summary of how Cumming’s organisation coped with its first great test, but also set out a rationale for its very existence. Somerville argued that the procurement of naval and military intelligence (which he defined as ‘Information upon which Action can be taken’) involved two ‘mutually dependent’ main objects: first, ‘Intelligence respecting the affairs of the Enemy, or Espionage’; and, second, ‘the prevention of the Enemy from obtaining Intelligence of our affairs, or Counter-Espionage’. Information of the first sort could either be acquired ‘openly, or directly in the face of, or in defiance of the Enemy; and, if necessary, forcibly’; or it could be ‘obtained by outwitting the Enemy; by entering his country and penetrating his counter-espionage devices; by bribing of traitors; and by any other means (but usually by cunning rather than by force), discovering his affairs and activities. This’, he said, ‘is known as Secret Service or “S.S.”.’ Somerville observed that, while during the war counter – espionage had been ‘relegated to a special division of the Military Intelligence Directorate (M.I.5)’, the armed services and some other government departments (such as the Foreign Office and the Department of Overseas Trade) had maintained their own intelligence branches whose secret service arms were ‘collected under one roof, with one Chief; each having its own Sectional Officer’. The ‘necessity of having just one main Bureau’, he asserted, came first of all from ‘the importance of keeping secret, so far as possible, the very existence of any such Bureau, and even of its location as an office’, but it also reflected the need for co-ordination and the indivisibility of intelligence-gathering. ‘“Intelligence”, generally speaking’, he declared, was ‘not an affair of water-tight compartments’ and all sections ‘should be inter-dependent’. It frequently happened, moreover, ‘that a report sent in by an agent abroad under the heading of one particular Section, contains information important to another’. The ‘sailing of Transports’, for example, was ‘both a Naval and a Military affair’.

Illustrating the positive experience that had been gained during the First World War, Somerville set down a number of basic principles which held good for the Service in future years. ‘It is a fundamental rule of Secret Service’, he wrote, ‘that its agents must never interfere in the affairs of the country that is giving them its hospitality.’ This was for obvious reasons: apart from ‘fouling one’s own nest’, it was ‘difficult enough . . . to “dodge” the enemy counter-espionage, and still to obtain Intelligence about him’, but it would only add to ‘the difficulty to incur the resentment and enmity of the neutral police, as well’. He stipulated that agents were ‘never known by their proper names. Either they adopt some “nom de guerre”, or, more usually, are designated by a letter and a figure, e.g., “B.90”.’ No individual could ‘set forth on S.S. without “cover”, that is to say, a fictitious cloak for his real activities; – some open and legitimate pursuit, business, or calling under which he can operate without detection’. Potential agents should be approached only by ‘intermediaries’. Indeed, it was ‘desirable that a (non-British) agent should never know who his Employer or Paymaster really is’. Somerville declared that ‘experience shows that for Secret Service generally, much the best results are obtained by employing as agents of both sexes, those whose sense of honour is of as high an order as the courage, acumen, brains, audacity, and presence of mind which are the other essentials of success’. Perhaps a little superfluously (though this was probably a counsel of perfection), he added that ‘unscrupulous persons, merely out for large fees, and the rascals who so often offer their services, should be avoided, no matter how tempting their offers’.

By the end of the war the Bureau had developed a system for processing and evaluating information. Somerville described how ‘when any report from abroad’ was received in London, it was typed in duplicate and sent to the Naval Intelligence Department, ‘one of the copies being marked “Criticism Copy”’. The relevant officer in the Admiralty then annotated the copy with one of an eight-point scale, from ‘A – Believed to be correct’, through ‘E – Too vague to be of any value’, to ‘G – Of no interest’ and ‘H – Too old to check’. There was also a four – point grading of the report ‘as a whole’ from ‘Z.1’ (‘Good’) to ‘Z.4’ (‘Bad’). But the assessment of reports was itself problematic on security grounds. Somerville wisely observed that it was ‘often impossible, without giving away intelligence which should be kept absolutely secret, even from S.S. agents, to say more than is contained in one of these brief, and usually destructive “criticisms”’. In the case of operational reports, moreover, it was ‘obviously undesirable to give any criticisms whatever’. Nevertheless, ‘when a reasoned criticism can be given, its value to the officer abroad . . . is very great’. Not only would it ‘indicate to him the future lines on which it is best to work, but it also informs him as to the value, and above all, as to the reliability of the sub-agent who procured the Intelligence in question’. But there were informal channels for criticism as well. On 16 January 1918 the newly appointed Director of Air Intelligence, Colonel Davidson, came to see Cumming. ‘He said that our reports to G.H.Q. often mentioned monoplanes,’ wrote Cumming in his diary, ‘but the enemy had none of these etc. I urged that criticism was vital to us & he promised to help in this & other matters.’

When Sir Samuel Hoare was taken on at the end of 1915 he was given ‘an intensive course in the various war Intelligence departments’ over several weeks. ‘One day, it would be espionage or contre-espionage, another coding and cyphering, another war trade and contraband, a fourth, postal and telegraphic censorship.’15 The increasing professional and technical competence of the Service is also illustrated by a 135-page document, ‘Notes on Instruction and Recruiting of Agents’, compiled at the end of 1918. This included such matters as the use of codes, secret inks, letter boxes (locations where secret messages could be left), sabotage, cover and agents provocateurs. Among the ‘few points which cannot be drilled into an agent too soon nor too forcibly’ (and evincing much common sense) were ‘Don’t get cold feet, but if you do get caught keep your mouth shut and don’t give anybody away’; ‘In writing or wiring to sub-agents don’t use your own handwriting or name. Always type’; ‘Destroy carbons after typing incriminating matter. An officer [who was working for the Germans] recently blew his brains out to avoid arrest, having been traced by a carbon found in the rooms of a German chief agent who had been arrested’; ‘Think as much of the safety of your colleagues as of your own.’ It was remarked in the notes that ‘no hard and fast rule’ could be laid down as to the best cover for an agent, but that ‘in the long run’ there was ‘nothing to beat sound commercial cover’. While among ‘the best schemes for good cover’ was that of ‘commercial traveller’, this was ‘a hopeless business unless the agent really knows & understands the article he is supposed to sell and also really transacts business in such article’. Agents were advised to have at hand ‘an efficient highly technical expert burglar’. With commendable understatement it was conceded that ‘the difficulty is to recruit the necessary man for the job. He must be reliable, willing to undergo imprisonment if caught, without giving the show away and if obtainable should be handsomely rewarded.’ But the potential results ‘might well repay all the trouble’, and the notes cited a successful operation involving ‘the emptying of the safes in the Austrian Consulate and S.S. in Zurich’.

Forged German bread tickets prepared for MI1(c) to be used by agents working out of Switzerland.

In a section on counter-espionage, the notes considered the use of agents provocateurs targeting enemy secret services, ‘one of the most fascinating branches of S.S. work’, but also to be indulged in only sparingly, ‘as whilst the results are tangible the risk involved to other units of the organisation is considerable’. Successful operations ‘by clever agents’, however, could ‘lead to the complete disorganisation of the service against which they are working’ (though ‘equally the danger to our own service is a very real one’). An example was given of a successful operation against a German organisation in a neutral country where an attractive ‘Belgian woman of good family, who for various reasons had good cause to hate the Boche’, was employed to seduce a German agent. She agreed that ‘nothing, either of a personal or moral nature, was to be shirked in order to obtain a successful issue’. After ‘two months preliminary work’, the agent was ‘recruited’ by her victim and ‘engaged by the German S.S. to make a trip to France for them’. Given contact addresses in Paris, she was also supplied with ‘several articles of underclothing impregnated with secret ink’, partly for ‘delivery to a certain address in France and partly for her own use’. Once in France the agent made a full report to the French authorities and, using a police officer in the neutral country ‘who was working for us’, the entire enemy organisation was destroyed.

The quest for a perfect secret ink was a constant preoccupation for the Bureau. In June 1915 Walter Kirke noted in his diary that Cumming was ‘now making enquiries for invisible inks at the London University’. In October he ‘heard from C that the best invisible ink is semen’, which did not react to the main detection methods.16 Frank Stagg recalled that ‘all were anxious’ to obtain secret ink ‘which came from a natural source of supply’. He said that he would ‘never forget “C’s” delight when the Deputy Chief Censor, F. V. Worthington, came one day with the announcement that one of his staff had found out that “semen” would not react to iodine vapour, and told the old man that he had had to remove the discoverer from the office immediately as his colleagues were making life intolerable by accusations of masturbation’. ‘We thought’, wrote Stagg, ‘we had solved a great problem.’ But ‘our man in Copenhagen . . . evidently stocked it in a bottle – for his letters stank to high heaven and we had to tell him that a fresh operation was necessary for each letter’. One of Thomas Merton’s first discoveries after his appointment in June 1916 was the method of secret writing used by German agents, who soaked an article of clothing in the requisite chemicals from which the invisible ink could later be reconstituted. Merton also invented a secret-writing method for Cumming: ‘Write on glass or on any hard material with a silver point. The trace will be entirely invisible, but it can be made visible as follows. Make up two solutions A and B. A: Metol 5 grs, citric acid 5 grs, acetic acid 15 grs, water 100 cc. B: Silver nitrate 10 grs, water 100cc. Mix 10 parts of A with one part of B and with 100 parts of water. This is the developer. It can be used only for 10-20 minutes after mixing.’17

In one account of the wartime Bureau, a note by Merton’s name says ‘worked at secret inks, bombs, &c’, and it is clear that Cumming warmly encouraged scientific and technical research. It is clear, too, from Merton’s experience that this research was shared with MI5 for counter-intelligence work. On Christmas Eve 1914 and early in the New Year Cumming was discussing the recruitment of technicians and the possible establishment of a wireless school, though it seems not to have been for the use of agents as the technology was not yet sufficiently well advanced to allow this. But an important coding section was developed, both to ensure secure lines of communication with representatives abroad by telegraph and to work on deciphering enemy signals. In Head Office Cumming was always ready to try out new gadgets. In March 1915 he drove out to the Sterling Telephone Company in Dagenham, Essex, to inspect a new type of soundproof door. In July two officers came ‘to explain & try the Detectophone’, evidently a covert listening device. More prosaically (though no doubt useful for office work, and also demonstrating how private-sector business practices could be introduced), in December ‘Browning brought a Dictaphone & installed it’. In October 1918, knowing Cumming’s predilection for mechanical devices and perhaps concerned about his mobility, Sir William Wiseman, the head of station in New York, sent him a state-of-the-art motorised scooter manufactured by the Autoped Company of Long Island City.18

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