Working further afield

Although the British intelligence effort, like the war effort generally, was more focused on the Western Front than anywhere else, the worldwide ramifications of the conflict meant that Cumming’s organisation took on ever expanding responsibilities. From early in the war liaison with the Russians was underpinned by the establishment of a mission in Petrograd. While in the west ‘gallant little Belgium’ had become a rallying-cry for Allied opposition to German militarism, in south-central Europe ‘gallant little Serbia’ seemed equally threatened by Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary. Vienna’s desire to crush Serbia, and Russia’s equal determination to resist it, meant that the Balkans became another important theatre of operations. The entry into the war on the enemy side at the end of October 1914 of the Ottoman empire, which stretched from European Turkey through the Middle East and Arabia, widened the conflict even further and required the Allies to deploy forces in the Mediterranean and across the region. In the western hemisphere, while the traditionally isolationist United States at first remained neutral, it too became a focus for Allied and enemy activities. The Allies and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria and Turkey) mounted propaganda campaigns to mobilise American opinion behind their causes, and both sides worked actively to cut off American economic support from the other. As the United States moved closer and closer to the Allies – eventually declaring war on Germany in April 1917 – this developed into a struggle mainly between the British, endeavouring to plug any American gaps in their blockade against the enemy, and the Germans, themselves determined to cut the vital transatlantic supply routes, by means of both surface and submarine attacks on merchant ships, as well as by means of subversion and actual sabotage of Allied cargoes in the United States itself. Here, too, with an office in New York from 1915, Cumming’s Bureau had a role to play.

Russian allies

Although Cumming’s prewar plans to establish a representative in Russia were interrupted by the outbreak of the war, the new situation in which Britain, Russia and France were now active co-belligerents against Germany and Austria-Hungary underpinned the establishment of formal liaison arrangements between their intelligence agencies. During September 1914 Cumming had several meetings with General Yermaloff, the Russian military attaché in London, prepared himself to visit Russia and selected Captain Archibald Campbell to be his representative in Petrograd. There is no clue in Cumming’s diary to why he chose Campbell, whom he engaged on 13 August – ‘K. [possibly Kell] called & brought him.’ Reflecting in 1917 on the wartime development of intelligence work in Russia, General Macdonogh, the Director of Military Intelligence, described Campbell as ‘an officer of considerable ingenuity, ability and push, but of singularly unattractive personality’. But this was with the benefit of hindsight and followed the painful experience of a difficult posting in Russia during which Campbell had ruffled feathers among both diplomats and other military liaison officers serving in the country, among whom were Colonel Alfred ‘Flurry’ Knox, a prickly Ulsterman who had been military attaché since May 1914, and General Sir John Hanbury-Williams, who had been sent out by the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, to head a mission at the Russian General Headquarters and ‘to report to him direct’.

The War Office had approved Cumming’s planned visit to Russia, but at the last moment Admiral Oliver at the Admiralty prohibited him from going. So it was that Campbell, accompanied by (among others) Lieutenant Stephen Alley (who had been born and brought up in Russia), set off for Petrograd on 26 September 1914. The duty of the mission was ‘to get in touch with the officers of the Russian General Staff dealing with Secret service, and so to obtain information from the Russian Intelligence Department about the enemy’. One of the advantages of placing the mission under Cumming was (as a wartime account of the ‘British Intelligence Organisation in Russia’ rather delicately put it) ‘that it involved no reference to the finance branches of the War Office and that it admitted of great elasticity as regards both numbers and classes of person employed’. Although working under the Secret Service Bureau and charged with liaising on secret service matters, Campbell’s mission was scarcely clandestine and had no direct involvement with espionage. The officers all wore uniform and were given a room in the Russian War Office where they had ‘somewhat exceptional facilities as regards access to the Russian military authorities’. As a postwar report recorded, their main function was simply to pass on to London Russian-acquired intelligence about the enemy. Alley, for example, ‘held no written communication with C, but telegraphed identifications of German forces and situation reports at great length. He employed no agents.’1

The history of Cumming’s intelligence mission in Russia confirms the sometimes very difficult relationships between secret service personnel and orthodox diplomatic and military representatives, even within the context of a wartime alliance. Here, too, clashes of personality exacerbated the problems, as Knox’s touchy amour propre collided with Campbell’s blunter and more unsubtle approach. The ad-hoc nature of Campbell’s mission, its indeterminate responsibilities and, above all, its embedding in the Russian War Office had the result that Russian General Staff officers began to approach him with matters which properly should have been communicated through Knox or Hanbury-Williams. These included a request for technically qualified signals personnel and a scheme to send Cossacks to the Western Front. Campbell had scarcely arrived in Petrograd before the British naval and military attachés began to complain about him. Leaving Alley to hold the fort, Campbell was summoned back to London. He arrived with evidently welcome reports of the situation in Russia. Cumming took him to see General Callwell (Director of Military Operations) who during a long interview ‘quite abandoned’ his hitherto hostile attitude. Callwell told Henry Wilson that Campbell had provided ‘much interesting information’ about ‘the condition of things in the Russian Army’, especially regarding ‘their deficiency in electric communications in all forms, and the ignorance of their use. He says that the disaster which happened earlier in the war to General Samsonov [killed at the Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914] was entirely due to all their messages being sent by wireless and en clair, to these being taken up by the Germans, and to the Germans actually sending them orders in reply.’2 With the DMO’s approval, Cumming’s officers began interviewing and selecting a ‘corps of telegraphists’ to go to Russia. Cumming (and perhaps Callwell too) had ambitions for Campbell’s mission beyond mere secret service liaison. Among the topics noted in his diary for a War Office meeting on 14 December about Petrograd was the ‘influencing of plans to conform to our desires. Russia’, he added, ‘will be the most important country for us in future & we shd sow seed & strike roots now.’

Meanwhile both Sir George Buchanan, the ambassador in Petrograd, and Colonel Knox had written to the Foreign Office to complain about Campbell’s mission. The arrangement put Knox in an ‘anomalous and very unpleasant position’, as he was ‘unaware’ of the scope of the mission’s work, yet its members were in British uniform and subordinate to him in rank. Campbell’s methods, moreover, had been ‘the reverse of tactful’. The ambassador asserted that much of the information sent back was common knowledge and not worth the ‘unnecessary expense’ of maintaining the mission. Besides, they had also provided unreliable ‘political gossip’ which Buchanan himself had been obliged to refute. Faced with these criticisms, Callwell accepted that Campbell had ‘not been a success’ and would be allowed to return to Russia only in order to get the proposed ‘corps of telegraphists’ up and running. While all information regarding the enemy was to be transmitted in consultation with the military attaché (with whom he was to ‘work on terms of the closest co-operation’) Campbell would continue to ‘work directly under the orders of “C” and communicate through him, and would obtain from him instructions as to the special points on which information was required’.3

Inevitably this rather Byzantine arrangement failed to work. Part of Campbell’s raison d’être was removed when the Russians decided that they did not, after all, want the telegraphists, and in March 1915 Buchanan complained again about Campbell’s ill-defined position, noting that he was failing to submit his telegrams through him. He proposed that the mission be reconstituted or placed entirely under the military attaché. This was firmly resisted by the War Office on the grounds that ‘if the ambassador were to be placed in full control of the Mission (a course which was strongly to be deprecated) it was for him to devise a practical scheme; but’, they added trenchantly, ‘Secret Service was not a matter with which amateurs could be entrusted, and in addition the fact that “C” provided the necessary funds made it seem inadvisable that the Mission should be cut off from direct communication with him’. Understandably, the Foreign Office did not pass on these views to Petrograd, but merely offered to withdraw Campbell and his mission as a last resort, while observing that to do so would deprive the Admiralty and the War Office ‘of much useful information which was conveyed to them through “C”’. They did concede, however, that the complaints about Campbell ‘were not just confined to his personal bearing, which had given constant offence, but also to his indiscretion both in advertising his “secret mission” and in assuming unwarrantable authority’.4

In May 1915 Campbell was replaced by Major Cudbert Thornhill, an Indian Army officer, ‘first class Russian scholar’ and ‘a good shot with rifle, catapult, shot-gun and blow-pipe’.5 Relations improved in Petrograd. Although ‘at first somewhat grudgingly accepted by Knox’, as Thornhill ‘confined himself strictly to his duties and proved himself a very good intelligence officer’, he ‘succeeded in placing the Mission on thoroughly good terms with the Embassy, and everything went perfectly smoothly’. Over the succeeding twelve months or so, however, and for reasons that are unclear, relations between Thornhill and Cumming became ‘somewhat strained’. Macdonogh thought it was ‘mainly owing . . . to injudicious letters written by both of them’. In any case, the continuing pressure to take over the mission, both from Knox at the embassy and from the War Office, made Thornhill’s job something of a poisoned chalice. The fact that the actual work was hardly clandestine made it difficult for Cumming to defend his control over it. In February 1916, after a visit to Petrograd, General Callwell proposed (though this was not acted on) that the mission be placed under Knox. Cumming was ‘much upset’, but, as Walter Kirke argued, ‘his man was doing no S.S. work in Russia, and was merely transmitting information from the Russian Int. Branch . . . If he worked his own agents into Germany from Russia that was another matter, but apparently he did not.’ Reflecting in May 1916 on the ‘stormy times’ of his Bureau’s Russian experience, Cumming mused that his people had been ‘alternately kicked and caressed by the M.A. and Embassy’.6

During 1916 there was another change in personnel when Thornhill was transferred to the embassy as assistant military attaché (where he was given special responsibility for ‘enemy identifications’) and Sir Samuel Hoare (with the rank of lieutenant-colonel) was appointed in his place. The thirty-six-year-old Hoare came from a wealthy banking family and had been a Conservative MP since 1910. Commissioned into the Norfolk Yeomanry at the beginning of the war, following serious ill-health at the end of 1914 which prevented him going to the front, he had been languishing as a recruiting officer in Norwich. Here he started to learn Russian (he was a talented linguist) in the hope of finding work with one of the various military missions in Russia. Early in 1916 a fellow Conservative MP and former diplomat, John Baird (later Viscount Stonehaven), who was working in the Secret Service Bureau, put him in touch with Cumming, who initially engaged him to develop war trade information and also report on the general situation of the Russian mission. Hoare did this so satisfactorily that in May 1916 Cumming told him that he was to take over the mission from Thornhill. Cumming wanted him to work on a ‘new branch of our business’ – ‘Enemy Trading’ – which he conceived as more than just reporting on blockade and general economic matters, but as also involving ‘questions affecting the improvement of our own trade, which would otherwise be taken by the enemy’.7

Cumming’s formal instructions to Hoare emphasised that he was to supply information to the Admiralty and the War Office, as well as the War Trade Intelligence Department, and was also to be in charge of the Military Control Office, issuing passport visas for travel to the United Kingdom. He would be directly responsible to the Chief of the Secret Service – ‘C.S.S.’ – and as far as he could, ‘without risk of causing annoyance to our Ally’, was to ‘obtain information from Russian unofficial sources, taking care that you shall never appear to be doing anything prejudicial to their interests or that could be in any way mistaken for espionage’. Privately, Cumming hoped Hoare would ‘succeed in keeping on friendly terms with the M.A.’ (Knox) but would ‘resist attempts on anyone’s part to absorb the Mission, which, as you will understand, is an integral and essential part of a complex and far-reaching system’. This was easier said than done, though for a while after Hoare took over in July 1916 things went well. ‘Identifications’, namely the supply from London of Western Front identifications and their distribution to the Russian General Staff and, conversely, the transmission of Russian identifications to London, were considered ‘most satisfactory’, and, reported Macdonogh, ‘Hoare obtained for us most valuable information regarding war trade.’ Hoare’s own recollection of the work was that the greater part was ‘of a routine character, the signalling of suspected persons, the holding up of contraband, the transmission of [Russian] agents’ reports, and the exchange of departmental memoranda’. ‘For days’, however, Hoare would wonder ‘what good the office was doing, and then, unexpectedly, some piece of Intelligence would come into my hands that would compensate me for all my previous waste of time. Now and again, I would obtain a really important report upon the internal condition of Germany.’ He was, for example, given the confidential statistics provided for a ministerial statement on food supply and manpower to be made in a secret sitting of the Reichstag (parliament). ‘Sometimes, also, though not often, I obtained valuable information about the movements of the German Fleet in the Baltic.’8

By the autumn of 1916, however, Knox had launched another bid to take over all Hoare’s military work and a rather arid bureaucratic argument commenced over who should have the room in the Russian War Office. While Knox evidently coveted it, Hoare maintained that he could not continue his work if he lost it, since the official position that it provided gave him an important and essential status vis-à-vis the Russians. Both men appealed to London where Macdonogh ruled in Hoare’s favour regarding the room, but laid down that Knox was to decide on the distribution of the information produced and Thornhill was to be liaison officer between the two teams. When in January 1917 the mission and the embassy were required to send officers to Romania, which left them both short-handed, Knox returned to the charge and asked that Sir Henry Wilson, who was about to visit Russia with a high-powered Allied mission led by Lord Milner, should be given authority during his stay to decide on the organisation of intelligence in Russia. ‘I think’, remarked Macdonogh to Wilson, ‘the trouble is that we have two very difficult people to deal with. They both have considerable ability and are accustomed to be independent.’9

Wilson’s visit gave Hoare the opportunity to report on the work of MI1(c)’s operation in Russia. By February 1917 it had eighteen staff (including Hoare): nine commissioned officers and nine civilians (including one female, Miss W. V. Spink). The main duties of the Military Section, under Captain John Dymoke Scale, concerned identifications and the distribution of military information, while the Military Control Section, under Alley (now promoted captain), dealt with ‘the control of all passengers travelling from Russia to England or France, contre-espionage of every kind, and the co-ordination of our Secret Service with the Russian Secret Service’. Alley was also responsible for the exchange of naval intelligence, on occasions receiving from the Russian Admiralty ‘information of the greatest importance as to the movements of enemy ships’. The War Trade Section worked directly under Hoare himself and handled the forwarding of statistics of all sorts and assisted with the Russian ‘Black List’ of blockade-breakers. This section, Hoare asserted, had ‘been extremely useful both to London and Petrograd’. He claimed, for example, that a report which he had written had ‘materially altered the conduct of the Blockade and . . . smoothed the trade relations between Russia and England’. Hoare concluded his report by strongly arguing that the work of both the Military Section and the intelligence mission would be seriously damaged if responsibility for the former were given to the military attaché. He stressed the interdepartmental nature of his mission, and that, whatever happened on the military side, the naval and war trade work could not be handed over. ‘It will be remembered’, he wrote, ‘that M.I.1(c), the section under which I directly work, is the organisation into which our Secret Service has developed.’ With words which might be borne in mind for the future, when Hoare himself served successively as Foreign Secretary and as British ambassador to Spain, he added that ‘both as a matter of policy and a necessity of organisation, it has always been found necessary to keep the Secret Service as a unit working in harmony with, but quite independent of the staffs of Embassies and Legations’.10

Very few explicit records have survived of reporting from Hoare’s mission, though a letter from Cumming to Hoare not long after he had arrived in Petrograd thanked him for letters he had written to Frank Stagg: ‘They were extremely interesting and just what I wanted.’ In December 1916 Hoare began sending ‘weekly notes’ on the situation in Russia. ‘Personally,’ he wrote presciently on Boxing Day, ‘I am convinced that Russia will never fight through another winter.’ Among the handful of Russian reports sent in ‘by our agents abroad through “C”’, which have been preserved in the SIS archives, is a transcript (‘from the Speaker’s own notes’) of Professor Pavel Miliukov’s famous speech to the Duma (parliament) on 1 November 1916 when he fiercely attacked the Prime Minister, Boris Sturmer, as incompetent and pro-German. Miliukov raised the spectre of ‘dark forces fighting for Germany and attempting to destroy popular unity’, accused Sturmer of being in collusion with the influential monk Rasputin and concluded with a sharp series of criticisms, asking each time, ‘is this stupidity or treachery?’. The notorious Rasputin, who was widely believed to exercise evil political influence over the Empress Alexandra, was murdered in the early morning of Saturday 30 December. On New Year’s Eve Hoare cabled Cumming, who was the first person to get the news confirmed in London. On 2 January 1917 Hoare despatched a ten-page report of the event to Freddie Browning, which he suggested Cumming might show to the King, George V. It was, he wrote, ‘one of those crimes which by their magnitude blur the well-defined rules of ethics and by their results change the history of a generation’. ‘If it is written in the style of the “Daily Mail”,’ he told Browning, ‘my answer is that the whole question is so sensational that one cannot describe it as one would if it were an ordinary episode of the war.’11

The first page of Samuel Hoare’s dramatic account of the death of Rasputin. Because of its sensational nature, he admitted to writing it in ‘the style of the “Daily Mail”’.

The Milner Mission had been sent out to assess the situation in Russia and bolster up its war effort, especially in order to tie down German forces on the Eastern Front. But by the start of 1917 the Russian state was so enfeebled and the political and military leadership so apparently out of touch with popular opinion that little could be done to save the imperial regime. According to his memoirs, Hoare sought to persuade Milner of ‘the gravity of the internal crisis through which Russia was passing’ and, indeed, Milner returned to England with very gloomy predictions about the future of the country. On the military side, Wilson, unwisely attaching ‘more weight to Knox’s opinion on any matter affecting the Russian Army’ than he did to the opinion ‘of any other man in Russia’, reported mistakenly on the essential ‘soundness’ of the Russian army. But Milner was better informed than Wilson (or Knox). The Russian imperial monarchy was swept away in the February Revolution of 1917 and replaced by a social democratic government under Prince Lvov, who was succeeded in May by the socialist Alexander Kerensky. At first there were hopes in the West that a more constitutional regime, promising democratic reform, might actually strengthen the Russian war effort. Reporting from London (where he had returned on sick leave) in late March 1917 on ‘Secret Service in Russia’, Hoare asserted that ‘no doubt one of the first actions of the new Government will be to sweep away the whole system of innumerable separate agencies and concentrate the attention of the Secret Service upon obtaining enemy information’. Each of the new ministers running relevant departments was ‘a strong Anglophile’ and there was ‘now for the first time a chance of close and effective cooperation between the British Secret Service and the Intelligence organisations of Russia’.12

This was over-optimistic. Russian revolutionary forces were being strengthened, as confirmed by reports circulated through MI1(c). In April a cable reported that the principal figure at a series of émigré meetings in New York had been ‘Leon Trotzki’, a ‘pretended Russian socialist who, it is believed, is in reality a German’ (here ‘No’ was written in the margin). He was reported as advocating the overthrow of the new government in Russia and ‘the starting of revolutions in England and Germany’. Trotsky ‘and various other socialists’ had left New York for Russia on 27 March. Trotsky was interned at Halifax, Nova Scotia, for a month, apparently on orders from the Naval Intelligence Division in London, but was allowed to proceed early in May.13 At almost exactly the same time agent ‘SW5’ reported from Berne that ‘40 Russian revolutionaries, fanatical followers of Lenin, including Lenin himself, [had] left for Russia via Germany’ – this was the famous ‘sealed train’ which conveyed the Bolshevik leader to Petrograd. Permission to travel had been granted by the German government only after receiving Lenin’s personal guarantee ‘that every one of his 40 followers’ favoured ‘an immediate peace’. SW5 argued, however, that the members of Lenin’s party were ‘in the minority among the Russians in Switzerland’, and that their beliefs were ‘held to be of a fanatical and narrow-minded nature. My own view is that these people would be absolutely harmless if, which unfortunately is not the case, other Russians had been allowed to return.’ He considered it ‘highly expedient’ that visas should immediately be given to ‘followers of the patriotic Russian revolutionary movement to visit Russia via France and England’. It must, he declared, ‘at all costs be avoided’ that Lenin’s group ‘be allowed to represent the opinions of those Russians living in Switzerland, who on account of their so-called martyrdom and exile have attained a certain prestige in this country’. They had, he added, been sought out by enemy spies ‘to play the game of Germany’.

Neither Lenin nor Trotsky was a German agent, and they ‘played the game of Germany’ only in so far as they wished to take Russia out of what they thought was a costly and unnecessary war. As Russia staggered from political crisis to political crisis during 1917, and disaffection began to spread through its armed forces, the Allied governments (joined by the United States when it declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917) strove to keep Russia in the war. One part of this effort involved an intelligence operation initiated by Cumming’s representative in the United States, Sir William Wiseman.

Secret service in the USA

There is very little evidence indeed about the early work of the Secret Service Bureau in the United States. Before the war British intelligence activities in North America had been confined to sporadic operations run by the Home Office, the Irish Office and the India Office, targeting Irish and Indian revolutionaries based in emigrant communities across the country.14 The first mention of United States work in Cumming’s diary was in March 1915 when he interviewed an agent to ‘act as N.Y. correspondent’. In July a ‘new agent’ was despatched to New York, and a note about the processing of telegrams sent from America, which mentioned a well-known firm of United States bankers and information of interest to the Director of Army Contracts, suggests that the main priority was blockade and commercial intelligence. Supporting this was the suggestion the following month that an organisation might be based in two Canadian banks and an international accountancy firm with ‘many agencies in USA, all Scotch’. Confirming that there were also security and counter-intelligence interests in the United States, Kell proposed on 5 August ‘a scheme for a Bureau in N.Y. to be run jointly’.

Crowther Smith’s caricature of Sir William Wiseman, Cumming’s influential representative in the USA, 1916-18.

On 15 September Cumming engaged the thirty-year-old Captain Sir William Wiseman, who was to become one of the most significant British intelligence officers during the First World War. Wiseman was a baronet – a title first awarded to an ancestor in 1628, to which he had succeeded in 1893. He was educated at Winchester College and Jesus College, Cambridge (where he won a boxing Blue for representing the university against Oxford), though he left without taking a degree. He then worked first as a journalist and later as a businessman in Mexico and Canada. At the beginning of the war he returned to England to join the army, but was incapacitated for further active service after being gassed and temporarily blinded near Ypres in July 1915. Later that year, seeking employment in the War Office, he ran into Cumming, who had served alongside his father in the Royal Navy. ‘Willie’ Wiseman evidently impressed sufficiently to be taken on ‘for general work’. By the end of September, Cumming had earmarked Wiseman and an older man to be his representatives in North America. He brought them both round to be briefed in the Admiralty and War Office and on 20 October 1915 the two men departed for New York. It seems that Wiseman’s forty-four-year-old colleague, who was promised an allowance of £500 a year and for whom Cumming arranged a diplomatic passport, was to be the senior partner of the two. Since Cumming had initially taken the older man to see Blinker Hall at the Admiralty (and had only afterwards taken Wiseman too), it is most likely that his primary duty was naval intelligence concerning the security of war supplies from east-coast United States ports.15

Following their arrival in New York on 28 October, however, Cumming’s men encountered a familiar problem of co-ordination with the Admiralty’s existing information-gathering arrangements. Captain Guy Gaunt, British naval attaché to the United States since January 1914, had already established a network of agents to collect intelligence in North America and also to counter enemy activities such as sabotage and propaganda. Although his diplomatic status made this work potentially very problematic with the American authorities, Gaunt felt he had matters well in hand and clearly objected to Wiseman and his companion muscling in on his territory. Wiseman remained in New York for less than three weeks. His colleague stayed on for another month before returning to London. There Hall decided that he was not now needed in New York and Cumming redeployed him for counter-espionage work in the Eastern Mediterranean. Wiseman, however, was retained to head Cumming’s North American organisation, along with a newly recruited assistant, Captain Norman Thwaites. Thwaites (who had been wounded and invalided out of active service at the front) had worked before the war as a journalist in the United States, and not only spoke fluent German but, having been private secretary to the newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer for ten years, was also very well connected in American press and political circles. From January 1916 the two men established themselves in New York, ostensibly as part of the Transport Department of the Ministry of Munitions, where Thwaites took on Military Control duties.

While the USA remained neutral, Wiseman and his colleagues managed to keep their work largely hidden from the authorities, though they liaised with American officers on an individual basis, including Thwaites’s friend Captain Thomas J. Tunney, head of the New York Police Department bomb squad. Tunney came from Irish Protestant stock and had a brother in the Royal Irish Constabulary. Items of information were passed to the Americans through the head of the Canadian Government Police, Colonel Percy Sherwood. Wiseman remained in charge of MI1(c)’s operations in North America for the rest of the war, and, reflecting the semi-public roles which some of Cumming’s other wartime representatives enjoyed, his position became progressively less clandestine. When he first landed in October 1915, he described himself to the United States immigration authorities as a ‘merchant’. In January 1916 he had become a ‘soldier’, and in November a ‘courier’. In November 1917, by which time the USA had entered the war, he arrived (with, among others, the economist John Maynard Keynes) in New York as part of Lord Reading’s high-level mission to the United States, sent to reinforce the relationship between the wartime allies. By now he was ‘on official business to U.S. government’. Thwaites (who had described himself as an ‘author’ in January 1916), also travelled with the Reading Mission, and by then was openly ‘on Captain Wiseman’s staff’.16

Wiseman’s instructions from Cumming were to concentrate on ‘Contre-Espionage’, including ‘the investigation of suspects about whom the authorities at home required information’, ‘a general watch on the Irish movement in the United States’ and ‘investigation into Hindu Sedition in America’. Once established in New York, he was also given some propaganda work, and Wiseman found that his office ‘soon became a general information bureau for all Britishers’, called on to serve the needs of the embassy, consulates and other British missions. Work on Indian seditionists was shared with the India Office, whose representative Sir Robert Nathan was based in Vancouver from May 1916. In the summer of 1916 Wiseman’s office was strengthened by the addition of a naval officer, Lieutenant Henry Fitzroy, as Permit Officer (who carried out the Military Control work), though his arrival was followed by a dispute over whether he was responsible to Captain Gaunt, the consul-general in New York, or Wiseman. In the event Fitzroy’s ‘unfortunate manner’ in dealing with Americans led to his being recalled. Wiseman held on to the Military Control work. Before Fitzroy went, however, he had managed to extend the surveillance of passenger traffic through New York by roping in ‘every would-be traveller who desired to go to South American ports . . . even when a British visa was not absolutely necessary’. In October 1916 Cumming noted eight ‘staff and agents’ in New York. By January 1918 MI1(c) had ten regular officers, plus an office staff, as well as a ‘Western Organization’ of ten full-time and some part-time agents (of whom two were German), the entire operation costing $8,816 ($121,400 in current prices) a month.17

Cumming’s organisation in the USA had some successes. In the spring of 1916 information from an agent helped thwart a German plan to sabotage the important Welland Canal in Ontario, and Thwaites headed investigations leading to the discovery of a bomb factory in New York harbour set up by the German saboteur Franz von Kleist Rintelen. Wiseman was able to help Robert Nathan cripple an émigré Indian seditionist organisation, the Ghadr (‘revolt’) Party, operating on the west coast of the United States. Supported by locally based German agents, the conspirators planned to send a ship loaded with arms to India to foment rebellion. But, with information supplied by Nathan and others, the authorities rounded up and tried nearly a hundred individuals in San Francisco between November 1917 and July 1918. With his press contacts and experience Norman Thwaites was able to do much on the propaganda side. One unusual coup occurred after he and Wiseman had been entertained to dinner by an anglophile millionaire industrialist, Oscar Lewisohn, at his Long Island mansion. During the evening their host passed round some holiday photographs in one of which Thwaites recognised the German ambassador Count Johann von Bernsdorff in a swimming costume with his arms round two similarly dressed young women, neither of whom was his wife. Without Lewisohn’s knowledge Thwaites managed to extract the picture, get it copied and then have it distributed to the press where it appeared, much to Bernsdorff’s embarrassment.18

Wiseman’s greatest achievement lay in the access and influence he was able to secure at the very highest levels of the United States administration, making him the most successful ‘agent of influence’ in the first forty years of SIS. Thwaites provided a link to an old friend, Frank Polk, who was appointed Counselor to Secretary of State Robert Lansing in 1915 and was effectively the second-in-command in the State Department. Polk became responsible for intelligence matters, supervising the counter-espionage work of various departments and co-ordinating the activities of United States agencies involved in gathering intelligence from foreign sources. But a more important contact was Colonel Edward House, President Woodrow Wilson’s confidant and principal adviser, who was the focus of constant attention from those who wished to communicate with the President.19

Wiseman’s first meeting with House occurred quite fortuitously when in December 1916 the British ambassador, Sir Cecil Spring Rice, employed him to deliver a message to the colonel. Wiseman made an immediate and extremely favourable impression. House thought him ‘the most imp[ortan]t caller I have had for some time’ and the two men met frequently thereafter. Sir William’s arrival on the scene came at a time when Wilson and House had been losing confidence in the ailing Spring Rice, whose Republican political attitudes and unsympathetic manner had alienated them. On 6 December there was also a change of government in London, when David Lloyd George replaced Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister. Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary in Asquith’s government, and with whom House had regularly communicated directly, was left out of the new Cabinet; thus House had lost his high-level entrée into the British administration and was perhaps especially susceptible to the possibilities of close communication being re-established through Wiseman. Sir William so charmed and impressed House that the latter thought Britain would be ‘far better’ represented by him than by Spring Rice. Enticingly, Wiseman told House ‘in the gravest confidence’ that he was ‘in direct communication with the Foreign Office’, and that neither the ambassador nor other members of the embassy were aware of it. This was, in fact, only half true. While Wiseman certainly had independent communications with London which the embassy knew nothing about, the principal line he had to the Foreign Office was through Cumming at MI1(c). House was not to know this, and, evidently won over by both Wiseman’s discretion and his apparently privileged position, told President Wilson he judged that Wiseman ‘reflects the views of his government’.20

Wiseman was well aware that in assuming a position as intermediary between the American and British governments he was moving beyond a mere intelligence role. According to Arthur Willert, American correspondent of The Times, Wiseman told London in January 1917 that he was taking ‘a more active interest in politics than he would ordinarily have considered his duty because the Ambassador and his staff have practically all their friends among the leaders of the Republican Party’. This had ‘produced an unfortunate situation’ in that President Wilson’s administration had ‘come to regard the British officials as Republican partisans’. Yet, once Spring Rice became aware of Wiseman’s newly privileged position, he sought to exploit the information-gathering possibilities and asked Wiseman to let him know ‘at once any political information which you may receive or give in order that I may check it against other information’.21

The crucial subject about which the British were interested, of course, was that of the United States entering the war. Both British overt and covert publicity and propaganda efforts were focused on marshalling American political and public opinion behind the Allies, while a whole range of information-gathering resources – again, both overt and covert – was devoted to ascertaining the views of policy-makers and opinion-formers in Washington and elsewhere. Cumming’s organisation played its part, as did Room 40, the Admiralty’s signals intelligence department, which by 1916 was successfully deciphering American diplomatic telegrams as well as enemy ones. Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, described information from Berlin-Washington traffic as ‘priceless’. British intelligence expertise underpinned the dissemination of the famous Zimmermann Telegram of 16 January 1917, in which the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, informed his ambassador in Mexico that Germany intended to begin unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February. If as a result of this the USA ceased to be neutral, Germany offered the Mexican government an alliance, a joint declaration of war on the USA and help for Mexico to recover the states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, which it had lost in the mid-nineteenth century. Aware that their cable communications were vulnerable to attack, the German Foreign Ministry had arranged with the American embassy in Berlin to send telegrams on their behalf, but since these cables passed through British territory they, too, were intercepted for Room 40 to decrypt. So it was with the Zimmermann telegram. Admiralty Intelligence, indeed, had a partial decode of it even before the original had reached its intended recipient in Mexico City. The British (naturally suppressing the fact that they had acquired the telegram by intercepting American diplomatic communications) provided Washington with a copy, which was subsequently released to the press. The German decision to extend submarine warfare (which put American ships in the front line) had already caused Washington to break off diplomatic relations on 3 February, and the publication of the telegram on 1 March gave a further powerful boost to anti-German feeling in the USA.22

At this crucial juncture Wiseman played a central role in providing an insight into both presidential and public opinion in the USA. In time for an Imperial War Conference scheduled to be held in London at the end of March, Wiseman and House together prepared a memorandum on American attitudes towards Britain and the war. House told Wiseman ‘that the President had read it and thought it a just statement’, though in forwarding it for transmission to London Wiseman warned Spring Rice that it was not an official American document. While the paper conceded that Americans were ‘beginning to realise that it may not be possible for them to remain at peace with Germany’, it noted that the mass of the people were not particularly pro-British or pro-Ally. Americans, for example, were deeply concerned about British policy in Ireland (where the 1916 Easter Rising had been sharply suppressed and its leaders court-martialled and executed) and British blockade policies were widely resented. There was, wrote Wiseman and House, ‘a feeling among the Americans that if they tolerate too much they will lose their prestige and authority as a world power’. Thus any decision to enter the conflict would be based on considerations of America’s own national interest: ‘If the United States goes to war with Germany – which she probably will – it will be to uphold American rights and assert her dignity as a nation.’23

This remarkable document, jointly drafted by the British intelligence chief in North America and President Wilson’s closest confidential adviser, and validated by the President of the United States himself, encapsulates the high quality of Wiseman’s influence and political reporting, which continued after the USA declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917, and which from late 1917 was channelled through the Political Section V at Cumming’s Head Office in London. Wiseman’s friendship with House brought him unprecedented (for a Briton) access to the President – they met regularly and he spent a week’s vacation with him and the colonel in August 1918. Over the last nineteen months of the war Wiseman played a pivotal role in articulating American views on such matters as war finance, representation in Allied organisations, the deployment of troops in the battle zone, policy towards Russia and the plans for peace. In this he did much to assist the development of Allied co-operation in 1917- 18. W. B. Fowler, historian of the Anglo-American wartime partnership, places Wiseman in the ‘front rank’, giving him much of the credit for helping keep in check many of the inevitable animosities and conflicts which threatened to upset relations between these two powerful, ambitious and competitive Great Powers, whose essential national interests would never wholly coincide, no matter how close their relationship was claimed to be.24

Whatever their long-term potential differences might have been, during 1917 both states wanted to keep the Russians in the war. On 7 April 1917, the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, worrying that ‘revolutionary pacifists’ were becoming dangerously influential in Russia, cabled Spring Rice to organise, as a matter of the ‘highest importance’, the despatch of ‘messages from labour leaders, from Russian Americans, and from prominent men in the U.S. emphasising necessity of continuing the war in order to secure triumph of principles of freedom and democracy’. 25Given the task of implementing this, Wiseman organised some appeals to be sent, but there is no evidence that they had the slightest effect in Russia. In order to counter the impact of allegedly pro-German returning exiles – Leon Trotsky, for example – Wiseman also proposed an ambitious plan to send to Russia parties of pro-Ally émigrés – Czech, Slovak and Polish, as well as Russian – who had ‘made good’ in America, to be ‘lecturers and propagandists’. They would ‘carry with them details of the German intrigues in America and warn their Russian comrades against similar traps’. They would emphasise ‘the necessity for the two great republics working together for the freedom of the World’, and ‘persuade the Russians to attack the Germans with all their might, and thus accomplish the overthrow of the Hohenzollern dynasty and autocracy in Berlin’. Wiseman argued that the operation ‘has to be entirely unofficial, and very secretly organised, as any idea of Government support would ruin the scheme’. It was, in fact, precisely the kind of deniable operation for which the Secret Service was ideally suited.

Wiseman put the plan to both Colonel House and the Foreign Office in London. Having indicated to House that the scheme was based on reliable British intelligence from within Russia, and to London that he was working on information gathered by the United States government, Wiseman got both sides to agree. While approving the plan, Balfour’s private secretary, Sir Eric Drummond, indicated that London would prefer the Americans to run it on their own, but Wiseman told him that the Americans had no means of dealing with the émigré groups upon which the scheme depended, except through himself. Besides, there was a glittering intelligence prize to be won. ‘It is possible’, cabled Wiseman, ‘that by acting practically as a confidential agent for the United States Government I might strengthen the understanding with House so that in future he will keep us informed of steps taken by the United States Government in their foreign affairs, which would ordinarily not be a matter of common knowledge to the Governments of the two countries.’26 Wiseman got London and Washington each to allocate $75,000 (approximately $1.2 million in modern prices) to his scheme and recruited the British author Somerset Maugham (to whom he was related by marriage) to go to Russia.

Maugham, who had gained intelligence experience in Switzerland in 1915-16, spoke Russian and could use his existing good cover as a writer and journalist. Although he afterwards wrote that his instructions were ‘to get in touch with parties hostile to the government and devise a scheme that would keep Russia in the war and prevent the Bolsheviks, supported by the Central Powers, from seizing power’, the surviving evidence suggests something slightly less ambitious. A review of Maugham’s mission after it had finished said that it had been part of a broad plan ‘to start an Intelligence and Propaganda service in Russia’. The intelligence side was to expose ‘German political intrigues’, and Maugham was to help supply material for propaganda purposes. Wiseman’s agents were also to ‘ascertain whether it was possible to support the more responsible elements in Russia. No attempt was to be made to support any reactionary movement, but it was thought it might be possible, to some extent, to “guide the storm”.’ Given the parlous internal condition of Russia, even this was over-sanguine. Supplied with $21,000 (approximately $350,000 today) for expenses and travelling from the west coast of the United States, through Japan and Vladivostok, Maugham reached Petrograd in early September 1917.27

While the ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, was informed of his presence (though not his precise mission), Maugham made no formal contact with Cumming’s remaining personnel in Russia. Accompanied by Emanuel Voska, a Czech émigré leader long resident in the USA, he contacted Tomáš Masaryk in the hope of mobilising Czech and Slovak elements in Russia to work for the Allied cause. Using the cover-name ‘Somerville’ for Maugham, Wiseman supplied the State Department with his reports, which have been credited with providing the best political intelligence the Americans had about Russia at the time. They were, for example, among the very few accurately to assess the weakness of Alexander Kerensky’s administration and the strength of the Bolshevik movement, as well as indicating the possibilities of mobilising Polish and other nationalists against Germany. Having reported in late September that Kerensky’s government was losing support and would probably not last very much longer, Maugham secured an interview with Kerensky himself on 30 October in which the Russian asked him to tell Lloyd George that with Germany offering peace and the winter coming on he did not think his government could continue. By the time Maugham’s report of this interview reached the Foreign Office on 18 November, Kerensky had indeed been toppled and Maugham summoned back to London.28 The Bolsheviks seized power on 7 November. Because Russia was still using the old Julian calendar, which was thirteen days behind the West, it was frequently called the ‘October Revolution’. They immediately sued for peace. After a ceasefire was agreed on 16 December, peace talks led to the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918, by which the Russian government had to give up control over former imperial territories in Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

These developments vitiated Wiseman’s scheme and Maugham (who suffered ill-health) never returned to Russia, though his suggestion that secret subsidies should be paid to national self-determination groups within Russia, including Cossacks, was one which intermittently attracted successive decision-makers in both London and Washington. Wiseman remained close to Colonel House and President Wilson, though the growing formalisation of Anglo-American relations affected his situation. General Macdonogh’s insistence that intelligence liaison with Allied states should be through orthodox military channels undermined Wiseman’s position as part of Cumming’s organisation and reinforced Vernon Kell’s desire to establish a Military Control Office in the USA under direct MI5 control. Wiseman told Cumming in December 1917 that he wanted to continue as his representative ‘for S.S. & Political work’. Presumably alluding to the Somerset Maugham operation in Russia, he said that part of the ‘S.I.’ (secret intelligence) work could be handed over to the Americans, with the rest under Major Thwaites, who should also be appointed Military Control Officer and made responsible to the military attaché. In March 1918 Thwaites became head of the MI5 office in New York while remaining part of Cumming’s organisation. But the loss of counter-intelligence work to MI5 (which the Director of Military Intelligence specifically ordered) left Cumming ‘very much hurt’. Charles Ascherson at Head Office in London told Wiseman that he ‘certainly sympathize[d] with him, as it does seem rough that, after his organization has built up the business and carried it on so satisfactorily for over two years, it should now be taken away from him bodily and I think he feels it very much’.29

Lloyd George, meanwhile, had appointed Wiseman ‘liaison officer between the War Cabinet and any special representative they might send out to represent them in the United States’. Colonel House understood that Wiseman was ‘now acting as liaison officer between me personally and the British Government’. Lloyd George was rather inclined to seek policy advice and assistance outside the ‘usual channels’ and this development did not go down very well among established civil servants. When Wiseman asked Cumming for copies of MI1(c)’s political reports ‘for Col. H.’, the answer from Ronald Campbell in the Foreign Office was a blunt ‘No’. Cumming, too, thought that passing raw secret service papers ‘to show to Colonel H. for the P[resident]’ was ‘far too dangerous’. Lord Reading, who replaced Spring Rice as ambassador in January 1918, nevertheless regularly used Wiseman for liaison with the Americans. On a trip back to London in April 1918, Sir William told Cumming ‘many interesting things about his work in America, especially his personal relations with the President, Lord Reading & Col. H.’. For the rest of the war, while retaining some secret service responsibilities, Wiseman’s time was mostly taken up with liaison duties. In October 1918 he returned to Europe, leaving Thwaites in charge in New York. During the Paris Peace Conference he served as A. J. Balfour’s special adviser on Anglo-American affairs, and in March 1919 he provided General Marlborough Churchill, the Chief of United States Military Intelligence, with a personal introduction to Cumming. But with President Wilson and Colonel House in Paris, too, and able to deal directly with their Allied counterparts, Wiseman’s usefulness as a go-between declined sharply, and although they occasionally met during the spring of 1919, he appears to have left Cumming’s organisation by the end of May.30

The Mediterranean and beyond

Since the late eighteenth century Britain’s interests in the Mediterranean and Middle East had been reinforced by its imperial presence in India. A paramount requirement was to prevent any other Great Power – particularly France or Russia – from dominating the region and threatening to interrupt imperial communications with the East, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1877. Agreements with France and Russia in the early twentieth century had eased the problem, but, from the early 1900s, increasing German involvement in the Ottoman Turkish empire, which stretched to Persia (Iran) in the east, included the Arabian lands of Syria, Lebanon and the Arabian peninsula, and even technically encompassed Egypt, raised new fears for Britain’s regional security. From at least 1912 (and through to the end of the war) Secret Service funds had been used by the Foreign Office to purchase a major shareholding in the Constantinople Quays Company, aiming to give the British government covert commercial influence in Turkey.31 Further south, Britain had in practice controlled Egypt since the 1880s, and a series of ‘fortress colonies’ – such as Gibraltar, Malta and Aden – secured its position, but with the outbreak of war in August 1914 nothing could be taken for granted. At the end of October Turkey entered the war on the side of the Central Powers. Britain responded by imposing a protectorate on Egypt, which rapidly became an important military base and remained so for the rest of the war, and by sending troops to Mesopotamia (now Iraq), which turned into a major theatre of operations. Italy, which had been a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary since 1882, was also a concern. Although it declared neutrality on the outbreak of the war, and appeared thereafter to be leaning more towards the Allies, German diplomatic overtures meant that its support could not necessarily be relied on.

The first indication that Cumming was developing work against Turkey comes at the end of 1914. On 29 December, his deputy, Captain Laycock, interviewed an Englishman formerly resident in Constantinople (Istanbul) and on New Year’s Eve there was a flurry of activity relating to a new organisation in the Aegean Sea at the entrance to the strategically important Dardanelles. Deposits of five and eight thousand francs respectively were arranged for banks in Corfu and Salonika. Supplies were to be sent to an island off the Turkish coast near Smyrna (İzmir), and a Libyan from Tripoli was earmarked to go to Constantinople itself to make contacts there. During January 1915 Cumming was instructed by Blinker Hall at the Admiralty to provide back-up for a scheme (proposed by Maurice Hankey) to bribe Turkey out of the war. Hall, typically without referring to any higher authority, authorised that up to four million pounds be offered to the Turks, selecting Edwin Whittall and George Griffin Eady to negotiate with the Turks. Whittall came from a family long resident in the Near East and Eady was a civil engineer who had been engaged in railway construction in Turkey before the war. Cumming provided funds and administrative support and arranged secure communications to Dedeagach (Alexandroupolis) in north-eastern Greece near the Turkish frontier. Whittall, however, told Cumming in January that the project was a ‘forlorn hope’, and so it turned out. Whatever prospects there might have been were swept away by the Allied naval bombardments launched in February 1915 on Gallipoli which it was hoped would force the Dardanelles and open the way to Constantinople. When Eady returned in April he reported to Cumming that ‘the day he opened nego[tiatio]ns we bombarded Dardanelles. The day his man landed at Smyrna we bombarded it! Money no use.’ Eady thought that he might be able to get an agreement if Constantinople was ‘internationalised – ie left in nominal Turkish possession under international control’, but the landings at Gallipoli on 25 April and the subsequent fierce campaign, which lasted until the ignominious Allied withdrawal in January 1916, destroyed any hope of a negotiated agreement.32

The Turkish venture illustrates the extent to which, at this stage of the war (and evidently so far as Hall was concerned), Cumming’s main function appears simply to have been to provide operational support. This is further illustrated by a scheme mounted in the spring of 1915 to track German efforts to supply submarines. On 22 February Hall showed Cumming a signal ‘stating that a vessel known to be in the Balearics may be supplying Tr [German] Subs’. Cumming acquired the 1,300 – ton yacht Beryl to investigate this and it set off on a cruise from San Sebastián in north-west Spain, along the Iberian coast and to the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean, before reaching Barcelona. Cumming lent the yacht’s skipper, Captain Cullen, his ‘telephoto camera in two cases’, a ‘Battery of Lenses’ and ‘two pairs Zeiss glasses’ and ‘promised him [a] Ross telescope’. When Hall told Cumming that he was in search of some tugs, Cumming organised their purchase. In April 1915 Cumming sent the keen yachtsman Shelley Scarlett (Lord Abinger) and his yacht St George to Gibraltar to work with the Beryl. Before he went Scarlett was provided with a code, a safe and a pair of Zeiss glasses. No evidence has survived in the SIS archive of what intelligence (if any) these ventures may have produced. Intelligence-gathering efforts in other parts of the Mediterranean are indicated by Cumming’s diary notes of individuals being despatched from London. On 9 March 1915, Colonel Callwell ‘approved idea of sending a good man to Genoa’. In May Hall introduced Cumming to a husband-and-wife team, who within four days had been taken on for some unspecified purpose ‘at 400 [pounds] between them’ and had departed for Venice. In July they returned, called on Cumming and ‘were dismissed with thanks’.

Italy came into the war in stages. Following the Treaty of London in April 1915, when the Allies offered substantial military and financial aid and granted Italian claims to territory in the South Tyrol, along the Adriatic coast, in North Africa and western Turkey, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary (23 May) and Turkey (20 August), though it did not go to war against Germany until 28 August 1916. Allied intelligence co-operation in the Mediterranean (mostly relating to counter-espionage) was explored at an Anglo-French-Italian conference attended by Cumming in Malta in early March 1916. Afterwards it was reported that ‘our several Intelligence Bureaux are now very much clearer about their share of the special work discussed, and a much closer co-operation with the Italians will result’. Liaison between the British and the French ‘was already close’, and Captain Smith-Cumming had ‘been able to get into much closer contact with the allied work in the Mediterranean generally and its special needs’.33

From June 1916 a formal intelligence mission was established in Italy in which Kell’s organisation had an interest. In July 1917, Sir Samuel Hoare, who had done a similar job in Russia, was appointed by Cumming to head ‘the Special Intelligence Section of the British Mission with the Italian General Staff’, an appointment representing both MI1(c) and Vernon Kell’s MI5. Put in charge of offices at Rome, Milan and Genoa, Hoare was to ‘maintain close touch with the Information Branch of the Italian General Staff’ and ‘co-operate closely with the head of the “Field Intelligence Section” of the British Mission’ (responsible for operational military information). Hoare did not at first run any agents, though he did report on political matters. In December 1917 Macdonogh in London approved Hoare’s proposal to obtain political information through The Times’s correspondent, ‘as it is of course his proper business’. Hoare also dabbled in what became known as ‘special operations’, telling Macdonogh in January 1918 that he had given £100 to help fund a ‘big pro-war demonstration’ being organised to coincide with the opening of the Italian parliament. By this stage Hoare and his colleagues were reporting directly to the Directorate of Military Intelligence in the War Office and Cumming had been cut out of the work altogether. In March 1918, indeed, Cumming had met the Italian head of Naval Intelligence and had ‘had to admit with some shame that I had now no organisation in Italy’.34

Reviewing his work overall in August 1918, he noted that the ‘Italian Military Intelligence service, upon which we have had to depend, is from the point of view of personnel and influence entirely inadequate’. Rivalries between different Italian agencies, moreover, gravely handicapped security and counter-espionage work. From the spring of 1918 officers in Hoare’s mission began exploring the possibility of sending agents into Austria and Turkey. Liaison was established with Czechoslovak elements who already had train-watching agents in enemy territory. It was also hoped to recruit ‘Southern Slavs’, such as Istrians, Croats and Dalmatians, though their employment raised difficulties with the Italians, who heartily distrusted them. ‘None the less,’ wrote Hoare, ‘it is hoped in course of time to develop a Jugo-Slav service for Croatia and Dalmatia.’ Writing as he was just three months before the unexpectedly rapid end of the war, however, it is unlikely that Hoare’s team were able to make much progress on this front.35

Cumming’s most extensive commitments in the Mediterranean region focused on Greece and Turkey. Concerned about information from ‘Asia’, in January 1915 Callwell told Cumming that he was ‘starting an organisation in Athens’. It would have to be squared with the British army commander in Egypt, but Cumming noted that Callwell would ‘hand his people over to me when organised’. Callwell agreed that Cumming should send out Major Rhys Samson (hitherto working on liaison duties with the French) to set up a joint espionage and counter-espionage operation in Athens. From February 1915 Samson, with cover as assistant military attaché, started to work on gathering Turkish military information. Two fellow countrymen, who had lived in the region before the war, were engaged. Using a humanitarian relief agency as cover, they began recruiting agents, mainly Asiatic Greeks, to work in Turkey itself. One example of their work has survived: an eight-page report from Keşan in European Turkey, on one of the main supply routes to the Gallipoli peninsula, dated 13 May, sent on by Athens on 24 May and received in London on 4 June 1915. The report noted the movement of Turkish reinforcements (some under German command) to Gallipoli and described how ‘the moral[e] of all the troops is gone’. One German officer, it alleged, ‘shot thirteen Turkish officers during the recent fighting’. There were shortages of food and military supplies. The report asserted that the region around Keşan close to the Turco-Greek frontier could be captured by ‘10,000 soldiers’: ‘All the Christians and Pomaks (Bulgarian speaking Moslems) would flock to the Allies’ colours.’ Christians in the Turkish forces had been disarmed and ‘were employed in digging trenches, doing spade-work, etc’, but ‘would do good work as guides and soldiers. All the local Christians ask is 24 hours’ grace to pay off old scores on the Moslem population.’

A despatch from Athens on 17 July with ‘Extracts from Dedeagatch letter of 8th July 1915’ contained reports from agents numbers ‘2’, ‘4’ and ‘5’, again reporting low morale: ‘The Turks were much dispirited as a result of the last battle on the peninsula. They expect to be driven out of their positions at the next attack.’ A Greek who had visited Chanak (Çanakkale) on the Asian shore reported that there were wounded ‘everywhere’. There were reports of Turkish officers deserting and ‘at Uzun Keupri [Uzunköprü, north of Keşan] 24 Turkish officers and soldiers were killed by four German officers for desertion. Comrades of the Turks killed the four German officers.’ A third report from Athens, on 16 September, said that, because of chronic shortages of ammunition, ‘a sustained attack by the Allies’ was ‘the thing which is most dreaded by the Turkish general staff’. The Greek minister at Constantinople had learned ‘that if continuous pressure was brought to bear by the Allies, the Turks could not last a month’. These three reports were each circulated only to the Admiralty Director of Intelligence and Colonel French in the War Office. There is no indication of what influence they may have had on decision-making, though they corroborate the over-optimism which permeated the early days of the Gallipoli campaign, and the widely held assumption that the Turks would not put up stiff resistance. The first two reports, indeed, may have contributed to the decision to launch a new assault at Suvla Bay during the first week of August, but by the time of the third report that offensive had petered out into a costly stalemate.

Espionage was also run from Mytilene on the island of Lesbos where the main agent, Clifford Heathcote-Smith, a Briton long resident in the region, had over a period of eighteen months in 1915-16 produced results which the General Officer Commanding in Egypt, Sir Archibald Murray, described as ‘exceptionally valuable’. The reports submitted included a plan of the Smyrna batteries and defences upon which the Royal Navy had largely based their bombardments in February 1916; early information concerning the Turks’ second campaign against Egypt (1916), which had easily been repulsed, and the despatch of Turkish troops to the Galician front; daily statistics of troop trains and the transport of munitions from Constantinople into Asia Minor; and the distribution of Turkish divisions throughout the Ottoman empire. ‘It is beyond discussion’, wrote Heathcote-Smith in January 1917, that his agent ‘at daily and ever-present personal risk has rendered Great Britain and the Allies service of very real worth – that incidentally may have saved us many lives’.

By the late summer of 1915, Samson’s organisation, by now known as the Bureau of Military Information, was also focusing on economic and blockade intelligence, and had begun to take on some counter-espionage work, to investigate both German political intrigues in Greece and arrangements for the supply of enemy submarines operating in the Eastern Mediterranean. Towards the end of 1915 Captain Compton Mackenzie, who had been serving as an intelligence officer at Gallipoli, was sent on sick leave to Athens and ended up being seconded to work under Samson. The thirty-two-year-old Mackenzie was already a well-known novelist who over the next two years brought a creative writer’s sensibility to his duties in Cumming’s Bureau. After the war he wrote entertainingly about his intelligence experiences in three volumes of memoirs, First Athenian Memories, Greek Memories and Ægean Memories, the second of which was banned for contravening the Official Secrets Act. During the war he was reputed to have sent in some reports in blank verse, which ‘pleased the old man’. ‘We like your poetical reports immensely,’ wrote Cumming in February 1917. ‘Please send us some more.’36 Not everyone was so admiring. Commenting on a report submitted in the summer of 1916, Colonel French of MI1 declared that, ‘as a soldier’, he was ‘perhaps prejudiced in favour of a simpler and less melodramatic literary style’.

Whatever the literary merits of his reports, after Samson (now promoted to colonel) had moved on at the end of 1915 to head the Eastern Mediterranean Special Intelligence Bureau (EMSIB) in Alexandria – established as a joint MI1(c)-MI5 headquarters37 – and Mackenzie had taken charge, he built up rather a successful operation, on both the intelligence and counter-intelligence sides. Mackenzie was operating in a very unstable political environment. While the Greek King Constantine I was strongly pro-German, the Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, was equally pro-Ally. After the latter won an election in June 1915 he allowed the Allies to base substantial forces at Salonika to help with the defence of Serbia and attack Bulgaria, which joined the Central Powers in October. With British forces in Greece, counter-intelligence work (which came to take up most of Mackenzie’s time and part of which developed into a full-scale Military Control Office) naturally became of direct interest to Vernon Kell’s organisation. In August 1916, while deprecating Mackenzie’s ‘well known extravagant verbiage’, Eric Holt-Wilson of MI5 noted operations in which Mackenzie had foiled the escape from Greece of some ‘dangerous Germans’ and also prevented ‘coastal contraband work’. He thought that there was no doubt at all ‘that, however flamboyant his methods, they irritate and unsettle the painstaking local Boche’ to such an extent that he thought they might ‘shortly assassinate him, if we do not’. Kell and Macdonogh agreed, the former remarking that Mackenzie was ‘a thorn in the Boche’s flesh’, and since ‘he gets apparently all the information the Minister and the M.A. [military attaché] require’, he should be left where he was.

Mackenzie was closely identified with the Venizelists and when in December 1916 the political situation deteriorated in Athens he had to move his headquarters to the island of Syra (Siros) in the Cyclades, south-east of the capital. Here for a few months he led an exciting if unorthodox intelligence life. Provided with an effective blank cheque from Cumming, by the early summer of 1917 Mackenzie had created a lavishly resourced Aegean Intelligence Service, with a staff of thirty-nine officers, a 200-ton ex-royal yacht and a budget of £5,000 (equivalent to something over £200,000 today) per month. He had ambitious plans for his organisation. In March he told Cumming that two of his officers, Machray and Dewhurst, would go to Volo (Volos) ‘and while nominally controlling passports (more or less a sinecure at Volo) would run an active espionage and contre-espionage organisation from Volo to Yannina [Ioannina]’. Another officer was to concentrate on air force intelligence, and Asia Minor as a whole was to be targeted from a series of bases in the Dodecanese Islands. Mackenzie’s office at Syra would ‘occupy itself solely with information about the interior of Greece’. Much of this derived from Military Control, passport and visa work. By the summer of 1917 Mackenzie’s ‘so-called passport records’ included some ‘20,000 names on cards’, comprising ‘a general index of every kind of activity out here’, which, with associated records, formed ‘a complete history of Greece from the beginning of the Dardanelles expedition to the present time’. Mackenzie appears to have run a very effective outfit, but he did so in an idiosyncratic and individualistic fashion which did not suit more conventionally minded colleagues. There was also the more general difficulty, which afflicted Cumming’s officers in a number of places, of where (and how) they fitted into orthodox military and diplomatic hierarchies. Mackenzie’s operation served both Cumming’s and Kell’s departments, and, as such, was ‘a branch of the E.M.S.I.B.’, based in Cairo. Meanwhile Mackenzie submitted regular reports on political matters to the British minister at Athens; Turkish intelligence was sent directly to the Military Intelligence department at General Headquarters in Cairo; and naval information was given to the Vice Admiral Commanding the Eastern Mediterranean Squadron, at Mudros on the island of Lemnos. In July 1917 the vice admiral took over the operation and began to break it up. Mackenzie’s adventure ended when Cumming recalled him at the end of the following month.38

Cumming retained some residual interests in Greece, which had come into the war on the Allied side in June 1917 after King Constantine was forced to abdicate and Venizelos formed a new government. Lieutenant Commander John Myres, who had been in Mackenzie’s organisation,39stayed on in Athens working on counter-intelligence. Reflecting how confused the situation was, however, in September 1917 Blinker Hall told Cumming he ‘now wanted Myres to be under the Admiral’, while the British minister in Athens, Lord Granville, disagreed. In February 1918 Cumming raised the matter of Myres’s status with Hall, but could record only that ‘no one knows under whom he is serving’. In March the Director of Military Intelligence raised the possibility that MI5 should take over work in Greece (which was now almost entirely counter-intelligence under Military Control Office cover), but nothing came of this and in June Hall told Cumming that he had to keep Myres on ‘as he was persona grata to Venizelos’.

One of Mackenzie’s proposals to Cumming in July 1917 was that ‘good information’ from Turkey could be obtained by sending agents in ‘via Switzerland and get them out by our own routes in Asia Minor’.40 Cumming was not very keen on this. In April he had told Mackenzie to ‘drop Turkish and Syrian matters as part of your main objective’, since ‘we are getting Turkish information through Switzerland’, which was dealt with by ‘a large Bureau in Paris’ (presumably the Bureau Central Interallié). A few relevant reports have survived. In December 1916 Berne forwarded an assessment of the Turkish situation ‘from a new Agent, who has gathered this information from friends in Constantinople’. The government’s financial position was precarious, agricultural production ‘mediocre’ and food supplies unreliable. Volatile public opinion was increasingly antagonistic towards the Germans: ‘sacrificed to the interests of foreign allies, whose names they can neither pronounce nor remember, their [the people’s] resignation of the beginning is now giving place little by little to complaints against the much detested Germans’. In August 1917 Geneva provided a thirty-two-page update, based on interviews with ‘some 20 prominent and well-known Ottomans’ in Switzerland and a similar number of Greeks and Americans ‘lately arrived here from many parts of Asia Minor’. This covered such topics as Turkish military intentions in Mesopotamia, Palestine and Arabia; agricultural production; reported attacks on ‘Non-Turkish races in Syria and Asia Minor’ (including the removal of Greek Christians from coastal areas); and the political situation in Constantinople. The general conclusion was that, with German support, there was ‘going to be a strong Turkish Offensive in Mesopotamia’, with a ‘violent preliminary attack in Palestine preceding an, if necessary, vigorous defence of Jerusalem’. In October 1917 ‘G.23’ reported that the Kaiser, on a visit to Constantinople, had reviewed a German division said to be en route to Mesopotamia. This information tied in with other reports which the War Office had received regarding a possible Turco-German offensive and informed a modest (though generally successful) British push in Mesopotamia and a renewed advance in Palestine, where Jerusalem was captured in December.41

Romania, which occupied a pivotal geographical position in the Balkans, had been an important intelligence target from the start of the war. Courted by both sides, and ruled by a royal family with significant Austro-German connections, Romania remained neutral in August 1914. Under the liberal, francophile Prime Minister, Ion Brătianu, however, the country increasingly leaned towards the Allies. In December 1915 Cumming hired an Englishman called Bertie Maw, who had been in the Romanian oil business before the war, to go out to collect military and economic intelligence. According to a postwar account prepared in SIS, he drew on his own knowledge of the country, exploited prewar contacts and built up a useful network of agents from Romanian railway and customs personnel, who provided ‘reports about goods passing into Austria-Hungary’. In February 1916 Cumming also sent Captain Laycock (who had acted as his deputy in 1914) to Bucharest ‘where he commenced operations parallel to Mr Maw’, though evidently concentrating on military information. In April 1916, however, Cumming told Samuel Hoare in Petrograd that the Director of Military Intelligence was ‘very disappointed with the quality and quantity of news received from Roumania’. The DMI had been hoping for intelligence on ‘troop movements in and out of Bulgaria and military information from Servia’, but hitherto the results had been poor. Laycock, wrote Cumming, ‘is a very able man and from his long service in this Office he knows exactly what is required’. But both Maw’s and Laycock’s work was overtaken by events. After Romania entered the war on the Allied side in August 1916 it was quickly overrun by the Central Powers. Maw’s network collapsed and Laycock’s organisation, which had become an overt military mission linked to the British military attaché, had to withdraw with the Romanian government to Jassy (Iaşi) in the north-east of the country where they clung on with Russian support.

Laycock stayed with the Romanians at least until the spring of 1918. Little evidence survives of his work, though his ambiguous position in the British Military Mission to the Romanian army evidently caused some problems. A colleague reported to Cumming in January 1918 about ‘the difficulties put in Laycock’s way in Roumania & the antagonism shown by our own people to the office there’. In December 1917 Admiral Hall (‘decidedly seedy and irritable’) scolded Cumming ‘about lack of information from Roumania & was not satisfied with my reply that Laycock was Chef de Mission to the M.A. for a long time & his S.S. work spoiled’. Cumming ‘refrained from saying that my N.E. [Near East] organisation had been broken up & taken away by Adml Aegean’. From September 1917 to March 1918 Laycock had some sort of subsidiary operation at Galatz (Galaţi), south of Jassy, under a colleague who spoke six languages (including Romanian) and had enlisted as a trooper in the Imperial Russian Horse Artillery in June 1915. Granted an honorary commission in the British army in February 1918, he got into trouble for telling his bank that he was paid by the ‘Secret Service Department’. This provoked a sharp letter from the head of Section VI (Personnel), telling him that it was ‘a very irregular proceeding to mention the words “Secret Service Department” etc., to anybody, and it is even worse to put it in writing. Please be more careful in future.’ In 1918 a Canadian, Colonel Joseph Boyle, purported to do great work in Romania. He claimed that he had ‘got into touch with an organisation of Jews whom he bribed to destroy the Russian Black Sea Fleet’, which it was feared might fall into enemy hands. Boyle promised the saboteurs ‘so much per ton sunk’, and after some ships had been attacked, claiming Cumming’s authority, he wrote IOUs to the tune of £2 million. A memorandum addressed to the Chief of the Service in 1924, however, noted that none of the bonds had by then been redeemed.

Cumming’s organisation had only a tenuous involvement with the Middle East. Like some of the work he did for Naval Intelligence, it appears that he provided administrative and financial support for operations actually run by other departments. Formally, once Egypt had become a British protectorate in December 1914, MI1(c) could have no direct responsibilities there. Nevertheless, Rhys Samson, who became head of the newly created Eastern Mediterranean Special Intelligence Bureau in March 1916, was indisputably a Cumming appointee. In April 1916 Walter Kirke noted that the Mediterranean was ‘all run by Samson, the best man C has’, and Captain Gilbert Clayton, Director of Intelligence at the British military headquarters in Cairo, favoured making Samson’s organisation into a permanent fixture, writing warmly about it to Cumming.42

An espionage operation based in Alexandria which came under the EMSIB ran agents in Palestine and Syria, though the return was patchy. A recent analysis of British intelligence in the Middle East by Yigal Sheffy has concluded that the best information came from signals and air intelligence methods. ‘Human sources’, states Sheffy, ‘generally provided traditional field information,’ derived from train- and road-watching, and ‘they hardly ever obtained reliable or relevant information on high-level policy or intentions’ (though there is no evidence that they were ever asked to do this). There were also problems of getting information out in time to be useful. One network, however, called NILI (an acronym of a Hebrew biblical phrase meaning ‘Eternal One of Isra’el Will Not Lie’) did collect ‘abundant military information through Palestine and south Syria’. Hoping to influence the British into supporting Jewish interests, the group was organised by ‘Mack’ (Aaron Aaronsohn), a fervent Zionist who ran an agricultural experimental station near Haifa, conveniently located for sea pick-ups of couriers and agents. Although Aaronsohn worked for what was then MI1(c)’s Alexandria office from early in the war, the peak period of productivity seems to have come in 1917.43 In May an unidentified intelligence officer in Paris wrote to the Director of EMSIB: ‘You certainly seem to be getting good stuff through Mack.’ In June Cumming noted that ‘they consider him [Aaronsohn] very valuable in Cairo’. Twenty years afterwards, Colonel Walter Gribbon, who had been in charge of Near Eastern Intelligence in the War Office at the time, suggested that it was ‘largely owing to the information’ provided by the Aaronsohn network that General Allenby ‘was able to conduct his campaign in Palestine so successfully’. Unfortunately, in the autumn of 1917, ‘after a very successful period’, one of their couriers ‘was arrested by the Turks and after various tortures gave away some 60 names’. Among these was Aaronsohn’s sister, Sarah, who committed suicide, having been tortured by the Turks. Aaronsohn had attempted to free his man by bribing his Turkish captors with funds supplied by the British. In early October he asked for £5,000 ‘with which to procure the release of this man’. Cumming responded by pointing out that while ‘we did not on principle pay money for the release of agents’, he had sent the still considerable sum of £2,000 ‘to Cairo for Aaronsohn’s people as payment in consideration for past services rendered’. Though reluctant on intelligence grounds to pay any further money, Cumming recognised that there might be a strong political justification for such an action. In the end, EMSIB in Cairo agreed to advance £4,000 ‘to buy off Turkish torturers’, but ‘it was found impossible to hand over this money’.

In October 1917 Cumming’s contacts with the Aaronsohns also provided the British government with back-channel communications to Jewish groups in Palestine. In November 1917 Aaron Aaronsohn’s brother Samuel (who was then in London) was given an advance copy of the Balfour Declaration (in which the British government stated that they viewed ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’) for him to smuggle into Palestine in order to encourage Jews with their work in support of the Allied war effort. Cumming, too, liaised with the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, meeting him several times in 1917 and 1918 to discuss Jewish affairs. The advance of Allenby’s forces northwards into Palestine in 1917 and 1918 overran whatever remained of Cumming’s operations there. On 18 September 1918, by which stage British forces had reached Syria and some six weeks before Turkey signed an armistice, Cumming noted in his diary that his organisation in Palestine had now been ‘transferred to [the] military’.

There is very little evidence of activity by MI1(c) in further-flung areas such as South America and the Far East. In February 1915 Blinker Hall instructed him ‘to send a good man to Santiago & Punta Arenas’ in Chile for an unspecified ‘certain purpose’ and with a generous budget of ‘up to £2000’. The Admiralty were concerned about German commerce raiders operating in the seas around South America, and there was need, too, for economic intelligence in support of the Allied blockade of the Central Powers. Cumming noted another ‘S. American scheme’ in his diary in October 1915, and in 1916-17 several officers (some by the specific request of Admiralty Intelligence) were despatched to the Continent. From May 1917 A. H. A. Knox-Little took charge of South America in Head Office. He was described as a ‘member of an important firm trading in that continent’, and had sole charge of ‘a large agency which he worked entirely on his own until the end of the war’. Although there was British intelligence activity in the Far East during the war (mainly keeping track of covert German intrigues), most of this was handled by the military and naval authorities on the spot, in collaboration with Indian agencies and the local colonial police.44 In January 1917 Cumming was consulted about a scheme to develop work in China proposed by General Dudley Ridout, the senior army officer at Singapore. Cumming was evidently not averse to expanding into the Far East. When in November 1917 a candidate approached him ‘wanting a job connected with Japan’, Cumming rejected him on the grounds that he was ‘too old & set’. During 1918, however, a number of possible officers were interviewed to work in China, and one was actually sent out under business cover, but was recalled by telegram immediately on his arrival at Shanghai ‘since it had been reported that he had been indiscreet on board ship so that his mission was known’. In July 1918 Cumming sent out another individual, with cover as a furniture-dealer. He was recalled after a month when it was ‘discovered that he had merely obtained a passage to the Far East for his own purposes and did not intend to work’. No further efforts to start an organisation in the Far East were made until 1920.

Russian enemies

SIS’s coverage of Russia during the revolutionary period is illustrated in a collection of documents which Captain William James, Assistant Director of Naval Intelligence under Blinker Hall during the war, assembled in March 1919. He had the Naval Intelligence Department collect together ‘all the reports sent in from 1914 to 1919 by our agents through “C”, which appear to be of historical value’. It was noted that there was ‘a complete file at “C’s” office’. This no longer exists, but part of the Naval Intelligence selection, comprising 101 ‘political’ reports, has been preserved in the SIS archives. Eleven concern Russia between October 1916 and December 1918, and, of these, just three are from MI1(c) sources in Russia itself between the time of the Bolshevik revolution in the late autumn of 1917 and the end of 1918. On 5 October 1917 Petrograd reported on a ‘democratic conference’ which confirmed that the Bolshevik leaders were ‘the ablest men in Party tactics’ and that Party cohesion was weak ‘except on the extreme “Left”’. On 21 November (received in London on 14 December) a six-page despatch was sent containing ‘Notes on the November (Bolshevik) Revolution in Russia’, from ‘a reliable source’. This contained a potted history of events in Russia from the summer of 1917 and described the central role which the Military-Revolutionary Committee, ably mobilised by Trotsky, had played in the coup and how the Bolsheviks were attacking the last remaining pockets of support for Kerensky. The third CX report, on ‘affairs in Russia’, dates from July 1918, and was from ‘our representative in Moscow’. It contains eighteen pages of miscellaneous material, mainly relating to the politico-military situation in the Ukraine, and including letters to and from the anti-Bolshevik, ‘White’ Russian General Anton Denikin. MI1(c) conceded that ‘while some passages are a little obscure’, it had ‘been thought better in view of the scarcity of news from Russia to leave them entire, and let them speak for themselves’.

Assuming that the Naval Intelligence Department’s 1919 definition of ‘historical value’ was not so restricted as to exclude a great number of reports (and the inclusion of the July 1918 despatch with its ragbag of material suggests otherwise), and that the reports which have survived are broadly representative of what was being provided through ‘C’, it appears that in the confused days of the October Revolution and after Cumming’s representatives (who in any case had never been organised for political intelligence gathering) were not contributing very much to whatever information London was getting about the situation in Russia. Samuel Hoare, who came home on sick leave in February 1917, was never replaced. Major John Scale, an Indian Army officer who had qualified as a Russian interpreter before the war and had fought with distinction on the Western Front before being posted to Petrograd, seems to have acted thereafter as head of the mission which, following the Bolshevik seizure of power, had to leave the Russian War Office and was given accommodation in the British embassy. The change of regime and the withdrawal of the country from the war not only meant that Russia became a target for British intelligence but also left Tsarist Russian officers stranded in the West by the revolutionary events back home. In December 1917 Cumming went to the Admiralty ‘to meet Admiral Volkov and Lt. Okerlund of Russian Service’, who wanted the British to ‘say that their S.S. is worth the £15,000 monthly that it costs. If we state this, our Treasury will advance them the money.’ There is no indication whether this offer was taken up, though in the ensuing years British intelligence agencies (among many others) employed numerous former Tsarist officers and agents. Knox (now a general and back in London) told Cumming in January 1918 that ‘Russian S.S. officers are to be trusted & would work loyally for us as they are penniless.’ The following month General Macdonogh, the Director of Military Intelligence, said he was not against employing Russians, but warned Cumming that he should ‘choose our men very carefully as Russia is divided into Bolsheviks & pro-Germans (the latter being better class folks who would welcome any power that would maintain order)’.

Cumming, meanwhile, began to work on ‘an entirely new S.S. Service [sic] in Russia’. In January 1918 he proposed to Macdonogh that this might be organised from Stockholm or Oslo. Major Scale was named to run it and, as SIS’s Baltic area Inspector (or co-ordinator), he began to build up a team, using officers who had, like him, served in Hoare’s mission. Scale told Cumming that he was sending Leo Steveni (a fluent Russian-speaker whose father had been a timber merchant in the country) to Canada ‘to enlist & instruct agents for Russia’. In March 1918 they discussed trying to exploit some of the estimated twenty thousand sailors on sequestered Russian ships who were about to be repatriated. On 15 March he ‘introduced Mr. Reilly who is willing to go to Russia for us’ to Cumming, who noted in his diary that Reilly was ‘very clever – very doubtful – has been everywhere & done everything’. Reilly was to ‘take out £500 in notes & £750 in diamonds’, but Cumming felt it ‘a great gamble as he is to visit all our men in Vologda, Kief [sic], Moscow &c’. Reilly, the so-called ‘ace of spies’ – brilliant, audacious and uncontrollable – was to work for Cumming over the next few years. He had been born Shlomo Rosenblum in (or near) Odessa in the early 1870s. In the late 1890s, having moved to England, he married an Irishwoman and reinvented himself as ‘Sidney George Reilly’. By 1918 he had travelled extensively in Asia, made money in various business ventures and lived in France, England, Russia and the USA, where in 1917 he met Norman Thwaites, who appears to have provided the link to Scale and the opportunity to work for MI1(c). He did not, however, come particularly well recommended from New York, whence a series of cables described him as ‘untrustworthy and unsuitable’; ‘a shrewd businessman of undoubted ability but without patriotism or principles and therefore not to be recommended for any position which requires loyalty as he would not hesitate to use it to further his own commercial interests’; and a ‘Greek Jew; very clever; entirely unscrupulous’. He was, indeed, another of Cumming’s scallywags.45

Employing Reilly was perhaps a high-risk strategy, but, with the code-name ‘ST/1’, he set off for north Russia before the end of March 1918. On 16 April, having gone to Petrograd, he reported that the Bolsheviks were ‘the only real power in Russia’, and that some sort of agreement would have to be made with them in order, for example, to secure the Allied bases at Murmansk and Archangel and to prevent ‘the [Russian] Baltic fleet from passing to the Germans by their destruction or rendering it unserviceable’. At the same time, opposition to the Bolsheviks was ‘constantly growing and, if suitably supported’, would ‘finally lead’ to their overthrow. Between October 1917 and the spring of 1918 attempts had been made by the remaining British diplomatic representatives in Russia, notably Robert Bruce Lockhart, to broker some sort of modus vivendi with the new regime. But opinion in London (and other Allied capitals) had been hardening against the Bolsheviks and increasingly moving towards active intervention in the country, providing political and military support for anti-revolutionary elements. Reilly’s report, therefore, provided useful ammunition for the hard-line interventionists, whose views came to dominate British policy in 1918 and 1919. Moving on to Moscow in early May, Reilly first courted the Bolshevik leaders (claiming to have marched directly up to the Kremlin in British uniform) and then their opponents, in particular Boris Savinkov, who had already moved from political opposition to plotting a coup. Reilly, though working under several aliases and moving his lodging frequently thanks to the complaisance of various mistresses, was soon marked by the Cheka (the Bolshevik secret police), who correctly identified him as a prime mover in what became known as the ‘Lockhart plot’ to overthrow the regime, though Lockhart himself was not one of the conspirators.46

Cumming’s Russian dispositions in 1918 reflect the growing commitment to intervention, though there is little hard evidence of the extent to which intelligence was actually gathered, or how it may have informed British policy. In April Cumming and colleagues had a ‘long talk’ about sending men to Central Asia where they could watch the Trans-Siberian Railway ‘& report any military preparations on it’. In May the Director of Military Intelligence summoned Cumming to see General Frederick Poole, commanding the British troops in Archangel, who wanted him to send Colonel Boyle out to ‘take charge of the Russian part of Scale’s organisation’. In June Cumming noted that there were still a dozen British intelligence officers (not all of whom were working for him), some in uniform, stationed in Russia. But there was clandestine work too. On 27 July he interviewed a man who was aiming to ‘travel in Russia in peasants dress’. Two days later he noted that ‘Mr Dukes arrived from Russia unexpectedly.’ He seemed ‘a first rate man for our job ’tho a little independent in spirit’. A talented musician, Paul Dukes, who was to become ‘ST/25’ and work undercover for Cumming in 1918-19, had been living in Russia since 1908 and had been an assistant conductor with the Imperial Mariinsky Opera at the outbreak of the war. During the first half of 1918, ostensibly serving as a King’s Messenger (an official British government courier), he had been reporting back to the Foreign Office on internal conditions in Russia.47

On 31 August 1918, responding to the murder of Moisei Uritsky, head of the Petrograd Cheka, and the attempted murder of Lenin, both of which were falsely blamed on Allied intrigues, the Cheka stormed the British embassy in Petrograd, killing the naval attaché, Captain Cromie, in the process. Lockhart was arrested and briefly held at the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, while Reilly evaded arrest by going underground and eventually escaping in disguise through Petrograd, German-occupied Estonia and Finland. The attack on the British embassy marked the final breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two countries. For the next eighteen months or so, with direct military intervention in Russia and sustained support for White Russian forces in the Russian Civil War, Britain and Soviet Russia were openly at war. For much longer afterwards, and with varying intensity over the succeeding seven decades, the perceived threat of Soviet Communism powerfully coloured the attitudes of Britain’s policy-makers in general and its intelligence community in particular.

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