Le Queux: How One Crazy Spy Novelist Created MI5 and MI6
This is the astonishing story of how a prolific, hugely popular, but now almost forgotten spy novelist, William Le Queux, was responsible for the creation of Britain’s spy agencies.
It’s the true story of how Le Queux, with some help from the sensationalist press, created ‘spymania’, a wave of popular hysteria about German spies in Britain. The story of how the most powerful country in the world succumbed to paranoia about a non-existent threat to its pre-eminence. It’s the story of how that paranoia lead to the war that hastened the destruction of the very power the scaremongers were trying to preserve.
It’s a cautionary tale, with obvious modern-day parallels.
First, let’s see what majestic Imperial Britain, ruler of a third of the globe and mistress of the seas, could possibly have to be scared about.
In Victorian times, Britain had a policy of ‘splendid isolation’. Its goal in Europe was to avoid alliances and use ‘divide and rule’ tactics. Britain’s real interest was in the colonies and dominions that were the source of its power. It therefore concentrated on securing the vital sea routes using the power of the Royal Navy.
But what if a foreign army could somehow slip across the English Channel or North Sea before the Royal Navy could intervene? The British Empire might succumb to a single sucker punch. Of course the threat of a ‘bolt from the blue’ invasion was one the Royal Navy was well aware of and had comprehensive plans to prevent.
Despite this, the British public had a heartfelt fear of a ‘bolt from the blue’ invasion. And fiction-writers fed that fear.
Invasion Scare Fiction
Perhaps because only the narrow English Channel separated France from Britain, the most likely invaders were thought to be the French. The first invasion scare story though was The Battle of Dorking in 1871, which featured unnamed assailants. The Battle of Dorking started a craze for tales of hypothetical invasions. These novels were so numerous, varied and ingenious that in 1909 P.G. Wodehouse parodied the genre with The Swoop! in which England was invaded by nine different nations at once.
The xenophobia underlying the stories was obvious. The Great War in England in 1897 for example, claimed:
The French are laughing at us, the Russians presume to imitate us, and the Day of Reckoning is hourly advancing.
With the benefit of hindsight we can see that was not the case. But The Great War in England in 1897 did mark the emergence of a remarkable figure: its author, William Le Queux.
William Le Queux
Le Queux presented himself to his readers as a patriotic adventurer recording his exploits in thinly fictionalised form. In fact he was nothing of the sort. He also claimed to have travelled the length of Europe fighting Britain’s enemies, motivated by nothing except love of his country.
In reality, Le Queux was an Anglo-French journalist of limited ability but almost unbounded imagination. He was also a prolific author, churning out four or five books a year for decades.
Each book recorded Le Queux’s hard-fought struggle to defend Britain and awaken her to the threat of foreign machinations. In time, the boundaries between fiction and reality blurred and Le Queux became convinced that he really was a one man counterintelligence agency.
Le Queux’s specialty, much appreciated by the newspapers of the day, was seeing through foreigners’ seeming innocence to discover the brute saboteur or ruthless spy lurking within. And the more fantastic his claims, the more they were believed.
Britain’s traditional enemy was France and her latest European war had been with Russia, but the power on the rise was Imperial Germany. This was not a concern in Britain until Germany took the decision to build a navy to rival the Royal Navy.
Germany’s overseas empire was tiny. It was a continental power. Its trade routes were over land. In the British view, Germany had no legitimate use for a large navy. So the German High Seas Fleet appeared to have only one purpose – to defeat the Royal Navy and land an invasion force in Britain. Fiction writers were quick to pick up on that possibility and seek to warn the British public.
The Riddle of the Sands
The first notable story with the Germans as potential invaders was Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands.
The Riddle of the Sands is the story of an amateur British sailor on a yachting holiday in the Baltic who stumbles upon a German invasion plan masterminded by a renegade Englishman. It is also the only spy novel of the period with any enduring literary merit.
The Riddle of the Sands is not entirely an invasion scare novel, it’s also a sailing adventure, but it presents itself as non-fiction and as a warning. That set the tone for Le Queux’s next great venture: a rehashed version of The Great War in England in 1897 featuring new and topical invaders.
The Invasion of 1910: Le Queux’s Masterpiece
The Invasion of 1910 is presented as a history book written after the conflict. Taking its cue from the plan in The Riddle of the Sands, Le Queux’s armada forms up in the Frisian Islands, dashes across the North Sea and descends on Britain’s east coast. Le Queux adds the devilishly cunning idea of catching Britain off guard by invading on a Sunday.
Naturally, legions of German spies precede the invasion force, sowing confusion and preventing the British Army from stopping the German advance. The Germans defeat the British on the outskirts of London and occupy most of the city. Eventually, a resistance movement called ‘The League of Defenders’ rises and liberates the country. Le Queux describes the flyer below as recruiting patriotic Englishman to repel the Germans.
But despite eventually evicting the invaders, Britain is broken by the invasion, whilst Germany has triumphed and is set to dominate the world. The book ends with a declaration that Britain brought the disaster on itself:
The British nation had been warned against the danger; it disregarded the warning.
The ‘warning’ having been supplied by Le Queux, of course.
Once again, Le Queux’s work was massively hyped up by the Daily Mail, and The Invasion of 1910 became a phenomena, selling over one million copies.
Spies of the Kaiser: the Height of Spymania
Spies of the Kaiser was published in 1909, and raised spymania to new extremes. Again, Le Queux’s fantasies had their popularity massively boosted by the Daily Mail’s hype machine. And again the story was presented as non-fiction. The tone can be gauged from the opening paragraphs:
That German spies are actively at work in Great Britain is well known to the authorities… As I write, I have before me a file of amazing documents, which plainly show the feverish activity with which this advanced guard of our enemy is working to secure for their employers the most detailed information… I have refrained from giving actual names and dates, for obvious reasons, and have therefore been compelled, even at the risk of being again denounced as a scaremonger, to present the facts in the form of fiction — fiction which, I trust, will paint its own patriotic moral.
This time, the number of spies had increased even from the barely believable figures Le Queux had previously claimed. A network of fifty thousand militarily-trained German expatriates was supporting five thousand full time spies.
The frontispiece of Spies of the Kaiser shows a German spy cunningly disguised as a pretty young woman. She is signalling the Kaiser’s battleships as they steam unmolested past her window. Was nothing to be done about this outrage?
The satirical magazine Punch attempted to prick Le Queux’s balloon with this parody of his prose style:
‘Tell us the whole facts, Ray,’ urged Vera Valiance, the pretty fair-haired daughter of Admiral Sir Charles Valiance, to whom he was engaged.
‘Well, dear, they are briefly as follows,’ he replied, with an affectionate glance at her … ‘Last Tuesday a man with his moustache brushed up the wrong way alighted at Basingstoke station and inquired for the refreshment-room. This leads me to believe that a dastardly attempt is about to be made to wrest the supremacy of the air from our grasp.’
‘And even in the face of this the Government denies the activity of German spies in England!’ I exclaimed bitterly.
Unfortunately, satire has to exaggerate in order to work, and that extract would slot seamlessly into Spies of the Kaiser.
Compare for example this passage from the chapter ‘How the Plans of Rosyth were Stolen’
Ray, noticing my attitude, made explanation.
‘Several of my surmises in this case proved entirely correct,’ he said… ‘The two men who held the safe keys being members of the Golf Club aroused a theory which proved the correct one, and on tracing back the career of the waiter I made a remarkable discovery which left no doubt as to his real profession… The plan which Reitmeyer saw is, I find, fortunately one of the discarded ones.’
‘Extraordinary!’ I declared, absorbed by what he had related. ‘But while you’ve wrested from Germany the secrets of some of our most important defences, you have, my dear Ray, temporarily lost the woman you love!’
‘My first duty, Jack, is to my King and my country,’ he declared, sitting on the edge of the table in the spies’ photographic studio. ‘I have tried to perform it to-night, and have, fortunately, exposed the German activity in our midst.’
Le Queux’s work was beyond parody.
Something Must be Done
The hype from the popular press over anti-German spy novels from Le Queux and other pulp authors had Britain in uproar. The public were convinced there were thousands, even tens of thousands, of fifth columnists in Britain.
The Daily Mail advised its readers:
Refuse to be served by a German waiter. If your waiter says he is Swiss, ask to see his passport.
The public clamour led to questions in parliament. Parliament demanded a report. The Prime Minister instructed a special Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence to:
Consider such evidence as may be brought before them regarding the nature and extent of the foreign espionage that is at present taking place in this country.
The committee asked Lieutenant-Colonel James Edmonds of the War Office for a report. Edmond’s first action was to consult Le Queux.
Le Queux passed on his findings. His evidence consisted of:
- Cases of alleged reconnaissance.
- Individual Germans who had come under suspicion.
- Houses occupied by a succession of Germans.
In other words the ‘spies’ were guilty of nothing more than ‘being foreign at a time of international tension’.
Edmonds accepted the evidence uncritically and repeated it almost verbatim to the Committee.
Appalled at the legions of German spies running amok, the Committee of Imperial Defence authorised the creation of a Secret Service Bureau to deal with them.
Britain’s Intelligence Services were born.
The Secret Service Bureau
So, in October 1909, the Secret Service Bureau formed. The forerunner of MI5 was at first known as the Military Section but quickly changed to the Home Section. The forerunner of MI6 was initially the Naval Section, changing to the Foreign Section.
The Secret Service Bureau had a staff of two officers:
- Mansfield Cumming, a fifty-year-old Royal Navy Commander, was responsible for the Foreign Section.
- Vernon Kell, a thirty-six year old Army captain, led the Foreign Section.
Both Sections were part of the Directorate of Military Operations of the War Office – known by its initials as ‘MO’. The Home section became MO5c and then MI5. The Foreign Section became MO1c, then MI1c, and then MI6.
Officially MI5 is now known as the Security Service and MI6 as the Secret Intelligence Service, but the old names persist.
The Real German Spy Network
Vernon Kell’s original remit was to deal with the ‘extensive system of German espionage’ in Britain. In fact, at the time there were barely a handful of German spies in Britain.
Every single ‘spy’ whom Le Queux had identified was exactly what they appeared to be: a waiter, tourist or businessman. The ‘extensive system of German espionage’ in Britain was a figment of Le Queux’s fevered imagination and the hype of the Daily Mail.
Apart from the genuine tensions caused by the Anglo-German naval arms race, the alarm had been raised over nothing.
The Police Special Branch, which predated spymania, already had an entirely effective, if prosaic, system for dealing with genuine spies. They simply kept a register of all foreigners in the area and noted any suspicious activity. However, their level of scepticism towards reports from the public put Le Queux to shame.
The Day of Reckoning
When war really did arrive in 1914, all twenty-one real German spies were picked up within weeks. They were so amateurish that their bumbling attempts to reconnoitre military installations had been spotted immediately. But spymania persisted into the war years. Throughout the war, an endless series of ‘tip offs’ from Le Queux fans flooded in to the Special Branch.
MI5 continued to take Le Queux seriously, unlike the police. They remained convinced that the spies who had been picked up were part of a fiendish plot to put them off their guard. The real German spies were still undercover. Extremely cunning and dangerous spies they were too, to keep themselves hidden so well.
Le Queux, appears to have become if not literally insane then at least deeply delusional and paranoid. He was convinced that every single German national in the country was a spy, from professors to prostitutes, that German agents were attempting to assassinate him, that the Home Secretary was covering up the plot and that the police were ‘hopeless’. He took to carrying a revolver, convinced he could rely on no one.
Le Queux spent the war years in increasingly desperate ‘spy hunting’, but failed to apprehend a single German spy, as there were none. MI5 or the police caught every single German agent that was sent to Britain during World War 1 – a grand total of less than ten spies.
As one history of the British Intelligence agencies concluded:
Against the serried ranks of imaginary spies, the authorities were helpless.
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