Sunday, 20 January 2013

The spying game - a wartime obsession

Trust in me: the notorious spy Mata Hari
A theme which constantly crops up in the letters and diaries I have been reading is spying - something made famous during the First World War by the notorious Mata Hari who spied for the Germans and was executed by the French.

From the very start of the conflict, British civilians were always on the lookout for spies in their midst and it didn't take much to start them talking. One young nurse from Weymouth wrote very matter-of-factly in her diary in early 1916: 'German spy caught on White Star liner, in harbour.'

Another teenage girl from Bristol, who was staying with friends in Cornwall in the summer of 1914, wrote home in great excitement to say that a German spy had been discovered at Porthcurno and was being taken to Penzance to be shot there the following week. In fact condemned spies faced the firing squad at the Tower of London - and there were far fewer of them than public speculation suggested.

There are some fascinating records of those who were tried for spying at this website: . Some accounts are fairly graphic, for example, this is what happened when 22-year-old Albert Meyer faced the firing squad: 'Before the bullets of the firing party could reach him he had torn the bandage from his eyes, and died in a contorted mass, shouting curses at his captors, which were only stilled by the bullets.'

Not all those who were accused of spying received a fair trial. One British soldier, who kept a diary while fighting in France during the early months of the war, witnessed what sounds like a fairly summary trial and execution. In the market square of Landrecies he saw a Lieutenant Colonel of the French artillery, who had been convicted of selling secrets to the German, sentenced to be shot. 'He was led away, as I stood there, to be executed.'

Back in Britain, anyone suspected of being a threat to national security could be interned and that is what happened to one Jewish refugee whose family had sought sanctuary in Britain after fleeing pogroms in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. He was interned as an enemy alien at the start of the war, although no-one in his family knows exactly why - maybe it was because of his German-sounding name.

Later he was released - only to be conscripted into the Russian Labour Corps of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and sent to France! From there he sent home a series of beautiful postcards on which he described the scenes of devastation at the end of the war. You'll be able to read these in my book.

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