Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 -16 April 2003
Issue No. 633
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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (489)

Age of intelligence

Dr Yunan "Spies of the Great War: the astonishing revelations of undercover agents" was the title of a series Al-Ahram introduced in 1931. Written by Edwin Woodhall, an officer in the special department of the British Intelligence Agency during the war, the series ran for 38 episodes. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* describes the covert war


Lord Kitchner
Appearing in Al-Ahram almost daily, in a corner of the front page and carrying over onto most of the second page, was the series "Spies of the Great War: the astonishing revelations of undercover agents". Al-Ahram's management had at least two reasons for running the articles -- from 30 July to 8 September 1931-- on War World I. It was summer, the doldrums for any newspaper's circulation, and what could be more guaranteed to entice readers back than tales of espionage and intrigue. Secondly, it was a year of conflict between the government and nationalist parties and a time in which Prime Minister Sidqi had given ample demonstration of his abilities to clamp down on the press. Al- Ahram had no intention to put itself in the way of Sidqi's tyranny and events of the Great War seemed a safe enough distance.

Lending weight to these conjectures is the fact that Al-Ahram actively commissioned the series, as it informs us at the end of the closing episode: "Today ends the 'Spies of the Great War'. Many readers have asked us for the title of the book from which we derived these episodes. However, these were not chapters from a book, but rather a series of articles written especially for Al-Ahram by Edwin Woodhall, who sent them to us from London after which they were translated by Al-Ahram editor Hosni El- Shantanawi."

The newspaper took pains to stress that Woodhall's articles, which occupied considerable space on its pages for over a month, were not merely intended as a titillating diversion. In his commentary on the text, El-Shantanawi highlighted some of the more edifying passages of Woodhall's text. For example, the British spy wrote: "One of the most difficult tasks for the intelligence agency was buying men. This came as a surprise because the market had consciences, hearts and principles for sale for those who could afford them." In another passage, Woodhall praised the courage of the undercover agents. "Our men jumped from airships and airplanes and over the barrels of the enemy's guns and the blades of its bayonets in order to collect data and information that would be of service to their country in the war." Elsewhere, on the fate of women in war, he writes, "Women emerge into a world, run by politicians and under the sway of the influence and power of the great. The sacrifices women made during the war were more awe-inspiring, more poignant and more meaningful than those made by men."

Al-Ahram readers would thus have been drawn to "Spies of the Great War" for its insights into one of the more obscure aspects of warfare. The clashes between armies on the battlefield were the public side of war, covered by the press and military communiqués. But there was also the hidden side, the covert activities, the infiltration behind enemy lines, the acts of sabotage and intelligence gathering. This was a side of which the public rarely knew more than the faintest rumours, and that would not be revealed in any detail, if at all, until many years to come.

In addition, modern Egyptian history held some very cogent reasons why Egyptians could benefit from some lessons on the hidden side of war. Perhaps the battle that took place on the threshold of the modern era best offered a clear illustration of the necessity of intelligence work. The Battle of the Nile on 17 July 1798 between the Mamelukes and the French ended with the defeat of the former and the push into Cairo of the victorious French. Sheikh Abdel-Rahman El-Jabarti, the famous Egyptian historian who was an eyewitness to the event, relates, "There were conflicting reports on the direction from which they [the French] were approaching. Some said they were coming from the west, others said from the east and yet others said they were coming from both directions. Not one of the military men took the trouble to send a spy or an advanced party to engage them in fighting before they reached the threshold of Cairo."

More significantly, there were Egyptians still alive at the time of Woodhall's series who would have remembered the decisive battle of Al-Tel Al-Kabir between the British and Egyptian insurrectionists led by Ahmed Orabi, on 13 September 1882. Having never imagined that the British would mount an attack that night, Orabi and his troops fell into a sound sleep only to wake up with a start hours later to find British forces in their midst. Orabi had no choice but to mount his horse, race to the train station at Bilbis and board the train to Cairo. When he arrived several hours later he handed over his sword to the commander of the invading forces. Given that this battle heralded the beginning of the British occupation, it had a powerful lesson to impart with regard to intelligence on the movements of the enemy.

Those aware of this would, therefore, have been greatly interested in the secrets -- which could have remained confidential forever -- Woodhall imparted regarding the role spies played in World War I. Particularly intriguing were the novel methods -- by the standards of the time, of course -- of espionage that had been introduced in the "covert war", as we shall see in the following excerpts from "Spies of the Great War".

One of the major turning points in World War I was the decision of the Americans to enter the war on the side of the allies, on 2 April 1917. Although there were a number of reasons behind the American decision, historians concur that the most immediate cause was the publication of a secret telegram from German Minister of Foreign Affairs Zimmermann to the German ambassador in Mexico. The telegram revealed a German plan to incite the Mexicans to declare war on the US, a manoeuvre Washington was not about to countenance. Woodhall recounts the story in detail.

At the end of February 1917, the Reuters news agency announced the discovery of Zimmerman's missive to Herr Von Eckhardt and recited the text:

"Berlin, 19 January 1917,

"On 1 February the submarine war will begin. Nevertheless, we are most concerned about preserving America's neutrality. If we are disappointed in this regard, we shall conclude an alliance with Mexico on the following terms:

"We shall declare war and conclude peace jointly; neither nation shall take decisions in this regard independently. We shall guarantee to augment the national treasury. In addition, it will be taken for granted from now that Mexico will regain its lost provinces, New Mexico and Arizona. When we have ascertained that war will begin between us and the US, you must suggest to Caranza [a Mexican official] to begin contacts with Japan and invite it to cooperate with Mexico. At the same time, he should offer to act as an intermediary in negotiations between Japan and Germany. You should further draw Caranza's attention to the fact that the likely outcome of the ferocious submarine war will be to cut off the nose of the British, force them to cry out to us for help at any price and then to conclude a treaty to end the war within a few months."

Woodhall goes on to relate that news of this telegram spread suspicion and panic in the US and that this was when the US government first began to take serious measures to enter the war. As he put it, Germany was threatening to trespass the most sacred right of a free people and it was abusing the neutrality of the US. "America rightfully felt the shock of the blow and the sting of the insult that was intended for it," Woodhall remarks.

Meanwhile, Zimmermann never even tried to refute the report since he had no possible way to explain it. "What strikes one in particular is that this German politician who had now fallen into disrepute had never issued instructions on how to deliver the message," Woodhall observes, after which he recounts how it had fallen into enemy hands.

Within the first months of the war the German code had fallen into the hands of the British. In one of those fortuitous turns of fate that can alter the entire course of history, a German destroyer was struck by enemy fire in the Baltic. Within hours of the incident, Russian authorities fished out a German officer who was still clutching to his chest, even after he had died, a booklet containing the translation of the codes used by the German navy. The Russians notified the British, the allied power that possessed the largest navy, and the British, in turn, created an agency whose task it was to monitor and translate German wireless communications. Woodhall continues: "The mission of this agency was difficult at first. However, by November, our officers had made great progress in cracking the German coded messages." Eventually, the allies managed to plant one of their female operatives in Brussels where she met a German wireless operator who managed to obtain the text of Zimmermann's message and dispatch it to London where it was decoded. The message was then sent to the US ambassador and later released to the public by Reuters, and "thus concluded one of the most important chapters of the covert war".

At 8.00pm on Monday, 5 June 1916, a German submarine struck and sunk the destroyer, SS Hampshire, off the coast of Scotland. On board were British War Secretary Lord Kitchner and his senior staff, who had been en route to Russia. Following the incident, British military authorities suspected that German spies operating in England must have been able to learn that Kitchner would be on board.

Although such suspicions seem reasonable enough, Woodhall, in his tenth installment, denies the possibility, which is perhaps a position to be expected from a British intelligence official keen to defend his alma mater. Kitchner, he writes, was one of those men whose memory stirs storms of controversy and antagonism. However, "the tragedy that was unearthed regarding the last days of the life of this great personality will continue to fire people's imaginations and emotions no matter how many years and days have passed after his death."

So many rumours had circulated over the circumstances of Kitchner's death that it was now time to lay them to rest, which Woodhall would do by telling the true story he learned from first-hand sources. The author of "Spies of the Great War" goes on to relate:

"On 5 June 1916, four days after a battle of Scotland, the destroyer, with Lord Kitchner aboard, set sail for Russia. It was only a few miles out to sea when it ran into a mine and sank. The mine was one of those planted by German submarines. German intelligence had learned that the British navy generally travelled to the east of those islands and, therefore, decided to create a minefield to the west in the event that British warships tried to avoid their customary route."

Lending credence to the rumour that Kitchner had been a victim of German espionage was that Berlin had announced the news of the tragedy at 10.00 that morning, a little over three hours before it was announced in London. Woodhall, however, faults the then British prime minister, the secretary of the navy and other British authorities for having deliberately delayed announcing the news. "It was a mistake upon which were later built many strange rumours which continued to circulate among people long after Kitchner's death."

In Woodhall's opinion, one of the most curious byproducts of these rumours was a film on "how Lord Kitchner was lured to his execution". Although the film was screened only to a handful of parliamentary members in 1921, its storyline -- that German agents were able to learn that Kitchner would be on board the Hampshire -- soon spread among the public.

The former secret service agent devotes a full episode to "the true story of the death of Lord Kitchner". He reminds his readers that the commander of the German navy, had denied any connection with the death of the British secretary of war. If he had, he would have boasted of such a successful coup, Woodhall argues. Woodhall also refutes the rumour that German intelligence had known of Kitchner's trip to Russia two or three weeks before it took place, giving them plenty of time to plan the torpedoing of the Hampshire. Finally, he denied that a German spy concealed the fatal explosive device on the ship.

One of the passengers on the Hampshire at the time it was sunk was the man who designed the ship and who was one of the 11 survivors out of 125 passengers. Woodhall writes, "Mr Phillips said that there was only one explosion and that this occurred in the front of the boiler room. The weather was so turbulent that the two torpedo ships that were escorting our ship had to turn back. Following the explosion Phillips saw Kitchner on deck in the company of the secret service inspector who never once left his side."

In short, Woodhall concludes, there was nothing mysterious about Kitchner's trip to Russia. "It was just one of those coincidences of war. He died as he would have wanted -- in the service of the nation that he loved and that he had served so faithfully." One wonders whether Woodhall allowed sentimentality to cloud his reasoning. Perhaps suspicions surrounding the sinking of the Hampshire were, in fact, unfounded. But, perhaps too, the secret service agent was unable to bring himself to admit that his German counterparts scored a victory, and a major one at that.

As though to vindicate his organisation, Woodhall devotes his next two installments on two figures who he felt epitomised the superiority of the British secret service. The first was an officer of the Empire, Sir John Morton Griffith. A lieutenant colonel during the war, Griffith gained a reputation among his colleagues as the "devil of demolition and sabotage" for his activities in Romania which, with its large resources of wheat and oil, was of strategic importance to the allied forces.

Although the Germans had occupied Romania at the outset of the war, Griffith proved eminently successful in evading enemy surveillance and performing those deeds for which he had acquired his nom de guerre. Many of the details were reported in the Evening News following Griffith's tragic suicide in Alexandria after it was discovered that his company would not be able to fulfil its contract to increase the height of the High Dam in Aswan. The British newspaper reported:

"Griffith was the munitions engineer who, among things, was chosen by the government to set fire to the Romanian oil wells. His deeds have etched his name among the greatest heroes. It was he who saved the oil wells from falling into the hands of the enemy armies. Frequently, too, he put his life at risk in order to perform the missions assigned to him. In the course of his work he used explosives to set fire to water tanks and military installations. So zealous was he that he carried a hammer with him at all times in order to destroy any enemy equipment he came across. He would not leave a location until moments before German troops arrived and when they did they would find complete devastation with nothing left standing."

The second figure portrayed the other face of allied secret service activities -- counter espionage and specifically the pursuit and capture of German spies. Not surprisingly, Woodhall dwells at length on the story of Mata Hari, "the internationally reputed German dancer and spy whose extraordinary beauty and charm had taken Paris by storm in 1912 and who was worshipped by the masses in Berlin". Such an idol of the stage had she become that "if she went to Paris she would be assailed by telegrams from Vienna begging her to return and if the theatres in Madrid succeeded in attracting her, Petrograd would seethe with jealousy. London, New York, Berlin vied desperately to host her, as did all the other major capitals of the world."

Mata Hari first began to arouse the suspicions of French intelligence when, during a two-month stay in Paris, she requested permission to visit one of the high command centres of the French air force. She wanted to tend to a friend of hers, an officer who had been critically wounded, or so she claimed. Permission was granted and during her stay countless French officers fell over themselves to invite her to dinner, to parties, to any venue that would hopefully lead to an amorous engagement.

However, once when being interviewed by a French intelligence officer she surprised him by offering to spy for the French. While pretending to accept her offer, they mounted a close surveillance of her every movement and soon were able to gather enough evidence to confirm that she was a double agent. Woodhall recounts the story of her undoing:

"A message was intercepted by the Eiffel Tower wireless station and handed over to the bureau of the French secret police. The message, from Berlin and originally destined for Spain, contained instructions to pay 1,500 sterling to Agent H-230 and to arrange it so that the agent could collect the sum at a bank in Paris. French intelligence had already learned that H-230 was the code number for Mata Hari and, therefore, put a tail on her to see whether she would collect the money or not. Their suspicions were confirmed when she was followed into a bank where she asked for the money that led to her inevitable downfall."

A subsequent installment recounts Mata Hari's trial before a French military court, in which were unfolded the lurid details of her services on behalf of German espionage. On the day the war broke out she was having breakfast with the chief of police in Berlin who engaged her on a secret mission for which he later paid her 3,000 marks. From Berlin she left for Paris where she stayed seven months, in the course of which she took up residence in the air force base near the front. She was in constant contact with army officers evidence of which were the many letters from them that were found in her home.

Initially Mata Hari denied the accusation. Woodhall writes her saying, "A prostitute, yes, I was that. But a spy and a traitor, never!" However, the tribunal continued to press her until finally she burst out, "I am not a French woman and I feel not the slightest pang of remorse for the harm I caused France!"

Mata Hari, alias Gertrud Margarete Zelle (1876-1917), was found guilty and sentenced to death, a sentence that was carried out quickly, hastening her entrance into history as the most famous spy of World War I.

The homing pigeon was indispensable to military communications at a time when wireless or telephone communications could be cut or bugged. Corps of trainers bred these "weapons", as Woodhall described them, which would fly vast distances to return to their nests. Although Belgium was the first to use homing pigeons in large numbers, it was forced to release them -- more than 30,000 -- when German forces advanced into the country at the beginning of the war.

So important were these creatures to the allies that they created a special branch of the intelligence services to tend to them. Allied spies would use them to dispatch messages, pilots would carry them on board in the event they had to send off a hasty SOS and ships could use them to warn of approaching danger.

Given the numbers of homing pigeons in the allied arsenal, it is astonishing to believe that they were all given names. Woodhall writes, "Among the registers of the allied forces, one finds the names of a great number of these precious birds belonging to the secret intelligence services, and alongside these names emblems of distinction. In France, a monument was erected to commemorate these winged heroes many of whom won the medal of the Legion d'Honeur. The British Ministry of War has maintained a record of the many amazing and glorious deeds they performed. One of these, pigeon 2719, received the Victoria Cross." To think that such birds could end up on people's dining tables elsewhere in the world.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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