In 1909, “British Intelligence” was actually a bit of a misnomer. England had no unified intelligence force. And though there were intelligence divisions of the army, the navy, and the police, they were laughably behind other countries in the intelligence game.
The Novels That Created Spy-Mania
Then came a write named William Le Queux. He wrote spy novels. He wrote wildly popular, wildly imaginative spy novels. They always, always focused on German agents invading the UK…and they were convincing. So convincing that the average British citizen began calling in reports of enemy-spy activity every time they saw a German tourist or waiter.
Le Queux and his publishers were clever, too. They would not only come up with stories about calculated German invasions, they would map them out along the subscription routes of the papers that serialized his books, so that the towns ripe for “invasion” were also the ones with the most readers. Those readers, in turn, would be delighted-and-terrified to see their own little hamlets and villages featured in Le Queux’s books. Subscriptions would sky-rocket…and suspicions would mount. Everyone began looking for the real spies among them and reporting them to an overwhelmed and beleagured police force who had no idea what to do with all these reports.
It got to the point where the general populace and the novelist himself were convinced that William Le Queux knew more about England’s intelligence game than the government did. They were convinced that Germans were sneaking in and undermining their country.
And the Crown couldn’t honestly assure them otherwise…because the Crown had no unified intelligence agency to gather, evaluate, and file or dismiss all the concerns. So in direct response to the spy-mania that had seized the country thanks to the works of this novelist, they changed that in 1909.
MI5 – England’s First Unified Intelligence Agency
In 1909, England took its first step into what one might call the modern intelligence game. They did it by creating an organization that would combine intelligence reports from all the separate military and police forces, which included at the time the army, the navy, and the police force.
For the first time, there was a centralized, unified organization to collect and evaluate intelligence, both at home and abroad. Here, reports were gathered from the army and naval agents in the field. Here, police reports from within the UK could also be gathered. Which meant that finally they had a way to compare reports of espionage within England with reports from their own intelligencers in Germany and other European countries, to determine whether in fact their political rival was sending agents into England.
The novel A Beautiful Disguise takes a fictional view on the formation of MI5, inserting characters into the fledgling organization that were certainly not real…but also drawing inspiration from actual scandals in European intelligence.
Russian Colonel Alfred Redl
From 1903-1913, Russia’s highest-ranking intelligence officer, Colonel Alfred Redl, was in fact in the pay of Germany, proving that other European nations were playing an intelligence game far beyond what England was doing at the time. Over that ten years, many Russian agents-in-the-field in Germany vanished. Not exactly unusual, given how dangerous a game espionage is…but as it turns out, their disappearances were no accident.
They’re superior was selling them to the enemy. Agents would vanish–killed–and Redl would get a payment from his German counterparts.
In 1913, Redl retired…but he apparently didn’t let the Germans know. Another payment came in. Suspicious, his successor followed the delivery of the money and was shocked to see the courrier go to Redl’s home. He quickly evaluated the books, realized there was a direct correlation to other such payments and when their agents went missing, and arrested Redl. Redl, further, was discovered to have been using the money to fund a secret life of homosexuality, which was illegal at the time.
The story has a bitter ending. Redle was left in a hotel room with a loaded gun and an unspoken command. He did exactly what he was expected to do: he shot himself, leaving a note that said, “Passion and levity have destroyed me. I pay with my life for my sins. Pray for me.”
Where Truth Meets Fiction
If you’ve read A Beautiful Disguise already, then you’ll be able to see the parallels between this sad true story and my fictionalized scandal that MI5 was facing before it even officially launched. There was no similar scandal on record in England at the time, but without question, such things were possible, given that they were happening even then in other European countries.
And as it happens, England upped its intelligence game just in time to get their feet under them before political rivalry boiled over into war.