The Spy Behind the Lines
Stories of Espionage Systems That Exist ed in the Armies Facing One Another in France and Flanders
MUCH garbled information has been published regarding the espionage system employed by the different armies in the field. Some of these ideas were pure imagination, some just as unusual and daring were actually employed. Captain Ferdinand Tuohy in the London Magazine, after telling of how the German spy system operated, continues:
“Let us now for a moment consider the measures taken by a contre-espionage organization in the field to check the activities of such a secret circle. Let us suppose our area of surveillance to be the British zone in France and Flanders— seething with abnormal population due to the presence of many hundred thousand refugees, Flemish, French, and Belgian.
It was necessary to keep a continuous and strict surveillance upon all these refugees and also on the three or four million regular inhabitants of the war zone. The British zone was accordingly divided up into four main areas. A main area, in turn, was composed of about twenty policestations, such a police-station being responsible for fifty square miles. A police-station in turn was split up into eight or ten communes. So that the British zone, for anti-spy work, was decentralized into no less than eight hundred communes, each commune covering an area of roughly five
The advantage of this system—a repetition of the “water-tight” compartments in the big cities—needs no emphasis. Each little commune of perhaps three thousand people was watched by intelligence police, having under them civilian “indicators” with a local knowledge of the inhabitants of that commune. An “indicator” would usually be the mayor or the parish priest, and was in no sense a spy upon his own people. He merely placed his superior knowledge at the disposal of the British authorities. (In this connection, the extremely delicate task British police, foreigners, had in surveilling French civilians in their own country will not be lost sight of.)
Each main area was further divided up into three zones drawn parallel to the battle line—the forward zone, the middle zone, and the rear zone. Precautions against espionage were naturally strictest in the forward zone nearest the battle line, the very fact of so many thousands of civilians continuing to live close up to the lines, with death daily all around them, alone giving rise to suspicion. All these people had to be watched, and naturally many spy scares arose from time to time, usually as the result of a town such as Dunkirk or Albert being heavily and accurately shelled by the Germans.
A famous heroine was Tina of Armentieres, a comely little lady, who served crumpets amid “crumps” and became a mascot in the Army. Tina had the most amazing collection of regimental badges collected as souvenirs—at one time or another, it is said, she had smiled on a representative of every unit in the B.E.F. She was discreetly removed from Armentieres on the eve of the battle of Messines when, it was said, she knew more of the organization of the British Army than the War Office and G.H.Q. combined.
And there were other vivandieres upon whom a close watch had to be kept in view of their associations. Gaby of “Five o’clock” in the Rue des Trois Cailloux, Amiens, capable of putting and keeping a brace of skittish brigadiers in their places; Mam’zelle “Jamais” of Lillers, so-called because cruel rumor had it that she’d never been known to refuse a kiss across the counter; and dimpled Zozo of Abeele, and Josephine of the little oyster shop at Amiens, who, by her wit and smiles, cajoled more than enough tips during the battle of the Somme to bring her old parents up from the Midi and poverty and re-establish them in a prim little Picardy cottage.
Such vivandieres, were they so inclined, had ample opportunity of acting the eavesdropper spy.
Besides keeping a constant vigil—which took concrete form in the filing of a vast quantity of personal reports—a contre-
espionage organization in the field was responsible for the censorship of all civilian correspondence in the war zone, and for the issue and control of all passes. All French civilians had to carry identity papers, and when they desired to travel any distance had to get permission from “Intelligence.”
It soon became imperative to check all train and motor-car arrivals from outside the zone of the armies since these might contain German collecting agents. An especial danger existed here in the repatriation of tens of thousands of French civilians by the Germans. These refugees travelled round from Belgium to their homes in Northern France, via Switzerland, and, realizing how easy it would be for the enemy to include numbers of agents among these repatriated people, the British General Staff posted Intelligence officers at Lausanne, where every repatriated civilian was obliged to give full personal particulars and submit to a searching examination. This examination served a double purpose, since frequently refugees were able to give exceptionally valuable information as to conditions behind the German lines.
Sometimes, in this respect, refugees would be called in to tell “Intelligence” all about their native villages, lying just ahead in the zone of the next planned attack; what strong points the enemy would be likely to organize in these hamlets when the British thrust forward, and so on. Such refugees were of especial value in that they were able to give the size of every cellar where German troops might be collected and concealed prior to their undertaking a counter attack.
The French deuxieme bureau, possibly influenced in some measure by the Dreyfus case, never lost sight of the possibility of traitors being concealed on the Allied General Staffs, and that there was good cause for such suspicion will be apparent when it is mentioned that the British had a staff officer agent serving with Crown Prince Rupprecht’s staff almost throughout the campaign, both when the Prince commanded the 6th Army with headquarters at Lille and later when, in command of a group of Armies, H.R.H. removed to Mons.
The officer in question, a lean, pale, bespectacled young man, had been in the British secret service before the war and was to all outward appearance a German. On the outbreak of hostilities he was called up with his class in Germany, gradually rose to the rank of captain, and in course of time, by reason of his knowledge of English, was transferred to the German Intelligence Staff, so that he saw every secret German document—most of which were systematically forwarded to British G.H.Q. via a very special line of communication through Holland. On the German collapse, Captain-very deli-
cately emerged as a British officer and took charge of German officers, his former comrades-in-war, on their journeys to and from the Armistice commission at Spa.
It used freely to be suspected that if any
German agents were operating behind the British lines, they were masquerading in Belgian uniform, or were actually Belgian soldiers. The chance of a spy masquerading in British uniform was more remote, since sooner or later such an individual would be bound to meet someone of the same regiment—possibly even battalion—he himself purported to belong to, when the spy’s ignorance of the intimate life of that unit would at once become apparent in conversation, and suspicion automatically settle upon him.
One recalls, however, a case of this description from the Bzura front.
One day a wounded Russian came stumbling over the snow through the Mohileff woods before Warsaw. His mouth was heavily bandaged, and when asked where he was making for, he could not answer, just pointed ahead and stumbled on. Those who met him in this way naturally directed him to the nearest ambulance column, but the wounded man, somehow, never continued long in the direction indicated, preferring apparently to roam aimlessly in and out of the woods, now skirting Russian battery positions, now making his way painfully round battle headquarters, dumps, etc.
The wanderer may have spent several days thus when, unfortunately for him, he happened to stumble past a Russian officer who, the day before, had directed him to the nearest field dressing station. Seeing the self-same wounded man wandering about, his mouth still bandaged, the officer’s attention was now at once aroused. He accosted the vagrant and peremptorily ordered him to follow him to the nearest medical aid post. On the way the wounded man made a sudden bolt for it towards the German lines. Quick as lightning, the Russian pulled out a revolver and shot the fugitive in the back.
Later, in hospital, while the victim lay dying, they removed the bandages from his mouth. It was whole and unhurt. The man was a German officer, could not talk Russian, and so had gagged himself into a silence which could be accounted for.
A case of a different character came under my notice whilst I was on the Russian front.
In 1914-15 life in Warsaw converged on the Hotel Bristol—you might have termed it the hub of the whole Russian Army. From its Machiavellian hall porter (afterwards shot by the Germans as a spy) to its imperious, neurotic princess, the Bristol was a real “Grand Babylon,” where officers came, to live for a day or two at a hundred miles an hour, to return at the end of that time to the frozen banks of the Bzura and the Ravka, but an hour’s ride away.
The Bristol, in short, was an admirable centre for espionage—the typical war hotel situated close up to the line where the campaign was eternally under discussion in its myriad aspects, and where discreet rendezvous between agent and agent would pass unnoticed in the general bustle and hum of life. Well, in this Hotel Bristol resided a brilliant and pretty “Polish” girl when she was not working in a Red Cross train out at Bolimov. This girl was everybody’s favorite. She made hosts of friends, and some very close friends indeed; young, susceptible and loquacious Russian officers just in from the line and hypnotized by the prospect of a love affair after all they had gone through. Sister would bestow her attentions on one such whom she saw was bright and well versed in passing events, and proceed, discreetly, along these lines:
“Yes, it is true. I love you.....
1 don’t want you to go back. . . You
must tell me exactly who you are, where you sleep, fight, live, so that when I think of you I shall imagine I am actually with
Whereupon, in the privacy of her apartment, Sister would produce a large scalp map and get her admirer to mark on it; full particulars of his life in the line—where he was billeted, and much more information besides. There was even evidence that when Sister wanted artillery information she would transfer her elastic affections temporarily to a gunner and get him to mark in a few Russian battery positions.
But all good times come to an end.
One day Sister attempted a tour de force with dire results. She actually persuaded one of her adorers to agree to give himself up to the Germans, bearing her reports, next time he was due to go out on night patrol in No Man’s Land. Happily her victim “ratted” at the last moment, and made a clean breast of it to his seniors, with the sequel that Sister was arrested, tried ahd shot by a body of those very moujiks she had betrayed with one arm while tending them with the other.
All things considered, however, the Germans must have found spying behind the allied lines a task of surpassing difficulty. Not so the Allies. The British alone were so completely au fait with life and happenings behind the German lines that on the last advance that led through Lille and Valenciennes, Mons and Roubaix, it was possible to circulate roughly the following espionage summary:
“On previous knowledge we arrested 300 spies and suspects among the civilian population and at once evacuated these. The majority of those on our black list, however, retired with the enemy. A large number of others, not definitely classified as spies, are now under observation.” Nothing, in fact, so surprised the Belgian civilian population as the accuracy of our Intelligence service in regard to themselves. It would be idle to blink the fact— which we have known, incidentally, for months and years—that a certain number of Belgian women in the occupied territory failed lamentably to sustain the honor of their sex and entered on friendly relations with the Germans. The Allies knew all about this, so much so that on their entry into each Belgian town such as Mons, Charleroi and Namur, the first thing they did was to take these ladies into custody— with their German sympathies they might have been left behind by the enemy as spies—and to send them far away back out of the zone of operations. Our laboriously compiled “black list” proved unerringly correct; in fact, many local mayors must have thought we were carrying on by black magic!
Experience in the war showed that whereas it was comparatively simple for an intelligent agent to collect information, it was a very different matter, and an extremely complex one, to get such information through to the state employing one in time to be of any use, or indeed to get it through at all. One might say that war was declared more on a spy’s communications than on the spy himself, since it mattered little what information an agent succeeded in collecting if he were unable to pass it on.
In the early days in France and Flanders several strange means are said to have been resorted to by agents desirous of communicating across the lines. They sound comical enough to-day, but we need to bear in mind and compare the altered circumstances then and towards the end.
In those days not only was the Entente anti-spy organization in the field hopelessly inadequate, numerically, to deal with a war zone seething with unknown civilians and voluntary helpers in uniform, but its members were themselves floundering in ignorance, learning things from hour to hour. Undoubtedly things occurred which —well, never can occur again.
In the British zone, Flemish peasants in German pay and German officers masquerading as Flemish peasants, are popularly supposed to have evolved diverse substitute methods of communicating across the lines.
There was the case of the nun of Y’lamertinge reported to signal by emitting puffs of smoke from her chimney whenever British troops were passing through the village, so that German gunners might find a good target.
Then there was the ploughed field scare. This originated in the imaginative mind of a Royal Flying Corps officer who suggested that it was possible to signal up information to a pilot or observer by ploughing a field in a certain way and in conformit y with a certain prearranged code.
Thus, if a field were ploughed in “tiger stripes.” that might indicate to German pilots flying overhead that the British were preparing to attack locally. And there were many other ways of ploughing a field, in fact, not to plough it at all might easily have meant “all quiet in this sector.” In practice, thought our imaginative officer, German aviators would be sent over daily to watch and report on the condition of certain “spy-fields,” or better still, they would be instructed to photograph such
fields for a detailed examination of them to be carried out subsequently by experts on terra firma.
Then there were those wicked, treacherous human hands, moved by German gold, and said to manipulate the clock on Ypres town hall so as to convey information to the enemy.
The clock was always wrong, argued the scaremongers, and unquestionably the burgomaster of somewhere or other hard by was a villain and a traitor. Whatever the foundation for that scare, it was terminated abruptly by the Germans putting a shell through the clock tower. Possibly they had been dissatisfied with the information derived from this particular source.
At another time we were confronted by an alarm of a very different kind.
Two German soldiers in divers’ suits were captured by the Belgians north of Mercken. These daring souls had actually waded across the flooded stretch of country separating the lines and had been two days installed behind the Belgian position, noting every detail of our ally’s front line organization, before they were discovered in a shell crater. Though they had minute hand-drawn maps of the Belgian sector in their possession and copious notes, the two were treated as ordinary prisoners of war.
As operations developed, spring after spring, autumn after autumn, the old scares died away for new ones to arise.
First and foremost of these was the aeroplane scare.
As a communicating link between the opposing lines, the aeroplane had obvious
advantages. The aeroplane could drop your spy in Belgium and collect him again in a few hours or days later according to plan. Special pilots were selected for this delicate mission of spy-dropping, the agents dropped being usually Belgians.
The French—always imaginative—once dropped a pretty dancing-girl at a point not far from Brussels. The girl, who came from Luxembourg and knew German fluently and without accent, was commissioned to proceed into Brussels and there live a gay night life with German officers for a week or so, after which she was to proceed back to the point where she had been dropped and there await “collection.” As events turned out, one fears mam’selle must have liked the night life, or else met somebody she liked better than herself, for she never materialized at the appointed “collection” rendezvous, and the pilot, after waiting for several hours, had to fly off without her.
The possibility of Germans employing an undetected wireless apparatus in the field for purposes of communicating information across the lines vanished early in the campaign.
Whether reading and deciphering your opponent’s wireless will ever again play such a vital part in warfare is perhaps open to doubt. For one thing, a form of secret uninterceptible wireless is already well on the way, so that all in a future war should be silent as the grave. The dramatic role played by wireless in the war could be described at length, but to do so would be to transgress that limitation of secrecy imposed on authors and editors alike.