By SIR BASIL THOMSON
(corrected text from Internet Archive, download PDF)
THE FIRST DAYS [OF THE WAR]
LIKE most Englishmen, I read of the murder at Sarajevo without a thought that it was to react upon the destiny of this country. It seemed to be an ordinary case of Balkan manners, out of which would proceed diplomatic correspondence, an arrest or two, and a trial imperfectly reported in our newspapers. It did have the immediate effect of postponing a ball at Buckingham Palace on account of the Court mourning, but that was all. During the postponed ball on July 16, so petty were our preoccupations at this moment that when a message came in that Mrs. Pankhurst had just been recaptured under the Cat and Mouse Act. I thought it worth while to find the Home Secretary and repeat it to him. A few days after the murder I met von Kühlmann at luncheon. He can scarcely at that time have expected a rupture of relations, for in talking over Dr. Solf, with whom I had been associated in the Pacific, he said, “He has climbed high since you knew him, and some think that he will go higher still (meaning that he would become Chancellor). He is coming to London in August, and I shall write to him to arrange a meeting with you.”
A few days later England began to feel uneasy. I overheard a certain Under-Secretary remark at luncheon of his constituency, “Well, all I can say is that if this country enters the War there will be a rebellion in the North of England.” He left the Ministry when the moment came, and has now disappeared even from the House of Commons. I think that we all had at the back of our minds a feeling that a European War on the great scale was so unthinkable that a way would be found at the eleventh hour for avoiding it. A staff officer in whose judgment I believed remarked that if this were so he would emigrate, because he knew that the day was only postponed until Germany felt herself better prepared for the inevitable war. There were, in fact, no illusions at the War Office. Some day the story that will do justice to the services of Lord Haldane in those very critical weeks will be written. The plans that had been made during peace time were all ready; the names and addresses of the known German spies were recorded. We could only wait for midnight on 4th August. I was actually in the Tube lift at Gloucester Road on the stroke of midnight, and I remarked to the liftman that we were now at war. “Is that so?” he replied, with a yawn.
The credit of the discovery of the German spy organisation before the War was entirely due to a sub-department of the War Office, directed by officers of great skill. They had known for some time that one Karl Gustav Ernst, a barber in the Caledonian Road, who was technically a British subject because he was born in England, was the collecting centre for German espionage. All he had to do for his pittance of i a month was to drop the letters he received from Germany ready stamped with English postage stamps into the nearest pillar-box, and to transmit to Germany any replies which he received. Altogether, his correspondents numbered twenty-two. They were scattered all over the country at naval and military centres, and all of them were German. The law in peace time was inadequate for dealing with them, and there was the danger that if our action was precipitate the Germans would hear of it and send fresh agents about whom we might know nothing: it was decided to wait until a state of war existed before arresting them. On 5th August the orders went out. Twenty-one out of the twenty-two were arrested and interned simultaneously; one eluded arrest by embarking for Germany. Their acts of espionage had been committed in peace time, and therefore they could not be dealt with on the capital charge. The result of this sudden action was to drop a curtain over England at the vital moment of mobilisation. The German Intelligence Service was paralysed. It could only guess at what was happening behind the curtain, and it guessed wrong. Ernst was sentenced to seven years' penal servitude for his share in the business, and, seeing that he was a British subject, the sentence cannot be called excessive.
The curtain had dropped not only for the enemy but even for ourselves. How many of us knew during those first few days that trains were discharging men, horses, and material at the quays of certain southern ports without any confusion at intervals of ten minutes by day and night; that an Expeditionary Force of 150,000 men was actually in the field against the Germans before they knew anything about its existence? Von Kluck has recorded somewhere his surprise when he first found British troops in front of him. After the Armistice he is reported to have told a British officer that in his opinion the finest military force in history was the first British Army, and that the greatest military feat in history was the raising of the second British Army.
Our great dread during that week was that a bridge or a railway arch might be blown up by the enemy and the smooth running of mobilisation be dislocated. Most of the railway arches were let to private persons, of whom some were aliens. On 5th August I went myself to the War Office to find a General who could be vested with power to turn these people out. There was a good deal of confusion. Every Head of a branch had left for the field that morning, and their successors were quite new to their jobs. At last I found my General, and while I was talking to him it grew dark and there was a sudden peal of thunder like an explosion. He said, quite gravely, “A Zepp!” That was the state of mind we were all in. That same night my telephone became agitated; it reported the blowing up of a culvert near Aldershot and of a railway bridge in Kent. I had scarcely repeated the information to the proper authority when the bell rang again to tell me that both reports were the figments of some jumpy Reservist patrol.
Who now remembers those first feverish days of the War: the crowds about the recruiting stations, the recruits marching through the streets in mufti, the drafts going to the station without bands, the flower of our manhood, of whom so many were never to return, soldiers almost camping in Victoria Street, the flaring posters, the foolish cry “Business as Usual”; the unseemly rush to the Stores for food until, under the lash of the newspapers, people grew ashamed of their selfishness; the silence in the 'buses, until any loud noise, like a motor back-fire, started a Zeppelin scare? Who now remembers the foolish prognostications of experts how the War would result in unemployment and a revolution would follow; the assurance of certain bankers that the War would be over in six months because none of the belligerents could stand the financial strain for longer? We have even forgotten the food-hoarding scare that followed the spy scare during the height of the submarine activity, when elderly gentlemen, who had taken thought for the morrow, might have been seen burying biscuit tins in their gardens at midnight for fear that their neighbours should get wind of their hoard and hale them before the magistrate.
I began to think in those days that war hysteria was a pathological condition to which persons of mature age and generally normal intelligence were peculiarly susceptible. War work was evidently not a predisposing cause, for the readiest victims were those who were doing nothing in particular. In ante-bellum days there were a few mild cases. The sufferers would tell you gravely that at a public dinner they had turned suddenly to their German waiter and asked him what post he had orders to join when the German invaders arrived, and that he, taken off his guard, had clicked his heels and replied, “Portsmouth”; or they would whisper of secret visits of German aircraft to South Wales by night and mysterious rides undertaken by stiff guttural persons with square heads who would hire horses in the Eastern Counties and display an unhealthy curiosity about the stable accommodation in every farm that they passed. But in August 1914 the malady assumed a virulent epidemic form accompanied by delusions which defied treatment. It attacked all classes indiscriminately, and seemed even to find its most fruitful soil in sober, stolid, and otherwise truthful people. I remember Mr. Asquith saying that, from a legal and evidential point of view, nothing was ever so completely proved as the arrival of the Russians. Their landing was described by eyewitnesses at Leith, Aberdeen, and Glasgow; they stamped the snow out of their boots and called hoarsely for vodka at Carlisle and Berwick-on-Tweed; they jammed the penny-in-the-slot machines with a rouble at Durham; four of them were billeted on a lady at Crewe who herself described the difficulty of cooking for Slavonic appetites. There was nothing to be done but to let the delusion burn itself out. I have often wondered since whether some self-effacing patriot did not circulate this story in order to put heart into his fellow-countrymen at a time when depression would have been most disastrous, or whether, as has since been said, it was merely the rather outlandish-looking equipment and Gaelic speech of the Lovat Scouts that set the story afloat.
The second phase of the malady attached itself to pigeons. London is full of pigeons - wood pigeons in the parks, blue rocks about the churches and public buildings and a number of amiable people take pleasure in feeding them. In September 1914, when this phase was at its height, it was positively dangerous to be seen in conversation with a pigeon; it was not always safe to be seen in its vicinity. A foreigner walking in one of the parks was actually arrested and sentenced to imprisonment because a pigeon was seen to fly from the place where he was standing and it was supposed that he had liberated it.
During this phase a pigeon was caught in Essex which was actually carrying a message in the usual little aluminium box clipped to its leg. Moreover, the message was from Rotterdam, but it was merely to report the arrival of an innocuous cargo vessel, whose voyage we afterwards traced.
The delusion about illicit wireless ran the pigeons very hard. The pronouncement of a thoughtless expert that an aerial might be hidden in a chimney, and that messages could be received through an open window even on an iron bedstead, gave a great impetus to this form of delusion. The high scientific authority of the popular play, The Man who Stayed at Home, where a complete installation was concealed behind a fireplace, spread the delusion far and wide. It was idle to assure the sufferers that a Marconi transmitter needed a 4horse-power engine to generate the wave, that skilled operators were listening day and night for the pulsations of unauthorised messages, that the intermittent tickings they heard from the flat above them were probably the efforts of an amateur typist: the sufferers knew better. At this period the disease attacked even naval and military officers and special constables. If a telegraphist was sent on a motor-cycle to examine and test the telegraph poles, another cyclist was certain to be sent by some authority in pursuit. On one occasion the authorities dispatched to the Eastern Counties a car equipped with a Marconi apparatus and two skilled operators to intercept any illicit messages that might be passing over the North Sea. They left London at noon; at 3 they were under lock and key in Essex. After an exchange of telegrams they were set free, but at 7 P.M. they telegraphed from the police cells in another part of the county, imploring help. When again liberated they refused to move without the escort of a Territorial officer in uniform, but on the following morning the police of another county had got hold of them and telegraphed, “Three German spies arrested with car and complete wireless installation, one in uniform of British officer.”
Next in order was the German governess, also perhaps the product of The Man who Stayed at Home. There were several variants of this story, but a classic version was that the governess was missing from the midday meal, and that when the family came to open her trunks they discovered under a false bottom a store of high explosive bombs. Every one who told this story knew the woman's employer; some had even seen the governess herself in happier days: “Such a nice quiet person, so fond of the children; but now one comes to think of it, there was a something in her face, impossible to describe, but a something.”
During the German advance through Belgium an ingenious war correspondent gave a new turn to the hysteria. He alleged that the enamelled iron advertisements for “Maggi Soup”, which were to be seen attached to every hoarding and telegraph post, were unscrewed by the German officers in order to read the information about the local resources, which was painted in German on the back. Screw-driver parties were formed in the London suburbs, and in destroying this delusion they removed also many unsightly advertisements. The hallucination about gun platforms was not dispatched so easily. As soon as a correspondent had described the gun emplacements laid down by Germans in the guise of tennis courts at Mauberge there was scarcely a paved back-garden nor a flat concrete roof in London that did not come under the suspicion of some spy-maniac. The denunciations were not confined to Germans. Given a British householder with a concrete tennis-court and pigeons about the house, and it was certain to be discovered that he had quite suddenly increased the scale of his expenditure, that heavy cases had been delivered at the house by night, that tapping had been overheard, mysterious lights seen in the windows, and that on the night of the sinking of the Lusitania he had given a dinner-party to naturalised Germans. When artillery experts assured the patients that gun emplacements in the heart of London were in the wrong place, and that even on the high lands of Sydenham or of Hampstead any tram road would better serve the purpose they wagged their heads. They were hot upon the scent, and for many weeks denunciations poured in at the rate of many hundreds a day.
The next delusion was that of the grateful German and the Tubes. The commonest form of the story was that an English nurse had brought a German officer back from the door of death, and that in a burst of gratitude he said at parting, “I must not tell you more, but beware of the Tubes in April (1915).” As time wore on the date was shifted forward month by month, to September, when it died of expectation deferred. We took the trouble to trace this story from mouth to mouth until we reached the second mistress in a London Board School. She declared that she had had it from the charwoman who cleaned the school, but that lady stoutly denied that she had ever told so ridiculous a story.
A near kin to this was the tale that a German officer of rank had been seen in the Haymarket by an English friend; that he returned the salute involuntarily but then changed colour and jumped into a passing taxi, leaving his friend gaping on the pavement. A good many notable Prussians, from von Bissing, the Governor of Belgium downwards, figured in this story; a good many places, from Piccadilly to the Army and Navy Stores, have been the scene. The best attested version is that of the English girl who came suddenly upon her fiancé, an officer in the Prussian Guards, who shook hands with her, but as soon as he recovered from his surprise the callous ruffian froze her with a look and jumped into a passing omnibus. Another version was that on recognising her German fiancé the girl looked appealingly into his countenance and said, “Oh, Fritz!” whereupon he gave one startled look and jumped into the nearest vehicle. This, it may be remarked, might have happened to any Englishman, for who would not, when accosted by a charming stranger under the name of 'Fritz,' have jumped into anything that happened to be passing? In some of these cases inquiry showed that at the moment when they were said to have been seen in London these Germans were serving on the Continent, and it is certain that all were hallucinations.
With the War, the Tower of London came into its own again. During the early months it began to be whispered at London tea-tables that the Crown Prince himself was languishing there (if languishing is the appropriate term for a person of his temperament). Later, when it became evident that he could not be in two places at once, the prisoners of distinction included several British peers and privy councillors. All these prisoners, who were at the moment adorning their several offices in free life, had been shot at dawn. These delusions may be traced to the fact that a few foreign spies were imprisoned in the Tower before execution.
A new phase of the malady was provoked by the suggestion that advertisements in the Agony Column of newspapers were being used by spies to communicate information to Germany. It is uncertain who first called public attention to this danger, but since refugees did make use of the Agony Columns for communicating with their friends abroad, there was nothing inherently improbable in the idea. In order to allay public alarm it was necessary to check the insertion of apparently cryptic advertisements. Later in the War a gentleman who had acquired a considerable reputation as a code expert, and was himself the author of commercial codes, began to read into these advertisements messages from German submarines to their base, and vice versa. This he did with the aid of a Dutch-English dictionary on a principle of his own. As we had satisfied ourselves about the authors of the advertisements we treated his communications rather lightly. In most cases the movements he foretold failed to take place, but unfortunately once, by an accident, there did happen to be an air-raid on the night foretold by him. We then inserted an advertisement of our own. It was something like this:
“Will the lady with the fur boa who entered No. 14 'bus at Hyde Park Corner yesterday communicate with box 29”
and upon this down came our expert hot-foot with the information that six submarines were under orders to attack the defences at Dover that very night. When we explained that we were the authors of the advertisement, all he said was that, by some extraordinary coincidence, we had hit upon the German code, and that by inserting the advertisement we had betrayed a military secret. It required a committee to dispose of this delusion.
The longest-lived of the delusions was that of the night-signalling, for whenever the scare showed signs of dying down a Zeppelin raid was sure to give it a fresh start. As far as fixed lights were concerned, it was the best-founded of all the delusions, because the Germans might well have inaugurated a system of fixed lights to guide Zeppelins to their objective, but the sufferers went a great deal farther than a belief in fixed lights. Morse-signalling from a window in Bayswater, which could be seen only from a window on the opposite side of the street, was believed in some way to be conveyed to the commanders of German submarines in the North Sea, to whom one had to suppose news from Bayswater was of paramount importance. Sometimes the watcher generally a lady would call in a friend, a noted Morse expert, who in one case made out the letters 'P.K.' among a number of others that he could not distinguish. This phase of the malady was the most obstinate of all. It was useless to point out that a more sure and private method of conveying information across a street would be to go personally or send a note. It was not safe to ignore any of these complaints, and all were investigated. In a few cases there were certainly intermittent flashes, but they proved to be caused by the flapping of a blind, the waving of branches across a window, persons passing across a room, and, in two instances, the quick movements of a girl's hair-brush in front of the light. The beacons were passage lights left unshrouded. The Lighting Order did much to allay this phase of the disease. Out of many thousand denunciations I have been unable to hear of a single case in which signals to the enemy were made by lights during the War.
The self-appointed watcher was very apt to develop the delusion of persecution. She would notice a man in the opposite house whose habits seemed to be secretive, and decide in her own mind that he was an enemy spy. A few days later he would chance to leave his house immediately after she had left hers. Looking round, she would recognise him and jump to the conclusion that he was following her. Then she would come down to New Scotland Yard, generally with some officer friend who would assure me that she was a most unemotional person. One had to listen quite patiently to all she said, and she could only be cured by a promise that the police would follow her themselves and detain any other follower if they encountered one.
Even serving officers were not immune. Near Woolwich a large house belonging to a naturalised foreigner attracted the attention of a non-commissioned officer, who began to fill the ears of his superiors with wonderful stories of lights, of signalling apparatus discovered in the grounds, and of chasing spies along railway tracks in the best American film manner, until even his General believed in him. Acting on my advice the owner wisely offered his house as a hospital, and the ghost was laid.
Sometimes the disease would attack public officials, who had to be handled sympathetically. One very worthy gentleman used to embarrass his colleagues by bringing in stories almost daily of suspicious persons who had been seen in every part of the country. All of them were German spies, and the local authorities would do nothing. In order to calm him they invented a mythical personage named 'von Burstorph,' and whenever he brought them a fresh case they would say, 'So von Burstorph has got to Arran,' or to Carlisle, or wherever the locality might be. He was assured that the whole forces of the Realm were on the heels of ‘von Burstorph,' and that when he was caught he would suffer the extreme penalty in the Tower. That sent him away quite happy since he knew that the authorities were doing something. The incarnation of 'von Burstorph ' reminded me of a similar incarnation in the Criminal Investigation Department many years ago. When one of my predecessors appeared to be blaming his subordinates for a lack of enterprise in the case of some undiscovered crime they would shake their heads and say, ' Yes, I recognise the hand. That is some of Bill the Boatman's work,' but “Bill the Boatman ' was a most elusive person, and he has not been arrested to this day.
On one occasion a very staid couple came down to denounce a waiter in one of the large hotels, and brought documentary evidence with them. It was a menu with a rough sketch plan in pencil made upon the back. They believed it to be a plan of Kensington Gardens with the Palace buildings roughly delineated by an oblong figure. They had seen the waiter in the act of drawing the plan at an unoccupied table. I sent for him and found before me a spruce little Swiss with his hair cut en brosse, and a general air of extreme surprise. He gave me a frank account of all his movements, and then I produced the plan. He gazed at it a moment, and then burst out laughing. ' So that is where my plan went! ' ' Yes, monsieur, I made it, and then I lost it. You see, I am new to the hotel and, in order to satisfy the head waiter, I made for myself privately a plan of the tables, and marked a cross against those I had to look after.'
The Germans, as we now know, had the spy-mania even more acutely. It became dangerous for Americans in Berlin to speak their own language: gamekeepers roamed the country armed to deal with spy motor-cars, and Princess Ratibor and several other innocent persons were shot at and wounded. Our own anti-German riots in which the shops of bakers with German names were damaged had their counterpart in the mob attacks upon the British Embassy in Berlin.