The First World War in 261 weeks

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Archive for the tag “Espionage”

056 Elsbeth Schragmueller and what we do not know about the war

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Elsbeth Schragmueller (maybe)

Elsbeth Schragmueller (maybe)

Little army of spies achieves small successes 

It is Sunday 18 July 1915. It is the 56th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

German generals August von Mackensen and Max von Gallwitz make new conquests in the Polish regions.

There is heavy fighting around the fortified town of Ivangorod 160 kilometres from St Petersburg.

In the Second Battle of the Isonzo the Austrians first lose Monte San Michele and regain it again from the Italians a day later.

After the conquest of Nasiriyah on the Turks, the British in Mesopotamia decide to advance to the town of Kut al-Imara, the next stop before Baghdad.

Bulgaria declares itself neutral again, after Tsar Ferdinand I has received the German ambassador of Constantinople in Sofia.

In a reaction to news about German excesses in Belgium, American ex-president Theodore Roosevelt considers his neutral fellow countrymen accomplices.

The employers to a large extent bow to the wage demands of the striking miners in Wales as a result of the intervention of Lloyd George.

With German-Turkish support the Senussi, an order of Sufis, attack Italian garrisons in what is now called Lybia.

And in Antwerp, outside everybody’s visual field, a German spy school is run by the mysterious Elsbeth Schragmüller.

Fräulein Doktor’s story is as exciting as it is tragic. She is Germany’s most secret agent, who scared the French so much as Mademoiselle Docteur. As a young woman she gave birth to a dead baby. She is turned out into the street by her parents. Then she throws herself into the arms of a cavalry captain, who leads a double life as a spy. But her lover dies and she herself gets addicted to drugs, which does not prevent her from building a career as a German secret agent in the First World War. She seduces allied officers and between the sheets she extracts strategic information from them.

Meanwhile Fräulein Doktor also recruits other spies for the Germans and brings the enemy’s secret agents down. She pretends to be an art history student and experiences exciting adventures in the Balkans, Belgium and France. In Paris she manages to penetrate the office of the French counter-intelligence as a cleaning lady. Again from Barcelona she conducts a secret operation on the western front under the guise of the Red Cross. But then war is over and Fräulein Doktor cannot handle the defeat. She dies anonymously in a Swiss sanatorium, addicted and exhausted.

There you are, the story in a nutshell. The reality is completely different, not to say a lot more boring. Fräulein Doktor indeed existed, but to begin with, her name was not Annemarie Lesser, as writer Hans Rudolph Berndorff in 1929 fantasized in his book, which formed the basis for a play and five films. Elsbeth Schragmüller was her real name. She was not exposed to real danger. She was not made for carnal love and for drugs she was much too conscientious.

What made Elsbeth Schragmüller special was the high position she occupied as a woman within the Kriegsnachrichtenstelle Antwerpen, which was taken for a mysterious spy school. It was in that office that Miss Schragmüller fanatically and painstakingly moulded her students into moles. She must have been good at her job, though the implications of her results remain cloudy.

Schragmüller comes from a distinguished family and belongs to the first generation of women who graduated from university. When war breaks out she wants to do more than just bring water to the boys who are leaving for the front by train. She goes to Brussels on her own and there succeeds in reaching military governor Colmar Freiherr Von der Goltz. Via him she gets a mysterious job. She impresses and is taken higher and higher in the hierarchy of intelligence.

A year before the war she had got a doctoral degree in political science, which is why she was addressed in Antwerp as ‘Fräulein Doktor’. This title was above all functional, for nobody needed to know her true identity, but it also contributed to the myth of the femme fatale. German agents, who had been found out, talked to the French about conversations with a young woman who had introduced herself to them as ‘Fräulein Doktor’. Then rumours appeared in the French newspapers about an enigmatic beauty on the banks of the river Schelde. ‘The blonde siren of Antwerp’, ‘the red tigress’, ‘la grande patronnesse’, no holds of the imagination were barred.

Spy madness is a phenomenon of the First World War anyway. The enemy is among us! With hidden hand this treacherous warrior in the dark spreads death and destruction! In the years preceding the war the English had already been caught up in espionage literature. In the 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands for example, the Germans secretly prepare an invasion of England from the German Wadden Islands. The book, which is regarded as the first modern thriller, becomes incredibly popular. This is why it not only represents widespread paranoia among the British, but also a historic diverging of opinions.

Together with the Prussians they had defeated Napoleon. Now the Germans were the arch enemy, determined to repeat what William the Conqueror had succeeded in doing a very long time ago in the year 1066: invade England. A salient detail is that Erskine Childers, writer of The Riddle of the Sands, would die before a firing squad in 1922 because of his activitities as an Irish nationalist during the Civil War in Eire. This was to the satisfaction of Winston Churchill, who thought nobody had brought more damage to the Irish people than Childers, the man that had actually made clear to the English that they should fear the Germans.

Despite the widespread fascination for spies, the First World War seemed to have come too early for 007. Espionage in the Great War was rather the work of pathetic amateurs than of skillful intelligence officers, though of course it is true that we know less of the top notch spies than of the nincompoops.

In any case Mata Hari was one of those who did not stand a chance. As agent H21 she is said to have been taken care of by Elsbeth Schragmüller. Fräulein Doktor will not have had much confidence in the coquettish and extremely naive nudie of Dutch descent. And it would have been not very likely that Schragmüller shed a tear when the French executed Mata Hari in 1917.

Much earlier in the war Karl Lody had been treated in the same way by the British. In November 1914 Lody had the questionable honour to be the first man in 150 years who was executed within the walls of the Tower of London. He had almost openly applied for his death sentence. As a tourist, cycling around Edinburgh, carrying an American passport, Lody asked the local Scots everything under the sun. His letters, addressed to a contact in Sweden, were effortlessly intercepted by the British.

Lody had no understanding of invisible ink and encrypted codes. The letter in which he enthusiastically wrote that trains filled with Russians were going to the south of England was allowed to pass. The British were all too eager to leave such a fantastic wrong track. The Russian auxiliary troops were absolute nonsense that was circulating among the British people. In Carlisle they supposedly asked for vodka, and in Durham they were said to have put a rouble in a gas meter. One of the most fantastic stories was that the snow from back home still stuck on the boots of the Russians when they landed in Scotland. Man is gullible in times of war.

Already before the Great War the German spy network had surfaced in England. When Wilhelm II visited London in 1911, an old navy officer from the imperial entourage remarkably often popped into a third-rate barber’s shop. It was therefore relatively easy for the British counter intelligence to identify the German under cover agents. On 4 August 1914, the first day of the war, it had been a matter of rounding them up. Then the important task lay ahead of Lody to fill the intelligence gap for the Vaterland. It did not really agree with him.

After Lody nine more German spies would be executed in the Tower of London, among whom the Dutchmen Janssen and Roos. In May 1915 they had crossed the Channel as so-called cigar dealers, but they were found out on the other side pretty quickly. They appeared to know a lot more about ships than about cigars.

Far away from the front the lone warrior was all too often in the dark. Obviously the war was not influenced substantially by secret information from individuals. There were occasional successes. Marthe Richard was a French spy who among other  things succeeded in eliminating a submarine by sleeping with a German navy attaché.

Louise de Bettignies, a lady from a French aristocratic family, is also worth mentioning. She was recruited by the British and from Lille, in the north of France, became the hub of an imposing espionage network. On various occasions she herself crossed the lines to the Netherlands and even England to report on the enemy. When the Germans caught her in October 1915, they decided to keep her alive. Earlier that month the execution of the British nurse Edith Cavell had given the Germans an appalling press. And yet Louise de Bettignies would not survive the war. In September 1918 she died in a German prison of typhoid fever and pneumonia.

None of the spies from the First World War could in any way be compared to a master traitor like Alfred Redl. Widely praised, this former head of the Austro-Hungarian counter intelligence was identified as a double agent in May 1913. Immediately after his exposure the Austrian authorities gave him the chance to shoot himself through the mouth. A blunder, for in this way it remained unclear how big the exact damage was that Redl had inflicted on the Dual Monarchy.

Or was the smell of the cesspool too terrible to have it emptied competely by Redl? Himself blackmailed by the Russians  because of a homosexual relationship, Redl in his turn must have succeeded in blackmailing the head of the Russian secret service. Whatever the case, it is likely that the Austrian misfortunes in the beginning of the war can be attributed to a large extent to Redl. Thanks to Redl the Russians had been completely informed of the Austrian strategy.

If being a spy can be called a profession, it took long before working conditions would come into view. In 1907 the Hague Convention provided judicial protection. From now on spies that had been taken prisoner had a right to a fair trial. This did not lead to an abundance of mercy in the First World War. In 1917 the Germans shot 52 Belgians for espionage in the town of Ghent alone.

After the war Elsbeth Schragmüller remains unmarried. Living at home with her father and mother she continues her academic career, but this is broken off again for no apparent reasons. In 1929 she accounts for her wartime activities. In an article in the publication ‘Was wir vom Weltkrieg nicht wissen’ (What we do not know about the world war), she reveals that she is the woman about whom so much nonsense is in circulation. Without going into detail Fräulein Doktor relates of the ‘intellectual delight’ that went hand in hand with the debriefing of secret agents in the interrogating room. ‘We asked ourselves political, economic and military questions. You should never forget for a second with whom you were talking.’

After the publication of the book she also gives lectures about her wartime experiences. In a newspaper article from 1931 it is reported that the slender, tall, blonde woman is a war invalid. It remains unclear, however, how she got these injuries. According to the German writer Hanne Hieber, who did research into Fräulein Doktor, there is not even a photograph of Elsbeth Schragmüller, apart from a family portrait from her childhood years.

A brother of hers is one of the victims in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, Hitler’s ruthless liquidation of numerous political enemies. The Fraülein who never became a Frau on the side of a husband dies in her house in Munich in 1940, probably as the result of tuberculosis.

Would she have returned to her old craft in the Second World War? Who knows. It will always be difficult to ascertain what moved this mystifying woman ideologically. And of course also the grave of Elsbeth Schragmüller remains silent.

For the moment this was the last episode of The First World War in 261 Weeks. 

Tom Tacken (special thanks to Peter Veltman for translating 56 stories from Dutch into English)


025 Sir Alfred Ewing and the principle of hysteresis

Sir Alfred Ewing

Sir Alfred Ewing

British crack German codes

It is Sunday 13 December 1914. It is the 25th week after the shooting at Sarajevo. 

British submarine captain Norman Holbrook stunts in the Dardanelles. With his B11 he dives under a minefield, sinks a Turkish battleship and manages to escape.

The Serbs recapture their capital Belgrade from the Austrians.

The Battle of Warsaw rages on.

The Turks in Armenia force the Russians into the defensive.

Indian troops attack the Germans at Givenchy.

Bernhard von Bülow, former German Reichskanzler, arrives in Rome for a charm offensive.

In England the conviction of Nicholas Ahlers, a naturalized German, for high treason is annulled because of an error of form.

Hussein I is proclaimed sultan of Egypt, which as a British protectorate no longer belongs to the Ottoman sphere of influence.

The Russians manage to prevent an outbreak of an Austrian garrison from the besieged town of Przemyśl.

And the British seaside towns of Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough are shelled by German warships, despite intelligence from Room 40, which is run by Sir Alfred Ewing.

The code of honour is broken. That is how the British feel it after the attack of Scarborough. This small northern English town nestles against the North Sea coast without any protection. For that reason an attack from the sea is unallowed, at least according to the Second Hague Peace Conference of 1907. Yet the Germans blasted Scarborough. Possibly they thought that the small town did possess artillery, but that does not diminish the outrage in Great Britain. The Germans play the war game without obeying the rules. In that case Great Britain is going to give them a taste of their own medicine.

Shelling the Yorkshire coast demanded dozens of lives. It is the first time since Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter in 1667 sailed up the Thames that an enemy killed ‘Brits on British soil’, even unpunished, for admiral Franz von Hipper’s squadron succeeded in reaching their own safe harbour.

It is extra bitter for the British because they were informed in advance of the daring attacks of 15 and 16 December 1914. The code of the Germans themselves had been cracked. Room 40, the extremely secret decoding department of the navy, had already intercepted German messages about a plan of attack on 14 December. However, the fleet that admiral Jellicoe had hurriedly sent towards Von Hipper, was not successful because of the bad weather and blunders of commanding officers. Room 40 must have been swearing loudest about this.


Sir James Alfred Ewing was in charge of the cryptographic whizz kids of Room 40, which was in reality not one room but a series of rooms. He was the soft-spoken son of a Scottish vicar with firm eyebrows underlining his noble forehead. His blue eyes sparkled when he encountered a tough problem that cried out for a clear solution. He had been like that from an early age. In Ewing’s own words: ‘In a family whose chief interests were clerical and literary, I took pleasure in machines and experiments. My scanty pocket money was spent on tools and chemicals. The domestic attic was put at my disposal. It became the scene of hair-raising explosions. There too the domestic cat found herself an unwilling instrument of electrification and a partner in various shocking experiences.’

In Japan he had trained himself for seismology and magnetism to guide the country of the Rising Sun into the modern era as part of the big project of the Meiji dynasty. For science he also explained en passant the principle of hysteresis, a result does not only depend on the size of the cause, but also on the direction in which the cause  is moving. This is a physical principle, but possibly it can also be of use to a historian of World War I.

Back in Scotland Ewing was mainly concerned about living conditions of the very poorest. Among other things he threw himself into improving sewage systems, but he also had one or two things to say about a phenomenon like metal fatigue. His employment at the Admiralty, the authority over the Royal Navy, was another step in his career. He was going to look after the educational programmes there.

After the death of his first wife Ewing remarried in 1912. His bride Ellen was a daughter of his friend and fellow professor John Hopkinson, a mountaineer who had also roused Ewing’s interest in alpinism. On holiday in Switzerland in 1898 Ewing declined an invitation of Hopkinson to go up into the mountains. He felt a little stiff from the climb of the day before. Hopkinson, his son Jack and two of his three daughters would never return. Their bodies were found hanging from ropes under a mountain top.

Ewing was raised to the peerage even before the war. The navy’s intelligence service knocked on Ewing’s door soon after the hostilities started in 1914. They did not know what to do with the intercepted messages which the German radio station Nauen near Berlin had broadcast. Would Ewing be able to make head or tail of it? Well, he had always been fond of solving riddles. Didn’t he win a prize with that at the newspaper when he was a boy?

Ewing entered into a highly successful co-operation with the Director of Naval Intelligence, Reginald William Hall, who was nicknamed ‘Blinker’ because of a tic that made one of his eyes blink like a navy lamp. Hall was the perfect man for the job. He coupled ingenuity to ruthlessness. When a British judge appeared to be very lenient to a German spy, so the story goes, Hall saw to it that the judge’s house was cabled through to the Germans as the location of a factory, after which they made the place part of a bomb flight.


Even a Gyro Gearloose like Ewing needs help from the outside. And he got it from a certain Alexander Szek, born in England, but of Austro-Hungarian descent. Szek was working for a radio station in occupied Brussels and therefore he was an interesting target for the British Secret Service. The question was if Szek was willing to spy for the British. They added that in that case his relatives in London would not have to go to prison. It goes to show that one should not expect too much of ethics in wartime. The intimidated Szek very nervously started to take photos of a German codebook for the British, which could be of use to Room 40. It has never really become clear what happened to Szek. Perhaps the Germans caught him as a spy. Maybe the British got rid of him as a risk factor.

In October 1914 fortune smiles on Ewing. At the Russian embassy they have something that might interest the British. It is a German naval codebook, made heavier with lead, so that in case of danger it could be sent down to the bottom of the sea immediately. But the Russians found the book on the dead body of a German telegraph operator. His corpse was floating in the water after his cruiser Magdeburg had been eliminated in the Baltic Sea by the Russians. The poor man did not have a chance to get rid of the secret book.

The British owe another German codebook to Wilhelm Wassmuss, a sort of German Lawrence of Arabia. Wassmuss the adventurer tried to plan a rebellion against the British in Persia. In an attempt to escape, however, he apparently did not see a chance to take his luggage with him. In this luggage was the diplomatic codebook number 13040.

Together with the Handelsschiffsverkehrsbuch, captured by the Australians, and another Verkehrsbuch, which was picked up from the bottom of the English Channel by a British fishing boat, Ewing can start unraveling the German codes and cipher constructions. Are the Germans aware of this? No, they are so pleased with the ingenuity of their coding system that they believe it can not be cracked.

Year in and year out Room 40 can eavesdrop in the bosom of the German war machinery. The powerful radio station near Berlin is essential to the Germans, for the very first act of war of the British had been the destruction of the transatlantic cables of the Germans. In the night of 4 August 1914, shortly after the British ultimatum to the Germans had expired, the British ship Telconia had entered the North Sea. Where the Dutch coast changed into the German coast, the Telconia crew had picked up five German cables from the bottom of the sea and cut through them one by one. Thus Germany was condemned to broadcasting wireless messages, especially with the aim to supply the many U-boats with instructions. The Royal Navy made far less use of radio messages.

The British eagerly prick up their ears in the ether. They possess four receiving stations along the English coast, but Ewing’s men also get their German signs of life from radio amateurs. The biggest problem for Room 40 is not picking up and decoding German messages, but preventing the Germans from finding out about this.

Room 40’s biggest catch is the Zimmermann Telegram, sent to the German ambassador in America on 17 January 1917. Arthur Zimmermann was then Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He linked a daring plan to the decision to resume  unrestricted submarine warfare. The telegram mentioned that the Mexican government could count on German support in case it tried to recapture Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

Zimmermann expected president Wilson to throw himself into the war on the side of the allies because of the unrestricted submarine warfare. So it was important to keep America busy at home. This strategy included the intention to have Japan defect. The proposition was to have Mexico make the necessary connections. The Zimmermann Telegram was the dynamite that blew the United States into the Great War. There was no getting away for Wilson. He could no longer remain neutral against a  Germany that was stirring things up behind his back with America’s neighbours.

Historian Barbara Tuchman made a masterly reconstruction of the Zimmermann Telegram. Chapter One starts with the description of the following scene from Room 40. ‘The first message from the morning watch plopped out of the pneumatic tube into the wire basket with no more premonitory rattle than usual. The duty officer at British Naval Intelligence twisted open the cartridge and examined the German wireless intercept it contained without noting anything of unusual significance.’ Tuchman unravels step by step how in this message the end of the Great War was concealed.

The decoding of the Zimmermann Telegram is owed to two of Ewing’s devoted code crackers. One is the clergyman William Montgomery, who before the war became known as an expert on the work of St Augustine and as a gifted translator of theological works into German. The other is Nigel de Grey, a shy boy from the publishing trade, who will also join Room 40’s successor Bletchley Park in the Second World War.


Sir Alfred Ewing, the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Whitehall’,  will not be there in 40-45. He died in 1935 after leaving Edinburgh University as Principal six years earlier. In May 1917 he had left Room 40, the heart of British cryptoanalysis.

Next week: Alfred Anderson

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)






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