Topic February/March 2018. The early Legion of Frontiersmen attracted a number of men whose characters varied from the slightly to the very eccentric. One of the most eccentric of all was the novelist, journalist and writer William Le Queux. Le Queux was the leading scaremonger of a number of other writers, usually members of the Legion, who warned that nests of German spies were to be found all over the British Isles. Even though many of Le Queux’s claims of spies were ridiculous, his evidence was listened to by the sub-committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence (The National Archives file CAB 16/8). ‘The evidence which was produced left no doubt in the minds of the sub-committee that an extensive system of German espionage exists in this country, and that we have no organisation for keeping in touch with that espionage and for accurately determining its extent or objectives.’
‘That naive conclusion, which owed as much to the imaginary spies of Willam Le Queux as to the real machinations of German Intelligence led directly to the foundation of the British Secret Service.’ (“Secret Service” by Christopher Andrew p.58).
In his book Professor Andrew is quite scathing about Le Queux and his stories of spies, but, even if virtually all the stories were complete fiction, the above statement by Britain’s most noted historian of Intelligence means that Le Queux was historically important. The problem was that Le Queux, being a good storyteller, latched on grains of truth, on suspicions, on imaginations, embroidered them out of all proportion – and then believed the whole lot himself.
‘At least part of Le Queux’s secret lay in his immense clubability. He moved effortlessly around clubland and society dinners, establishing a reputation as a wit and raconteur.’ (“Secret Service” p.45).
Much of newspaper and writing circles centred around the Savage Club, whose members included many of the ‘German spy menace’ writers. Roger Pocock, the Founder of the Legion of Frontiersmen wrote in his diary how he was asked by Edgar Wallace to propose Wallace for membership of the Savage Club. Roger Pocock, himself a romantic, eagerly followed the words of the master story-spinner William Le Queux. Legion members were convinced of the German menace. The stories they told in the early Legion days of German spies – and of revolution in some far-off countries – may have owed more to fantasy than fact, but the German spy scares were believed by a considerable percentage of the British population. Le Queux’s highly successful “The Invasion of 1910” first appeared as a serial beginning in March 1906 in the “Daily Mail”. Assisted by a naval expert, H.W. Wilson and advised by the elderly Lord Roberts, Le Queux had reconnoitred much of England to discover what he thought would be likely invasion routes for the Germans. When it was presented to Lord Northcliffe he instructed that some of the routes be changed to cover areas where he considered sales of his newspaper could be boosted. Northcliffe then advertised in other newspapers the districts the Germans would be attacking the next day. On the first day of publication the “Daily Mail” sandwichboard men paraded through London streets in blue uniforms with spiked helmets. The Prime Minister was furious, telling Parliament that Le Queux was a ‘pernicious scaremonger’ and that the story was calculated to inflame and alarm. Northcliffe was more than happy as it boosted the sales of his newspapers. When it came out in book form “The Invasion of 1910” sold more than a million copies in twenty-seven languages, including German, although the Germans changed the ending to show a German victory.
The Frontiersmen featured heroically in the book ‘…that splendid corps, the Legion of Frontiersmen…’ (p.289), ‘…the daring actions of the”Frontiersmen”…’ (p.335), ‘This place was held strongly by British Infantry, many members of the Legion of Frontiersmen, – distinguished only by the little bronze badge in their buttonholes -‘ (p.359), among other mentions.
The War Office found some of the German spy stories passed to them most irritating, although Vernon Kell, who in 1909 became the head of the newly-founded Secret Service Bureau, in 1910 found the activities of the Frontiersmen of interest.
‘I saw L at the officers on his return home from the East Coast where he had been trying to get in touch with some of the Legion of Frontiersmen…I will enter them among my likely agents.’ (T.N.A. KV14).
The east coast was the home of the very active Maritime Division of the Legion and included Erskine Childers whose “Riddle of the Sands” had made such an impact, and also the influential E.G. Pretyman, M.P. who had served as a Navy Minister in the earlier Conservative government. The Maritime Section also included Linton Hope who was a highly successful yacht designer and J. St. A. Jewell who had a high reputation as a writer on sea and yachting matters. Vernon Kell also commented that:
‘The first commandant of the London Command of the Legion of Frontiersmen was almost certainly in the secret service of Germany and therefore had to be got rid of.’
His report had an additional marginal note by some unknown officer “Who is this?”. “This” was Manoel de Hora, who was even more of a fantasist than Le Queux and has been the subject of a biography by Bruce G. Fuller.**
There is no doubt that most Frontiersmen in Britain were convinced by the stories of German spies. In his 1931 “Chorus to Adventurers” Roger Pocock tells many stories based on the Le Queux scare stories and others that were circulating, most of which sound ridiculous to modern ears but did not do so then when the threat of German military aggression was generally believed.
‘There was to be a German feint upon Essex, made in the hope of containing our Southern Command on Epping Forest for the defence of London. On the details of this operation Lord Roberts gave three month’s instruction to a member of the Legion, Mr. William le Queux, and the result was a forecast novel in the “Daily Mail”. (Chorus to Adventurers, p.63).
Forecast novel it may have been, but Le Queux steadily began to believe that his own predictions were based on facts.
Even the great Baden-Powell was convinced that the Germans were planning to invade:
‘When the German invasion scare was at its height in Britain between 1906 and 1910, Baden-Powell was sold a bogus invasion plan by an enterprising group of German-American forgers who had set up a ‘spy-bureau’ in Belgium. They contrived to sell similar material to Major-General J.S. Ewart, the Director of Military Operations, and to William Le Queux, the espionage writer.’ (Baden-Powell, by Tim Jeal, p.153).
Convinced by the bogus invasion plans he had purchased, Baden-Powell gave a series of very successful lantern lectures to fellow officers on how 90,000 German troops would land in Yorkshire once the Straits of Dover were blocked by mines and submarines. Reports about his talks inevitably found their way into the newspapers. Members of the Legion other than Le Queux were also reporting on German spies. Believing both the stories of Le Queux and the highly-respected Baden-Powell they began adding their own accounts:
‘Each district upon the eastern slope of Britain was allotted to one German officers, who spent his furlough there…He knew…every detail of military interest. German officers were not welcomed at country houses, or popular at inns. They had a club on the east side of Regent Street, and large numbers frequented an hotel at Ventnor [Isle of Wight]. Along our coasts an astonishing number of respectable “Swiss” residents had houses overlooking the sea…(Chorus to Adventurers, p.64).
In November 1908 a question was raised in the House of Commons if a ‘party of officers from the Royal Naval College in the course of reconnaissance in the Isle of Wight recently found German officers engaged in selecting suitable places for the landing of troops.’
On 2nd February 1909 the “Sheffield Daily Telegraph” reported that: ‘a party of foreigners including three Germans made a systemic photographic survey of the coast between the Tyne and the Tees.’
In his 1909 diary, Roger Pocock wrote about suspicious activities that had come to his own notice:
‘4 m[iles] inland from either Stranraer or Port Patrick private firm have meadows, this is a blind. German expert Depot, 2 Zeppelin ships – being tested in suitable place hilly. For 3 years a wooden airship has been building and testing in a factory at Friern Barnet nr. London. Germans opp[osite] an Institute called the Freehold.’ ***
After Roger Pocock had all official position in the Legion withdrawn from him in 1909 even the London Commandant (later Chief Executive Officer) Lt. Col. D.P. Driscoll made a highly extravagant claim about the number of German spies in Britain. From 1910 onwards the Legion concentrated on preparing for the war with Germany that they were convinced would come.
We may find many of these spy scares bordering on the ridiculous, but the Edwardian reader of the populist newspapers such as the “Daily Mail” and the “Daily Express” (edited by another Frontiersman, R.D. Blumenfeld) was genuinely scared of a German invasion. William Le Queux had touched a raw nerve and picked up and played on the mood of the British public. We may wonder how much of his writing ever came to be believed, but those were different days and we have to return to Christopher Andrew’s comment that William Le Queux was a catalyst – even a major cause – of the setting up of M.I.5.
And you thought that “Fake News” was a recent invention!
** Since the death of Bruce Fuller, the handling of his biography of de Hora has passed to his research associate Susan Hora. Please contact us if you require contact details.
*** Quotation by kind permission of the Roger Pocock archive at the Bruce Peel Library and Archives, University of Alberta.
More on the Frontiersmen and Intelligence and German spies can be seen in Professor John Ellis’ account of Owen Vaughan, General Gordon’s “magic ring” and the Legion motto in: http://www.frontiersmenhistorian.info/motto.htm
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.