This is a summary of the talk given by Dr Anne Samson1 on 19 May 2018 to the Victorian Military Society.2
The question to be answered was “how was the formation of the Legion of Frontiersmen linked with the formation of MI5 and MI6 and what was the role of novels (yes, you’ve read this correctly) in all this?”
Three strands come together as a plait to form what is known in South Africa as a koeksister – a cake/baked sister described once as sickly sweet and twisted:
Strand 1: The spy novel as epitomised by William le Queux in The Great War in England in 1897 (1894) and The Invasion of 1910 (1906).
Strand 2: The Legion of Frontiersmen started by Roger Pocock in 1904/5.
Strand 3: The political and social structure of Britain.
Strand 3 is most important to understanding how the secret service came to be. The Crimean War (1855) and the earlier Peninsular Wars (1807-1815), the American Civil War (1860s) and Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) changed perceptions of the army. Technological developments such as the railways, steam engines, telegraph, wireless and photography as well as flight, changed the nature of war and people’s ability to travel. This all linked with the scramble for Africa and the development of Empire which needed to be protected to ensure a source of raw materials and markets for the sale of manufactured goods. This brought countries into conflict with each other, a point reflected in the novels of the day. During the 1800s France was enemy number one as depicted in William Le Queux’s novel The Great War in England in 1897. This was to last until after the Boer war, as France supported the Boers in spirit being anti-British at the time. When Britain reconciled with France in 1904, Germany became the ogre as seen in Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910. Follow through to today and the same holds true: think of James Bond, Die Hard, The Bourne series and more recent television programmes such as NCIS, Crossing Lines and Deep State.
Strand 2: At the start of the previous century, Germany was increasing the size of its navy which posed a direct threat to Britain’s mastery of the sea. With the growth of Empire came colonisation and the need to protect the Empire’s assets which is where Roger Pocock saw a role for the frontiersman and woman – the person who helped maintain some sort of order along the borders and pushed into other territories to see how far he could go. Roger was inspired with how the amateur or frontiersman could support the Empire, ideas gleaned through his experience of visiting the Crimea in about 1895 and later in 1904 when he visited St Petersburg. He was able to share his information with the Admiralty, in particular with the Director of Naval Intelligence, Prince Louis of Battenburg who saw the value of what he’d been given.
Roger Pocock had served as a Canadian frontiersman and learnt the hard way about survival and friendship before heading to South Africa and the Boer or South African War of 1899-1902. Between his time with the North West Mounted Rifles, later Police, when he lost some toes due to frostbite, and going to South Africa in 1900, Pocock had travelled widely taking work on ships to pay his way. In 1898 he organised the Klondyke expedition which aimed to take pack-horses to the new mining frontier in Canada, an expedition which failed, and which hounded him for the rest of his days when Sir Arthur Curtis disappeared, believed murdered. Soon after, Roger undertook to travel on horseback from Canada to Mexico, a distance of 3,600 miles through the American deserts. He then went to South Africa in 1900 where he served with Waldon’s Scouts and the National Scouts until his time expired on 31 March 1902,3 two months before the war ended. Between his travels, he was based in London where he wrote and published novels detailing his adventures.
This experience together with his travels led Roger to suggest the formation of the Legion, ‘to keep the frontiers quiet lest any affair of outposts give the Kaiser excuse for picking a quarrel.’4 On Christmas Eve 1904, he sent a letter to ten newspapers announcing the arrival of the ‘Legion’ which was to be ‘for good fellowship, mutual help and possibly service to the state in time of war.’5 On 10 April 1905, the Legion of Frontiersmen was launched with the Earl of Lonsdale as President. By 1908 they had 3,500 names enlisted and issued ‘a somewhat flamboyant “Second Annual Report” of their activities, and a prospectus in which many well-known names appear.’6
The Boy Scouts, Territorial Army and National Reserve all followed in the wake of the Legion, Roger believing the Legion had influenced their organisation.7 Baden-Powell was apparently visiting Lonsdale at the time the formal organisation of the Legion was being discussed.8 The Boy Scouts organisation was founded on 24 January 1908, later that year, Pocock’s friend and fellow author, Owen Vaughan also known as Owen Rhoscomyl and Robert Scourfield Mills published a book on scouting and Baden-Powell himself followed with On scouting in 1909. The Territorial Army having been under discussion as part of the army reforms introduced by Lord Haldane following the Anglo-Boer War was finally inaugurated on 1 April 1908 and the National Reserve came into operation around the same time. Roger had led the pack.
The next years saw internal struggles in the Legion. Roger became strongly opposed to everything and everyone, wondering why he continued as ‘After all, the whole visible Legion was only a mask for the secret service, which they had never heard of. The vital duties from which I had been ousted, consisted of squashing incipient filibustering expeditions to preserve the British Peace, and watching the German Menace while the nation slept.’ However, he would go down fighting and complete his book on the ‘first formulation of the science of pioneering’.9
In 1909 he published The Frontiersman’s Pocket-book, the list of contributors including some of the ‘well-known names’, a number of whom were members of the Legion of Frontiersmen, others specialist in their field but all determined to support the Empire in its time of need. Significantly, Roger did not ask Daniel Driscoll to contribute to his Pocketbook, despite Driscoll having been significantly involved in recruiting for the Legion and his own frontier experiences including participation as a scout in the Anglo-Boer War. His exclusion might have had something to do with his close association with exaggerated numbers of spies. Members of the Legion who did not feature in the book included those linked with spies and stories of invasion, most notably Lord Roberts and Henry le Queux.
Strand 1. The way to engage the public and to make the army ‘real’ was to create a need on home soil which could be more easily understood than issues around far-off places which the majority would never get to see and would probably not even hear about unless it was mentioned in the newspapers. The way to get the home front on board, was through a real or imagined invasion of the island and a supportive newspaper owner.
Alfred Harmsworth, from 1905 to be known as Lord Northcliffe and from 1908 owner of The Times, in 1888 started a paper called Answers to Correspondents. Between December 1893 and 2 June 1894, Harmsworth ran William Le Queux’s The Great War in England in 1897 under the title The Poisoned Bullet as a serial which focused on conflict between Britain and France. Le Queux’s next big seller, The Invasion of 1910 was serialised in 1906 with the launch of the Daily Mail on 4 May. The Invasion of 1910 had been informed and endorsed by Lord Roberts who was keen to use it to encourage support for National Service (conscription). The serial and later publication in book form were a success. Wesley Wark in Spy Fiction, Spy Films and Real Intelligence says that William Le Queux was the pioneer of the faction industry – deliberately blurring lines between fiction and fact, presenting himself as spymaster. ‘With Le Queux apparent realism first showed its amazing potential.’10 In 1908 when Northcliffe took over The Times, the paper became the voice for National Service. The Boy Scouts were encouraged to report a German spy for their good deed a day,11 and when the Weekly News offered £10 for evidence of German spies operating in Britain, letters poured in thus providing the evidence required by the War Office to set up a secret services bureau in 1909.
An Intelligence Department had been set up during the Anglo-Boer War which continued after the war with reduced staff and status. Eventually, James Grierson, was appointed Director of Military Operations and Intelligence (DMO & I) replacing William Nicholson on 11 February 1904 at the order of Lord Esher. In 1907, James Edmonds was promoted head of the Special Section or MO5 which was responsible for intelligence gathering. Simultaneously, Esmond Slade became Director of Naval Intelligence in October 1907, and was dismayed to discover that the secret service was not organised. Counter-espionage work was also required, but initially this posed a little challenge. Again, Le Queux’s novel Spies of the Kaiser (1909) and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) provided the impetus. The success of the literature can be judged by The Times newspaper starting to complain that spy mania was detracting from conscription promotion.12
Edmonds requested a subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) in 1909 to approve the formation of a counter espionage group as ‘we have … no regular system or organisation to detect and report suspicious cases, and are entirely dependent on casual information.’ Lord Esher, chairman, believed the threat posed by spies was not as great as was presented, however he was eventually worn down with the evidence supplied by the War Office and Lord Haldane. The Secret Service Bureau was formed and split between the military and navy, but within a year, a home department responsible for counter espionage replaced them, eventually becoming known as MI5.
A foreign department was responsible for espionage. It was later to be known as SIS and then MI6. To start, it remained responsible to the Admiralty but little evidence of an invasion was forthcoming – the plans did not exist. A system of spies was set up in Germany by Manfred George Smith-Cummings as head of the foreign section and this helped in supplying accurate information about weapons and ships, and from 1913 on zeppelins and their possible usage.13 When the Great War eventually broke out in 1914, another rearrangement of the organisations eventually resulted in the formation of MI5 for internal security and MI6 for international. In effect, Le Queux’s work influenced that of MI5 and Roger Pocock that of MI6, both members of the Legion of Frontiersmen.
The illustration is from Le Queux’s Invasion of 1910. In the text he tells how the brave Frontiersmen were involved in the defence of London.
- Dr Anne Samson is Special Advisor on Africa to the History and Archives Section of the Legion of Frontiersmen. She is an independent historian who has published widely on the Great War in Africa.
- The complete paper will be published in the Victorian Military Society Journal, Soldiers of the Queen (SOTQ) in late 2018. VMS kindly allowed a summary of the talk to be made available.
- TNA: WO 339/69712, long service record H Roger Pocock
- R Pocock, Adventurers, p57
- R Pocock, Adventurers, p23
- TNA: WO 32/10426
- Pocock, Adventurers, p39
- Tim Jeal, Baden-Powell: Founder of the Boy Scouts (Yale University, 2007) p347
- Pocock, Chorus to Adventurers, pp83-84
- Wark, Spy Fiction, p3
- Morris, The Scaremongers, p157
- Morris, The Scaremongers, p157
- Andrew, Secret Service, p79
© Copyright Anne Samson. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.