Le Queux’s war

The novelist William Le Queux is famous, or rather infamous, for beating the drum of the German invasion and spy threat before the Great War. But what did he do during the war? Unsurprisingly, he did much the same thing. On 28 February 1915, for example, The People published an article by Le Queux entitled 'HOTBEDS OF ALIEN ENEMIES AND SPIES IN THE HEART OF THE METROPOLIS. THE SCANDAL OF THE ALIEN ENEMY AND SPY IN OUR MIDST. HOME OFFICE TURN A BLIND EYE TO TREASON-MONGERS AND TRAITORS'.1 This was not a work of fiction, but rather a supposedly factual expose of 'the alien enemy in our very midst [which] will be read with amazement and disgust'.2 The disturbing revelations were the result of Le Queux's intrepid forays into the 'nests of Germans who, unchecked by the authorities, vilify Britain and openly pray for her downfall', right in the heart of darkness, i.e. 'the neighbourhood of Tottenham Court-rd. and Soho'.3 For example, he claimed to have sat in on a conversation (apparently posing as an Italian –– the mind boggles) between two men and a woman in a house on Tottenham Street:

They laughed the British Government to scorn, and declared that certain Ministers were Germany's friends. 'We shall win,' declared one of the men. 'The British Army will never re-enter Belgium. We have some surprises there for them, just as we have here in England when our Zeppelins come. All is prepared, and, at a given signal, these English fools will wake up with a start. We already have our hand upon these vermin here, and it will not be long before the Eagle will show its claws. Happily, the fools are asleep. We are not! We know every night what is happening. Tonight, at eight o'clock, there were five German aeroplanes between Dunkirk and Dover. But they are not coming to England.'

'How do you know that?' I asked, instantly interested.

The round-faced man, a typical Prussian, only smiled mysteriously behind his glasses, and refused to satisfy my curiosity.4

Le Queux, of course, was able to verify that there were indeed five German aeroplanes near Dunkirk that night, and further that information was reaching the German spies in London on a nightly basis. And if more evidence was required, there was much more:

Everywhere I went, both around Tottenham Court-rd. and in Soho, I heard the same vile abuse of England, the same wild enthusiasm over German victories, the same blind, unshaken confidence in the German power to eventually crush us, and the same declaration that the bombardment of London from the air is only a matter of days, and that it will be the signal for terrible havoc and destruction to be worked in all our great cities by the army of secret agents who are 'lying low' awaiting the signal to strike, and thus produce a panic.5

And so on. The point was, of course, to rouse the Home Office from its slumber, to force it to place 'the whole matter of enemy aliens and espionage [...] under the control of a central board with absolute power to crush it out, and so protect the State from a deadly peril which has permeated into every walk of our national life'.6

What are we to make of this story? Certainly, Soho was not riddled with dens of German spies. Contrary to nearly all prewar expectations, the German espionage network in Britain was very limited in both size and capability; equally, the network that did exist was focused on intelligence, not sabotage. So the threat that Le Queux warned about was not real. Does that mean that he just made the whole thing up? He was, after all, primarily a writer of fiction. But it's not outside the realms of possibility that Le Queux did hear German immigrants saying something like what he reported saying. They were, after all, a beleaguered community in early 1915, facing an uncertain future. They were under constant threat of harassment, internment, or worse, and many would have felt torn between the old homeland they had chosen to leave and the new one which did not want them. Just like any population in wartime -- just like their British neighbours -- they would have traded rumours as way of managing their anxiety and impotence. Some may even have claimed to know how and when the British people were going to be repaid for their unkindness. Perhaps Le Queux's needling brought out a boastful, and in the circumstances unfortunate, response.

Le Queux didn't confine his investigations to London. At around this time he also took part in an what appears to have been a semi-official hunt for the enemy within in Surrey, where he lived. There are several accounts of this, though only from not wholly reliable sources. One is none other than Nesta Webster, who was already on the path to becoming a conspiracy theorist to surpass Le Queux himself (and later, one of the first British fascists). Her husband, Captain Arthur Webster, a retired policeman, was equally obsessed with German spies, who were apparently communicating by signal lights between the Aldershot garrison and the sea. In her autobiography, published 35 years later, Nesta recalled:

One spring evening Mr. William Le Queux, the novelist, who had been officially enlisted in the spy hunt, arrived at our door with Lord T. [Tweedmouth?], an immense wireless apparatus mounted on a lorry which made a terrific noise coming through the village, and a number of naval operators. Wireless was then in its infancy and the apparatus set up in one of our fields was surmounted by a high mast at the foot of which the investigators seated themselves and invited us to join them in their task of listening-in for any German messages that might be passing through the air. At about 11 p.m. they announced that they had been able to contact a German agent and reply to him in German code inviting him to meet them at a certain spot in the woods below the house.

It seemed to us unlikely that any German spies would fall into this trap, however, Mr. Le Queux and Lord T. set off hopefully for the rendez-vous, having roped in our head gardener, all three armed with revolvers ready to shoot down the unwary Hun at sight. Needless to say they drew a blank and returned chilled at dawn to snatch a few hours' sleep. Nothing daunted, however, they proposed on the following evening that we should all motor up to the top of Hindhead and experiment with flashlights. Accordingly at midnight we took up our stand beneath the gibbet and signalled across the Devil's Punch Bowl to Aldershot. Again nothing happened, which was not surprising.7

The other source is Le Queux himself, who provided an account of a counterespionage operation in which he took part in a letter to the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police:

Now, yesterday [23 February 1915] I took, with the aid of the Royal Naval Air Service [RNAS], one of these reports [from the public of espionage], and I have spent the last twenty hours in an armoured motor-car, together with an expert Signaller and apparatus on the Surrey Hills. We, with witnesses, have seen the messages nightly flashed from the Kent coast to London: we have, in return acknowledged them, and them to repeat them, and they have repeated them to us! One of the persons who made the signals in question was, three weeks ago, reported to the police and hence to the Special Department, and no notice was taken of it. Now we have indisputable evidence of the utter inefficiency of the authorities in dealing with the matter, and though I entertain the greatest friendship towards yourself [Arthur Lambton] and Superintendent [Patrick] Quinn, I cannot allow myself to be misguided further from my duty as an Englishman, - or my loyalty to my King [...] with this grave danger so palpably before one's eyes, I deem it my bounden duty to speak, and to try and expose it to the public who are no longer to be gulled into a sense of false security.8

The details don't quite match up with Webster's recollections, and judging from another contemporary account by Le Queux this was merely the first in the same series of adventures, with the vigil on Gibbet Hill taking place shortly thereafter. This account was published in his book Britain's Deadly Peril (written some time before the end of March). I won't quote this at length, but in it he summarises 'fourteen exciting days and nights' of spyhunting across Surrey, Sussex and Kent, beginning with the episode described in his letter quoted above.9 In was in the course of these investigations that he supposedly witnessed a Morse signal being flashed which read 'H5', which he took as a reference to the five German aeroplanes over the Channel he had heard about in Soho, and a confirmation that he had uncovered the secret means of communication between Berlin and London.10

Nevertheless, the authorities were not interested. After duly informing the War Office of the results of the investigation, Le Queux was most displeased to receive nothing more than a form letter from the Director of Military Operations thanking him for his letter, which he reproduced in his book.11 But while he did have some highly placed friends left, such as Lieutenant-Colonel Vernon Kell, head of MO5(g), he was already widely being dismissed as a crank and a bore. Special Branch were highly unimpressed with him. The letter I've quoted above is not from a record of Le Queux's investigations or the information he supplied to the authorities; rather it's from a compilation of a increasingly irritable correspondence between Le Queux, who was demanding police protection against the German secret service, and Special Branch, who were unimpressed by his inability to provide any evidence whatsoever of threats made against him. The chief of the Metropolitan Police himself, Sir Edward Henry, judged Le Queux 'not a person to be taken seriously'.12

But if the RNAS was involved, why would it have been left up to Le Queux to pass on the information gathered on their spy hunts to the authorities? And why to the War Office rather than the Admiralty? This suggests that it was after all an unofficial investigation. The highly informal way in which it started -- 'on the afternoon of February 23rd, an officer of the Naval Armoured Car Squadron called upon me and invited me to assist in hunting spies in Surrey' -- supports this.13 This (unnamed) officer is also described as being young; perhaps he was also bored and restless, and eager for some sort of action. Spy hunting would have been better than nothing. Alternatively, Nicholas Hiley hints that it may have been an MO5(g) operation, which might explain why Le Queux was co-opted.14

There might also be a connection with the official work of the RNAS, though. The RNAS's armoured cars had been intended for service in France, where the earliest versions had been put to good use during the retreat from Antwerp in September-October 1914. But the war of movement was over, for the moment, so there was not much for them to do there. Some of the vehicles which did remain in Britain appear to have been used in home air defence, particularly the brand-new Seabrooks which were armed with a 3-pounder (though this seems rather overkill for counterespionage work in the Home Counties). And the Navy did have primary responsibility for home air defence at this time; the commander of the RNAS, Captain Murray Sueter, was heavily involved at this time in providing anti-aircraft defences for London as well as overseeing the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division. This is interesting when combined with Le Queux's belief, or at least claim, that the armies of German spies around Britain were waiting for the first Zeppelin raid on London as the signal for a general campaign of murder and mayhem. Even if that was too far-fetched, stories had emerged after the first Zeppelin raids on Norfolk, just a few weeks previous, that spies in motor-cars had been driving out around the countryside late at night guiding the raiders with their headlights. In other words, the threats were not separate but connected. When it did come, the belief went, Germany was naturally going to come at Britain with all the force at its disposal, and so the spy fear was entangled with the Zeppelin fear. But then, I would think that, wouldn't I.

All of which is by way of welcoming the launch of The Invasion Network! The Invasion Network has evolved out of the Empire in Peril workshop in London in 2013 (at which I presented), as well as the followup Master of Misinformation (i.e. Le Queux himself) workshop in Dublin earlier this year:

The Invasion Network has been established to encourage collaboration between researchers working under the broad theme of invasion, with a particular focus on British invasion fears in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bringing together literary scholars, cultural historians, and a range of other specialists and independent researchers, the network aims to further understanding of a phenomenon that, while often considered in passing, has rarely been analysed in great detail.

I'm sure that Le Queux would have approved of any opportunity to shed further light on Britain's deadly peril.

  1. The National Archives [TNA], MEPO 3/243: clipping from The People (London), 28 February 1915. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. N. H. Webster, Spacious Days: An Autobiography (London, 1950); quoted in Nicholas Hiley, 'Introduction', in William Le Queux, Spies of the Kaiser: Plotting the Downfall of England (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 1996 [1909]), xxviii-xxix. 

  8. TNA, MEPO 3/243: William Le Queux, letter, 24 February 1915. 

  9. William Le Queux, Britain's Deadly Peril: Are we Told the Truth? (London: Stanley Paul & Co., 1915), 103. 

  10. Ibid., 103. 

  11. Ibid., 104. 

  12. TNA, MEPO 3/243: ERH [Edward Richard Henry], note, 2 March 1915. 

  13. Le Queux, Britain's Deadly Peril, 99. 

  14. Hiley, 'Introduction', xxviii. 

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4 thoughts on “Le Queux’s war

  1. Chris Williams

    Listening in! In 1926, after the General Strike, Marconi's sent an invoice to the Home Office, asking for payment for the experimental short-wave receivers that they had sold to Wyndham Childs in his capacity of head of Special Branch (as AC 'C'). The Home Office, who distinctly recalled being asked to sign off for a loan rather than a purchase, were miffed, but in the end paid up anyway. The sets had been introduced to monitor alleged clandestine short-wave broadcasts to the USSR. None were detected. (H045/15641) #polconsys.

  2. Erik Lund

    Weird connection here --I was just reading about the effort to map the VHF radio topography of America for the purposes of air navigation in 1937--41. It's interesting that it was so much harder to introduce VHF services in American than in Europe. Almost as though the radio spectrum was more domesticated, the "peril of the air" tamed by civilisation . . . .

    Reading about RNAS listening post trucks wandering the nighttime roads of the Home Counties listening in for non-existent German spies in 1915 helps me understand why.

    Though I suppose the absence of the hill-and-valley country between New York and Chicago would also be a partial explanation.

  3. Post author


    Treason doth never prosper, but supplying radio apparatus for the detection thereof might...


    I guess paranoia goes hand in hand with geography, particularly in Europe. I wouldn't be surprised if regulation of the radio spectrum began with security -- certainly in Britain in WWI it was, but there were wireless transmission licenses before then, I think. Briggs might have something.

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