Book Review: MI5 at War 1909-1918: How MI5 Foiled the Spies of the Kaiser in the First World War


by Chris Northcott

Ticehurst, East Sussex: Tattered Flag Press / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2015. Pp. xx, 276. Illus., append., notes, biblio., index. $22.95 paper. ISBN: 0957689284

Creating MI5

Intelligence historian Northcott, builds on his earlier A Secret Well Kept: The Untold Story of Sir Vernon Kell, to look at the origins and operations of what became MI5, Britain’s domestic counter intelligence agency in the era of the Great War. He opens with a short introduction that provides the reader with some background and comment on the historiography of British intelligence in the war. This is followed by a chapter on the period 1903-1911, during which Britain began to realize the need for a separate counter-intelligence service and established what would become MI5. This is followed by a chapter on events from 1911 to the outbreak of the World War, which also serve to introduce the critical players, notably Vernon Kell, who would spend over 30 years as head of MI5.

The activities of the counter-intelligence service during the war are covered in four chapters, one each on 1914, 1915, and 1916, and a single much longer chapter on activities during1917-1918. As he takes the reader through these years, Northcott effectively takes the spy/counter-spy business from rather amateurish efforts to a high degree of sophistication, discussing the evolution of intelligence and security techniques, the recruitment of agents, trends in organization, and developments in law. He also covers the surprising extensive German espionage networks in Britain. Woven into Northcott’s account are numerous cases, some involving “lone wolf” agents and others involving rather complex networks. A final chapter reviews the work of the agency during and discusses the historiography about MI5 during these years.

A valuable read for any student of intelligence in the Great War, this will also be of use in studying World War II, for the insights into the origins of many of the counter-intelligence and security techniques in use during 1939-1945.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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