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Some Interesting Great War Intelligence Operatives

There were probably hundreds of spies active among the various nations in the years before the Great War, and perhaps thousands during it. Some of these people were more important, or at least more interesting, than others. Here are mini-profiles of a handful these, some well known and some obscure, who may – or may not – have played important roles in the war. While the more famous ones have received the most attention, they weren’t necessarily the most useful to their various customers. And we should keep in mind that we will probably never know who were the really important spies.

  • Sarah Aaronsohn (1890-1917): A well educated young Jewish woman born in Ottoman Palestine to immigrant Romanian parents, in late 1915, while travelling from Istanbul, she witnessed several incidents of the Armenian genocide. Realizing that a similar fate might await the Jews of the Empire, upon returning to Palestine she joined Nili, a pro-Allied espionage network formed by one of her brothers. Aaronsohn quickly became Nili’s most critical actor, developing and managing one of the most successful spy rings of the war, and perhaps the most important in the Middle East. She was ultimately discovered by the Ottomans. Imprisoned in Beersheba, she was tortured, and committed suicide rather than betray others, just days before the British, greatly aided by information she had supplied, took the city. One of Israel’s national heroes, she is largely forgotten elsewhere.
  • “Agent 17”: August Schluga, Baron von Rastenfeld (1841-1917), who’d served as an officer candidate in the Austrian Army during the 1859 Italian War and afterwards became a newspaper correspondent in Paris. Sometime during the 1860s he became a German spy, performing valuable services during the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars and over the years of peace that followed. In 1914 Schluga passed documents with details of French Plan XVII to the Germans, though the General Staff apparently did not fully appreciate their importance. Never apprehended, he continued to pass valuable information to the Germans from Paris until 1915, when he moved his base to Switzerland, where he died of natural causes. Schluga’s work was revealed postwar, but his sources were never determined.
  • “Agent 35”: An unidentified Frenchman, probably a railroad official with access to French general staff mobilization timetables, provided very detailed information on deployment plans to the German Army from about 1900 to about 1910.
  • “The Avenger”: A German officer who codenamed himself “The Avenger,” and was almost certainly a member of the General Staff, possibly even a general officer, offered his services to the French in 1904. He sold them copies of the German concentration plans, and may have been the agent who supplied the French with the official report on the General Staff’s 1906 wargame, which provided them with the first clear indication of German plans to make a major move through Belgium. He has apparently never been identified.
  • Mather Howard Burnham (1870-1917): An American mining engineer and adventurer, he suffered from chronic tuberculosis for most of his life and had lost part of one leg in an accident as a teenager. Despite his handicaps, he fought Indians in the West, may have spied for the British or the Boers or both during the South African War, and probably did so for the Americans in Mexico during the Vera Cruz crisis of 1914. In French service from 1914, he conducted intelligence operations in North Africa, tracking German and Ottoman agents trying to incite rebellion among local tribes. In early 1917, although very ill, Burnham went into Germany to check on rumors that the Germans intended to undertake operations through Switzerland. He returned with convincing evidence that there were no such plans, and masses of other useful information, which he imparted literally on his deathbed.
  • Reginald Baliol Brett, Lord Esher (1852-1930). A liberal politician and historian, Esher became interested in military matters while serving on the staff of the commission investigating the poor performance of the British Army during the Boer War. He later became a member of the Committee of Imperial Defence, promoting reform and championing conscription. During the war he was head of British intelligence activities in France, and managed networks totaling hundreds of agents that reached deep into German occupied territory and Germany itself. He not only gathered information on the Germans, but also on French politics, and his work was so highly secret only occasional evidence of it has surfaced. 
  • “Disaffected Arab Officers”. On February 16, 1916, the Turkish fortress-city of Erzerum, close by the Russian frontier, was captured by the Russians, only two days after they invested it. In the novel Greenmantle, published later that same year, author John Buchan (1875-1940) claimed that the fall of Erzerum was facilitated by a map stolen from Turkish headquarters and passed on to the Russian commander, the Grand Duke Nicholas. In addition, on at least two occasions, Thomas E. Lawrence “of Arabia” claimed that he had “put the Grand Duke Nicholas in touch with certain disaffected Arab officers” in the Turkish ranks. So the tale is probably true, and the “disaffected Arab officers” should be numbered among the most influential espionage agents of the war.
  • Karl Egli (1865-1925): A Swiss officer who eventually rose to colonel, the highest rank in the Swiss Army. From 1905 until 1916, Egli was head of the Geographical Section of the General Staff, effectively chief of intelligence. Like many German-speaking Swiss, Egli was pro-Austrian. Early in 1915 he supplied Col. William von Einem, the Austro-Hungarian military attaché in Switzerland, with intelligence on the Italian Army, which proved immensely useful when Italy entered the war in May of that year. Egli seems to have continued to supply information to the Austro-Hungarians through the end of the war. In return, he seems to have been able to tour the German and Austrian lines in France and Italy, and published several studies of operations, including one concerning the Italian Front.
  • Charles Marie Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy (1847-1923): A scion of the illegitimate French branch of a noble Austro-Hungarian family, and son of a general of the Second Empire. Failing to get into St. Cyr, in 1866 he enlisted in a volunteer regiment raised for papal service. On the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, he joined the Foreign Legion and quickly rose to lieutenant. Despite a rather pedestrian career, he rose to colonel. A speculator on the stock market and a spendthrift, Esterhazy became a German agent in the early 1890s, selling information on new weapons and mobilization plans. In 1894 one of his purloined documents was found in the trash at the German embassy in Paris by a cleaning woman working for French intelligence, which touched off the “Dreyfus Affair.” By the time Dreyfus was finally vindicated, in 1906, Esterhazy had been implicated as the real spy, but was protected by army higher-ups. This suggesting to some historians that he may have actually been working for French intelligence, feeding false information to the Germans. He fled France and lived out his life in Britain.
  • Karl Kruger (c. 1872-1939): A naval engineer, he had been a Germannaval officer, but was cashiered for insulting a member of the Kaiser’s family. Kruger offered his services to British naval intelligence in November of 1914, for a price, becoming agent “TR/16”. With a doctorate in naval construction, he had remarkable access to all German shipyards, and supplied the British with reliable information on innovations in warship construction, including submarines, for the rest of the war. His report on the damage incurred by German ships during the Battle of Jutland was particularly valuable. Kruger continued to work for the British until he was identified as a spy just a few weeks before the outbreak of World War II by a German double agent and disappeared, probably murdered by the Abwehr. He was probably the best agent the British had in Germany.
  • Margaretha Geertruida Zelle McLeod (1876-1917): A Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan who pretended to be the Javanese princess “Mata Hari”. During the war she supposedly seduced several well-connected French officers, while working for German intelligence as “Agent H-21”, but may also have been double agent working for the French to feed bogus information to the Germans. She was executed by the French after a brief trial. Although she does appear to have received money from German agents, when, in 2017, the French government released all documents related to her trial, it turned out that she had never actually provided anything of value to the Germans. The curator of a Dutch museum exhibition about her remarked that, based on the evidence, “she’d say that there was going to be an offensive in the spring, but everyone already knew that.” 
  • Alfred Redl (1864-1913): An Austro-Hungarian officer, by 1901 he headed the army’s espionage and counter-espionage office, and uncovered several foreign agents. In 1907, needing money, Redl began selling mobilization plans, details about new weapons, plans of frontier defenses, and so forth to Russian intelligence. He continued to do so after his promotion to colonel and transfer to duty as chief-of-staff of the VIII Army Corps in Prague. The corps was part of the Austro-Hungarian strategic reserve, and thus Redl had access to plans for war with Serbia or Russia or both. In 1913 German intelligence uncovered his activities and passed the information on to their allies. Amazingly, rather than interrogate Redl, the arresting officers permitted him to commit suicide. Although Chief-of-the-General Staff Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf expressed outrage over this, he apparently was not displeased, perhaps because his own son had been among the many officers who – unwittingly or not – had supplied Redl with useful information. One of the most financially successful spies in history, Redl, a colonel with an annual salary of 14,000 kronen, left an estate worth about 75,000 kronen, more than Conrad’s assets, and today equal to perhaps as $7,500,000. This included a house in Vienna, a luxury three bedroom apartment in Prague, three horses, and a Daimler limo (itself costing kr 19,000), as well as “. . . wardrobes . . . stuffed with uniforms and the softest batiste shirts, ninety-five of them . . . sixty-two pairs of gloves”, not to mention jewelry, objects d’arte, and more. He also had about kr 30,000 in debts. Redl seems to have inspired the roguish “Colonel Count Alfred Renard”, played by Maurice Chevalier in the 1929 Paramount romantic comedy The Love Parade.
  • Sidney George Reilly (1873-1925): The so-called “Ace of Spies” has a very obscure history. Born in Russia as Georgi or Salomon Rosenblum, he roamed the world a bit, landing in Britain by 1896. Scotland Yard’s Special Branch soon hired him to ferret out radicals among Russian immigrants. He married his mistress upon her wealthy husband’s death (with suspicion attaching) and renamed himself Sidney George Reilly. By 1899 he and his wife were spying for Britain in Russia and later the Far East. During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) Reilly supplied the Japanese with the plans of the defenses of Port Arthur. Later working in Germany, he stole technical secrets, such as plans for aircraft engines. During the Great War Reilly worked in the United States, arranging arms sales to Russia, and, he claimed, also to Germany, which seems most improbable. In 1918 he was sent to Russia to assassinate Lenin and overthrow the Bolshevik regime, at which he was singularly unsuccessful. Postwar Reilly again tried to bump off Lenin, was captured and Aside from his Port Arthur caper and his efforts to steal German technology, his record is not as successful as myth has made it out to be.
  • Benno von Siebert (1876-1926): A Russian career diplomat of German descent who, after he was assigned to the London embassy in 1908, began passing documents to a German handler. In early 1914, by which time he had passed about 5,000 items to the Germans, von Siebert left the diplomatic service and joined a London banking firm. He resumed working for the Germans in 1917. Postwar von Siebert wrote about his activities, trying to shift blame for the war from the Central Powers to the Entente.
  • Bertrand Stewart (1872-1914): An independently wealthy British solicitor and poet, he served as a volunteer during the Boer War. An officer in the West Kent Yeomanry, in the years before WW I Stewart occasionally worked for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (later MI-6). In 1911 he was arrested in Bremen, Germany, with plans of coast defense and naval installations in his possession. Tried in the Reichsgericht, the Imperial Supreme Court, in Leipzig, Stewart was sentenced to three years and six months, less time served. He was one of several real or supposed British agents released in 1913 on the occasion of George V’s state visit to Germany. Stewart was killed while serving as the intelligence officer of the British 1st Cavalry Brigade, during the Battle of the Aisne on Sep. 12, 1914.
  • “Unidentified Russian Colonel”: Some years before the war, a Russian colonel provided the plans for an invasion of East Prussia to German intelligence. Although not the exact plans used in 1914, these were sufficiently similar to prove immensely useful to German staff officers planning the defense of East Prussia. The officer was never identified.

Of all the espionage agents at work in the period of the Great War, Redl was probably the one who had the greatest influence on the war. Although the Austro-Hungarian general staff made some changes to the details of their plans, they did not subject them to a complete revision. Between the disastrous Austro-Hungary invasion of Serbia and the equally disastrous Russian invasion of Galicia, Redl may have cost the Empire as many as a million troops.


Compulsory Military Service in 1914

Save for Britain, in 1914 military service in all the European nations was based on conscription. There was, of course, much variation among the countries, both in service obligation, proportion of men taken, and physical, mental, and moral standards.

  • Austria-Hungary: Men reaching age 21 had to serve three years active duty, then in the reserves until age 32, before passing into the first line territorials to age 38, and then the second line territorials until 42. This applied to men in all branches of the Dual Monarchy’s ground forces, the “Common Army” and the autonomous Austrian and Hungarian armies, as well as to the k-u-k
  • Belgium: Beginning in 1913, a draftee was required to serve 15 months active duty (21 for field artillery and 24 for horse artillery), plus a hitch in the reserves and then the militia.
  • Bulgaria: Conscripts undertook two years of active duty followed by eight in the reserve (three and six for artillerymen and cavalrymen), followed by 7 years in the second reserve and then the militia until age 46.
  • France: Under the “three year law” of 1913 a man became liable for compulsory service at age 20. At age 23 he passed into the Reserve for ten years, after which he passed into the Territorial Army until age 39, and then into the Territorial Reserve until age 50. 
  • Germany: Men aged 20 were required to spend two years in the active army, and then passed into the Reserve until 27, when they went into the 1st Ban (echelon) of the Landwehr (territorial reserve). At age 33 a man passed into the 2nd Ban of the Landwehr, serving until age 39. He then spent seven years in the 1st Ban of the militia (Landsturm) followed by three more in the 2nd Ban.
  • Italy: At 20 men were liable to serve three years on active duty before passing into the reserves. But a portion of each year’s conscripts were discharged to the Reserves at the end of six or even three months. At age 29 reservists passed into the “mobile militia” until age 33, and then into the territorial militia until 39. 
  • Romania: Men unlucky enough to be drafted had to serve seven years on active duty plus a dozen in the reserve, and then passed into the militia, while men not drafted went directly into the reserves, where they received a little training.
  • Russia: Men were drafted at 20, and if sent into the infantry or field artillery served three years of active duty, followed by seven in the reserves, eight in the first Ban of the territorials, and 5 more in the second. Men drafted into all other branches of the army spent a year longer on active duty, and one less in the territorials. Many conscripts were, however, discharged early, after six months, or a year, or 18 months, passing into the reserves.

The “Active Army” were the troops actually serving “with the colors” as the contemporary phrase went. Men in the Reserves were supposedly available for immediate recall to the colors. The French Territorials and the German Landwehr and Landsturm were older reservists and militiamen plus younger men who hadn’t been selected for obligatory active duty, with less training and fewer obligations of service, who could still be called up on mobilization.

Although reservists had to report periodically for inspection and administrative details, refresher training was by no means as rigorous as it is in today’s U.S. Army. A French Army reservist had two periods of refresher training during his entire eleven years of service, one of 23 days and one of 17, followed by one stint of nine days while a territorial. The Germans provided somewhat more training for their reservists, landwehrmen, and landsturmmen, but it amounted to about a week a year. 

In all countries, men not taken for compulsory active duty were also assigned directly to the reserve components, in Germany to the Landwehr or Landsturm and in France the reserves and territorials. Although France and Germay offered quasi-military training in secondary school, including some rifle practice, these men were poorly trained. Nevertheless, when war came in 1914 they often quickly ended up at the Front.

Although only noted above for a few of the armies, in most of them there were small variations in mandatory service requirements depending upon the branch to which a man was assigned, such as cavalry or artillery. 


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