The Ambler

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Espionage and daring deeds

The final 2011 talk for members and guests of the Western Front Association was David Easton’s ‘I Spy’ relating the story of espionage during the First World War. David began his tale with possibly the best known spy of the era, Mata Hari, which was the stage name of Dutch dancer and prostitute Gertrud Margarette Zelle.

During the war, hundreds of paid agents peddled military or economic information across the lines on the Western Front. Despite the absence of hard evidence of her being one of them, Mata Hari was arrested and executed by the French in October 1917. The nature of her profession rather than of her offence attracted huge publicity inFrance, and she may have paid the ultimate penalty for seeming to be a spy.

Not as well known was Louise de Bettignies who became a true spy master. Of noble birth, well educated and a competent linguist, with her sister Louise assisted in the defence of Bethune which brought her to the attention of the French authorities but she was unsure about becoming an intelligence assistant when first approached by them in February 1915.

Major Kirke, Head of the British Army Intelligence Corps, was more successful when, a few months later, he approached Louise for help to set up an intelligence network in theLillesector. Lots of French priests and nuns were recruited and the network was soon passing on quality intelligence.

Louise’s network was credited with identifying German gun emplacements around Loos before the British attack at the end of September 1915. The network expanded and extended to the Cambrai sector, and it also warned of the planned huge German attack on the French atVerdunbut that warning was largely ignored with tragic consequences.

Louise de Bettignies was arrested and tried by the German War Council in March 1916. Her interrogators failed to get her to divulge meaningful secrets yet she was sentenced to death based largely on circumstantial evidence. Her sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment during which she organised a strike against hard labour.

Conflicting stories exist as to how Louise died on 17 December 1918, one cause may have been complications following a stomach complaint another was pneumonia. Whatever, she was an extremely brave and effective spy who received many posthumous awards from the Allied nations.

David then related more about the development during the war of the British Secret Intelligence Service, now better known as MI6, from its origins in 1909. That story is one of foresight and innovation, tinged with internal intrigues and service rivalries, yet ultimately the SIS soon became a highly effective operation.

The WFA’s next talk will be held on Monday, 23 January 2012 with Brian Teasdale’s ‘Suicide Club: K-Class Submarines’. For more information on this and future talks, contact 01665 710718.

Meetings take place at 7:30 for 8:00 p.m. at Alnmouth Ex-Servicemen’s Club and Institute,Northumberland Street, Alnmouth. The suggested minimum donation is £1 to include a light buffet supper.

That’s about it, thanks, other than to add best wishes of the season.

David Thompson
Speaker Secretary, Northumberland (North) Branch of the WFA

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