WAR, PROPOGANDA,
AND THE FICTION OF WILLIAM Le QUEUX

Reported by Brett F. Woods

The West is currently engaged in a clandestine war against terrorism and, as fiction follows fact, in the years to come we will doubtless witness the publication of innumerable espionage novels detailing the villainy of Islamic renegades and the corresponding actions of Western society to counter the threat. And while this might be considered as an exploitation of unfortunate events, it is certainly not a new scenario, for the novelist and the spy have long enjoyed a unique and symbiotic relationship with one another.
         In the historical sense, while espionage has forever served as a political handmaiden, the cross-fertilization between espionage and literature is largely a twentieth century British phenomenon that gained steadily in popularity with the fiction of Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and John le Carré, who, among others writers, actually worked as intelligence agents. To be sure, it is an exceedingly beneficial association. Espionage agencies profit because the novelist generally legitimizes the spy’s activities, thus contributing to the public perception that, in an imperfect world, the spy’s activities, however distasteful, are required. For the novelist the benefit is even more straightforward: espionage stories are financially profitable.
        But there is another, somewhat murkier aspect to the story. What if a novelist’s fictional premise was utilized to legitimize the activities of a spy agency? This is not as far-fetched as one would think, for such an event did indeed occur. The author was William Le Queux, the agency was British intelligence, and the enemy was the German state. Different and yet the same, the Le Queux factor offers some remarkable parallels to the current war on terror, particularly when balanced against the ongoing debates regarding the establishment or realignment of government agencies, and the enactment or modification of rules of law and procedure. And while Le Queux simply led where Maugham and the others followed, his writings did indeed change the course of an empire.
        Born in London in 1864, Le Queux’s early life was spent traveling with his parents, resulting in a continental education. He was fluent in English, French, Italian and Spanish, and after a brief spell as an art student in Paris he turned to journalism, became foreign editor of the Globe and a war correspondent for the Daily Mail. In the course of his travels, he became captivated with the world of espionage and even thought to undertake a bit of amateur spying himself, later writing that he knew everyone in Europe worth knowing: from Sarah Bernhardt to the Chief of the Italian Secret Police, and from Cardinal Manning to Madame Zola. But Le Queux was also gifted with a spirited imagination that, while apropos for a novelist, ruined his objectivity. He was forced to abandon his journalistic career and, by 1893, was devoting all his time to writing books, publishing nearly two hundred during his lifetime.
        An ardent Anglophile, Le Queux was convinced that every country in Europe—but particularly Germany—envied the wealth and culture of imperial Britain. He despaired that England, being populated by gentlemen, would never bring herself to think the worst of her Continental neighbors and was thus woefully unprepared for the day, soon to come, when her enemies would invade the British isles. As he later wrote, all that stood between Britain and this fate was a nucleus of amateur intelligence agents, like himself, who were “the most remarkable men, possessing shrewdness, tact, cunning, daring and—next to His Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs—were the most powerful and important pillars of England’s supremacy.”
        By 1905, Le Queux had become fixated with the threat of German invasion and began to forward all manner of reports, real and imagined, to both the Foreign Office and the War Office. In one classic example of Le Queux’s obsession, he claimed to have a close personal friend in Berlin—the under director of the Kaiser’s spy bureau, no less—who posited the existence of a vast German spy apparatus in Britain. In another, Le Queux claimed to have received a transcript of a secret meeting with the Kaiser and his military chiefs in Potsdam. The Kaiser had allegedly spoken at length about the conquest of Britain and illustrated his plans with maps and diagrams, and with models of new aircraft and long-range guns. When asked to produce a copy of the speech, Le Queux’s claimed it was unavailable, having been stolen by German spies from his publisher’s office.
        In yet another instance, Le Queux claimed to have acquired a register—this was also subsequently unavailable—of British traitors who were aligned with a secret German organization called the Hidden Hand. “I was aghast at the sight of this list,” he later wrote. “I sat staggered. It was appalling that persons whom the nation considered highly-patriotic and upright … should have fallen into the insidious tentacles of the great German octopus.” The list, Le Queux said, included members of Parliament, two well-known writers, and officials of the Foreign Office, Home Office, India Office, Admiralty and War Office. With no proof to substantiate his allegations, the British authorities perfunctorily ignored the report, as they had all of his others, effectively determining that Le Queux had ceased to distinguish fact from fantasy.
        But Le Queux refused to be silenced and in 1906 adopted a new and even more ambitious tact. He sought, and acquired, the complicity of Field Marshal Lord Roberts—arguably the best known and most belligerent of the nineteenth century British imperialists—to further his visions of Britain’s conquest by German hordes. In Lord Roberts, Le Queux gained an unassailable alley. A national hero, early in his career Roberts had been awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry while serving as a Lieutenant in the Bengal Horse Artillery (Indian Army) during the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858). He then commanded the British forces in Afghanistan (1881-1882), scoring the decisive British victory of the Second Afghan War. He later became the Commander-in-Chief in India (1885-1893) and in the South African War (1899-1902) and, finally Commander-in-Chief of the British Army (1901-1904). If this were not enough, Lord Roberts was also known affectionately as “Bobs” and referred to as “Kipling’s General,” as he was the personification of what Kipling thought of as best of the British Army in India. With Lord Roberts now in tow, Le Queux’s fantasies were soon to be seen in an entirely different light.
        In early 1906, Lord Roberts and Le Queux began to plan for a fictionalized account of a German invasion of England in 1911. It was to be an elaborate affair and for financial support they turned to Lord Northcliffe, the creator of Britain’s first mass market paper, the Daily Mail. An ambitious and opportunistic man, Northcliffe used his publishing genius and wealth to become a key player in the politics of his time. In return for his financial support, Northcliffe would receive exclusive rights to serialize the story in his newspapers prior to its release as a novel.
        The project assumed the reality of a military operation. Staffed by additional British military experts, Le Queux and Lord Roberts toured the whole of East Anglia seeking a likely invasion route. Lord Roberts then placed himself in the mind of a German general and planned a march on London that would ensure its capture while encountering the least resistance. Le Queux spent nearly a year dutifully writing the story in exciting fictional form before proudly presenting the results to Northcliffe. Unfortunately, Lord Northcliffe was not pleased. The line of march, as suggested by Lord Roberts, took the invading German army through areas where the circulation of the Daily Mail was minimal. To counter this oversight, the German attack was realigned to insure that the Hun sacked those towns where chances of securing a boost to the Daily Mail’s circulation were strongest. Le Queux and Northcliffe then promoted the serialized story daily, by publishing, in The Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Morning Post, the Daily Chronicle and the Daily Mail itself, a list of those districts the Germans—if “the Lord Roberts scenario” were followed—would attack the following morning.
        In London, the Daily Mail’s sandwich-board men paraded up and down London streets dressed in spiked helmets and Prussian uniforms, while the Prime Minister, Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman, added to the public furor by telling the House of Commons that Le Queux was “a pernicious scaremonger” and that the story was “calculated to inflame public opinion abroad and alarm the more ignorant public opinion at home.” But, the Prime Minister notwithstanding, for Northcliffe and Le Queux, the whole affair was a remarkable success. The Daily Mail’s circulation soared, and in book form, The Invasion of 1910 sold more than one million copies in twenty-seven languages. Le Queux now realized that he was close to achieving a perfect world. Through Lord Roberts, he had achieved some measure of credibility, and through Northcliffe (and the novel) he had found a way to alert huge numbers of people to the danger from Germany. Further, and even more to the point, he could, at the same time, make a lot of money. From this moment on, the two motives—patriotism and profit—became inextricably mixed in Le Queux’s fertile mind.
        Buoyed by their impact on British society, Lord Roberts and Le Queux now formed a voluntary Secret Service Department. “Half a dozen patriotic men in secret banded themselves together,” Le Queux wrote later. “Each paying his own expenses, they set to work gathering information in Germany and elsewhere that might be useful to our country in case of need. Italy and the Near East were the regions allotted to me, but my travels took me also to Russia, to Germany and to Austria.” And, according to Le Queux, much of the money he earned from The Invasion of 1910 he spent on this private espionage work:

Recommended Reading:
British Military Intelligence by thomas Fergusson
British Military Intelligence
Thomas Fergusson

The Second Oldest Profession by Phillip Knightley
The Second Oldest Profession
Phillip Knightley

I parted with my money freely, leading a gay life, with the one idea of gaining information of use to Great Britain. I was the only Englishman who ever entered the gun factory of Erhardt’s in Dusseldorf, where they were then constructing big guns. My escapade cost me a large sum in bribery, which I paid a certain adventurer in Constantinople, but I got the knowledge that I wanted. In due course the result of my adventure was reported by me, docketed, and sent to those dusty pigeon-holes in the War Office.

        When he was not spying abroad, Le Queux spent his time on counterespionage work in Britain, again flooding the War Office with reports of “German officers in mufti” and taking photographs of hotels on the British East coast with German proprietors and of Germans living near to a telegraph office, “ready to make a dash and seize or destroy the instruments” when the Germans invaded. Other Le Queux scenarios included secret German arsenals near Charing Cross, thousands of German spies disguised as waiters, and mysterious night signals in the Surrey hills. But, said Le Queux, his reports were ignored. This indifference he attributed to apathy or, more likely, to the intervention of the German sympathizers in the Hidden Hand.
        To circumvent the government apathy, Le Queux again turned to the public. With the financial backing of D.C. Thomson, the Scottish newspaper and publishing magnate, he traveled about Scotland looking for German spies and published an account of the trip in Thomson’s Weekly News. Le Queux later edited the articles and in 1909 published Spies of the Kaiser: Plotting the Downfall of England. Although he described the book as a novel, he added that it was “based on serious facts within my own personal knowledge,” the result of twelve months traveling Britain and “making a personal enquiry into the presence and work of the 5,000 German spies here.”
        While Le Queux was certainly a prolific writer, his prose was arguably forgettable: “There is just a chance of us falling upon something interesting about here,” Ray was saying, as he pressed the tobacco into his pipe, and by the expression on his clean shaven face I saw that he had scented the presence of spies.” Still, as fanned by Le Queux, Lord Roberts and the press, British suspicions of Germany reached its high-water mark upon publication of Spies of the Kaiser. Teeming with authentic and, if not evidence, at least well researched incidental detail, Spies of the Kaiser chronicled the discovery of all manner of German espionage activities, ranging from surveillance of England’s coastal defenses to attempted thefts of plans for advanced battleships, submarines, and airplanes. To lend further credibility to the narrative, Le Queux noted in the introduction: “As I write, I have before me a file of amazing documents, which plainly show the feverish activity with which this advance guard of our enemy is working.”
        While it is virtually certain that Le Queux possessed no such documents—as none, save his own, seemingly existed—Spies of the Kaiser nonetheless achieved the desired effect. Soon after its publication Le Queux began to receive letters detailing the suspicious behavior of German waiters, barbers and tourists in the vicinity of telephone, telegraph, bridges and railway lines on the east coast and around London. While the various reports presented what amounted to be little more than the amplification of Spies of the Kaiser’s fictional scenarios, Le Queux considered them to be even more proof of Germany’s malicious intentions and, more to the point, independent confirmation of his own suspicions. With letters in hand, Le Queux sought to elevate his own “spy catcher” reputation by sharing them with the British government. On this occasion, his point of contact was Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier General Sir) James Edmonds, then director of M05—military operations counterintelligence. While Edmonds’ job was to uncover foreign spies in Britain, in fact, he did nothing of the sort. However, in fairness, this cannot be attributed to a lack of will or skill—he later authored Britain’s official history of World War I on the Western Front—but rather to his negligible 200 annual budget, and the fact that his entire staff consisted of but two assistants.
        At what can only be viewed as a magical moment in history, Le Queux’s new evidence reached Edmonds at precisely the right moment. Besieged by the onslaught of public opinion, rumor and outright lies, Edmonds found himself facing a situation wherein the specter of a German invasion—however improbable—had been all but legitimized. For Edmonds, this was an impossible situation. As the one official charged with discovering German espionage activities in England, he had, in reality, no proof whatsoever. Yet, wise in the ways of government—and with an eye to his own budget and staffing levels—he took his “conclusions” to R. B. Haldane, the British secretary of state for war, who in March 1909 directed the Committee of Imperial Defence to examine “the nature and extent of the foreign espionage that is at present taking place within this country and the danger to which it may expose us.” Chaired by Lord Haldane himself, the membership was impressive, an indication of how seriously the government regarded the subject. Included were First Lord of the Admiralty, the Home Secretary, the permanent undersecretaries of the Treasury and the Foreign Office, the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, the Director of Military Operations, and the Director of Naval Intelligence.
        On Tuesday, 30 March 1909 members of the committee met in secret session at 2 Whitehall Gardens, Westminster, to consider the question of foreign espionage in Great Britain. The first witness was none other than Colonel James Edmonds. This was an important moment for Edmonds. The Committee made its recommendations to the Cabinet, and the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, was personally interested in the outcome. The future of Edmonds’ department and indeed his own career could well depend on his ability to convince the influential members of the committee of the danger he believed Britain faced from German spies. Accordingly, and drawing heavily upon Le Queux’s flights of fancy—waiters, barbers and night signals in Surry figured prominently in his testimony—Edmonds presented to the subcommittee a variety of evidence concerning German espionage in Britain, much of it misinterpreted or fabricated.
        Edmonds began his testimony by setting out his credentials: he had studied the German army for practically all his life and he knew personally a German officer he described only as “Major von X,” who was head of the German secret service. “Espionage,” said Edmonds. “Is openly recognized in the German Army as an essential and honorable weapon of war.” And, to this end, the Germans possessed an elaborate espionage system in Britain, dividing England into any number of sections, each under a secret service officer who, in turn, had under him a number of agents, some “stationary”—those settled in Britain under commercial or academic cover—and others who were more mobile, who were dispatched to Britain for specific reconnaissance activities.
        The purpose of the German agents was to collect information with which to supplement maps, to compile military reports, to buy secret information, and to make a reconnaissance of those docks, bridges, telegraph lines and railways that could be sabotaged upon the outbreak of war. In summary, Edmonds noted: “A number of suspicious cases have been reported to and investigated by the War Office during the last few years. These cases point to the fact that there is an extensive German system for collecting information in this country. We have, however, no regular system or organization to detect and report suspicious cases and we are entirely dependent on casual information.”
        By the third meeting of the committee Lord Haldane suggested that there was sufficient evidence to issue a report. The rest of the committee agreed and Haldane released the following statement:

The evidence which was produced left no doubt in the minds of the committee that an extensive system of German espionage exists in this country, and that we have no organization for keeping in touch with that espionage and for accurately determining its extent or objectives.

        The committee also concluded that Britain’s foreign intelligence system—particularly the meager War Office and Admiralty networks—were woefully inadequate, and recommended the formation of a secret service bureau to serve three purposes: to serve as a barrier between the military services and foreign spies; to act as the intermediary between the military service departments and British agents abroad; and to take charge of counterespionage. Drawn from Le Queux and company’s fixations, and supplemented by the recommendation of Lord Haldane, the British Secret Service was established in 1909. While certainly a significant event in and of itself, even more important was how the British sought to deal dealt with a singular claim in Le Queux’s Spies of the Kaiser: “England is the paradise of the spy, and will remain so until we can bring pressure to bear to compel the introduction of fresh legislation against them.” By 1909, the 1889 Official Secrets Act was effectively revised, shifting the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defense in cases of alleged espionage.
        So was there really any factual basis to suggest a massive German conspiracy to invade England? Not really. But, in the end, it made little difference and it can be reasonably deduced that Britain’s predisposition to the First World War was caused by culture: to be precise, the culture of militarism spawned from fear and fanned by the rhetoric of William Le Queux and others like him. But if Britain’s entry into World War I was indeed caused by self-fulfilling prophecies drawn from the fictional machinations of German spies against England, is this so different from today and similar machinations—real and imagined—attributed to Islamic states?
        In the current geopolitical environment, this emerges as a central and menacing question and one is reminded of the cautionary words of the nineteenth century Scottish novelist Margaret Oliphant: “Facts are of all things in the world the most false to nature, the most opposed to experience, the most contradictory of all the grand laws of existence ... for us, truth and fact are two different things; and to say that some incident which is false to nature is taken from life is an altogether unsatisfactory and inadmissible excuse.”
        In this respect, it seems that the obviousness of a situation may well be exceeded by only the frequency with which it is overlooked.    

Author’s Note: In addition to the historical record, I have borrowed extensively from three primary texts that concern themselves with the beginnings of British intelligence. The first is Thomas Fergusson’s British Military Intelligence, 1870-1914, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1984. The second is Phillip Knightly’s The Second Oldest Profession: Spys and Spying in the Twentieth Century, New York: Norton & Company, 1987. Knightly unquestionably offers the most lucid contemporary treatment of LeQueux’s connection with British intelligence activities. The third is LeQueux’s own Things I Know about Kings, Celebrities, and Crooks, London: Eveleigh, Nash, and Grayson, 1923. A kind of droll autobiography, this is a rather free ranging narrative that suggests that LeQueux, by age 62, remained unencumbered by historical and political reality.


Brett F. Woods received his Ph.D. in literature at the University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, England, where his principal research involved geopolitics and the evolution of British espionage fiction. He is a senior executive fellow of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the author of numerous essays, monographs and books, both fiction and nonfiction. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.