The performance of the British intelligence agencies during the Second World War is very well known, but the activities of their First World War predecessors are less familiar. The rounding up of every known German spy at the start of the war is quite well known, but after that MI5 rather fades from view.
This study begins with the formation of what became MI5, triggered by the spy mania before the First World War. The small organisation was founded to discover if the Germans were indeed spying on Britain, and its focus throughout this period was the German threat. There is a tendency in books on spying to focus on the individual cases, and largely ignore the structure that lay behind them. Northcott avoids that, and instead splits his attention fairly equally between the organisation, methods and policies of MI5 and the individual cases that resulted from them. As a result this is a rather more sober affair than many books on spying, but also rather more useful, not only telling us what MI5 did, but also how.
There is interesting material on the changes to the law requested by MI5, and the different response before and during the war. In peacetime Liberal Britain was unwilling to adopt many of the measures suggested by the intelligence agency, but this changed during wartime, and the Defence of the Realm Act and Aliens acts gave MI5 almost all of the powers that it requested. We then get to see how effective those powers actually were. There is also an examination of the German spying agencies, their objectives and their effectiveness (or lack of it).
This book is a serious study of the topic, and it thus is a useful addition to the literature on the First World War, and on the role of Intelligence agencies in war and peace.
1 - Humble Beginnings 1903-March 1911
2 - Breakthrough March 1911-August 1914
3 - The Outbreak of War August 1914-December 1914
4 - The Year of the Spy 1915
5 - New Threats
6 - From Counter-Espionage to Security Intelligence 1 January 1917 to 11 November 1918
7 - Settling Accounts - Conclusion and MI5 and the Historiography
Author: Chris Northcott
Publisher: Tattered Flag/ Chevron