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  • Top-secret MI5 files released online to mark first world war centenary

    Spies such as Mata Hari, heroic nurse Edith Cavell, suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and the Boy Scouts feature in documents

    Exotic spies, heroes, and known and suspected communists feature in top-secret MI5 files available online for the first time on Thursday to mark the 100th anniversary of the first world war.

    Mata Hari, Edith Cavell, Sir Roger Casement, Arthur Ransome, Sidney Reilly, a leading suffragette and the Boy Scouts were among those MI5 kept under surveillance in its early years as Britain’s Security Service.

    Mata Hari, one of history’s most celebrated honey-trap spies, first came to MI5’s attention in December 1915 when she arrived at Folkestone on the Dieppe boat train. She admitted her destination was The Hague to be near her lover Baron Van der Capellen, a colonel in the Dutch Hussars.

    The following year, MI5’s informant in The Hague, codenamed “T”, reported: “Mata Hari is a demi-mondaine who is in relation with highly placed people and during her sojourn in France she made the acquaintance of many French and Belgian officers. She is suspected of having been to France on an important mission for the Germans.”

    In November 1916, questioned by MI5, Mata Hari claimed that a French consul in Spain had subsequently asked her to go to Austria to spy on that country’s forces.

    A renowned dancer, Mata Hari was a Dutch divorcee born Marguerite Gertrude Zelle in the Dutch East Indies. A French intelligence report dated 22 May 1917, shown to a MI5 officer in Paris, noted: “Mata Hari today confessed that she has been engaged by Consul Cremer of Amsterdam for the German Secret Service. She was paid 20,000 francs in advance.”

    She was shot by a French firing squad in 1917.

    Edith Cavell, a British nurse at a Red Cross hospital in Belgium, was executed by a German firing squad in October 1915 for helping 200 allied soldiers to escape. The files in the National Archives show that British diplomats clung to the hope that Germany would not execute a woman who was regarded as a heroine.

    An MI5 agent in Liège said he had been told by a reliable source that “the two spies who denounced Nurse Cavell have both been killed, one by a bullet in the head, the other by a dagger thrust in the chest”.

    Sir Roger Casement, a British consul in Africa and South America knighted for his work in exposing the exploitation and slaughter of Africans and South American Indians, and Sidney Reilly, a naturalised Russian Jew dubbed the Ace of Spies, are other victims of espionage who feature among the 150 MI5 files.

    Casement was arrested on a beach in Co Kerry, three days before the 1916 Easter rising, after landing in a boat that had picked him up from a German submarine. A trawler accompanying the submarine and carrying 20,000 guns was scuttled after being intercepted.

    The MI5 documents show Casement knew the Easter rising was doomed to failure after Germany reneged on its promises to send troops to help the rebels. The UK government used his “black diaries” to smear him and sabotage a campaign to save his life.

    “I have done nothing dishonourable, as you will one day learn,” he told Frank Hall, a senior MI5 officer. Casement was hanged in Pentonville prison on 3 August 1916.

    Reilly was recruited to work for the British secret intelligence service, MI6. When he died in 1925 the Russians claimed a guard had shot him as he crossed the border with Finland. MI5 documents suggest he was executed by Bolsheviks in 1925.

    Reilly had many wives, according to MI5. A Special Branch informer reported that his second wife, actress Pepita Bobadilla, went to the Russian embassy in Paris following his death. As she applied for a visa, she told the Russians her husband had been “spying for the British government”.

    Arthur Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons, caught MI5’s attention as correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in Moscow who married Trotsky’s secretary, Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina.

    British officials told MI5 that Ransome was “exceedingly clever and interesting fellow – but an out and out Bolshevist”. The British consul and MI6 officer in Moscow, Robert Bruce Lockhart, soon corrected them. Ransome, who was given the codename S76, was a valuable intelligence asset during the chaos of the Russian revolution, he said.

    The files include one on the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, one of MI5’s later targets. MI5 noted that in 1940 she wrote to Viscount Swinton, chairman of a committee investigating Fifth Columnists, sending him a list of active Fascists still at large and of anti-Fascists who had been interned. A copy of the letter includes a note by Swinton, saying: “I should think a most doubtful source of information.”

    The files also show how MI5 was concerned that the Boy Scouts were being infiltrated by Communists after the first world war.

    The files can be accessed at the National Archives link – First World War 100.

    Richard Norton-Taylor
    The Guardian, Wednesday 9 April 2014 22.43 BST

    Find this story at 9 April 2014

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