In all the European Wars of the last century in which the British paid a leading role, there was always a concomitant feature of a certain level of mass hysteria on the Home Front. This was brought on by the fear of the presence in the Homeland of enemy spies, and of conspiracies engendered by the hidden enemies of the State. This hysteria typically caused unwarranted alarums and mass reactions by the civilian population with a corresponding over-reaction by the authorities.
A particularly virulent, if somewhat sporadic, campaign was launched against what came to be called the 'Hidden Hand' in the Great War.
The Hidden Hand
Today we would call them Conspiracy Theories. In 1914, in particular, and throughout the Great War, it was strongly maintained that the German State encouraged and abetted a Hidden Hand working across all aspects of British civil society, industry, the administration and the military. Its alleged aim was to cause hindrance and difficulties in the prosecution of the War by the British State and its Empire. It is true, of course, there were German spies and conspiracies but not, it seems, on the imagined scale.
From time to time, in the traditional British way, public meetings were called to upbraid the government for its lack of action over this all-pervasive threat of conspiracy to the war effort. Not all these concerns were warranted or, indeed, entirely rational.
In particular, certain events would stimulate specific local or countrywide reaction and action such as:
- The death of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum (K of K): On the 5th June 1916 the British Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, was lost at sea. He was aboard the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hampshire on a diplomatic mission to Russia, when it was torpedoed, at full speed, by a German U-boat and sank West of the Orkney Islands. Most of the crew was lost, many succumbing to the cold during a regrettably desultory rescue effort. Kitchener's body was never found.
During his period in office Kitchener had acquired many detractors, so a homemade conspiracy cannot be entirely over-ruled.
Two of the more plausible Hidden Hand stories in this case were:
- A German spy, named Fritz Joubert Duquesne, had inveigled his way aboard the Hampshire in the guise of a Russian Duke. At a judicious point in the journey he had sent a radio signal to the German U-boat U-75 and escaped in a raft before the ship foundered. In any event, he was awarded the Iron Cross by Germany for his so-called daring deed.
- Irish Republicans had secreted explosives aboard which had sunk the ship.
One of the other more dubious theories was that the ship was sunk as the result of a Jewish conspiracy in league with Winston Churchill, the former First Sea Lord, and Mrs Jellicoe, wife of the commander of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland!
- The film It is for England: In 1914 a book was published entitled The Man Who Stayed at Home that emphasised the threat posed by Germany to Britain and the Empire. A widely circulated film of the book, entitled It Is For England, whipped up considerable spy mania as it included examples of the many techniques thought to be used by the Germans in their attempts to destabilise the British Home Front and weaken the general war effort.
The film was later re-released as The Hidden Hand reinforcing this very concept in the mind of the general public.
- Alleged assassination attempt on Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister.
In 1917, a trial was held at the Old Bailey, London. Four conspirators were alleged to have plotted to poison the then Prime Minister, Lloyd George, and his Minister Without Portfolio, Arthur Henderson. A highly exotic poison called curare (main toxin D-tubocararine) was claimed to be the chosen toxin. This highly poisonous substance was derived from the bark of certain jungle trees and plants and is traditionally used by South American Indian tribes to make poison darts. These they use in blowpipes to bring down their prey in the jungle. Curare kills by asphyxiation and has the additional valuable characteristic of being undetectable in the human body at post-mortem. An air gun was said to be the method chosen by the conspirators to deliver the poison darts.
In essence the co-conspirators were opposed to conscription into the armed forces and actively supported the evasion from the Law of significant numbers conscientious objectors. Additionally, they openly showed their personal hatred of P.M. Lloyd George and MP Henderson because of their strong support of the Conscription and Military Service Acts. The accomplices were considered to be a serious threat to the British war effort and as well as the targeted individuals.
The detection of the plotters was enabled by a secret surveillance operation carried out by members of the staff of the Ministry of Munitions – later part of Special Branch and MI5 anti-espionage agencies. Through various contacts with the conspirators the Suffragette movement also became involved.
The plotters admitted possession of curare with evil intent, and three of the conspirators were given prison sentences ranging from five to 10 years. Two were later released after two years in jail at the instigation of Lloyd George himself.
No proof of an actual attempt at an assassination was forthcoming at the trial.
- The staging of a banned play by Oscar Wilde: The British military had long considered homosexuality to be a serious threat to good order and military discipline and considered offences connected with this 'vice' to be very grave indeed. No openly homosexual was allowed to serve in the Great War and any closet homosexual who was detected was ignominiously dismissed from the service.
Since it is considered that around 10% of all men and women have homosexual tendencies, obviously over the centuries, and in the Great War itself, many servicemen were closet homosexuals who managed to hide their sexual orientation successfully for long periods whilst in close and intimate contact with their comrades under the conditions of war. This must have been particularly difficult in the claustrophobic crush of massed humanity of the trenches. Post-war, the sexual orientation of some important military figures – such as Lawrence of Arabia – was questioned.
Added to this was the fear of the deliberate spread of venereal disease for which there was no sure cure at the time. Any mention that the enemy was encouraging vice of any kind through the auspices of its provocateurs and agents was leapt upon by the more vociferous Hidden Hand conspiracy adherents.
One outstanding case of this occurred in June 1918 when a private case for libel was brought against a member of the British Parliament, (East Hertfordshire) Noel Pemberton-Billing by female dancer, Maud Allan. Miss Allan had appeared in Oscar Wilde's banned play Salome allegedly as part the Hidden Hand conspiracy to erode the morals and fighting efficiency of Britain's fighting men in particular and the population in general.
After a spectacular trial witnessed by a partisan crowd, M.P. Pemberton-Billing won his case and walked free from the Old Bailey to wild public acclaim. Maud Allan left the country believing that the British government had clandestinely supported her case to embarrass Pemberton-Billing into leaving the Houses of Parliament when he lost the case.
- Pitman and non-Pitman shorthand: The trival nature of some of these baseless reports on the activities of the Hidden Hand was exemplified by a newspaper report in the early days of the War. It said that a British woman attending a meeting on the War suddenly proclaimed that a German spy was present and was taking copious notes in German. In fact, the 'spy' was in a newspaper reporter and his notes proved to be in shorthand. Not the Pitman's Shorthand with which the woman was familiar, but another less well known format called Taylor's Shorthand.
It is amazing how quickly the rumour mills started to grind at the outbreak of war in 1914. Of course, not everyone was carried away with the fervour of xenophobia, hatred and conspiracy theories: there were always many die-hard sceptics and the just plain "do not cares". But it certainly was a widespread phenomenon amongst a proportion of the population of the British Isles and particularly so in the urbanised areas. It was usually brought on by certain dramatic events, or rumours thereof, and tended not to go away for the duration of the War and even afterwards, often gaining even further repute and currency by repetition and amplification in the telling.
Part of the causation was indubitably the aura of fear and the personal helplessness engendered by the War after the stability of the pre-war Edwardian era. A feeling of an inability to react to, and rationalise, quite unanticipated events and problems, allied with a wish to strike back at the enemy in some way.
Whatever the motivation of the Hidden Hand theorists, certainly there was often a willingness by those in authority to go along with tide and even 'assist' in the propagation of these Hidden Hand ideas by whatever means was required. In this way it was hoped that the pressures and frustration that built up in the population would be better dissipated, and the government would be outwardly seen to be dealing with the problem in a constructive manner.