Posts Tagged ‘World War I’

How Westminster’s secret hackers helped bring America into the First World War.

A guest post by London Historians Member Mark Lubienski.

Old Admiralty from Horse Guards Parade

Have you ever walked along Whitehall, or across Horse Guards Parade, and glanced up at the Grade I listed Old Admiralty Building? Perhaps you’ve pondered the Empire-changing events that were planned in its dimly lit and smoke filled rooms? You may know that it was once the office of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, or you may even be an admirer of the Robert Adam screen that was added to the Whitehall entrance in 1788. But you probably don’t know that it was at the centre of a dramatic chain of events that triggered America’s entry into the First World War. Those events began with a secret telegram sent from Berlin to Mexico City via Stockholm and Washington DC.

By January 1917 the First World War was in its third winter and had seen bloodshed on an unimaginable scale, but it was also at a stalemate. Despite calls from politicians in Britain and at home, and in the face of attacks on America domestically and at sea, US President Woodrow Wilson had steadfastly maintained his country’s neutrality. The sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania in May 1915 by a German U-Boat, with a loss of 1,198 lives including 128 US citizens, almost drew America into the conflict. But Wilson remained neutral despite acts of espionage and sabotage by German agents on the US mainland that included blowing up munitions trains, firebombing factories, and stirring up Mexican aggression towards America. The pressure on Wilson was increasing, but what would it take to finally bring the United States into the war?

Blinker Hall standing_250

Reginald “Blinker” Hall.

Back in London, in a dusty corner of the Old Admiralty Building, the Royal Navy had set up the top secret Room 40; its own intercept and code-breaking outfit. Its name really did come from its room number, and it was located on the first floor a few doors along from Churchill’s office, overlooking a shady inner courtyard. The spymaster in charge of Room 40 was Capt. Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall – he had a persistent and rather unnerving facial twitch – a man who was cunning, ruthless and rather fond of intrigue. Hall had built up a brilliant code-breaking team drawn from academia and through his own social connections, generally preferring recruits with backgrounds in modern and ancient languages. One of Hall’s first hires was Nigel de Grey, a Balloon Corps veteran fluent in German and French. Another was Alfred ‘Dilly’ Knox, an eccentric Cambridge classical scholar and hieroglyphologist. Knox soon had a bathtub installed in his office in the Old Admiralty Building, and he would spend hours lying in the hot water mulling over code-breaking problems, steadfastly refusing to allow anyone else to borrow it. His office cum bathroom was just around the corner from Room 40, and looked out over Whitehall from where you can still see its window today.

In the early hours of Wednesday 17th January 1917, prospects for the Allied powers changed dramatically. An intercepted telegram was handed to de Grey and Knox who had been manning the night watch in Room 40, and they quickly realized that it was in the newest and highest-level German diplomatic code called 7500. The telegram was tackled with the greatest urgency and within a few hours it had been partially decoded; it was from the German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, and was destined for Mexico via Count Johann von Bernsdorff, the German Ambassador to the US. It was dynamite; an invitation to Mexico to join the war on the side of Germany were America to enter the war following Germany’s imminent resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic. Mexico, a country that made America both nervous and paranoid, would be rewarded with the territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in return for attacking America with arms and resources to be provided by Germany. Today it sounds far-fetched, but in 1917 it was a genuine and serious proposal.

de Grey & Knox

de Grey and Knox.

De Grey immediately grasped the incendiary nature of the telegram’s content, and he ran as fast as he could to ‘Blinker’ Hall’s office with the partial decrypt, breathlessly exclaiming “Do you want to bring America into the war, Sir?” “Yes, my boy. Why?” exclaimed Hall. “I’ve got a telegram here that will bring them in if you give it to them.” Hall couldn’t remember a time when he had been so excited, but the telegram was only of importance if it could be used.

Persuaded of the telegram’s authenticity and understanding its explosive implications, Hall now had to tread carefully. If the contents of the telegram became public, the Germans would immediately realise that diplomatic code 7500 had been broken. Just as significantly, the Americans would realise that the British had been tapping into their diplomatic cables as the telegram had passed through a US diplomatic channel in Stockholm en route to Washington DC. Hall couldn’t allow either eventuality to happen and so he kept quiet, hoping that America would enter the war anyway. But America did not; so Hall, a master of deception and disinformation, acted cleverly and decisively.


Hall realised that an amended version of the telegram in an older lower-level code, called 13040 and which Room 40 had previously broken, would need to be forwarded by von Bernsdorff in Washington DC to the German ambassador in Mexico City. If this version could somehow be obtained and made public, the Germans would assume that the cyber-theft had happened in Mexico. Hall contacted a British agent down in Mexico City who infiltrated the local telegraph office and had the telegram stolen. Hall now had what he needed, and it was the Mexican version that he handed to the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, who in turn presented it to the US Ambassador in London on 23rd February 1917. Just a day later, President Woodrow Wilson had the Zimmerman Telegram in his hands, exclaiming “Good Lord! Good Lord!”. When Wilson published the telegram a few days later, the American newspapers and public were appalled and called for action against Germany. Any remaining doubts about the authenticity of the telegram were removed in early March when Zimmerman himself admitted that the telegram was real, and it proved to be the catalyst that finally brought America into the First World War on 6th April 1917.


And what became of our cryptographic heroes Nigel de Grey and ‘Dilly’ Knox? Both went on to play distinguished roles in Britain’s code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, where today an exhibition remembering the work of Room 40 and the First World War code-breakers includes, as its central exhibit, a bathtub.


Mark Lubienski is a Westminster Guide from the Class of 2014. He is also a co-founder of London War Walks and gives occasional talks on the secret world of intelligence and espionage.



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A Guest Post by Stephen Cooper.

In research for my book of the Great War told through the experiences of men from one London rugby club, I stumbled across a neglected landmark with a poignant tale. In 2010 I wrote these opening words for a chapter:

“Head south over London Bridge, towards Borough High Street, the old coaching road to Kent. Southwark cathedral crouches to the right and the clumsy bulk of the station’s viaduct looms ahead. Look for a once-splendid, once-white façade: an elaborate blend of arch, balustrade and ornament, with carved swags of hops, grapes and even a stag’s head. Now grey with soot, this, like Miss Havisham’s wedding-cake, is a ghost of a building.

The hands of its clock with black Roman numerals are fixed at 11.47 as they have been since the early 1960s. Ragged shrubs sprout from crevices where no plant should grow, and the faïence frontage offers a tempting canvas to the graffiti artist. This wan face among grimy walls and thrusting plate-glass neighbours like the Shard is a ghostly survivor from another era. It is a corner of the capital where time has indeed stopped.

For over a century, Findlater’s Corner has been a familiar sight to the southbound City worker, ‘passed or seen by more persons every day than any other spot in London’*. The current structure is shrunken from its Victorian original by the encroachments of railway and advertising hoardings. Peter Ackroyd’s London the Biography observes the lingering spirit of place that binds many capital landmarks to their past. Call this instead a ‘place of spirit’, for today it is a branch of an eccentric national wine-seller, evoking its first incarnation in 1856 as headquarters of Findlater, Mackie, Todd & Co. Ltd, Wine & Spirit Merchants.

In the cruellest month of April 1915, a boy brings a curt telegram from the War Office to these same premises, addressed to the Chairman. Its formulaic words, by now dreaded in households across the country, regret a death in the family. A brother, husband and father are all fallen in one man. Since that day another spirit has haunted this corner: the gregarious wine-merchant, soldier and international rugby player, Alec Todd.”

The chapter goes on to tell of Todd’s experience as a British Lion rugby player in South Arica in 1896, of his fighting the Boer War there four years later and of his death near Ypres in 1915. He had nominated his brother, James, as Next of Kin (NOK) so that wife Alice would not hear the fateful knock at her Ascot door. He was shot through the neck at Hill 60 east of Ypres on April 18. The National Archive shows a flurry of telegrams from the War Office to the Norfolk Regiment depot to ascertain the correct NOK. By the time the ‘serious wounding’ telegram arrives at Findlater’s Corner three days later, CaptainTodd is dead in a Casualty Clearing Station near Poperinghe.

clock findlater's corner

Picture: Stephen May.

The stopped clock was much photographed and internet searches revealed a history of graffiti headaches for the Council. The romantic in me speculated whether the telegram had arrived at 11:47 that April morning in 1915. Had the clock stopped perhaps on the 50th anniversary of Alec’s death? No way of knowing, but it made a good story. That is, until October 27, 2012.

This was the afternoon, three months after the book’s publication, when riding over London Bridge on my trusty Vespa, I glanced up to find the hands at 02:30. Aghast, I enquired inside: ‘Ah, that would be Boris’, I was told. Turns out our esteemed Mayor, bicycling to a meeting at his nearby City Hall, had trusted the clock’s time, only to arrive late. In a fit of civic efficiency, he commanded that a Derby clockmaker be summoned to restore the clock and change the ‘hands of time’. Thanks, Boris. The story is too good to lose, but I have relegated the Mayor’s intervention to a footnote – by way of revenge.
Todd maintains his mystique even in death. He is buried in ‘Pop’ but is also named on the Menin Gate, memorial to those with no known grave. Better that he is doubly remembered than he, or any man, be forgotten.

The full story and many other London nuggets can be discovered in ‘The Final Whistle: the Great War in Fifteen Players’ by Stephen Cooper, (Spellmount ) £14.99 from all the usual sources and also this month’s LH Members’ prize draw, don’t forget to enter.

*The Wine Trade Review  9 November 1934.

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img007bThis book revisits and re-evaluates the controversy surrounding the German banker Sir Edgar Speyer, Bt. during and just after the First World War.

Edgar Speyer was a classic turn of the 20th Century philanthropist of great wealth;  a German financier whose family bank had branches in New York, Frankfurt and London. Speyer took over the London branch in 1887. He was most interested in the railways and in the early 1900s joined with the notorious Charles Tyson Yerkes to take over the Metropolitan District Line and develop three new Tube lines, employing the station designs of a London Historians hero, Leslie Green. So with Tube150 happening this year, it’s a good time to remember men like Speyer. He was also a major backer of the Whitechapel Gallery and so would have definitely known another London Historians hero, Cornish philanthropist John Passmore Edwards. In addition, he bankrolled the first Promenade concerts and sponsored musicians and orchestras as well as visits by prominent European composers and conductors. He supported hospitals, Scott’s Antarctic expedition and dozens of other needy projects, including friends who were simply down on their luck. Speyer and his wife Leonora (a musician), along with their two daughters, had a town house in Grosvenor Street as well as a country retreat on the Norfolk coast: they entertained and offered music-themed  hospitality at both. Edgar, a naturalised British citizen, was knighted in 1906 and made a Privy Councillor in 1909. Friends of the Asquiths, the Speyers were at the apex of the Liberal ruling establishment.

Despite his position at the high table and his deep and wide generosity, freely given over many years, things unravelled badly for the Speyers when war broke out. All Germans came under suspision and were widely vilified. Edgar suffered particularly badly in this respect. This book tells the story of how he was attacked daily by Tory hawks and pretty much unanimously in the press, not excluding establishment up-market titles such as the Times. His enemies wished for him to be kicked off the Privy Council, to be stripped of his baronetcy and to even have his British citizen ship revoked. The banker attempted to draw the sting by resigning from the first two, but the King and Prime Minister refused. Rather than placate his enemies, they simply turned these gestures against them.

In 1915, the exhausted Speyers decided the fight not worth the candle and left for New York. Even after the war, there was no let up. Edgar’s enemies persued him through the courts until even his British citizenship – along with his wife’s and British-born daughters’ – were revoked, in 1921. The grounds were apparent second-hand and possibly unintended collusion with Germany during the war involving financial transactions from the USA. As Speyer himself and his counsel correctly pointed out, dozens of British individuals and institutions were guilty of more: the case was a very thin gruel indeed. And no matter that he had donated more to British military causes than the transactions in question.  But by this time, Edgar was fighting for honour, nothing more.

So was Speyer a traitor and a spy? Or simply a scapegoat?

The received wisdom of this footnote to the Great War passed down the decades is that on balance, Speyer’s sympathies were too pro-German – his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography is a good example.  Perhaps he should have done more, like his compatriot Sir Ernest Cassell, to ingratiate himself with the totality of the press and British public opinion. Later in the book, Prof Lentin reluctantly concedes that Speyer didn’t do as much as he could have to help himself. But Speyer felt too hard-done-by and maligned for that. The author is very much of this persuasion. Using newly-released source documents, he gives a well-written, astute and persuasive analysis which utterly refutes (although without completely destroying) the almost century-old orthodoxy on the case of Edgar Speyer.

It’s nice to read a First World War book which doesn’t involve the trenches in any way. There will be plenty of that in the next five years.

Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat Spy? The Troublesome Case of Sir Edgar Speyer (216pp, paperback) by Antony Lentin is published by Haus Publishing on 4 March 2013 at a cover price of £12.99 but available for less. Pre-order here.

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king's troop royal horse artilleryToday being the Prince of Wales’s birthday, the King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery fired a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park. The Troop, dating from 1793, is nowadays a mostly ceremonial unit. It comprises six World War One vintage 13 pounder field guns which are drawn by teams of six horses each. In support of creating lots of noise and smoke, they have a fine military band. Their HQ is in St John’s Wood in convenient proximity to Hyde Park where most of their duties are performed.

These highly trained soldiers provide a wonderful spectacle. You’re first aware of them from afar at the north edge of the park, seemingly a single thin line. As they approach at the gallop you discern they are six separate groups. Closer still and you hear the sound of the hooves pounding the soil, horses breathing hard and the distinctive jangle of the traces, harnesses and shiny metal that yoke horse, man, ammunition and weapon together: a daunting combination on the battlefields of yore. In no time flat the horse are de-coupled and the guns are brought into action. A matter of seconds later the guns are booming, each in turn for the salute, but in battle conditions it would be terrifying salvoes.

As quickly as they arrived, all the elements are re-united and the Troop proudly exits the field, at the gallop.  An impressive show indeed.

In addition to today’s proceedings, the King’s Troop also performs on the monarch’s birthday, the State Opening of Parliament, Remembrance Sunday (just two rounds marking the start and end of two minutes’ silence) and other ad-hoc State ceremonial occasions.

You can see more pictures than those featured here on our Flickr page.

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clement attlee

The other day, having Tweeted the anniversary of Clement Attlee’s death in 1967, I heard from Ruairidh Anderson (@thehowlingsea) who informed me of a poem Attlee wrote, called In Limehouse. Here it is:

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, before the break of day,
I hear the feet of many men who go upon their way,
Who wander through the City,
The grey and cruel City,
Through streets that have no pity
The streets where men decay.

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, by night as well as day,
I hear the feet of children who go to work or play,
Of children born of sorrow,
The workers of tomorrow
How shall they work tomorrow
Who get no bread today?.

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, today and every day
I see the weary mothers who sweat their souls away:
Poor, tired mothers, trying
To hush the feeble crying
Of little babies dying
For want of bread today.

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, I’m dreaming of the day
When evil time shall perish and be driven clean away,
When father, child and mother
Shall live and love each other,
And brother help his brother
In happy work and play.

Not classical poetry, by any means, but a pretty good effort nonetheless, both powerful and poignant. It tells us much about Attlee, a conviction politician from the East End and very much in the mould of the radical Left which emerged in the Victorian period in this area. He was MP for Limehouse for 27 years until 1950 during which time he was Deputy Prime Minister to Churchill during WWII and, of course, Prime Minister of the post-War Labour government, which overhauled the ancient status quo of Britain forever.

Attlee served in World War One in Turkey and the Near East, reaching the rank of Major. After the war he entered local politics as Mayor of Stepney, where he concentrated on improving slum housing, squaring up against rapacious landlords in both his and neighbouring boroughs such as Poplar. He then went on to the House of Commons in 1922.

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silvertown explosion

Not enemy action, rather home-grown explosion. Picture: Borough of Newham.

Today marks the anniversary of a TNT explosion which claimed 73 lives and injured a further 400.

At  6:52 pm on 19 January 1917 in a Silvertown factory, 50 tons of TNT ignited in a massive blast which completely destroyed the premises, caused widespread damage to the surrounding area, and could be heard throughout most of London. It wasn’t the biggest or the worst industrial explosion in Britain during World War I, but it became the most notorious.

From early in the conflict, Britain found herself critically short of munitions. So the War Office decided to expand the capacity of the Brunner Mond (later known as ICI) factory in West Ham, against the advice of Brunner Mond themselves, on safety grounds. On the fateful evening a fire broke out in the melt-pot room, precipitating the fatal blast. An estimated 70,000 properties were damaged, including a gasometer which released an enormous fireball into the sky.

While no actual cause of the accident was identified, enemy involvement was ruled out. To this day, the site of the Silvertown factory remains derelict.

Sources: This incident is well-documented on the web. Here is a partial list of links.
Port Cities
Newham Archive 

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Yesterday, I joined up with old comrades for Remembrance Sunday service at the Garden of Remembrance, Westminster, where we remembered the contribution of Rhodesians in conflicts from the Boer War to Malaya and, of course, our own bush war against ZIPRA and ZANLA, 1972 – 1980. With the strains of Elgar drifting over from the main ceremony in Whitehall, it was a moving experience. Afterwards, we went to lunch in Lambeth and got properly refreshed as is the custom.

blessing of the colours

Blessing of the Colours.

Remembrance Sunday service

Remembrance Sunday service, Rhodesia contingent

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