My Review of The Spy Net: The Greatest Intelligence Operations of the First World War


November marks the centenary of the end of the First World War. Living in the United Kingdom, as I do at the moment, this is a significant event. Most likely more significant for those in Europe than it is for those of us from the United States. The schools in the States don’t spend a lot of time on the First World War. We didn’t spend as much time fighting in it as the rest of the world did and we didn’t lose anywhere near as many Soldiers as other nations. One of the other things that seems to be lacking to me is anything regarding  the intelligence operations during the war. Apart from the existence of Mata Hari that is.

There is a plethora of books and movies on the daring exploits of the members of Britain’s Special Operations Executive, or SOE, as they lit Europe ablaze. Movies abound about the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency – the Offices of Strategic Services, OSS. Likewise most of us grew up either reading of the fictionalized exploits of either MI-6 by following James Bond or the impossible missions of Jim Phelps. Or perhaps we followed the real life actions in Berlin as the Cold War played out in front of our eyes.What has always been missing to me is the dearth of good stories about the activities of the intelligence services during the course of World War 1.

The Spy Net by Henry Landau, would seem to help fill the gap. One would expect to find the stories of daring patriots risking life and limb to provide information to the Triple Entente to stop the plans of the vile Huns. Unfortunately the book is just that, failing to fill the gap in a satisfying way and leaving the reader with more expectation than resolution in the drama of the stories being told.

Henry Landau was recruited by the original head of what would later be referred to as the Secret Intelligence Service or MI-6. Transferred from an artillery unit into the intelligence service in 1916, Landau was assigned to reinvigorate the network of train spotters and its affiliated courier service in occupied France and Belgium along the western front. He inherited a fractured network that would come to be known as La Dame Blanche or the White Lady. He managed to completely renew the organization and provide the allies with the information required throughout the final years of this devastating conflict.

Watching trains doesn’t at first glance seem to be the daring and exciting world that we have all become used to hearing and seeing in the 21st century. Especially as most of us have been brought up on the fictionalized exploits we’ve seen or read in The Hunt for Red October or the retelling of the work of the unit created by Ian Fleming during World War 2, 30 Commando Unit. World War 1, however, was the first truly industrialized war. In order for the killing and slaughter that took place at such tremendous levels to happen you need tremendous numbers of personnel and equipment. The only way to provide these numbers was to transport them via the most efficient way possible. In the early 20th century the quickest and most efficient way to move that much equipment and that number of Soldiers was by the railway network.

Members of the White Lady provided the British with the knowledge they needed about the movement of these troops. Providing this information, even gathering this information, was a task that could cost you your life if you were discovered. Landau provides stories of several of his “companies” as the various parts of the networks were referred to. In our more modern parlance, we would refer to them as cells within the intelligence network. During WW1 they were referred to as battalions and companies, the members of the companies being considered military as opposed to civilian assets. In fact many of the members of these companies were given military honors and medals and some were to be provided with knighthoods from the British government at the end of hostilities.

There are plenty of stories in these pages relating to how the network was created. Stories abound of the fight to get across the border into Luxembourg, past the electrified frontier and the patrols, to provide the vital information regarding the buildup of troops for the final push by the Germans. Tales of the capture of entire companies within the White Lady or other organizations created in occupied territory as well. There is also the stories of the eventual fate of the members of the groups. Everything from hard labor to having to face the firing squad. Therein lies the primary problem with the book. Too many stories.

Hold on you might be saying. How can there be too many stories? Landau jumps from one story to the next and doesn’t build your interest in the people or their activities. In other words, not enough detail. Any one of these tales would be enough to fill an entire volume. Telling the entire tale takes up maybe two thirds to three quarters of the book. It would have been better to focus the book on just one part of the network. Perhaps even just telling the story of one of the more dramatic tales of one of the groups from beginning to end instead of trying to fit in the entire tale. The story needs to be told but would be better served by either focusing on just one aspect or taking the time – and the space – to tell the whole story. To expand on the people and their struggles as they fight to free their countries from occupation.

There is another problem which plagues this book. This is the problem with the other one quarter to thirds of the book. The tale of Henry Landau himself. It’s a good three chapters before we even find out how he is recruited into the secret service. Then he spends the last one hundred pages informing us about either his attempt to find love in the arms of a prima ballerina or his involvement in the investigation and court case of two sabotage attempts against American industry before the United States even entered the war. The court cases themselves happen in the 1920’s. Years after his intelligence networks have been “liquidated” as he refers to it and also years after the end of the war.

The final problem with this history is the attitude of the author himself. His style of writing, the wording he uses, and his focus on who he knows and how come off as self serving and more than a bit arrogant. He comes off as a bit of a dandy and someone who spends most of the night talking about his exploits when he is supposed to be informing you of some great group effort. Someone you would get sucked into a conversation with at a bar because at first they seem interesting but half way through the evening you get bored and put off by their attitude.

All of this is rather unfortunate as this is definitely a story that needs to be told. I have been attending some seminars at Cambridge University on the study and history of Intelligence. One of the things Professor Christopher Andrews has developed is something he calls HADS, or Historical Attention Deficit Syndrome. We need to learn about our history, especially about our more guarded and secret history, for the maxim is surely true. Forgetting the past dooms us to repeat it, and we may not have the luxury of time to relearn what we should already know.

One thought on “My Review of The Spy Net: The Greatest Intelligence Operations of the First World War

  1. Pingback: My Review of The Spy Who Changed History: The Untold Story of How the Soviet Union Won the Race for America’s Top Secrets | Ramblings of a distracted mind.

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