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Mansfield Smith-Cumming

That Time M16 Agents used Semen As Invisible Ink

C WAS THE original M, the first head of the Secret Service and the prototype of James Bond’s boss. The initial, standing for Cumming (not Chief) and always written in green ink, was the mark of an eccentric character. In fact, Captain Sir Mansfield Cumming, who founded what became MI6 in 1909 and ran it until his death in 1923, was the stuff of which fictional spymasters are made.

He carried a swordstick, wore a gold-rimmed monocle and possessed a “chin like the cut-water of a battleship”. He had an “eye for the ladies” and took children for rides in his personal tank. He enjoyed gadgets, codes, practical jokes and tall tales. Cumming was so pleased to discover that semen made a good invisible ink that his agents adopted the motto: “Every man his own stylo”.

The gloriously named Captain Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming would become the first head of England’s Secret Service in the late 1800s, but his own life as a spy, as he freely admitted, was pretty inglorious and he was much better suited to coordinating other people than being out on the field himself.

There are three separate incidents in which Smith-Cumming created serious issues while trying to commit espionage.

On one occasion he was caught in a consulate trying to get some letters that were being used for blackmail, and professed himself astonished because the people questioning him were disrespectful “even though he’d taken off his hat.” On another, he tried to have a conversation with a German spy despite speaking no German, spent most of it consulting a phrase-book in a panicky fashion, and only afterwards realised that they both spoke French.

My favourite, though, is the fact that he and a fellow spy once tried to book a quiet room with a source, but mistook a brothel for a hotel. The madam, faced with two men wanting a private room who said they were not interested in having a woman sent to them because they were waiting for another man, assumed they were dangerous homosexuals about to take part in a highly illegal act, threw them out and called the police.

He would go on to be a highly reputable intelligence head; he’d test the mettle of new recruits by stabbing himself in the (wooden) leg with a knife and seeing if they winced.

The Rolls-Royce sped along the road through the woods outside Meaux, northern France. It was October 1914, two months after the start of World War I.

Smith-Cumming and his only son, Alastair, were on a driving holiday in Europe. They were driving at high speed through woodland in Northern France when Alistair lost control of the wheel. The car spun into a roadside tree and flipped upside down.

Alistair was flung from the vehicle and landed on his head whereas Smith-Cumming was trapped by his leg.?Compton Mackenzie?later explained: “The boy was fatally injured and his father, hearing him moan something about the cold, tried to extricate himself from the wreck of the car in order to put a coat over him; but struggle as he might, he could not free his smashed leg.” Smith-Cumming then used his pocket knife to hack away at his mangled limb “until he had cut it off, after which he had crawled over to the son and spread a coat over him.” Nine hours later, Smith-Cumming was found lying unconscious next to his son’s dead body.

Afterwards, Cumming propelled himself around Whitehall on a child’s scooter. He was back to work at his office in London within about six weeks testifies to very considerable powers of resilience and fortitude.”

This act of extraordinary bravery, sacrifice and a willingness to use whatever means necessary, however unpleasant, to achieve an end, was to become a secret service legend.

As you might imagine, the agency being a secret made it hard to get good applicants. When potential new agents were identified, C had a novel way of interviewing them without giving away that he worked for a shadowy government agency. In short, a key facet of the selection process was the gold monocled director suddenly stabbing himself in the leg.

C himself liked to claim sometimes that he cut off his leg himself, ?other times, he?d say he lost it in a fight with a wild animal. After the accident, C mostly got around with the aid of a wooden leg and a sword (hidden inside of a cane).

In any event, C would interview potential agents pretending he worked for a more mundane facet of the government. With the process moving along at a slothful pace, in true Monty Python skit fashion, without warning, he?d suddenly violently stab himself in his covered wooden leg mid-conversation. If the person flinched, the interview was over and the individual was asked to leave. (Akin to the old ?two for flinching tactic??) The flinchers clearly weren?t secret agent material. If they kept their composure, he?d reveal the true nature of the interview. (C apparently found the reactions he sometimes got from doing this so amusing that he reportedly also used to do it during regular state meetings.)

Working closely with Vernon Kell of MI5 and Sir Basil Thomson of the Special Branch, Smith-Cumming helped to arrange on the outbreak of the First World War the arrest of 22 German agents. Eleven men were executed, as was Sir Roger Casement, who was also found guilty of treason. The government was so pleased with the work of Cumming that on 17th November 1915, he was given the title “Chief of the Secret Service” and was given “sole control” of “all espionage and counter-espionage agents abroad” and of “all matters connected with the expenditure of Secret Service funds”.

When the First World War broke out, the Secret Service Bureau was overhauled and rebranded as MI6, not that anyone publicly knew. At this time, the British Government still denied that it existed.

The history of MI6 can be traced back to 1909 where a precursor to the agency was set up by the British government to investigate German citizens who were increasingly being accused of being spies by the paranoid public. (In fact, there was a growing sentiment that pretty much all German-born individuals in Britain were spies.)

As mentioned, the head of this fledgeling agency, then known as the Secret Service Bureau, ?Mansfield Smith-Cumming, was a legendary figure in British military history, famed as much for his eccentricities as he was for his accomplishments as the first director of MI6.

Smith-Cumming, or ?C? as he was affectionately known during his tenure as director (originally standing for ?Cumming?, rather than ?Chief? as it does today when referring to an MI6 director), was formerly a royal navy captain who suffered from severe seasickness? As you might imagine, this ultimately resulted in him being deemed unfit for service.

As to why he was chosen to head up the new spy agency, this seems to have been primarily due to his impressive intelligence gathering background. For instance, in his post-naval captain career, he was once tasked with gathering certain information while posing as a German businessman in Germany and the Balkans. Why?s that impressive? He reportedly succeeded in his mission despite not being able to speak a word of German.

1907: Commander Mansfield Smith-Cumming (later head of the British Secret Service), Professor Redwood and Bernard Redwood at the Motor Yacht Club Reliability Trials on Southampton Water. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

When Commander Mansfield Smith-Cumming received the summons from the Admiralty in 1909 to form the new ‘Secret Service Bureau’, he was testing sea boom defences at Southampton, having retired from active naval service because of severe sea-sickness.

Fifty years old, this short, stumpy figure?-?with his small, stern mouth, Mr Punch chin and an eagle eye that glared piercingly through a gold rimmed monocle? -? seemed at first an unlikely candidate for the job. He spoke no foreign languages and had spent the past ten years languishing in obscurity.

Yet within a few years, he had firmly established Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, spreading a network of officers and agents across the world.

They would gather intelligence and promote Britain’s interests by any means necessary, even murder.

Mansfield Cumming, or ‘C’ as he became known?-?the initial with which he marked in his customary green ink any documents he had read?-?was initially given a modest budget and a tiny office.

Nonetheless, he set about recruiting officers, including the writers Somerset Maugham and Compton Mackenzie.

His agents would sally forth in elaborate disguises, and were always armed with a swordstick? -? a walking stick that pulled apart to reveal a rapier.

And Cumming and his officers soon found that money and sex were usually the most effective inducements for information.

As war with Germany loomed, an agent code-named Walter Christmas watched the Germans’ naval shipyards and reported on the trials of the new dreadnought battleships, the ‘remarkable speed’ reached by a new torpedo boat and the continued construction of submarines.

Christmas always insisted that his reports should be collected by pretty young women, probably prostitutes paid for by the service, who would meet him in a hotel room to exchange intelligence.

The partnership between the two oldest professions, spying and prostitution, would endure throughout the service’s history.

As to the spy organisation, he led, in the beginning, they were less James Bond and more a sort of Monty Python caricature of spying; bumbling buffoonery and gathering false intelligence and presenting it as fact become a staple of MI6. For example, prior to World War 1, C?s foremost weapons expert disappeared for a time while abroad. Perhaps captured by some foreign power? Nope- the agent couldn?t find anyone who could give him directions in English and ultimately became thoroughly lost.

On another occasion, C was reportedly fooled by a phoney document stating that German spies had extra rows of teeth. He also once spent a considerable amount of the Agency?s scant resources searching Britain for a hidden cache of German weapons that simply didn?t exist.

One notable ?victory? C achieved in these early days was a comprehensive file he compiled on Zeppelins. Apparently, none of his superiors realised that all the information was publicly available at the time. All C did was have it translated from German to English; this report was hailed as a major victory for the British intelligence agency.

When the war broke out in August 1914, Cumming’s service moved quickly to expand its network of agents across Europe and Russia.

It was imperative to know where the German troops were headed and what armaments they were developing.

Many civilians in Belgium and northern France risked their lives to provide details of enemy troop movements by watching the trains on which they travelled to the front.

One of Cumming’s most successful agents was a French-Irish Jesuit priest named O’Caffrey.

In June 1915 he located two Zeppelin airships, housed in sheds near Brussels, that had days earlier dropped bombs on London, killing seven people and injuring 35.

The British wreaked their revenge, bombing and destroying the Zeppelins.

As the war dragged on, the British began to worry that Russia would withdraw from the fighting, freeing up 70 German divisions for the Western Front.

With the Tsar at the front, Russia was ruled by the Tsarina, who was in thrall to the ‘holy man’ Grigori Rasputin, a promiscuous, power-crazed drunk.

It was feared that he would persuade her to make peace with Germany, her homeland.

And so, in December 1916, three of Cumming’s agents in Russia set out to eliminate Rasputin, in one of the most violent acts undertaken by the service to date.

One of the British agents, Oswald Rayner, together with some members of the Russian court who hated Rasputin, lured him to a palace in Petrograd with the promise of sex.

After plying him with drink, they began to torture him to reveal the truth about his links with Germany.

Whatever he told them, it was not enough. His body was discovered floating in a river.

The autopsy found that Rasputin had been violently beaten with a heavy rubber cosh and his testicles had been crushed flat. He was then shot several times, with Rayner probably firing the fatal round.

Less than a year later, the Bolsheviks took power. As Russia deliberated about continuing with the war, Cumming sent one of his experienced officers, the author Somerset Maugham, who had previously spied in Geneva, to head a mission to Russia.

‘The long and the short of it,’ the writer recalled, ‘was that I should go to Russia and keep the Russians in the war. I was diffident of accepting the post, which seemed to demand capacities that I didn’t think I possessed.

‘It is not necessary for me to inform the reader that I failed in this lamentably. The new Bolshevik government agreed to an armistice with Germany in mid-December 1917 and a week later began peace negotiations.’

But Cumming did not give up easily. As they deliberated about continuing with the war, he is alleged to have ordered one of his agents to assassinate Stalin, who was in favour of peace. The agent refused and was sacked. Russia pulled out of the war later that month.

One of Cumming’s most dashing recruits was Paul Dukes, described by a colleague as ‘the answer to a spy writer’s prayer . . . intelligent, courageous and good-looking’.

He became lovers with a close female confidante of Lenin, who proved a rich source of information on the Bolshevik government. Dukes also pioneered what was to become a standard trick of the trade: hiding incriminating evidence in a waterproof bag in a lavatory cistern.

He explained: ‘I have seen pictures, carpets and bookshelves removed [by Bolshevik agents searching spies’ home] but it never occurred to anybody to . . . thrust his hand into the water-closet cistern.’

Many of Cumming’s officers were happy to indulge themselves in the line of duty.

Norman Dewhurst, who ran agents in Salonika, Greece, during the war, recalled that a favourite meeting place was the local brothel, Madame Fannie’s.

‘This was a very select house and the girls beautiful. Every time, it was a case of combining business with pleasure for I always came away with some useful information after my visit.’

Sometimes, however, agents overstepped the mark. One Russian agent became involved in a ‘Murder League’ in Sweden that used femme Fatales to lure Bolsheviks to a lakeside villa renowned for orgies, before torturing and brutally murdering them.

When the agent was caught, the British swiftly washed their hands of him.

Indeed, a SIS training manual warned: ‘Never confide in women…never give a photo to anyone, especially a female. Cultivate the impression that you are an ass, and have no brains.

Never get drunk . . . if you are obliged to drink heavily . . . take two large spoonfuls of olive oil beforehand; you will not get drunk but can pretend to be so.’

Cumming constantly had to fight for funds for his service. Again and again, his officers had to pay agents and expenses out of their own pockets until reimbursed, and the accounts were forensically combed over by Cumming’s Paymaster, known simply as ‘Pay’.

Pay seldom left the office and, according to Leslie Nicholson, the bureau chief in Prague: ‘had the most exaggerated picture of the sort of life we led’.

This impression was hardly dispelled when, on one of the Pay’s rare visits to the field, Nicholson took him to a Prague nightclub where they were entertained by ‘pretty Hungarian twins who, in unison, performed a rather sexy striptease.

Pay’s monocle rose and fell with regularity as his eyebrows lifted in approval or astonishment.’

Another vital recruit of Cumming’s organisation was the physicist Thomas Merton, the service’s first ‘Q’, who shared Cumming’s love of innovation.

One of his early triumphs was to create an invisible ink for writing secret reports.

Previously, agents had used semen for the purpose, which while effective, was not to everyone’s liking.

Q also invented methods of concealing reports to get them through enemy lines: in hollow keys, false bottoms of tins, the handles of baskets, on silk paper that was then sewn into the courier’s clothes, in hollow teeth, and in boxes of chocolates.

Swordsticks, pioneered by Cumming, also proved useful. One officer, George Hill, was attacked by two German agents in the Russian city of Mogilev during the war.

‘I swung round and flourished my walking stick. As I expected, one of my assailants seized hold of it . . . I drew back the rapier-like blade with a jerk and with a forward lunge ran it through the gentleman’s side.

‘He gave a scream and collapsed on the pavement. His companion, seeing that I was not unarmed, took to his heels.’

In the autumn of 1916, Cumming had more than a thousand officers, with thousands of more agents working for them, scattered across the world.

Although he longed to go on missions again himself?-?describing spying as ‘capital sport’?-?he had become too important to risk. Nonetheless, his shadowy presence permeated the service.

‘The initial of C was invoked to justify everything,’ noted one of his officers, the writer Compton Mackenzie. ‘But who C was, and where C was, and what C was, and why C was, we were not told.’

By the end of the war, despite some failures, Cumming’s fledgeling service had scored some notable triumphs.

Two officers infiltrated and prevented an anarchist plot to kill a number of Allied leaders, including the British War Secretary, Lord Kitchener; the Foreign Secretary; the King of Italy and the French president.

And another of Cumming’s men in America smashed a German spy ring that used Irish dockworkers to plant bombs in the holds of ships carrying vital munitions to Britain.

It was dangerous work: the body of a fellow agent who had been watching shipments was washed up in the New York docks riddled with bullets.

British spies were experimenting with all kinds of invisible inks during the first World War. In 1915, one spy was quite excited to discover a rather handy way to create one. His secret ingredient? Semen.

The book?Six: The Real James Bonds 1909-1939?by Michael Smith includes an excerpt about the semen ink method from a letter by one of Cumming’s officers, Frank Stagg:

Secret inks were our stock in trade and all were anxious to obtain some which came from a natural source of supply. I shall never forget [Captain Cumming’s] delight when the Chief Censor [Frank] Worthington came one day with the announcement that one of his staff had found out that semen would not respond to iodine vapor and told the man that he had had to remove the discoverer from the office immediately as his colleagues were making life intolerable by accusations of masturbation. The Old Man at once asked Coney Hatch [lunatic asylum] to send female equivalent for testing and the slogan went round the office ? every man his own stylo. We thought we had solved the problem. Then our man in Copenhagen, Major [Richard] Holme, evidently stocked it in a bottle, for his letters stank to high heaven and we had to tell him that a fresh operation was necessary for each letter.

It’s unclear what the “female equivalent” was exactly, nor how it would be obtained at an insane asylum, but one can only imagine a rather inhumane and terrible scenario with vulnerable people.

Nymphomania was considered a real mental illness at the time. The vibrator was first invented for doctors to treat mentally “unwell” women. A female need for orgasm was literally considered pathological. Hence them asking an insane asylum for “female equivalent.”

A fitting solution from a man named Capt. Cumming.

Well, like any respectable spymaster, C was very interested in covert communication- in particular invisible ink. However, a key problem was that most fluids that could function as an invisible ink and the methods that could be used to reveal them were widely known. To solve the problem, in 1915 C approached scientists at London University and tasked them with discovering a new type of invisible ink.

According to C?s own diaries, though, semen?s use as an invisible ink wasn?t discovered by anyone at the university. Instead, one of his agents, whose name is omitted from his diary for obvious reasons, made the breakthrough.

After an investigation, it really did turn out that, along with being a substance readily available to any male agent, when exposed to the usual detection methods of the time, such as iodine vapour, letters penned with semen as ink refused to surrender their contents.

C was apparently thrilled to learn of this use for semen, allegedly quipping that ?now every man has his own stylo?. An altered version ?every man his own stylo? was adopted by the agents as their motto for a time.

Despite making a discovery that allowed British agents to communicate covertly, the agent who discovered this was so teased by other agents after the fact that he had to be moved to a different department.

Understandably, the use of semen to pen secret messages led to some hilarious exchanges, such as one between an agent in Copenhagen called Major Holme and C?s subordinate, Frank Stagg. In the message, Stagg was forced to tell Holme that ?a fresh operation was necessary for each letter? after people in his office began complaining that all Holme?s letters stank. You see, Major Holme had decided to stock up a large supply of ?ink? in an inkwell so he didn?t need to do what was necessary to get fresh ?ink? every time he wanted to send a secret letter.

So to sum up, during the First World War, actual British spies had a meeting with a one-legged, gold-monocled, cane-sword carrying guy called Captain Cumming, during which he enthusiastically told them they needed to start using their own semen as an invisible ink- requiring that anytime they needed to send a secret message, they had to masturbate immediately before doing so? Presumably, if that practice was still around today, James Bond would have to cut back on his countless dalliances to ensure he retained a sufficient supply of ink to send lengthy messages on short notice.

In 1919 the War Office suggested that MI6 should amalgamate with MI5. Cumming argued strongly against this proposal. He saw clearly… the absolute necessity of keeping domestic and foreign intelligence work separate. Anticipating the possibility of a Labour government, and managing to do so in an admirably unhysterical way, Cumming asserted that combining his organisation with M15 and getting involved in secret service against domestic political targets could jeopardise the effectiveness of foreign intelligence work by prompting public and parliamentary attacks on the intelligence machine as a whole…. Or he may simply have appreciated that the active espousal of anti-left-wing politics could damage the work of his beloved Bureau. Whatever the reason, his decision to distance the Bureau from domestic security and intelligence work was absolutely sound.”

Cumming died in 1923; just months before he was due to retire. His spirit lives on, however, not only in the use of his trademark green ink throughout the service, and the habit of referring to its chief as ‘C’, which endures today but in the ethos with which he imbued the service he built.

Its work is still carried out in strictest secrecy, the heroic deeds of its members left unsung and unrecorded.

A fitting tribute to a man for whom no sacrifice was too great and no pain too unendurable, so along as it served the greater good.

British spies used semen as invisible ink during WWI

MI6 ?used bodily fluids as invisible ink?

Breverton?s First World War Curiosities

The spymaster who was stranger than fiction

The Quest for C: Mansfield Cumming and the founding of the British Secret Service

Sidney Reilly

Secret Intelligence Service

Directory of Military Intelligence


Mansfield Smith-Cumming

SIS ? Our History

Six: The Real James Bonds 1909-1939: Michael Smith …

Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming – Wikipedia

Mansfield Smith-Cumming – Spartacus Educational

The spymaster who was stranger than fiction | The Independent

Sir Mansfield Cumming, first MI6 chief, commemorated with blue …

British spies used semen as invisible ink during WWI – Gizmodo

MI6 ‘used bodily fluids as invisible ink’ – Telegraph

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The one-legged MI6 chief ? The Sun