Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service

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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.

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