History: more dramatic than fiction?

Blogger: GemSen

Dealing with the wonderful subject of history you can uncover many interesting stories and events — some much more bizarre or shocking than anything you could ever make up...

And it's ironic that in this story Britain was at the time gripped by 'spy fever' fuelled by all the novels and propaganda on the subject, just before the outbreak of the First World War. The ever-growing military threat of Germany gave rise to anxiety and growing interest in espionage.

"Germans staying here may be serving their country more effectively than by shouldering a rifle," warned the Daily Mail, six days after war was declared.

However, the literary buzz never really lived up to the truth and the wartime German espionage operations were limited and fairly unsuccessful and what was more dramatic, however, was what happened to the few spies that did get caught — they got shot by a firing squad in the tower of London.

German spy, Carl Hans Lody was the first person for more than 150 years to be executed at the famous London landmark.


Between August 1914 and September 1917 only 31 German spies were arrested in Britain. Twelve of these were executed, including Carl Hans Lody — also the first wartime German spy to be executed in Britain, on 6 November 1914. 

Historic Royal Palaces Curator, Dr Sally Dixon-Smith told the BBC that she still finds it "really extraordinary" that 11 convicted spies were shot at dawn, at a tourist attraction best known for containing the Crown Jewels.

"More people were executed within the walls of the Tower of London during the 20th Century than under the Tudors," she said.

John Fraser, a Yeoman Warder in 1914 wrote about the execution:

"The prisoner walked steadily, stiffly upright, and yet as easily and unconcerned as though he were going to a tea party, instead of to his death.

"The procession disappeared through the doorway of the sinister shed and shortly after came the muddled sound of a single volley - Carl Lody had paid!"

According to sources, Lody spent time in Edinburgh sending information to Germany on warships in the Firth of Forth. He left a trail of clues from his intelligence-gathering operations in Britain during August and September and was arrested in Ireland on 2 October 1914. Most spies were arrested and tried after letters, newspapers or telegrams they had sent were intercepted by British intelligence.

Many of the German men recruited for intelligence operations were untrained amateurs and most of the information Lody actually sent back to his superiors wasn't much use at all.

Len Sellers, author of Shot In The Tower, a book about German spies in WW1, said the Tower was chosen because of its sinister reputation. There were no more executions after 1916 because, according to Mr Sellers, the Germans had "given up" on spying or had got very much better at it. 

It wasn't perfect, but British espionage and counter-espionage outshone the German attempts. MI5 - which had expanded rapidly from 19 members of staff in August 1914 to 844 by November 1918 - developed an effective system of cable and postal censorship that intercepted correspondence sent by a number of German spies.

Apparently, at the outbreak of World War One, the Metropolitan Police had received between 8,000 and 9,000 reports of espionage by the beginning of September during the opening month of the First World War. The fact that not a single act of sabotage took place during the war indicates the extent to which British Intelligence had German espionage under control and the degree to which propagandists exaggerated the truth about enemy spying, reported the BBC in a recent article.

Sources: BBC & National Archives

Find out more about the Great War…

If you’re interested in history and finding out more about the Great War then delve into our ‘historic documents’ library and read some of the interesting newspapers, diaries, books and publications we have put online for you to view from the comfort of your home.

Some documents are more than a hundred years old — from as far back as the First World War. If you are interested in adding a bit of colour to the service of your military ancestors then the 'historic documents' library will be of great interest to you. Like our exclusive lists and records we are updating the library all the time — visit Forces War Records and find out more about your ancestors.

Also, you can read some of the interesting War diaries that we get sent – there’s nothing quite like reading a personal account of war, as history unfolds itself through the eyes of somebody who was actually there. 

If you have a war diary in your family then please send your contact details and a few lines about your ancestor and their diary to Diaries@forces-war-records.co.uk.

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