During the first half of the conflict, Romania played to a certain extent a comparable role, while Greece was used as a springboard for spying on the Ottoman Empire , through agents recruited in the Greek and Armenian communities. British intelligence was also active in the Middle East, where the army had in Egypt and Mesopotamia, as on the western front and in Salonika, its own Intelligence Corps.
The revolt of Arab tribes was probably the most spectacular facet of the action of the British secret service against the Ottoman Empire. However, other ethnic minorities were also used, notably allowing the organization of an extensive intelligence network among the Jewish minority in Palestine. In addition to espionage, several belligerents undertook operations of sabotage behind enemy lines or sometimes against the interests of the opposing powers in neutral countries.
In , the French secret services sent from the Netherlands several saboteurs into occupied territory in order to disrupt the German transport for the offensive in Champagne, but the operation met with little success. Subsequently, other agents, dispatched from Switzerland, were more successful in sabotaging German factories. Meanwhile, the German secret services recorded successes in the United States , including the placing of explosives on board Entente ships transporting ammunition.
However, their activities, once unveiled and relayed by the press, aroused the indignation of American public opinion, in respect of its neutrality. In the belligerent countries, too, sabotage did not leave opinion indifferent. Like spy mania, the fear of sabotage also became a kind of collective psychosis, which contributed in its own way to the establishment of more coercive laws.
Several incidents were attributed to wartime saboteurs, but formal proof was never demonstrated. This was notably the case in August with the sinking of the Italian battleship Leonardo da Vinci , following the explosion of its munitions store. The action of Austro-Hungarian agents was claimed, but could never be proved. During the crisis of July , intelligence services were mobilized and the collection of information was speeded up.
German officers disguised as tourists for example were sent to Belgium to monitor the mobilization of its army and the preparation of its forts. Nevertheless, last-minute improvisations, as well as long-term infiltrations, bore no relationship to the hunt for spies that raged from the early days of the war in most of the warring countries, in a climate of spy mania compounded by the press and rumours. The participation of ordinary citizens was not limited to denunciations: they converged by the thousand on the authorities of all belligerent countries. Some also took part in outbursts of violence, especially during the first days of the conflict, during which individuals, referred to as spies by the mob, were the targets of physical violence, arbitrary detention and damage to their property.
Some private companies were also suspected of serving as cover for the activities of the enemy. This was the case in France with the Swiss firm Maggi and its branch Bouillon Kub, which saw several of its offices ransacked and its advertisement signs destroyed. However, governmental authorities did not necessarily favour the implementation of arbitrary measures against anyone suspicious.
As in France, the government decided at the last minute not to arrest people listed in the "carnets B", i. Of course, the arrest of suspects was not only the result of a collective psychosis climate of mobilization; spies really did operate on enemy soil before the war. At any rate, once the initial turmoil subsided, the belligerent states took measures to protect themselves against enemy spying, sometimes excessively so: among other things by restricting civil liberties in times of war and by extending the powers of the police and the army. States which entered the war later did the same.
The United States, for example, shortly before its commitment into the conflict, adopted the Espionage Act. More generally, thanks to the extended powers which were accorded for the duration of the war to the armed forces, the latter established more binding regulations in some areas such as the rear of the front or in the occupied territories.
Police and judicial action that facilitated the tightening of the norms was supported in virtually all countries by the action of the defensive intelligence, i. The United Kingdom had much trouble identifying German agents on its soil during the years preceding the war, but the effectiveness demonstrated by its counterintelligence service from the declaration of war is mainly a myth. Counterintelligence operations were not confined to the home country, but were also carried out throughout the Empire, and particularly in India. In France also, the main battlefield of the Great War, the fight against espionage was a permanent concern.
The French secret services could count on the active participation of the national Gendarmerie, which fulfilled many tasks, from the observation of persons to their arrest. Founded by Georges Clemenceau in , the famous mobile brigades or " Brigades du Tigre ", ancestors of the judicial police, were also involved.
Among those arrested, a number were executed, sometimes after a very brief trial, in , while the fever of the mania was still at its peak. In Great Britain, the first German spy was sentenced to death and executed on 6 November , in the Tower of London. The most famous execution took however place on French soil: that of Mata Hari. Unmasked in February by French counterintelligence, she was condemned to death by a Council of War and executed by firing squad on 15 October Her execution was however more the result of a will to make a point rather than the punishment of the pathetic spy that she was.
In Russia, particularly note-worthy was the sentencing and execution of gendarmerie colonel Sergei Myasoedov , after a summary trial in February He appeared to be a scapegoat for the military setbacks that the Russian Empire faced at that time. These misfortunes also generated a climate of hysterical spy mania, especially directed against Jews , German-speaking citizens, and various other ethnic minorities of the empire, who were victims of popular violence and fierce repressive measures on the part of the retreating army.
In Italy, the Carabinieri played a role comparable to that of the French gendarmerie, their actions feeding into the records of the Ufficio Riservato of the Ministry of the Interior.
Generally, Italian counter-espionage saw little success, but managed to counteract some enemy agents on its soil thanks to its penetration of a secret bureau of the Austro-Hungarian navy in Zurich. In , the Ministry of the Interior created a new service, the Central Ufficio di Investigazione , which undertook a systematic registration of opponents and a rigorous control of postal, telephone and telegraph communications. Despite being late entries into the war, the United States were concerned about the clandestine activities on their soil, primarily by German agents, well before After their declaration of war, the fight intensified and the legislative framework on which it could rely became more stringent.
Unmasked spies might now face the death penalty, as in most of the other belligerent states, but only one of them received such a sentence, and that was commuted after the war. This could particularly rely on the military secret police, the Geheime Feldpolizei , responsible for ensuring the safety of the troops in the areas of the armies that extended behind the different fronts, as well as on the secret police of the general governments in occupied Belgium and Poland.
Repression of clandestine organizations was also strong: many such networks in the western occupied territories, dealing with espionage, escape or the secret press, were dismantled after a few months of activity. Thousands of people were arrested and tried by the German military courts. The majority of those sentenced received penalties of forced labour , usually in German prisons such as Siegburg or Rheinbach, but , including ten women, were executed, mostly for espionage.
The counterintelligence activities on the eastern front unfortunately remains not well known, but the figure of death sentences for the year in the territory of Ober-Ost alone, as well as examples of executions for espionage in the territory of the general government of Warsaw, allow us to guess that the threat of espionage was also treated very seriously by the occupation authorities in the east. Counterintelligence services could also rely on draconian regulations over the movement of traffic in the various occupied territories, as well as many individual controls by the occupying troops and administrations.
These measures however had the effect of stirring up antipathy among the occupied peoples against the Germans. Physical barriers were also set up to thwart unwanted movements, such as those along the Neman River, between Germany and the Ober-Ost, or at certain points along the French-Belgian border.
The most spectacular of these barriers was probably the electrified fence isolating occupied Belgium from the neutral Netherlands all along their common border: one of its objectives was to prevent any transmission of information by land from the occupied territories. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, counterintelligence was also the competence of the Evidenzbureau.
At the outbreak of the conflict, however it turned out to be powerless facing Russian spies in its territory, the betrayal of Redl having ruined its preparations in this regard. However, this case had also raised awareness of the importance of counterintelligence, which led to a strengthening of the powers and means of the Evidenzbureau in this matter.
It continued its cooperation with the state police, and the latter made hundreds of arrests during the war. In alone, people were arrested for espionage by the Austrian state police, some eventually being executed. The Austro-Hungarian army also made extensive use of the death penalty in occupied Serbia including against spies.
One can note the special case of Serbia, where some of its intelligence officers were themselves victims of the repression. While the Serbian army and government had fallen back and reorganized in Greece, the year was marked by an important trial. It was held in Thessaloniki, in a context where the rivalries of the pre-war period a time that was overwhelmed by the struggle against the invader , were revived by this governmental exile.
It’s spy vs. spy vs. spy
However, at the outbreak of the war, telephone and radio were relatively new tools, that most armies and fleets had used at best for a decade, and with which they had rarely had the opportunity to experiment in the conditions of a large-scale war. The result was many faults in matters of security, such as the transmission of messages in clear text, or merely protected by a summary code.
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During the first weeks of the war, armies which at this time were forced to adopt a defensive posture on their own national territory had the advantage of using their own national telephone and telegraph networks — easy to use and difficult to intercept — while the armies committed in the offensive had to rely more on radio communications that could be scrutinized by the opponent. On the western front, the French army benefited from the situation at the expense of the Germans, while at the same time, in the east, the latter had similar advantage over the Russians, which contributed to the outcome of the Tannenberg Battle.
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The trench warfare led to a significant decrease in the use of radio by opposing armies, which made more use of the telephone and telegraph that were more difficult to intercept. This did not prevent both sides from developing, from , covert listening techniques, allowing early local warnings in case of attack and the updating of the enemy order of battle. Each belligerent also tried to improve its methods of encryption while breaking those of its opponents.
In the east, Germany succeeded in the interception of enemy communications, but faced a competent Russian cryptology service. This advantage against the Russians was also due to the Austria-Hungary, where the Evidenzbureau had an excellent cryptology section, the Chiffregruppe , created as early as and headed by Maximilian Ronge The Chiffregruppe also demonstrated its skills in the war against Italy, which persisted long to use rather rudimentary codes. The Italian Kingdom finally developed its own service from late , but its success in this area remained very limited until the end of the conflict.
Tapping services also played a role in the secondary theatres of operation such as the Middle East, where they were successfully used by the British army.
But it was mainly on the seas that they acquired special importance. Fleets in operation could not use other means than the radio for their long-range communications, but it implied the risk of messages being intercepted. The British Admiralty quickly gained the advantage over its main opponent, by receiving from the Russian Navy code books of the German Navy, which had been found in August on the wreck of the German Cruiser Magdeburg.