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A Secret Service: The Amazing life of Spy Writer William Le Queux

The hero of his own thrillers.

William Le Queux
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  • William Le Queux

A thriller writer who began his career as a rival of Arthur Conan Doyle, William Le Queux created such a panic in Edwardian Britain with his novels about German invasions of England that it lead directly to the setting up of MI5 and MI6.

In 1914, when Germany invaded Belgium precipitating a declaration of war from the British government, an Anglo-French novelist in London was so alarmed he demanded police protection. The Kaiser was, the writer claimed, hell-bent on his destruction. German assassins might even now be lurking in the alleyways of the English capital ready to pounce and send him to his death with the stab of a poisoned umbrella tip.

Five years earlier, Scotland Yard might have leaped into action on the writer’s behalf. In 1909 the name of William Le Queux was on everyone’s lips. He sold books by the million and sent shockwaves through the country. There were questions about him in the House of Commons. He was hailed as the savior of the nation by the popular press. At the urging of the Prime Minister, the novelist gave expert testimony to a Parliamentary committee that had been set up specifically to investigate his amazing claim that a network of 50,000 German spies was operating in Britain. 

It was a high point in the life of a writer and journalist who had for decades been the hero of his own thrillers, books which portrayed the chubby thirty-something Le Queux as a one-man army, running around Europe and single-handedly thwarting Great Britain’s enemies like a Victorian James Bond.

The early life of William Le Queux

Born in London in 1864, the son of a French draper and an English mother, Le Queux had, by his own account at least, studied painting in Paris and traveled extensively as a young man before settling down to the life of a writer. His detective fiction was solid and sold well (a number of his short stories appear in Hugh Greene’s collection The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes) but he quickly moved on to writing espionage novels in which he was the brave protagonist.

Though he was an accomplished pilot and an expert in radio communications, there’s little to suggest that Le Queux’s tales of battles with dastardly Russians and fiendish Frenchman were anything other than Walter Mitty-style fantasies. Yet somehow they convinced powerful British newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of the London Daily Mail

A committed patriot and an unapologetic xenophobe, Northcliffe became a great supporter of William Le Queux in his fight against evil foreigners.

France had always been Britain’s traditional enemy, but by 1900 there was a new threat from Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm had invested huge sums of money in building up the Imperial German Navy. The size of the German battle fleet set off alarm bells in Britain, an island nation that had, since the eighteenth century, relied on its mastery of the seas for both trade and protection.

Le Queux's early writing

In 1903 Erskine Childers’ ground-breaking spy thriller The Riddle of the Sands was published. Superbly written and featuring a tense plot involving a German naval attack on Britain from the North Frisian Islands, the book was an instant success.

Le Queux saw an opportunity. He had already written one novel about Britain under attack (by France)—The Great War in England 1897. Now he reworked that into a novel that capitalized on Childers’ best-seller. The Invasion of 1910 was published in 1906. Presented as a history book written decades after the events it describes, Le Queux’s novel tells of a German invasion of Britain’s east coast—from the North Frisian Islands, naturally—that takes the nation totally unaware, largely because the Germans having cunningly scheduled it for a Sunday. 

In the book Britain is swiftly overrun by the Kaiser’s armies, but is eventually liberated by a group of freedom fighters called "The League of Defenders".

The great war in england in 1897

The Great War in England in 1897

By William Le Queux

The Invasion of 1910

The Invasion of 1910

By William Le Queux

Le Queux's work creates widespread panic

With Lord Northcliffe’s backing and publicity stunts that included troupes of actors marching down Piccadilly in German Army uniforms, Le Queux’s book created a sensation, selling over a million copies in less than a year. It was translated into 27 languages and made into a silent movie.

The author followed this hit with more books about the German menace including The Spies of the Kaiser which suggested that tens of thousands of Germans were already in Britain preparing the way for the German armies to sweep in.

spies of the kaiser

Spies of the Kaiser

By William Le Queux

With the help of Northcliffe and his newspapers, Le Queux’s books created panic across the United Kingdom. The police were flooded with tip-offs about suspicious foreigners. In the House of Commons MPs demanded action to root out the enemy agents and save the nation.

Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was elegant, aristocratic and notorious for doing as little as possible (Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s noble tiger from The Jungle Book, his enemies nicknamed him Shere Khan’t). For once he was moved to decisive action. He ordered the War Office to investigate the situation. A committee was set up. It was led by Lieutenant-Colonel James Edmonds. The star witness was William Le Queux. 

Proof of nefarious intent?

William Le Queux
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  • portrait of William Le Queux

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons Images

The novelist presented Edmonds with volumes of names and addresses and the details of what he regarded as sinister activities. A more measured detective might have realised that Le Queux’s “evidence” amounted to little more than lists of thousands of ordinary German immigrants, but Edmonds—caught up in the hysteria—accepted it all without question.

After receiving Edmond’s report, Prime Minister Asquith ordered the setting up of the Secret Service Bureau to address the menace of German spies. The SSB was to be divided into two distinct parts: Home Section and Foreign Section. The former would become MI5, the latter MI6.

Army Captain Vernon Kell—codenamed “K”—was placed in charge of Home Section. Kell was tasked with rooting out the thousands of German agents Le Queux had alleged were operating across Britain. Working alongside Special Branch, the police department that dealt with threats to the British state, Kell set to work. 

Paranoid fantasies

A thorough, logical, and unflappable man, Kell doggedly went through the files of Willian Le Queux until he had identified all the German spies in the UK. There were not 50,000. There were not 5,000, or 500, nor even 50. When the war began in 1914, all the Kaiser’s agents in Britain were rounded up by Kell and his men and imprisoned. There were 21 of them. 

Little wonder then that William Le Queux’s appeal for protection from the Kaiser’s murderous assassins fell on deaf ears. His claims of German vast espionage rings had been unmasked as the paranoid fantasies they were. Britain had a genuine war to fight. Scotland Yard told the fearful writer to get lost.

Despite the lack of action from the police, William Le Queux survived the war. He went on producing novels at a rate of about five per year and even claimed to have solved the Jack the Ripper case thanks to a letter from Rasputin (naturally the Whitechapel killer was a foreigner). Sadly for him, nobody was listening anymore.