A photograph of British soldiers during WWI.

MI5 Top-Secret Files Reveal Heroes and Spies of World War I

MI5 has a mission to keep the United Kingdom safe. The release of their top-secret files proved how they’ve been doing so since World War I (WWI).

On Thursday, April 10, 2014, to commemorate the 100-year anniversary, MI5 made top-secret files from WWI available online to reveal the hidden heroes of the First World War.

The files include information on spies and heroes, along with suspected communists, that MI5 kept under surveillance in its early years.

The Boy Scouts

An image digitally coloured of Jack Cornwall, whose efforts in WWI were released from MI5's Top-Secret Files.
Jack Cornwall VC, former Scours and Navy Gun Layer. image source: bbc.co.uk

In 1908, British Lieutenant-General Robert Baden-Powell published Scouting for Boys, a manual promoting good citizenship and self-reliance. It ultimately led to the Boy Scout Movement.

Its popularity grew, not only in Britain but across the world. Boys and young men gained useful skills, such as field crafts, signaling and sailing, that proved beneficial when WWI broke out.

By 1914, the Boy Scout Movement was active for six years.

The older scouts and their leaders joined the Armed Forces. At the same time, when those men left their jobs, the remaining civilians upheld those duties. Baden-Powell wondered how his scouts could make their contribution to the war effort.

While not in a military role, Baden-Powell saw that his scouts could do their part in supporting essential services.

Coastal Watch

One of the scouts’ guarding duties was supporting the coastguard. It was crucial for them to watch the coasts, ports, and estuaries to spot a German invasion.

Although they followed the orders of their patrol leaders, the coast guard supervised them and they handled their own activities and actions.

Their duties included coast watching, sending signals and delivering messages. Sea Scouts first undertook these duties since they specialized in water-based activities.

As word spread, other scout groups volunteered. Among their duties were guarding railway junctions, telegraph and telephone cables, water reserves and other locations of military importance from enemy sabotage.


Many civilians volunteered to work on farms, especially around harvest time.

Initially, men employed on the land did most of the work by hand. When the majority left to join the Armed Forces, it put the harvest at risk. The scouts then took it upon themselves to take on some of the farming responsibilities.

Some scout troops from urban areas even amended their summer camp schedule to work on the farms instead.

The scouts didn’t only grow food. For example, harvested flax produced a tough canvas for jobs like making tents and covering aircraft wings.

In August 1914, in rural France, an on-coming German invasion called for French farms to fight. With the harvest not gathered, the country faced food shortages. An appeal sent over the channels asked for help with the harvest. Many scouts sent letters offering to help.

Hut and Ambulance Fun

The scouts had a strong desire to help the Armed Forces. Since they were too young to join the army, they found new, innovative ways of raising money.

For example, a Cub Pack spent a whole day collecting acorns and selling them to be used for animal feed.

Another example is when the Scouts of Belfast collected and sold bottles, raising £600.

With the money raised, the scouts bought ambulances that serviced as far as the Middle East.

Working with charities and using the funds they raised, the scouts bought and supported the running of huts at army camps in Belgium, France, Italy and Britain. They provided refreshments and entertainment.

All in all, they created a place for soldiers to relax when away from the Front.


In 1914, only a few homes and public buildings owned telephones, so the scouts became messenger boys.

Being a messenger boy was an important job. They hand-delivered letters and telegrams, the primary methods of communication of the time.

The scouts stationed themselves at government offices, police stations, and other places where messages were urgently communicated and needed to be delivered.

To be a messenger, it was essential for scouts to be healthy, reliable, and possess a good sense of direction.

First Aid

One of the earliest skills taught to a scout is First Aid.

Scouts helped and cared for the sick and injured men of the Armed Forces and civilians caught in attacks. They worked as stretch bearers and performed basic First Aid.

Jack Cornwall

John Travers Cornwall (January 8, 1900 – June 2, 1916), also known as Jack Cornwall and Jutland Jack, was a young sailor and one of the youngest awarded the Victoria Cross during WWI.

He loved the outdoors and became a Scout at 14 years old. He received many badges and even rescued a girl stuck in a drain.

When WWI broke out in 1914, he applied for the Navy but was turned away because of his young age.

On July 15, 1914, he tried again without his parents’ permission and with references. The Navy accepted his application.

Trained as a gun lawyer or ‘sight setter’, he learned to aim guns at targets, obey orders and work as part of a ship’s crew.

After completing his training, he joined the HMS Chester on May 2, 1916, with 400 sailors. They sailed to the North Sea to fight approaching German ships.

On May 31, 1916, British sailors spotted German ships off Jutland in Denmark. The guns opened fire and the Battle of Jutland began. The HMS Chester was under fire from four German ships, hit by multiple shells (large missiles). The gun crew was injured or killed.

Jack was the only one left standing. In pain, as the shells hit the ship, he stood at his gun and waited for orders.

When rescuers found him, the flying metal splinters wounded him terribly. The HMS Chester returned to port and Jack was taken to the hospital.

The doctors sent for his mother, but before she arrived, Jack died on June 2, 1916, at 16 years old.

He earned the Victoria Cross medal for his service to the Navy and outstanding bravery.

The Aftermath

The story of Jack Cornwall spread across the nation. The gun he manned remains at the Imperial War Museum in London.

The Cornwall Badge, which is still issued today, is the highest award for a scout’s bravery.

The UK recognized the scouts’ bravery on the home front and in the Armed Forces. Former scouts were awarded Victoria Crosses, the highest military decoration for valor “in the face of the enemy” for members of the British and Commonwealth Armed Forces.

Edith Cavell

A black and white image of Edith Cavell, whose heroic efforts in smuggling soldiers was revealed in the release in MI5's Top-Secret Files.
image source: bbc.co.uk

Edith Louisa Cavell (December 4, 1865 – October 12, 1915), a British nurse, took a position as a matron in Belgium’s first training hospital and school for nurses.

At the time, nursing wasn’t an established profession in Belgium. Cavell’s revolutionary work ultimately led to her being the founder of modern nursing education in Belgium.

In 1914, she was in Norfolk visiting her mother when WWI broke out. After she heard about the threat to Belgium from advancing German troops, she felt it was her duty to help those injured and fallen.

She immediately returned to Brussels, Belgium.

On August 20, 1914, the Germans occupied Brussels, but Cavell remained at her post. The nursing school became a Red Cross hospital. She treated the injuries of both sides and continued to treat civilians.

From Belgium to Neutral Netherlands

In September 1914, after the Battles of Mons, Cavell helped two wounded British soldiers trapped behind German lines. She arranged for them to be smuggled out of Belgium, and into the neutral Netherlands.

After that operation, she became part of a network that sheltered Allied soldiers and Belgians eligible for military service and arranged their escape.

Within 11 months, she helped 200 British, French, and Belgian soldiers. They were kept and treated in hospitals. Soon, the network arranged for guides to lead soldiers to the borders.

Arrest and Execution

In August 1915, the German authorities arrested her. They accused her of helping British and French prisoners-of-war and the Belgians who wanted to serve with the Allied armies escaped to neutral Holland.

During her trial, she pled guilty to the offenses charged against her.

German authorities sentenced her to death. The diplomats of the neutral American and Spanish governments tried to commute her sentence, but their efforts were in vain.

On October 12, 1915, she confided in Reverend Horace Graham from the American Legation:

They have all been very kind to me here. But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.

At the Tir National, Brussel’s firing range, Cavell was executed by firing squad.


Even though her execution was legal under international law, it led to a rise in anti-German feelings in the United States and Britain.

Cavell became a heroic martyr and was honored with a statue in Ct. Martin’s Palace. Moreover, she became a symbol of the Allied cause.

After the war, her body was exhumed and escorted to Britain. A memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey and reburied in Norwich Cathedral.

An Allied journalist wrote:

What Jeanne d’Arc had been for centuries to France that with Edith Cavell to the future generations of Britons.

Mata Hari

A photograph portrait of Mata Hari, dressed in her performing dress and accessories, surrounded by decor.
image source: historia.nationalgeographic.com

Margaretha Geertruide Zelle (August 7, 1876 – October 1917) was a dancer, courtesan, and alleged spy from the Netherlands.

In 1902, she left the Netherlands for Europe, where, in 1905, she found fame in Paris as a striptease performer of Asian-inspired dances.

As she toured Europe, she told the story of how she was born in a sacred temple and a priestess taught her ancient dances. The priestess gave her the name “Mata Hari”, meaning “eye of the day” or “Sun” in Malay.

However, Margaretha Zelle was born in a small town in Holland. She acquired her knowledge of Indian and Javanese dances when living in Malaysia with her ex-husband.

No matter how fake her authenticity, crowds filled the dance halls and opera houses from Russia to France. The main reason was that her show consisted of her slowly stripping nude.

Performer and Courtesan

Her abundance of charm and fluency in several languages made her an infamous courtesan.

When WWI broke out, she seduced the wealthy and the powerful from multiple nations. Her list of lovers included high-ranking military officials from those nations.

One of her lovers was Major Arnold Kalle, a German military attaché.

Arrest in France

In February 1917, French authorities arrested her for espionage and placed her at St. Lazare Prison in Paris.

In her five-month military trial, French authorities accused Mata Hari of revealing information on the Allies’ new weapon, the tank, which resulted in 50,000 French soldiers perishing.

However, her trial is said to have been filled with bias and circumstantial evidence.

There was no specific evidence or explanation that provided proof that she was the direct cause of the casualties. She claimed innocence.

Controversies over Her Arrest

It is highly possible that the French authorities, after the French Army suffered on the western front, used her as a scapegoat or distraction. They even dubbed her “the greatest woman spy of the century”.

There is some evidence that stated she acted as a German spy and, for a time, a double agent for the French. The Germans wrote her off as ineffective and brought little intelligence of little value.

One account stated that Major Kalle either saw Mata Hari as a nuisance or a liability. He sought to dispose of her with a code he knew the French cracked. The message he transmitted easily identified Mata Hari as a spy.


On October 5, 1917, Mata Hari, dressed in a blue coat and a tri-corner hat, arrived at the Paris execution site with a minister and two nuns.

After she bid them farewell, she slowly walked to the designated spot. She turned to face the firing squad, waved away her blindfold, and blew a kiss to the soldiers.

Multiple gunshots were fired as one, killing Mata Hari in an instant.

According to one account, she didn’t blow a kiss. She didn’t move a muscle.

Before her execution, she spent months enduring malnourishment and incarceration in vermin-infested conditions. The Dutch government didn’t intervene after her sentence.

Rumors circulated that the French executioners fired blanks that enabled her to escape.

The truth was that her remains were donated for dissection to the University of Paris medical school.

Time’s writer Ray Cavanagh wrote:

For all the demands her body had previously inspired, nobody wanted it once she had died.

It’s still a mystery whether she was a spy or not.

Sidney Reilly

An image of Sidney Reilly, one of Scotland Yard's Special Branch's most effective spies.
image source: es.rbth.com

Not much is known about Sidney George Reilly, other than he was possibly born in 1874 in Odessa, the fourth largest city in the Russian Empire during the 19th century.

His exploits as an adventurer and spy for Scotland Yard’s Special Branch earned him the name “Ace of Spades”.

In addition to Reilly being legendary in the era of early espionage in British intelligence, he is also the inspiration behind Sir Ian Fleming’s titular character, James Bond.

His Early Life

Little is known of Reilly’s early life.

His allies knew just as much about him as his enemies, which was still very little. Even his wife was unaware of his true origins.

Reilly claimed to have been born to an Irish sea captain or clergyman or a landowning, aristocratic Russian colonel.

Additionally, he also claimed his birth name is Georgi and attended a chemistry course in Vienna. He returned to Odessa for his mother’s funeral.

Based on his telling, at the ceremony, his uncle revealed that young Georgi was the product of an affair between his mother and Doctor Rosenblum, the Jewish physician who treated her.

Georgi, ashamed of the truth, took the doctor’s name, faked his death, and stowed away aboard a ship heading to South America.

On the ship, he claimed to have saved three British officers on an expedition into the Amazon. They offered him safe passage into England in gratitude.

Most of his accounts are a lie and there are no records to substantiate his claims.

Recent evidence suggests that the doctor was his uncle.

Scotland Yard’s Special Branch

In 1895, in France, Reilly was suspected of murdering an anarchist for a large sum of money. He fled to London and used the stolen wealth to open a factory to produce quack medicines.

His exploits caught the attention of William Melville, head of the Special Branch.

Reilly maintained a wide network of contacts among Russian and European Jewish immigrants. They were a valuable source of information on radical and revolutionary politics.

The Special Branch gave him a new British passport that said he was born in Ireland as Sidney George Reilly. He used his new identity and returned to Russia safely.

Reilly in Russia

When in Russia, he joined the staff of a merchant, Moisei Akimovich Ginsburg, who was also a supplier to the Russians and a war profiteer.

For four years, Reilly’s position was ideal for studying the conditions and politics of the region.

Ginsberg maintained a private intelligence network, which Reilly likely joined.

The Russo-Japanese War

The stories state that Reilly played a part in the Japanese naval victory at Port Arthur. This victory was “one of the unsolved riddles about the Russo-Japanese War”.

At the time, he was a double agent serving the British and Japanese, both against Russia.

He and an accomplice stole Russian defense plans. Then, the Russian floodlights mysteriously switched off when the Japanese fleet sailed into the harbor on February 8, 1904.

Two months later, Japanese troops shelled the remains of the Russian fleet and broke the Russian Empire’s presence in China.

Sidney Reilly vanished again.

Further Exploits

Reilly continued to work for the Special Branch.

One mission involved his return to Russia in November 1918 to support and spy on the monarchist White armies in the Russian Civil War.

With his background, he had no trouble fitting in with the staff of General Anton Denikin, one of the most successful White commanders.

He was able to see everything, but when Denikin’s mission started to fail, Reilly requested to return to the UK because staying in Russia would be a waste of time.

When he returned to London, he received the Military Cross and headed to New York.

OGPU and Reilly’s Death

While on a mission well inside Soviet territory, Reilly soon realized it was a sting operation carried out by the OGPU, the predecessor to the KGB.

They captured him and, at first, Reilly responded to the interrogators with a stony stubbornness. It wasn’t until they subjected him to a mock execution that he was terrified enough to sign a confession.

On November 5, 1925, the OGPU placed Reilly in a sack, drove him east of Moscow, and shot him on the side of the road.

Although historians can’t distinguish the lies and the truth of Reilly’s life, his reputation is still held strongly among members of the intelligence community.


A photograph of British soldiers during WWI.
image source: mi5.gov.uk

MI5 continued its mission to keep the UK safe.

As seen from their surveillance in the past, they kept track of their heroes, spies, and enemies during WWI.

In marking the 100-year anniversary of WWI, they found a way to ensure their country remembers their heroes and their deeds that helped the war effort.

The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.

G.K. Chesterson.

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