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War Notes by A. E. W. Mason

THE two following sketches were written very shortly after the war ended. Of one I knew; of the other I was informed; and it seemed to me that both occurrences were sufficiently striking to be worth preserving.


The Great War dispelled many illusions; amongst them that of the beautiful spy. It is the brutal truth that most of the regular women agents were of no use at all. There were upon our side, and no doubt upon the German side too, devoted women in a position to give real help, who did give it at great risk, and the names of only a few of these will ever be known. But the women of the restaurants and the continental resorts, the last word in clothes and sinuous grace, few though they were, did not really pay for their keep. The most notorious of them was no doubt the half-breed Javanese dancer Mata Hari. Yet the one startling feature of her career, and her only notable achievement, was the manner of her death.

Her real name was Margaret Gertrude Zeller. Born of a Dutch father and a Javanese mother, she had no doubt in her youth a kind of exotic beauty which appeals more to the Latin races than to the Anglo-Saxon. Certainly, though she danced in London, she made no success of it. Her triumphs, both on the stage and in her multitudinous affairs of the heart, were won upon the more favourable battle-ground of Paris. There the skin which we call yellow, would be more charmingly described as amber. There too, when youth has passed, valuable jewellery, beautiful dresses, and chic, plus a reputation for high affairs of love, will keep a star bright with its original lustre. Post-war French novelists have got to work upon her, idealizing both her beauty and her character and building up by their prose a sentimental monument to her memory. La Chevre aux Pieds d'Or makes her out a pretty child with an overwhelming terror of death and poverty. Les Defaitistes puts her on the level of the great Hetairae of Greece. But the sentimentalism of the French is a mere veneer upon the surface of the natures. When it comes to serious affairs no race is more practical, no race can be harder, and Mata Hari was treated in the end with the practical justice which she deserved. France gave to her her prestige, both as a dancer and as a harlot, covered her with jewels, and set her up in a little clandestine house in Passy; and in return for these favours she used her best efforts to ruin France for cash and did actually ruin one high official of that country, from whom in vain she endeavoured to extract information.

Mata Hari had one particular qualification for the work of a secret agent of Germany. Her profession, and the reclame she had acquired in it, made journeys to the neutral capitals of Europe natural, ordinary events. She was thus in a position, if she obtained information or documents of real value in Paris, to pass them on at first hand to Chiefs of German Espionage abroad. But as a matter of fact her information was futile; and her indiscretions glaring. It was, indeed, to her indiscretions that she owed her trial and execution.

Thus, in the summer of 1915, she was dancing in Madrid and at the same time associating far too openly with members of the very important branch of the German Secret Service established there under the German Naval, and the German Military, attache. The war had been in progress a year and there is little doubt that at this time the German Service had a fairly direct channel of communication with Berlin, across a strip of French railway from Port-Bou and through Switzerland. At the close of her engagement at Madrid, Mata Hari took ship for Holland on her way to Germany. By this time suspicions, entertained for some months, had gathered strength. Her ship was brought into Falmouth, and she herself escorted to London; where she had the amazing assurance to declare to Sir Basil Thomson, then Chief of the C.I.D., that she was indeed a spy, but a spy of France. She carried, however, nothing incriminating; she had not intended to land in England; and there was no definite evidence. It was not reasonable, therefore, to detain her. On the other hand, it would have been foolish to have helped to forward her on to Berlin; though the probability is that she was aware of the suspicions she had provoked, was thoroughly shaken, and was running to Germany for a refuge as well as for her reward. A compromise accordingly was reached. She was warned, with the utmost kindness, that her activities were known and she was sent back to Spain.

Upon her return to Madrid her position became tragic. She was frightened and she had no money. Like so many of her class, especially those who in their youth were poor, she had lived in a whirlpool of extravagance. Nothing was put by for the inevitable rainy day. At Madrid she applied for sufficient money to enable her to live out of France until the end of the war. But the Germans had no money for her either—or at all events yet. There was one last service to be fulfilled—one last journey to be made, and of all places, to Paris. Pressed for money, harried by fear, with the warning of Scotland Yard still in her ears, this unhappy creature set off by the train for France. She was searched, of course, at the French frontier town of Hendaye and some papers were found upon her. It is significant that the papers incriminated her fatally—and yet were of no real importance. The German Secret Service had little use for agents who had failed them and it is incredible that they should have imagined for an instant that Mata Hari carrying treasonable documents into France could have escaped detection. She was brought to Paris, condemned on July 25th, 1916, and executed on October 15th.

She is not a case for pity or sympathy. I can perfectly understand admiration and sympathy for a woman running grave risks for the sake of her own country, but when a great war is on foot, involving the fortunes of big nations and the lives and welfare of millions of individual people, the neutrals should keep quiet. It is not their affair, and if for the sake of cash they choose to meddle, they deserve the fate which the laws of nations assign for such crimes. The career of Mata Hari would be nothing but a sordid and commonplace incident but for her one bizarre and magnificent moment in the actual hour of her death.

She was driven out to Vincennes in the grey of an October morning. She had dressed herself with great care—a long chinchilla coat, a large hat, long gloves and her best suede shoes and stockings. Upon the journey she betrayed to the officer who was in the carriage with her no sign of fear. From the spot where the motorcar stopped to the centre of the parade ground where the execution post was fixed was some little distance. The file of soldiers with loaded rifles was already drawn up. The ground was wet and muddy. Mata Hari picked her way carefully and daintily over the ground, avoiding the pools as if she was afraid of soiling her shoes. When she got to the post the officer in charge of the file proposed to tie her up to it, but she refused. The officer, who was impressed by her courage, pleaded with her that it was the wisest thing to do. Tied up to the post it was certain that she would not be hurt, while if she remained quite free she might flinch or fall at the last moment, and her death not be as immediate as it ought to be. She was insistent, however, that she would not move. The officer then produced a folded handkerchief and proposed to blindfold her eyes, but Mata Hari again refused. The officer once more argued with her: she would know nothing about the execution if he bound her eyes. But she still refused, and since she made a point of the indignity of these precautions the officer in view of her bravery did not insist. She stood erect and quiet against the post whilst the officer gave his orders, and as the rifles of the firing-party were presented she suddenly flung back her chinchilla coat, showed her slender figure stark naked to the tops of her stockings, raised her fingers to her lips and blew a kiss at the soldiers. She fell dead the next instant. It was the death of a poor spy but a great cocotte.


Amongst the minor adventures of the war, none was more gallant than the cruise of the Virgen del Socorro. To find its equal in audacity, one must go back to the clippers which in the North and South War of America ran—or tried to run—the blockade into Charleston. The facts are as follows:

During the round-up of the German troops in the Cameroons, certain bodies of them slipped across the border into Spanish Guinea and there laid down their arms. These men with the consent of the Allies were transported to Spain and interned in two camps, one at Pampluna and the other at the Northern Alcala. The officers were put upon parole and the private soldiers remained under the discipline of their officers. Lord Tennyson's epigram, however, is as applicable to the German soldier as it was to Lancelot.

"His honour rooted in dishonour stood, And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true."

It was the German's honour all through the war to break his word of honour if by so doing he could serve his country. It was not long, therefore, before plans of escape began to be concerted.

So far as the mere getting away from the camps was concerned very little difficulty was anticipated. Spanish sympathies were curiously divided during the first years of the war. What happened afterwards I do not know. I was transferred from the region of the Western Mediterranean in the spring of 1917 to a quite other part of the world. But in the first year this division existed. The captains of the ports and the navy on the one hand were notoriously pro-German. The chiefs of police on the other hand were for the most part in favour of the Allies. The army itself was rent by its internal dissensions. Its organization was inefficient, promotion was slow and went more by political favour than by military capacity; an appalling corruption had played havoc with its stores and ammunition; from General to private soldier, it knew as one man that it could take no distinguished part on either side of a European war; and its high national pride forbade it to take any other. Its contending sections were looking for support for their different policies now to the Allies, now to Germany, both of which sides were for the moment sufficiently occupied. The Roman Catholic Church in Spain, with the exception of one or two outstanding figures like the Archbishop of Tarragona, was violent in its hope that the German cause, with all that it meant in the Rule of Authority and the relegation, perhaps for centuries, of popular control, would quickly prevail.

This division of opinion inevitably reacted upon the vigilance of the supervision supposed to be maintained by the Spanish authorities at the two camps of Pampluna and Alcala. The officers, for instance, got leave of absence without the slightest difficulty, and I saw parties of them from Pampluna in the restaurants of Barcelona and at the sea-coast resorts during the summer months, such as Arenys del Mar. Their difficulties, therefore, lay not in their disappearance from their camps, but in their subsequent escape from the coast of Spain and the ubiquity of the British patrols upon the high seas. A few secured false passports, and embarking on Spanish liners to South America, got quite as far as Gibraltar—which, according to the classic phrase, is another story. Captain Carl Koch, however, a reservist of the German Colonial Army at Pampluna, and Sergeant-major Gratschus at Alcala, worked out a likelier and bolder scheme. There were lying at that time in the harbour at Vigo two large German liners which had run into that neutral port for refuge upon the outbreak of war. These ships had their full crews and captains aboard. In fact, in every big or little port in Spain you would come across perhaps a small German sailing-ship, perhaps a cargo boat of 9,000 tons, perhaps a tramp steamer, and here and there a liner tied up against the quay, their fires out, waiting for the war to end. Nothing could have been more galling to these crews than to see English and French ships run in and out of the harbours on the ordinary business of commerce, and no stories of the damage done by the submarines, however startling, could have compensated them for their inactivity. Red-letter days no doubt they had. I remember myself putting into the harbour of Valencia the day after Warsaw fell and seeing two big German ships dressed in flags as if for a review. And another red-letter day was now to come for the liners at Vigo.

Through the agency of a young Spaniard a small felucca named La Virgen del Socorro was bought at Corunna and sailed round to Vigo Harbour, where it was tied up alongside between the German ships, and secretly provisioned from their stores. Its presence there did not escape the notice of Allied observers, but they had no official position which would entitle them to interfere; and the little ship was so small, so apparently useless for any purpose of war, that protest against its position alongside the liners would have only raised difficulties for the Allied services. Its cost was only £400, even in those days when anything which could masquerade as a sea-going ship commanded a fabulous price. No doubt too, the Port Authorities gave to the Virgen del Socorro their kindliest inattention. Meanwhile, by car and by train, non-commissioned officers from Pampluna and Alcala began to slip into Vigo and hide themselves on the German liners; and in the dusk of the afternoon of October 7th this little felucca, crowded up with the best part of twenty soldiers, tacked out between the headlands of the harbour and plunged gallantly out into the storms of the Bay of Biscay.

The Virgen del Socorro had not even a motor. She was a tiny, decked sailing-boat, low in the water, and rigged with a great lateen sail, such as is used about the coast of Spain for fishing. She ran into bad weather immediately, and the life of these soldiers crowded together on board this nutshell and tossed from billow to billow in the welter of the Bay of Biscay during the equinoctial storms must have been hideous in its discomfort. Meanwhile the news of this ship's departure had been spread abroad, and cost us in the Western Mediterranean a great deal of anxiety.

The reason for our anxiety was this. The French were at that time holding their huge zone of Morocco—its prosperity still only in the bud—with a good deal less than the minimum of troops required. They were holding it by the prestige of their arms and the wisdom of their great Governor-General, le Marechal Lyautey. They held it by continuing their great harbour works at Casablanca, and the extension of their high roads through Mequinez and Fez across the breadth of the country to the frontier of Algiers, as though no ruinous and devastating war were in progress at all. They held it too by their policy and their administration. Step by step they had brought peace and security into Morocco. The process was, first the sharp lesson, then the utmost goodwill, then the handing over of local and municipal administration to the tribesmen and sheiks under the advice of French administrators. Left to herself France would have felt herself established securely in Morocco: but of course she was not left to herself. For just to the north of her ran the Spanish Zone with its great tracts unoccupied and ungoverned. These tracts were in the hands of wild and bellicose tribesmen, in whom Germany found an easy weapon. A German named Bartels, who was in the Consular Service in Morocco at the outbreak of war, managed to escape into this Spanish Zone, and received every month some twelve or thirteen thousand pounds through Tetuan and Melilla from German sources at Seville, without any real hindrance from the Spanish authorities. With this large sum of money Bartels collected and armed two thousand men from the surrounding tribes. He built himself a fortified camp close upon the borders of French Morocco, and whenever Monsieur le Marechal Lyautey was in a position by training Moorish troops to send reinforcements into France for the Western front, Bartels and his tribesmen would boil over the frontier line, burn, destroy, levy war and compel the retention in Morocco of the troops which should have been fighting in France. These troops would then be run up country to deal with Bartels, but long before they could reach him he and his men had hopped back over the border into the Spanish Zone, and the French were powerless to punish them or put an end to this astute form of warfare. At a later date Bartels' camp was destroyed, his men scattered, and his command extinguished by the use of aeroplanes, which, bombing him and the crops which surrounded his camp, drove him from refuge to refuge, until the tribesmen themselves found him too dangerous and embarrassing a neighbour. But at the time when the Virgen del Socorro put out to sea, Bartels was at the height of his strength.

On the south of the French Zone too, trouble of another kind was brewing. The Sus country beyond the Atlas range of mountains had never acknowledged the suzerainty of the Sultan any more than had the Riffs; and a powerful chieftain of the Sus country, El Hiba, had been bribed with promises to raise a flag of revolt against the Sultan on behalf of Germany. The Sultan, it must be remembered, had declared war himself on the side of the Allies and was at this time nominally a belligerent.

Messages from El Hiba for Germany had been intercepted praying above all for two particular things, arms and ammunition for one, and German non-commissioned officers for the other. That arms and ammunition had been already landed we had some sort of evidence. That an attempt was being made to land more we knew, for a French patrolship had picked up in the Atlantic close to the Sus coast a raft, stacked with German rifles and cartridges, which had been clearly dropped according to plan by a passing ship.

It will be seen, therefore, that our anxiety as to the destination of the Virgen del Socorro was justified. For there were on board of her a sufficient number of non-commissioned officers with a record of war-service to be of the utmost value to El Hiba and of the utmost annoyance to France. The Sus country also was much the most likely spot for this felucca with its overload of men and its low freeboard to make for. She would be running fairly close to land the whole time, and the farther south she went the better weather she would get. The most careful patrol therefore was established on the waters along the Atlantic coast of North Africa; but day after day passed and no big lateen sail was seen swinging down to the south, and no capture was reported. After some weeks we came to the conclusion that the Virgen del Socorro had either sunk in a gale or had somehow managed to slip through our patrol and reach her destination. Then suddenly seven weeks later, towards the end of December, a message came over the wires that a Spanish felucca called the Virgen del Socorro had been captured off Deal in the Downs at 3.30 on a foggy December afternoon when night had already begun to fall. She had managed somehow to survive the storms in the Bay of Biscay. On coming out of the Bay she had set her course for the west of Ireland, meaning to round the north of Scotland and make for the coast of Norway. But whilst she was still hundreds of miles to the south of Ireland, she ran into the worst gale she had encountered; and buffeted by those mountainous seas she lost her rudder. Captain Koch and his gallant little company somehow managed to rig up a jury rudder, but it was no longer possible for them to hope to round Cape Wrath. Also their provisions were running short, and they could, of course, put in nowhere to get a fresh supply. They turned and drove eastwards before the gale. They were almost wrecked upon the Scilly Isles, but the weather taking up, and the wind abating, they slipped by the Longships Lighthouse and boldly entered the English Channel, jury rudder, lateen sail, and all. The felucca ran past Falmouth, past Bolt Head, across the West Bay to Portland Bill, through St. Albans Race and round the Isle of Wight; past Dover; and she was never stopped.

It would seem incredible that a ship with so foreign a rig could possibly pass through narrow seas guarded as were the seas of the English Channel in those days, without being held up and inspected. But she kept to the traffic-route and moved on normally with the rest of the ships to the Downs, where all were rounded up and examined.

But even then the Virgen del Socorro might have slipped through the net. It was growing dark, the weather was foggy, the month was December. Had Captain Koch so timed his sailing upon that last day as to arrive at the South Foreland Lighthouse an hour and a half later than he did, there was a chance for him. Twelve hours later he would have been lost from view in the North Sea. In eighteen hours he might actually have landed his men on a friendly, if not his native, shore. He made a second mistake which was fatal to his chance. Either to escape examination, or in ignorance of the regulations, he ran out of the traffic-route and steered eastward of the Goodwin Sands. He was pounced upon at once by the drifters Paramount and Present Help.

Thus the adventurous voyage ended. With soldiers where there should have been sailors, with amateur navigators on a little ship which nearly foundered a hundred times, short of food, drenched to the skin, day and night, the men from Pampluna and Alcala were within an inch of success. And there was, I think, even at that bitter moment of war, a sort of regret amongst English sailors that so gallant an exploit had miscarried.


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