The Test of War: 1914–1918

Organisation plan of the Directorate of Special Intelligence

Organisation plan of the Directorate of Special Intelligence in October 1915. MS Templewood II:1 (54).

The Secret Service Bureau was the forerunner of Britain’s domestic and foreign intelligence services (usually known as MI5 and MI6 respectively). By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the domestic service had gained a range of powers to undertake counter-espionage and protect British security: these included a new Official Secrets Act, an unofficial Aliens register, Home Office warrants to interfere with the mails, and press censorship powers. The foreign section meanwhile began sharing intelligence with French agencies, created a database on Germany, and opened its first foreign station in Rotterdam.

During the war MI5 rounded up a pre-war German spy ring and ran a successful counter-espionage and security service; MI6 created a range of key stations around the enemy, with varying degrees of success. Both services established themselves as essential to the protection of the British state in peace and war.


A cartoon drawn by an MI5 officer in 1916. The may-flies represent organisations which Major F. believes will attract the fish (i.e., enemy agents) he wants to catch. They are shown by their initials: the Union of Democratic Control, the No-Conscription Fellowship, the Women’s International League, the British Socialist Party, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Independent Labour Party and the National Peace Committee. Image courtesy of Dr Nicholas Hiley. Crown Copyright

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