Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

I Was a Spy!
Reviewed by James Patton

I Was a Spy! The Classic Account of Behind-the-Lines Espionage 
in the First World War

by Marthe McKenna (Author), Winston Churchill (Introduction)
Pool of London Press, 2015 (reprint)

I was a Spy! was published in 1932 by Marthe M. McKenna neé Cnockaert (1892–1966). Some have said that her husband, ex-major John McKenna, was her ghost-writer. The Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill P.C., C.H., M.P. (he didn't become Sir Winston until 1953) wrote the foreword to the original edition. The book was a bestseller in the UK and was made into a movie, also in the UK, which was later voted the Best British Picture of 1933. Twelve more works of fiction and four of non-fiction followed until the McKennas divorced in 1951. All of these were likely written by her husband.

Marthe After the War

The book is in re-print in the UK (2015) and the movie can be gotten on DVD. Google has a digitized version of the original, too (but not free). Marthe was a young Belgian medical student on break when the German juggernaut overran her hometown of Westrozebeke in 1914. She volunteered at an improvised hospital and quickly became important there due to her medical training and her fluency in both German and English, and in short order she became the head of the hospital. Later she even volunteered for temporary service at a casualty clearing station that was shorthanded due to indiscriminate shelling.

Meanwhile, Marthe's family had fled to the safety of Roeselare (Roulers), which was beyond artillery range, where they were operating a café. Eventually her hospital was closed and she was transferred to the large German hospital at Roeselare. Not long after her arrival she was recruited by a former neighbor to provide intelligence information to the British.

Marthe was given no training, other than to keep her eyes and ears open and to transport any secret messages in her hair rather than her stocking tops. Her network identified themselves to each other by wearing a safety pin pinned to the inside of their collar. Eventually she was taught a simple cipher. All of this seems naïve and amateurish, but they get away with it.

She gathered bits of information about troop deployments and munitions dumps which she turned over to unseen handlers. In the early days the Germans were totally unprepared to deal with this. The army types assigned to rear-area administration were mostly overage Landwehr apparently akin to Schultz and Klink from the 1960s TV show Hogan's Heroes. Indeed, most of the Germans were incredibly chatty with Marthe, some of them churlishly attempting to bed her. Once an elderly General Staff colonel invited her to come with him to Brussels for the weekend to, ahem, go to the opera. This also offered her a golden opportunity to get useful details about the Kaiser's planned visit to Belgium. That done, when the time came to do her bit for Belgium, she bashed her suitor over the head with a water jug and scuttled back to the hospital. How she managed this without papers or the protection of her colonel isn't explained, let alone avoid any investigations or reprisals.

Marthe Portrayed by Madeleine Carroll in the 1932 Film Version

Apparently, the motto "Loose Lips Sink Ships" was not going around in Germany in 1915. She befriended a lonely squadron leader at a nearby aerodrome and gets a lot of information about the performance and capabilities of the brand-new Albatros fighters, and to avoid his advances she literally drank him under the table. After a while, however, the Germans began training and deploying counter-intelligence operatives. One of them took such an interest in Marthe that she eventually had to ask her handlers to have him killed.

She warmed to the cloak-and-dagger life and soon began increasingly risky escapades. On two occasions she helped wounded British POWs escape to the Netherlands by holding them in the hospital until they were well enough to make the walk. No explanation is given for how they planned to get through the high voltage fence. Another time she learned of a radio outpost hidden in a forest that was vexing the British. She dressed as a soldier, begged a lift in a cart, immobilized the radio operator with chloroform she filched from her hospital, and disabled the equipment. Later she hid a saboteur who was then tracked down by the Germans and killed, leaving her in possession of a backpack full of TNT. The temptation to use this led to her downfall, as she and a friend, neither of whom knew anything about explosives, decided to try to blow up an ammunition dump. They got access to the dump through the ancient sewers, where she lost her nurse's watch, which was then found by the investigators, and she was caught when she naively tried to claim it at a "lost and found."

Some of her stories describe incidents of believable cock-ups. For example, she described a night air raid on a German ammunition train that she had spotted for the British. The airmen tossed out their bombs one by one, missing the train, until a pilot dove on the target to get close, which resulted in the plane losing both wings. The crew were killed when they crashed into the train, which then exploded. This might qualify as the first kamikaze attack in history, and the crew should have been awarded the VC. Also when she learned information about the accumulation of chlorine tanks and their deployment she passed this on but was snippily told by her handlers to stop bothering them about this. Lastly, when she told them about the Kaiser's plan to visit the front, which she had got by risking her virtue and her life with the colonel in Brussels, her handlers ignored the information, the nightly bombing raids continued, and the Kaiser's visit to Roeselare was cancelled.

Certain salient facts of this saga seem indisputable because they could be easily verified. In 1916 Marthe was condemned to death for espionage, but Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm II, King of Württemberg, had her sentence commuted to life imprisonment (in Belgium, not Germany). In 1914, he had awarded Marthe the Wilhelm Cross for Merit for her medical service to his army (the 26th and 27th German Divisions). Many accounts confuse this award with the Iron Cross. She was mentioned in despatches by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig on 8 November 1918 (there is a photograph in the 1932 book) and she states that she also received the Ordre National de la Légion d'honneur from France and the Order of Leopold from Belgium.

However, modern sources have raised the question, how much of her story is true? In an article in the British newspaper The Independent in November 2015 it is reported that the Imperial War Museum said that they had no other information about Marthe's activities. In the 1932 foreword Churchill admitted: "I cannot vouch for the veracity of every incident."

Her story is sometimes incredible, at other times period melodrama, but there are also places that have a solid ring of truth. The account is fast-paced, even breathless, and her fondness for exclamation marks is matched only by frequent cliché. She even dutifully recounts the story of the bayoneted baby, one of the widest-spread tales attributed to British propagandists, and her story is riddled with stereotypical Germans such as officers with wasp waists, dueling scars, and monocles. Her narrative is flat and simple, quite like popular children's books of the time, but she moves it briskly and it becomes engaging, entertaining, a page-turner. Plus it's a quick read.
Churchill said that he finished it in one night.

James Patton


  1. Excellent review of a WW-I espionage classic - contemporary for the time and style. Touches of female knowledge and attitudes suggest that John may have helped Marthe write the book but she must have been the principal author. There is a 2017 novel out, "The Alice Network" by Kate Quinn, which bears an eerie resemblance to "I Was a Spy". It is longer and more complicated but also worth a read if you like "female espionage" stuff. We do have more places to hide secret messages after all.