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Ethel Raine: Untold story of a woman who spied for Britain during the Great War

By Robert Fisk

David Gosling was for four years principal of Edwardes College in Peshawar, trying to keep the Taliban from his academy in the old British North-West Frontier Province of what is now Pakistan.

But he could scarcely imagine receiving a letter from MI5 confirming that his own grandmother, Ethel Raine, had served the British empire in its heyday as “a member of the Security Service between 1915 and 1920”. But then came the rebuff: “Unfortunately we are unable to provide any further details of her work as records were destroyed many years ago. I am sorry if this is disappointing news…”

But like the academic he is, Mr Gosling has found out a lot about his grandmother – and duly passed it on to me: fake names, spies’ identities, even telephone numbers.

Known to her future family as “Aunt Betty”, the daughter of Sir Walter Raine, post-Great War MP for Sunderland, was working in Belgium when the Germans invaded in 1914 but made her way safely back to England. A century ago, in 1915, the 27-year-old joined British counter-intelligence – then called MO5 – under Sir Vernon Kell, a half-Polish veteran of the Boxer Rebellion, one of whose tasks was to spy on Indian nationalist groups in Europe, especially those which might be helping Germany.

Ethel Raine was privately educated – she spoke fluent French – and found herself working alongside not only Kell but also Frank Hall, the former Northern Irish UVF officer who ran guns into what is now Northern Ireland before the First World War.

He later participated in the interrogation of another Irish gun-runner, Roger Casement, who was hanged for high treason in 1916, the year after Ethel Raine joined MI5. “All Aunt Betty ever said about her wartime experiences,” Mr Gosling tells me, “was that she worked for the War Office and that her section included the nephew of the former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli – which suggests that some of the people around her were of upper-class origin.”

Ethel was probably appointed to work in one of Sir Vernon’s three departments: espionage, co-ordination of aliens and records. MI5 had 27,000 subject files by 1917, some of them involving the so-called “Hindu-German conspiracy” which threatened the British empire’s stability in the subcontinent, flourishing in several then-Indian cities, including – ironically enough, since it was David Gosling’s old Pakistani stomping ground in the late-1990s – Peshawar on the North-West Frontier. In her old age, Ethel never mentioned the seductive German spy Mata Hari, a Dutch national who was suspected of treachery by MI5 and later executed by the French in October 1917. But she may have known about her.

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod – Mata Hari – was a singer and striptease dancer whose supposed life of debauchery contrasted with the spotless virtue of Britain’s own executed heroine, the nurse Edith Cavell, shot by the Germans for helping British soldiers escape from occupied Belgium. In his grandmother’s belongings, David Gosling has found a 12-page programme for a post-war MI5 stage show – or “revue” as it was called at the time – which includes a cartoon of a young woman, hair up and dressed only in a night-gown and fur shawl, but holding a dagger in her left hand, which must surely represent Mata Hari. “You had all these upmarket women from MI5,” David reflects, “all from Roedean and Somerville, all secretly admiring this Dutch stripper.”

The privately printed revue contains many actors’ names – Pigash, Tomlins, Jervis, Dicker – all of which appear to be bogus, although a cartoon of an officer “explaining… jokes” to an intelligence committee is attributed to “Augustus Lewis” – surely an allusion to ex-artilleryman Wyndham Lewis, since the latter’s mastery of Vorticist art is mimicked in the illustration. Lewis’s memoir Blasting and Bombadiering remains one of the magisterial books of the First World War.

There are more direct allusions to MI5’s leadership in several items of verse, one of which is entitled “MARMADUKE” – a nickname for Col Maldwyn Makgill Haldane, assistant director of the Special Intelligence Service and nephew of former Secretary of War, Viscount Haldane. “If Marmaduke you chance to meet,” the verse begins ominously, “Here in the office or in the street/Go down upon your knees in awe/And bump your head upon the floor… If you should fail to thus obey/You may not live another day,/And never will return alive/From the sad haunts of MI5./It is not wise to earn rebuke/From such a man as Marmaduke.”

There are also references to Sir Vernon, the Director – one verse describes a “nightmare” in which Sir Vernon is seen “upon his knees and bound in chains – A prisoner in a cell.” Sir Vernon himself sent warm greetings to Ethel on 13 July 1920, wishing her happiness in her future married life with Daniel Stonehouse, a Great War cavalry officer whose own father had been killed in the conflict.

The letter was written by Frank Hall and includes a gift which is not identified. “Sir Vernon Kell hopes you will accept this little present from him and the officers of MI5,” the letter says, “as a remembrance of your ‘comrades of the Great War’ and as a small recognition of all your energy and hard work...”

Sir Vernon’s own life ended less illustriously. He received the support of Winston Churchill before the First World War but in 1940, after 31 years of intelligence service, he was summarily dismissed by the newly appointed Prime Minister Churchill because of MI5’s unpreparedness for the conflict. Ethel Raine, by now Ethel Stonehouse, had three children, one of whom – a daughter, Cora – worked as a secretary at the Hull Hospital for Women.

She and her son, now David Gosling, narrowly escaped with their lives when a German bomb exploded at the bottom of their garden in the Second World War. David’s father, Bill Gosling, fought against Rommel’s army in North Africa. David remembers his grandfather Dan Stonehouse very well. He “rarely mentioned the trenches of the First World War, though I recall occasional references to mustard gas and another gas which smelled like geraniums. He held me up once as a child in the front door of our house, which was set on a low hill, to show me fires blazing across the Hull skyline caused by German bombs (in the Second World War).”

In later years, Ethel was confined to a wheelchair, rescued once by neighbours who saw her cat Muffin hurling itself through the front window when Ethel’s early television set caught fire. She was a High Church of England lady who taught her grandson prayers but – asked to sign his autograph book – chose to quote Hamlet, albeit the somewhat cynical advice of the equivocal Polonius: “This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Also in a box belonging to Ethel, David Gosling has found a highly secret chronological MI5 staff list dated 31 December 1919. Therein, we can read the names – real, for once – of Sergeant Cruikshank, Major Waterhouse, Major Welchman, Miss L G Biddles, Miss A M Fincham, Captain Cooke (late Lieutenant 8th City of London Regiment) and, of course, Ethel Raine – their secrets safe, presumably, forever.

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