Spy Paranoia

Spy Paranoia

When the First World War was declared, many suspected spies were imprisoned. It was believed that there were spies everywhere. Germans who had been living in the country were imprisoned before they were able to escape. The authorities appealed to the public "to be on the lookout for numerous French and Russian spies who are supposed to be travelling about the country trying to blow up railway bridges, tunnels etc." This resulted in many British people being suspicious of foreigners. It was compulsory that all Germans in Aberdeen were registered. Well-known Germans were allowed to continue their lives as normal, however, strangers had to report themselves daily and were also placed under supervision.

Soon after the declaration of the First World War there were many rumours about firing heard in the North Sea. The day after the declaration of War, excitement and tensions were high in Aberdeen due to a reported naval battle in the North Sea. On 17 August, less than two weeks after the declaration of War, it was believed heavy firing was heard from the North Sea off the Danish Coast. Furthermore, it was rumoured that Germans scattered mines in the North Sea.

A suspected spy was arrested in Elgin, as he was asking questions about the rifles used by the Territorials. People grew suspicious and the man was taken into custody. However, the man was deaf and dumb and in the area to collect subscriptions for "The Messenger", a magazine which he managed for the benefit the Deaf across Britain. The accused man (Francis Power Maggin) later wrote to The Aberdeen Daily Journal. It was concluded that the whole event had been a mistake and had been exaggerated. Francis Power Maggin was waiting for a train at the station when the 1st Battalion of the Morayshire Seaforths paraded on the platform. The man had lost his pencil and was looking for it on the platform. This aroused suspicion, as the Territorials believed that he was examining the rifles and ammunition. He asked to borrow a pencil from a gentleman and also inquired if the gun was a Mauser. The officer pounced on him and would not let him explain his actions. Francis Power Maginn wrote in the letter he sent to the editor: "I tried to ask the officer for a pencil to explain, but he seemed to lose his head, and was too excited."  The mistake was soon realised, however, this event highlights the readiness at which the British people accused others of being spies. The officer believed he was a foreigner as he looked as though he were from abroad and carried a card saying, "Officer de L’Academie Francaise". The officer did not realise that this was an honour given to him by the French Government as a recognition of all he had tried to do on behalf of the deaf. Francis Power Martin was an honourable, British man, but due to an innocent action on his behalf he was immediately accused of being a German spy.

The British people were paranoid that their food supplies would run out, this led to many people buying large quantities of provisions. This resulted in rising prices and a lack of supplies. Goods such as sugar, butter, eggs and other perishable items were scarce and prices were increased. On the day following the declaration of War sugar was already regarded as "a scarce commodity". Price increases affected perishable goods that there was not a ready supply of and could not be kept in stock. There were no expected deliveries of butter from usual suppliers, Denmark and Holland, after the declaration of War. However, some companies decided there would be no price increases for food for which they had stocks. The quantity supplied of these foods was restricted, so that supplies would not run out in the near future.

Source: Carragh Rabbitte (Duke of Edinburgh volunteer with Aberdeen City Libraries).

The Aberdeen Journal, 5th August 1914
The Aberdeen Journal, 6th August 1914