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Roger Casement, British Intelligence and the Easter Rising of 1916

John Simkin

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Roger Casement was a British diplomat who was asked in June 1902 by the Foreign Office to go into the interior and send reports on the misgovernment of the Congo. His report, written in November 1903, contained evidence of cruelty and even mutilation of the Congolese. Casement was deeply upset by the British government's government failure to act on the report's recommendations.

In 1908 Casement went to Rio de Janeiro as consul-general, and in the following year he was asked by the Foreign Office to investigate atrocities in the Putumayo Basin in Peru. He wrote up his report in 1911 and was rewarded with a knighthood. Casement, who considered himself an Irish Nationalist, recorded in his diary, "I am a queer sort of British consul... one who ought really to be in jail instead of under the Lion & Unicorn."

Casement's interest in politics intensified in 1912 when the Ulster Unionists pledged themselves to resist the imposition of Irish Home Rule, by force if necessary. In 1913 he became a member of the provisional committee set up to act as the governing body of the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) in opposition to the Ulster Volunteer Force. He helped organize local IVF units, and in May 1914 he declared that "It is quite clear to every Irishman that the only rule John Bull respects is the rifle."

Casement's activities were brought to the attention of Basil Thomson, head of the Special Branch. Thompson later admitted that it was one of his agents, Arthur Maundy Gregory, who told him about Casement's homosexuality. According to Brian Marriner: "Gregory, a man of diverse talents, had various other sidelines. One of them was compiling dossiers on the sexual habits of people in high positions, even Cabinet members, especially those who were homosexual. Gregory himself was probably a latent homosexual, and hung around homosexual haunts in the West End, picking up information.... There is a strong suggestion that he may well have used this sort of material for purposes of blackmail." Thomson later admitted that "Gregory was the first person... to warn that Casement was particularly vulnerable to blackmail and that if we could obtain possession of his diaries they could prove an invaluable weapon with which to fight his influence as a leader of the Irish rebels and an ally of the Germans."

In July 1914 Casement traveled to United States in order to raise support for the IVF. Basil Thomson received information on Casement from Reginald Hall, the director of Naval Intelligence Division of the Royal Navy (NID). Hall was in charge of the code-breaking department Room 40 had discovered the plans hatched in the United States between German diplomats and Irish Republicans.

On the outbreak of the First World War Casement traveled to Berlin. According to the author of Casement: The Flawed Hero (1984): "When the First World War broke out in August he resolved to travel to Germany via Norway in order to urge on the Germans the 'grand idea’ of forming an ‘Irish brigade’ consisting of Irish prisoners of war to fight for Ireland and for Germany". His attempts to persuade Irish prisoners to enlist in his brigade met with a poor response. Private Joseph Mahony, who was in Limburg Prisoner of War Camp, later recalled: "In February 1915 Sir Roger Casement made us a speech asking us to join an Irish Brigade, that this was 'our chance of striking a blow for our country'. He was booed out of the camp... After that further efforts were made to induce us to join by cutting off our rations, the bread ration was cut in half for about two months."

On 4th April 1916, Casement was told that a German submarine would be provided to take him to the west coast of Ireland, where he would rendezvous with a ship carrying arms. The Aud, carrying the weapons, set out from Lübeck on 9th April with instructions to land the arms at Tralee Bay. Unfortunately for Casement, Reginald Hall, the director of Naval Intelligence Division of the Royal Navy (NID), had discovered details of this plan. On 12th April Casement set out in a German U-boat, but because of an error in navigation, Casement failed to arrive at the proposed rendezvous with the ship carrying the weapons. Casement and his two companions, Robert Monteith and David Julian Bailey, embarked in a dinghy and landed on Banna Strand in the small hours of 21st April. Basil Thomson, using information supplied by NID, arranged for the arrest of the three men in Rathoneen.

As Noel Rutherford points out: "Casement's diaries were retrieved from his luggage, and they revealed in graphic detail his secret homosexual life. Thomson had the most incriminating pages photographed and gave them to the American ambassador, who circulated them widely." Later, Victor Grayson claimed that Arthur Maundy Gregory had planting the diaries in Casement's lodgings.

Reginald Hall and Basil Thomson took control of the interrogation of Casement. Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) has argued: "Casement claimed that during the interrogation at Scotland Yard he asked to be allowed to appeal publicly for the Easter Rising in Ireland to be called off in order to 'stop useless bloodshed'. His interrogators refused, possibly in the hope that the Rising would go ahead and force the government to crush what they saw as a German conspiracy with Irish nationalists." According to Casement, he was told by Hall, "It is better that a cankering sore like this should be cut out.'' This story is supported by Inspector Edward Parker, who was present during the interrogation: "Casement begged to he allowed to communicate with the leaders to try and stop the rising but he was nor allowed. On Easter Sunday at Scotland Yard he implored again to be allowed to communicate or send a message. But they refused, saying, it's a festering sore, it's much better it should come to a head."

The trial of Roger Casement began on 26 June with Frederick Smith leading for the crown. But as David George Boyce points out: "The most controversial aspect of the trial took place outside the courts. Casement's diaries, detailing his homosexual activities, were now in the hands of the British police and intelligence officers shortly after Casement's interrogation at Scotland Yard on 23 April. There are several versions about precisely when and how the diaries were discovered, but they seem to have come to light when Casement's London lodgings were searched following his arrest. By the first weeks of May they were beginning to be used surreptitiously against him. They were shown to British and American press representatives on about 3 May and excerpts were soon widely circulated in London clubs and the House of Commons. This could not have been done without at least an expectation that those higher up would approve, though Smith opposed any use of the diaries to discredit Casement's reputation, as did Sir Edward Grey. The cabinet however made no attempt to stop these activities, the purpose of which was not to ensure that Casement would be hanged - that was inevitable - but that he should be hanged in disgrace, both political and moral."

On 29th June 1916 Casement was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. On 30th June he was stripped of his knighthood and on 24th July an appeal was rejected. A campaign for a reprieve was supported by leading political and literary figures, including W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, and Arthur Conan Doyle, but the British public, primarily concerned by the large loss of life on the Western Front, were unmoved by this campaign.

Roger Casement was executed at Pentonville Prison on 3rd August, 1916. John Ellis, his executioner, called him "the bravest man it ever fell to my unhappy lot to execute".





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It is now clear from released classified documents that the British Intelligence service wanted the Easter Rising to take place. The remaining question concerns the possibility that Roger Casement was set up by Admiral Reginald Hall, Sir Basil Thomson, Arthur Maundy Gregory, Sidney Reilly and Desmond Morton. We do know that Casement was targeted by Thomson and Gregory as a possible blackmail target before he was arrested in 1916. Another possible clue is that Victor Grayson was murdered shortly after he made a speech saying that he had evidence that Gregory forged the Casement diaries in 1920.

Another clue is that the same team were involved in the creation of another MI5/MI6 forgery, the Zinoviev Letter. In the 1923 General Election, the Labour Party won 191 seats. Although the Conservatives had 258, Ramsay MacDonald agreed to head a minority government, and therefore became the first member of the party to become Prime Minister. As MacDonald had to rely on the support of the Liberal Party, he was unable to get any socialist legislation passed by the House of Commons. The only significant measure was the Wheatley Housing Act which began a building programme of 500,000 homes for rent to working-class families.

Members of establishment were appalled by the idea of a Prime Minister who was a socialist. As Gill Bennett pointed out in Churchill's Man of Mystery (2007): "It was not just the intelligence community, but more precisely the community of an elite - senior officials in government departments, men in "the City", men in politics, men who controlled the Press - which was narrow, interconnected (sometimes intermarried) and mutually supportive. Many of these men... had been to the same schools and universities, and belonged to the same clubs. Feeling themselves part of a special and closed community, they exchanged confidences secure in the knowledge, as they thought, that they were protected by that community from indiscretion."

Two days after forming the first Labour government Ramsay MacDonald received a note from General Borlass Childs of Special Branch that said "in accordance with custom" a copy was enclosed of his weekly report on revolutionary movements in Britain. MacDonald wrote back that the weekly report would be more useful if it also contained details of the "political activities... of the Fascist movement in this country". Childs wrote back that he had never thought it right to investigate movements which wished to achieve their aims peacefully. In reality, MI5 was already working very closely with the British Fascisti, that had been established in 1923. Maxwell Knight was the organization's Director of Intelligence. In this role he had responsibility for compiling intelligence dossiers on its enemies; for planning counter-espionage and for establishing and supervising fascist cells operating in the trade union movement. This information was then passed onto Vernon Kell, Director of the Home Section of the Secret Service Bureau (MI5). Later Maxwell Knight was placed in charge of B5b, a unit that conducted the monitoring of political subversion.

In September 1924 MI5 intercepted a letter signed by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union, and Arthur McManus, the British representative on the committee. In the letter British communists were urged to promote revolution through acts of sedition. Hugh Sinclair, head of MI6, provided "five very good reasons" why he believed the letter was genuine. However, one of these reasons, that the letter came "direct from an agent in Moscow for a long time in our service, and of proved reliability" was incorrect.

Vernon Kell, the head of MI5 and Sir Basil Thomson the head of Special Branch, were also convinced that the letter was genuine. Kell showed the letter to Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour Prime Minister. It was agreed that the letter should be kept secret but someone leaked news of the letter to the Times and the Daily Mail.

The letter was published in these newspapers four days before the 1924 General Election and contributed to the defeat of MacDonald and the Labour Party. In a speech he made on 24th October, Ramsay MacDonald suggested he had been a victim of a political conspiracy: "I am also informed that the Conservative Headquarters had been spreading abroad for some days that... a mine was going to be sprung under our feet, and that the name of Zinoviev was to be associated with mine. Another Guy Fawkes - a new Gunpowder Plot... The letter might have originated anywhere. The staff of the Foreign Office up to the end of the week thought it was authentic... I have not seen the evidence yet. All I say is this, that it is a most suspicious circumstance that a certain newspaper and the headquarters of the Conservative Association seem to have had copies of it at the same time as the Foreign Office, and if that is true how can I avoid the suspicion - I will not say the conclusion - that the whole thing is a political plot?"

After the election it was claimed that two of MI5's agents, Sidney Reilly and Arthur Maundy Gregory, had forged the letter. According to Christopher Andrew, the author of Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985): "Reilly played an active part in ensuring that the letter was publicised. A copy of the Russian version of the letter has been discovered in what appears to be Reilly's handwriting, and there can scarcely have been another past or present SIS agent with so few scruples about exploiting it in the anti-Bolshevik cause."

It later became clear that Major George Joseph Ball (1885-1961), a MI5 officer, played an important role in leaking it to the press. In 1927 Ball went to work for the Conservative Central Office where he pioneered the idea of spin-doctoring. Later, Desmond Morton, who worked under Hugh Sinclair, at MI6 claimed that it was Stewart Menzies who sent the Zinoviev letter to the Daily Mail.

In his book, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009), Christopher Andrew argues that on 9th October 1924 SIS forwarded the Zinoviev letter to the Foreign Office, MI5 and Scotland Yard with the assurance that “the authenticity is undoubted” when they knew it had been forged by anti-Bolshevik White Russians. Desmond Morton, the head of SIS, provided extra information about the letter being confirmed as being genuine by an agent, Jim Finney, who had penetrated Comintern and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Andrew claims this was untrue as the so-called Finney report does not make any reference to the Zinoviev letter. Finney was also employed by George Makgill, the head of the Industrial Intelligence Bureau (IIB).

Christopher Andrew also argues that it was probably George Joseph Ball, head of B Branch, who passed the letter onto Conservative Central Office on 22nd October, 1924. As Andrew points out: “Ball’s subsequent lack of scruples in using intelligence for party-political advantage while at central office in the later 1920s strongly suggests” that he was guilty of this action. The following day, someone phoned Thomas Marlowe, the editor of The Daily Mail, with information about the Zinoviev letter. According to the author of Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985), the man who made the phone-call "was almost certainly" William Reginald Hall, the former head of Naval Intelligence Division of the Royal Navy (NID).

Stanley Baldwin, the head of the new Conservative Party government, set up a Cabinet committee to look into the Zinoviev Letter. On 19th November, 1924, the Foreign Secretary, Austin Chamberlain, reported that members of the committee were "unanimously of opinion that there was no doubt as to the authenticity of the Letter". However, eight days later, Desmond Morton admitted in a letter to MI5 that "we are firmly convinced this actual thing (the Zinoviev letter) is a forgery."

Morton also wrote a report for Chamberlain's Cabinet Committee explaining why the SIS originally considered the Zinoviev letter was genuine. According to Gill Bennett, the author of Churchill's Man of Mystery (2009), Morton came up with "five very good reasons" why he thought the letter was genuine. These were: its source, an agent in Moscow "of proved reliability"; "direct independent confirmation" from CPGB and ARCOS sources in London; "subsidiary confirmation" in the form of supposed "frantic activity" in Moscow; because the possibility of SIS being taken in by White Russians was "entirely excluded"; and because the subject matter of the Letter was "entirely consistent with all that the Communists have been enunciating and putting into effect". Bennett goes onto argue: "All five of these reasons can be shown to be misleading, if not downright false."

Research carried out by Gill Bennett in 1999 suggested that there were several MI5 and MI6 officers attempting the bring down the Labour Government in 1924, including Stewart Menzies, the future head of MI6. Bennett developed this theory in her book, Churchill's Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence (2006). According to her research, Desmond Morton, Secret Intelligence Service's Section V, was the key figure in this conspiracy.




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Did left-wing forces gain revenge on those behind the Roger Casement conspiracy and the killing of Victor Grayson?

In 1921 a Secret Service Committee of senior officials was instructed to make recommendations "for reducing expenditure and avoiding over-lapping". In its report published in July, Basil Thomson's Directorate of Intelligence, was criticized for overspending, duplicating the work of other agencies and producing misleading reports. Sir William Horwood, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, joined in the attack and sent David Lloyd George a memorandum denouncing "the independence of the Special Branch" under Thomson as a "standing menace to the good discipline of the force" and that the Directorate of Intelligence was both wasteful and inefficient. As a result of these complaints Thomson was asked to resign.

Thomson's great friend, William Reginald Hall, took up his case in the House of Commons. On 3rd November 1921, Hall declared: "There is no man who has been a better friend of England than Sir Basil Thomson". He went on to argue that his downfall was due not merely to his "open enemies", the Bolsheviks, the Russians, the extremists" but to a secret plot that involved the Labour Party.

There was worse to follow for Basil Thomson. In December 1925, Thomson and a young woman named Thelma de Lava, were arrested in Hyde Park and charged with committing an act in violation of public decency. Thomson pleaded not guilty and said he was carrying out investigations for an article on prostitution. He was found guilty and fined £5. Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) has argued: "Thomson's supporters hinted darkly that he had been framed either by his enemies in the Met or by subversives."

Sidney Reilly, one of those who was said to have forged the Casement diaries, also had an unpleasant end. The Bolshevik government decided to trick Reilly into going back to the Soviet Union. As the author of Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985) has pointed out: "Since 1922 the GPU had been plotting the downfall of both Reilly and Savinkov by operating a bogus anti-Bolshevik Front, the Monarchist Union of Central Russia (MUCR), better known as the Trust, designed to ensnare the remaining plotters against Bolshevik rule."

Ernest Boyce, the MI6 station chief in Helsinki, wrote to Reilly asking him to meet the leaders of Monarchist Union of Central Russia in Moscow. In March 1925, Reilly replied: "Much as I am concerned about my own personal affairs which, as you know, are in a hellish state. I am, at any moment, if I see the right people and prospects of real action, prepared to chuck everything else and devote myself entirely to the Syndicate's interests. I was fifty-one yesterday and I want to do something worthwhile, while I can."

After a number of delays caused mainly by Reilly's debt-ridden business dealings, he met Ernest Boyce in Paris before crossing the Finnish border on 25th September 1925. At a house outside Moscow two days later he had a meeting with the leaders of MUCR, where he was arrested by the secret police. Reilly was told he would be executed because of his attempts to overthrow the Bolshevik government in 1918. According to the Soviet account of his interrogation, on 13th October 1925, Reilly wrote to Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of Cheka, saying he was ready to cooperate and give full information on the British and American Intelligence Services. Sidney Reilly's appeal failed and he was executed on 5th November 1925.

The third man to be punished for their role in the Casement conspiracy was Arthur Maundy Gregory. By 1932 Gregory was deeply in debt to several people he had acquired money from people for honours that they had not received. Gregory now attempted to sell a knighthood to Lieutenant Commander Edward Billyard-Leake. He pretended he was interested and then reported the matter of Scotland Yard. Gregory was arrested on 4th February, 1933, and charged with corruption. He now turned it to his advantage as he was now able to blackmail famous people into paying him money in return for not naming them in court.

The leaders of the Conservative Party were especially worried about Gregory's testimony in court. The chairman of the party, John Colin Campbell Davidson, approached him, warned that he could not avoid conviction, but undertook that if he kept silent the authorities would be lenient. After a discreet trial he changed his plea to guilty on 21st February, 1933 and received the lightest possible sentence of two months and a fine of £50. According to Richard Davenport-Hines: "On his release from Wormwood Scrubs he was met at the prison gates by a friend of Davidson who took him to France, gave him a down payment, and promised him an annual pension of £2000."

Arthur Maundy Gregory was arrested by the German authorities after their invasion of France in 1940, Gregory was confined in Drancy Camp, where his health deteriorated without the whisky upon which he depended. He died of cardiac failure, aggravated by a swollen liver, on 28th September 1941, at Val de Grâce Hospital, Paris.

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