Captain Sir Mansfield Cumming — “C” — was
Britain’s first spy chief. Cumming, who allegedly cut off his own leg to
save his son’s life, inspired novelist Ian Fleming to make “M”
James Bond’s spymaster.
In 1909, Cumming founded what eventually became MI6, the British
intelligence service. He ran the agency until he died in 1923 at 74 years old.
Cumming’s career “was the stuff of which fictional spymasters
are made,” book reviewer Piers Brendon wrote in The Independent
newspaper in 1999.
Cumming famously approved secret missions by writing “C” on
the plans in green ink. Hence, Cumming was “C.”
Although there are different theories why Fleming chose the letter
“M,” Cumming may have moved Fleming, whose cloak-and-dagger novels
begat the 007 movies, to put “Sir Miles Messervy,” or “M,”
in charge of MI6.
Like “C,” “M” inked documents in green.
Brendon’s review was of Allan Judd’s The Quest for C.
Mansfield Cumming and the Founding of the British Secret Service, one of
the books that feature the spymaster. “He carried a swordstick, wore a
gold-rimmed monocle and possessed a ‘chin like the cut-water of a
battleship,’” Brendon wrote of Cumming. “He had an ‘eye for
the ladies’ and took children for rides in his personal tank. He enjoyed
gadgets, codes, practical jokes and tall tales. Cumming was so pleased to
discover that semen made a good invisible ink that his agents adopted the
motto: ‘Every man his own stylo [fountain pen on this side of the
Cumming might have seemed an unlikely leader of spies. When he took over
the future MI6, he was a 50-year-old naval officer who had been put ashore
because he could not overcome seasickness.
Yet any doubts about the landlubber’s toughness surely disappeared
in 1914 when he supposedly severed his left leg with his pocket knife.
Cumming and his son, Alastair, were injured in a car crash in France.
Alastair, 24, one of his father’s spies, was thrown from the heavy Rolls
Royce he was driving; his father’s leg was pinned under the wreckage.
Cumming tried to aid his son, but could not extricate himself from the
smashed vehicle. So he pulled his pocket knife and hacked himself free, or so
the story went.
Cumming vowed the tale was true. Some sources say surgeons removed his
leg in a hospital the next day. At any rate, he reached Alastair, but was
unable to help him. His son succumbed to his injuries.
Minus a leg, Cumming got around his London office on a child’s
scooter, Brendon wrote. But “C’s” interviews for would-be spies
were anything but kid stuff. “…He tested potential recruits by
stabbing his wooden leg through his trousers with a letter opener. If the
applicant winced, C said: ‘Well, I’m afraid you won’t
do.’” (Reportedly, Cumming also used a pocket knife or compass point
to jab himself.)
Born of British parents in India in 1859, “Cumming attracted myths
as a statue attracts bird droppings,” Brendon explained. He added that
avian manure was also an excellent source for invisible ink.
The spies don’t have it
From the start, spy chief Cumming naturally focused his espionage on
imperial Germany, which would become Britain’s main enemy in World War I.
“C’s” spies included the popular writer W. Somerset Maugham. All
of Cumming’s agents were armed with walking canes that broke open to
reveal a rapier.
Bond is often armed with unconventional weaponry, too. In the end, he
always wins in Fleming’s novels and on the silver screen. But
Cumming’s agents were not so uniformly successful, according to
Judd’s book. “One of C’s prime early objectives was to locate
the secret arsenals which Hun agents had established in Britain,” Brendon
cited from the text. “They did not exist.”
He added: “Even when [spies]…did acquire accurate information,
the authorities had no means of assessing its worth. They were impressed by
C’s secret pre-war report on Zeppelins, even though everything in it was
“Abroad, Cumming lost his weapons expert, who got out of a hotel
lift on the wrong floor and couldn’t find anyone to give him directions in
English. At home, he chose transparent code-names for spies: Trench became
‘Counterscarp,’ Strange became ‘Queer’. He was frustrated
by faulty equipment, deceived by forged documents, thwarted by agents whose
venality matched their ineptitude. In 1911, he wrote: ‘All my staff are
Cumming’s spies improved once the war started 3 years later.
“He discovered how much damage the German fleet had sustained at [the 1916
sea battle of] Jutland and used trainspotters to forecast enemy troop movements
on the western front,” Brendon wrote. “He also won a degree of
independence from his competing masters, the Admiralty, the Army and the
Yet, he still employed dubious characters like Sidney Reilly, whose
exploits were nonetheless glamorized in the “Reilly Ace of Spies” TV
series. Continuing to draw from Judd’s book, Brendon highlighted
Reilly’s bizarre plan to humiliate Soviet Communist leaders Nikolai Lenin
and Leon Trotsky. Reilly wanted to force them — presumably at gunpoint
— to remove their trousers and walk around Moscow.
Based on Judd’s book, the reviewer suggested that the British
Secret Service could hardly have had a more appropriate creator than the
eccentric “C.” According to Brendon, Cumming “seems to have
taken seriously the report that one German spy could be identified by his four
rows of teeth.”
Even so, the British government held Cumming in high esteem. He earned a
knighthood, captain’s stripes and a chest full of medals. Cumming also
managed to beat seasickness, to some degree. He grew fond of sailing yachts in
calmer coastal waters off Southampton. He even helped found the Royal Motor
Airsickness was evidently never a problem for the spymaster; he became a
licensed pilot in his fifties.
For more information:
Judd A. The Quest for C. Mansfield Cumming and the Founding of
the British Secret Service. London: HarperCollins; 1999.
Brendon P. Friday Book: The spymaster who was stranger than
fiction. The Quest for C: Mansfield Cumming and the Founding of the British
Secret Service by Alan Judd. The Independent. Oct 29, 1999.