By E.J. Wagner

A few years ago I was asked to write a chapter for a Baker Street Irregulars anthology called “Trenches- The War Service of Sherlock Holmes”. My mandate was to explore the forensic background of the Holmes story “His Last Bow”.

As the tale involves espionage just before World War 1, I soon found myself immersed in massive tomes about ciphers, codes, hidden rooms, secret passages, and the beginnings of the British Secret Service.

Far from a highly developed operation, the Service started as an amazingly amateur affair, cobbled together with spit, wit and hope.

In August of 1914, as war rumbled closer, the British citizenry was gripped by the fear that their country harbored unknown and vast numbers of German sympathizers, whose purpose it was to spy for the Kaiser, and to weaken Britain from within.

This fear was laced with a vague contempt, as spying was considered not quite gentlemanly.(”His Last Bow” reflects this.)


But clearly, spying in opposition was what was needed, and so the Secret Intelligence Services was born.

The first director was Sir Mansfield Smith Cummimgs, a talented naval officer whose career at sea was cut short by a growing tendency to sea sickness. He was further limited by the wooden leg which replaced the one he lost in a road accident. These limitationsin no way affected  either his éclat or his   penchant for originality.

During interviews with prospective agent he would often,without

warning, seize a sharp paper opener and stab his false leg through his trousers. If the prospective operative flinched, Cummings would shake his head sadly, “Sorry old chap,” he would say, “you won’t do..”

It was on Cummings’s watch that the mysterious “Room 40” was established.

Spoken of in hushed tones, wrapped in secrecy, “Room 40 ” was simply the original meeting place of four members of British intelligence who were fluent in German and had a gamesmen’s  interest in code breaking. As the group grew larger, more rooms were added, but were included in the same sobriquet.

The history of code breaking and secret messages was long and complex, but rarely of practical use militarily. Before Marconi and Mors, communications were very slow, and sensitive information rarely reached the tacticians in time to influence the outcome of battle.

The German agents active in   World War 1 England were largely ineffective. They frequently  hid messages in fake commercial orders and invoices, but were careless enough to write an  order  for sardines out of season and cigars from shops which didn’t sell them.

SIS caught on soon enough, and working with Sir Basil Thomson of the Special Branch, twenty-two of the Kaiser’s spies were caught and executed.

Eager to keep his agents from similar disasters, Cummings became obsessed with developing an invisible ink which was easily available, cheap, and hard to detect.

Lemon juice, an early candidate, was rejected as the acid in it damaged the pen nibs. Vinegar met the same fate.

Then an interesting  thought  from Room 40-semen would work perfectly!

“Capitol!” chortled Cummings. “Every man his own stylus!”

Unfortunately, this too was a dead end. Semen when dried has a distinctive texture and scent-a fact commonly observed by laundresses but evidently  not  ever by military officers


The attempt, however,  has been  noted by historians.

Cummings signed off the experiment as he signed everything-with

a dramatic “C”

Thus further extending his influence  on espionage history by helping to inspire the creation of a certain Mr. Bond..

The End

A version of this appeared in The Journal of Mystery Readers International

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