How German spy paranoia invaded rural Ireland in 1914

Spy paranoia in WW1: A US Army poster warning of the danger of enemy spies, c 1917 Spy paranoia in WW1: A US Army poster warning of the danger of enemy spies, in 1917

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It is a tale of intrigue, suspicion and espionage. When a German company left the County Down village of Conlig in October 1912, only one man remained: Paul George Wentzel.

Why did Wentzel stay there living alone in a wooden shack for the next two years in the run-up to World War One? Was he really a secret German spy and part of a wider operation that led to a bout of frantic 'spy paranoia' within the north of Ireland?

'Wariness'

In the years leading up to World War One, war fever was gripping Europe and consequently the finger of suspicion was pointing at those of German origin throughout the United Kingdom as Bob McKinley, chairman of Bangor Historical Society and project assistant with The Somme Heritage Centre, explains.

Listen: Paul Wentzel's story

Lead mine at Conlig

"The wariness about foreigners was to be a characteristic of the time. British intelligence had reports since 1909 about how German intelligence was being gathered in Britain and Ireland," he says.

When war broke out in August 1914, spy paranoia soared throughout the UK with a rash of newspaper stories, books and films. High-profile cinema releases, including the German Spy Peril, Guarding Britain's Secrets and The Kaiser's Spies, added fuel to the fire.

Some people began looking for spies among their neighbours and turned violent against people of German ancestry.

Bob McKinley says there was "public anxiety that perhaps foreign agents were active in trying to weaken British naval and military defences".

"Within the north of Ireland, this anxiety was prevalent in northern parts of County Down, especially in areas near Belfast," he said.

It was into this environment that German company, Buckholdt and Harvey, had arrived in 1910 to set up business at the site of a once thriving lead mine at Whitespots, Conlig, County Down.

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While the mine was no longer commercially viable, the company attempted to raise investment for a scheme to extract lead from the slag heaps remaining from Conlig's heyday.

But the venture proved short-lived and, by October 1912, the business had failed and the Germans returned home. Everyone except Paul George Wentzel, who is the subject of a BBC World War One at Home programme.

Given the innate distrust of Germans at the time, local people had been wary of the German company's presence there. Bob McKinley said that when the business had failed, yet Wentzel remained, this suspicion turned to near hysteria.

"Local people believed that the whole German enterprise was a front for spying," he said.

Official Secrets Act

"They questioned why a German would be living in such a remote area, in a wooden shack, with Britain on the brink of war with Germany. They kept asking what he was doing here."

Start Quote

Local people questioned why a German would be living in such a remote area, with Britain on the brink of war with Germany”

End Quote Bob McKinley

According to the County Down Spectator, Wentzel's movements had "aroused the suspicions of the authorities" and he was arrested on 7 August 1914, and charged under the Official Secrets Act of 1911.

He was described as a cultured, well-educated man of soldierly bearing, aged around 35.

A police search of Wentzel's home only added to the sense of suspicion.

There was said to be a drawing of a gun, binoculars, a large map of Belfast showing the docks and harbour area, a map of Aldershot military camp and two railway maps of Great Britain showing the steamboat routes.

Among other suspicious items found was a map with three routes traced in red pencil - routes from Berlin through Paris to London, through Belgium to London and through Holland to London.

Wentzel's trial

With Wentzel in custody, it seems curiosity proved too much for some locals, as there were allegedly several break-ins to his house, with a number of souvenirs "taken". The perpetrators were later arrested and sentenced at the local court.

A local newspaper reports Wentzel's arrest in 1914 A local newspaper reports Wentzel's arrest in 1914

The trial took place on 10 December 1914 in the Crown Court, Crumlin Road, Belfast, amid a blaze of publicity in the local area.

The Newtownards Chronicle reported that "the accused made a good speech in his defence", which included him saying that the sketches and maps had been published in newspaper reports and therefore were not "official secrets since millions of people had seen them".

While the jury found Wentzel not guilty, he was not a free man.

He was detained at the central police station as an "alien", and it is believed he was deported and interned in a concentration camp on the Isle of Man with other Germans.

While it may be surprising that Wentzel was found not guilty given the circumstances of the time, Bob McKinley thinks the verdict was probably in everyone's interests as it was portrayed as an example of British justice, even against the backdrop of war.

Mr Justice Dodd, the trial judge Mr Justice Dodd, the trial judge

"The trial judge, Mr Justice Dodd, said: 'If the prisoner in the dock were Irish, defended by Irish counsel, he would be entitled to all consideration from the court; he was entitled to no more and no less, though he was a German'," he says.

So it appears what Wentzel was really doing there will remain a mystery.

German warships in Groomsport?

The fervour surrounding Wentzel's arrest needs to be viewed in the context of the time. In August 1914 spy paranoia in County Down had reached fever pitch.

The mood of hysteria and panic was exacerbated by the wild and often unfounded rumours that were circulating widely, said Mr McKinley.

"Rumours in the local area were commonplace, such as the supposed sighting of German warships in Groomsport, which turned out to be British warships," he said.

There were also reports that a patrol of soldiers had allegedly fired on a foreign aeroplane passing over Bangor, and that the arrival of Russian troops was imminent. Needless to say these claims both turned out to be without foundation.

The Northern Whig outlines the case against Wentzel The Northern Whig outlines the case against Wentzel

Other rumours doing the rounds included a German spy trying to poison the Bangor waterworks. A number of Germans were arrested in the local area.

There was also feverish speculation that the Germans were planning to take advantage of tensions that existed in Ireland at the time regarding the Home Rule debate.

"An Irish newspaper was to report from an 'authoritative source' that German emissaries had arrived in Ireland 'to create trouble for Great Britain by inciting the nationalist population to open rebellion'," said Bob McKinley.

The military wariness on one occasion led to tragedy in Orlock, County Down, when a sentry challenged motorists and fired on them after receiving no response, resulting in a woman's death.

The authorities were said to be taking elaborate precautions to guard the coastline around Bangor bay, and it was against this background that 'a great epidemic of spies' was reported.

This helps explain the hysteria created by Wentzel's case, with Bob McKinley describing his arrest as being "part of the paranoia of war".

"By 1914, against a background of increased patriotism, the belief that the very existence of the British Empire was at stake and the propaganda about German atrocities in Belgium, it is scarcely surprising that there was this worry about the activities of 'aliens'," he said.

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Wentzel's fate

As for what became of Wentzel?

"We contacted the museum in Douglas on the Isle of Man trying to find out what happened to him, but we could not find any further information," said Bob McKinley.

"It appears Paul George Wentzel disappeared into the mists of history."

Listen to the BBC World War One at Home series.

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