The British Secret Service in France, Part 2


This is the second in my two-part series about the secret service in the British Alien Office, the country’s primary espionage agency during its conflicts with France.

In addition to handling international espionage, the Alien Office was also responsible for suppressing domestic insurrection and sometimes charged people with sedition just because they expressed anti-government sentiments.  They did thwart one actual domestic insurrection: an incipient Irish rebellion led by agents supported by the French government.  The secret service placed agents in Ireland to infiltrate the organization. This enabled them to arrest all of the rebellion’s leaders in 1798 before the event took place and represented one of the office’s greatest success.

In 1800 the secret service helped one faction of the French royalists form the “English Committee” in Paris. The Committee was responsible for several assassination attempts on Napoleon’s life—the most famous of which was the Rue Nicaise bombing on Christmas Eve, 1800.  One of the Committee’s most successful agents was a woman, Madame Williams.  An Englishman’s widow who made multiple Channel crossings, some disguised as a sailor, Williams was never captured or apparently even suspected of being a spy.  By 1803 the Committee had detailed plans in place for Napoleon’s kidnapping or assassination.  These plans almost certainly could not have remained in place without the tacit complicity of Fouche, the well-known minister of police in Paris.

Napoleon had planted agents of his own.  One double agent arrived in England with his own false plans for overthrowing the French government.  Aware of the ruse, the British government created an elaborate counter plan that was designed to fool the French authorities into believing the British had fallen for their trick.  For months they created correspondence and moved agents around Europe with the purpose of deceiving Napoleon.

The backbone of the British plan for restoring the monarchy was a group of French generals who had pledged themselves and their troops to the royalist cause.  In 1804 some of the French generals were discovered, arrested, and imprisoned.  Savary, the chief of Napoleon’s personal guard, was charged with Investigating the extent of the treason.  He visited the home of a recently discovered traitor along the Channel coast and discovered early drafts of reports that he himself had given to the Emperor.  He realized then that the information in the reports he had been giving had been authored by the British Alien Office.

Eventually the secret service ran into trouble because it did not produce results. The office spent vast sums of money but was unable to bring about a revolution within France. William Wickham, the director of the office, was accused of misusing government funds—an accusation he felt he could not refute without revealing government secrets—and impeached.  The secret service continued its activities, but with a reduced scope and budget.

Ultimately, the suppression of the Irish rebellion remained the office’s greatest success.  It is difficult to say to what extent the secret service’s efforts helped to bring about Napoleon’s eventual demise since it is the nature of espionage to have unseen effects.  Most likely the agency’s efforts helped to sow the seeds that eventually led to many French citizens to switch to the royalist cause, but at the time eventual success was attributed to diplomacy and conventional warfare.  It is clear, however, that the secret service’s activities would have been more successful if it were not for the infighting and different factions working at cross purposes within the royalist cause.



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