Few spy thrillers have plots that are as implausible as the reality presented to French military intelligence in 1904. A German officer presented himself and offered to sell top secret war plans. He called himself “The Avenger” and met his handlers with his face entirely wrapped in bandages. The facts were so implausible that it was dismissed as a German ruse. If they had taken the documents seriously, could the French have averted the near-catastrophe on the Western Front?
By the time the continental Great Powers went to war in 1914 their armies had already created detailed battle plans. Germany’s Schlieffen Plan would be pitted against France’s Plan XVII. If successful, Germany would swing around to join its ally, Austria-Hungary and its Plans B and R to fight against Russia and its Plan 19.
A German officer working in the General Staff wrote to his French counterparts in 1904 and offered “documents of the highest importance”. He was to remain anonymous, signing himself only as Le Vengeur – the Avenger. The only clue at this stage was a postmark showing that the letter had been sent from Liège in Belgium.
His intelligence would not come cheap – he would sell details of the ‘top secret plan’ for 60,000 Francs (approximately £200,000 in today’s money). But could you put a price on military secrets that could deliver France a decisive advantage in the next war?
The clandestine Service des Renseignements of France’s Deuxième Bureau (the nation’s military intelligence service) despatched one of its agents to Belgium. He was to follow the instructions set out in the letter and meet Le Vengeur in a designated cafe in Liège.
The mysterious benefactor compounded the strangeness of his approach by meeting his designated contact, Captain Lambling of the Deuxième Bureau, with his face almost entirely covered in bandages. The only gap in the gauze mask was for his moustache. The Avenger’s choice of name was apt – he explained his motivation by saying that “they [the Germans] have behaved in an even more shameful manner to me and I am avenging myself”.
A delicate and diplomatic dance was then conducted between Captain Lambling and Le Vengeur over the course of several meetings as each side took the measure of the other. Eventually, Captain Lambling and his colleagues at the Deuxième Bureau were convinced Le Vengeur’s papers were worth the asking price and handed over 60,000 Francs in a parcel.
Le Venguer then proceeded to hand over the whole of the Schlieffen Plan together with detailed charts that mapped where the German army would concentrate and attack.
Even more incendiary, the documents detailed how the Germans planned to ignore Belgian neutrality to invade France through the Low Countries. This contravention of the Treaty of London was just the thing France needed to entice the British into sending troops to the continent.
The French had discovered details of railway improvements in the Rhineland and notes from the German High Command which clearly demonstrated Germany’s ability to strike further to the north than had previously been expected. Could they really have been handed the full details of Germany’s war time plans?
Unfortunately for the French, the whole arrangements had seemed so incredible and implausible that many in the military intelligence service refused to believe that either the Avenger or his documents were real. This was despite the other intelligence which had clearly corroborated the information Le Vengeur had given them.