Archive for the ‘WWI’ Category

320px-elizebeth-friedman1Elizebeth Friedman (1892-1980), in three words: What A Broad.

Elizebeth was one-half of the Dynamic Duo of Friedman and Freidman. Although married to the reknowned cryptographer William F. Friedman, Elizebeth was quite the crypto-dame in her own right and is often to referred to as the America’s first female cryptanalyst.

Let me first say that I could spend this entire entry musing about the type of love letters the Friedmans sent to each other (D197%6 B9G#!& = Dearest Billy), but it’s time to get to work:

Elizebeth was born the youngest of nine children in a Quaker family. She graduated college with a degree in English Literature although she dabbled in quite a varied amount of other subjects. She was fluent in German, Latin and Greek.

After graduating college and trying to find herself via the public education system, Elizebeth was to drawn to a job at the Newberry Library in Chicago presumably for its Shakespeare collection of which Elizebeth was quite the aficionado.

However, a brilliant secretary performing the initial interview for the job, directed Elizebeth instead toward George Fabyan. Fabyan is credited with having the first private think tank dedicated to cryptology in the nation. He immediately hired Elizebeth to work at his facility Riverbank, in Geneva, Illinois, where Elizebeth worked on a project attempting to prove Sir Francis Bacon as the true author of “Shakespearean” work. The belief was that Bacon enciphered the work and by decoding the works, one could discover the Bacon’s identity.

Interesting sure, but hardly the good stuff. It was during Elizebeth’s five years at Riverbank that she met and eventually married her husband, William, a fellow and brilliant cryptographer. However, the outbreak of WWI and the creation of MI-8, the US Army’s Cipher Bureau, inspired the Friedmans to jump ship and head to Washington. DC proved to suit Elizebeth well.  She worked for US Naval intelligence which led to a stint at the Treasury Department and it was there that Elizebeth really began to shine.

Remember that the 1920’s were the time of Prohibition. Elizebeth put her smarts to the task of deciphering communiques, via both written and radio-communicated messages, between smuggling rings. During her tenure our gal-pal was responsible for solving over 12,000 messages. All done by training a cadre of cryptanalysts and by staying abreast of improved deciphering techniques and the subsequent hardware that was being developed which kept her one step ahead of the game.

But her career wasn’t all busting rum-runners and smugglers. Among her many exploits, Elizebeth created a security system for the International Monetary Fund, was responsible for breaking the code on notorious American spy Velvalee Dickinson (more on that dame later), and broke Chinese codes for the Canadian government despite the fact she didn’t even know the language. That’s one hell of a career right there.

But not the end of Elizebeth’s story. After retiring from government work, Elizebeth and William returned to their work on Shakespeare eventually publishing the definitive book arguing against the idea of Sir Francis Bacon being the real author of the works.

William passed on in 1969 and Elizebeth set to work compiling their career worth of papers into a stunning collection of cryptographical works. She passed along herself in 1980 in New Jersey.


Gertrude Bell (1868-1926 ) was one rip-roaring, bad-ass skirt. An academic, travel writer, explorer, cultural anthropologist, diplomat and spy, this broad can reasonably claim to be the founder of modern day Iraq.

Bell, daughter of a famous industrialist and clearly born into a life of British privilege, first gains props for being the first woman to graduate Oxford with a degree in history. Her wanderlust kicked in after graduation when after visiting an uncle who was the British Minister in Tehran, Persia (you know this place better as Iran), Bell wrote her first book Persian Pictures.

Bell spent a number of years bouncing about the continent learning mountaineering, archaeology, and picking a language or two (Actually it was 6. This bird had an enormous brain). In 1899, Bell found herself again in the Middle East where she became the human bridge from the Middle East to Europe, publishing books, mapping the area, photographing ruins and learning the culture. In 1909, Bell came into acquaintance with T.E. Lawrence. You might know him better as Lawrence of Arabia.

In the outbreak of WWI, Bell joined Army Intelligence in Cairo, Egypt. She proved her worth to the organization in teaching her “superiors” the local languages, customs and ways of political maneuvering. We Americans only recently wised-up about this in Iraq and now employ the practice called “Human Terrain Analysis”.

After a year, Bell finally managed to get her bad-self sent to Basra (Iraq) where she and T.E. Lawrence organized the revolt made so famous in the movie.

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1919, it was Bell who was commissioned to provide analysis of the area. Nearly a year later, Bell presented what many feel to be a definitive report on the subject that rather strongly supported Arabic leadership, but this went clearly against the agenda of her superiors and Bell found herself put out.

So here’s the important lesson to be learned in Intelligence and political infighting: Decision Makers do well by listening to their analysts. Bell’s recommendations were ignored because the British wanted strict control of oilfields without any thought or care as to how this would affect the region. And it wasn’t so much that Bell contradicted what they wanted to hear, I’m sure the old “What does she know? She’s just a girl” played no small role in this scenario as well.

Which is shame, because while Bell’s influence established the modern day borders for Iraq, the failure of the Decision Makers to heed Bell’s advice, is clearly seen as history repeats in modern day Iraq as differing cultural values and religious ideologies still plague the area. Just as Bell said it would.

To her credit though, Bell stuck it out and aided the newly crowned King of Iraq and acted as a King’s advisor in local customs that influenced everything from business to politics. Bell even went as far as to supervise to the appointment of the King’s cabinet. But Bell was burnt out and exhausted by the end of it. She is famously quoted as saying “I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain”.

The years took their ultimate toll on the Uncrowned Queen of Iraq. Heavy smoking, desert climate and some vicious malaria ravaged Bell’s health. She developed a not pleasant chronic lung condition (possibly lung cancer) and eventually overdosed on sleeping pills in Baghdad in 1926. She was interred in the British cemetery with a large outpouring of people to mourn her death.

Other accomplishments in the extraordinary life of this dame include the founding the of Baghdad Archaeological Museum and Bell’s appointment as Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

And the final lesson to be learned here: History is not always written by the victors. “History” is often written by the schmoes lucky enough to have met an American writer and broadcaster who glamorize certain men’s adventures without getting all the facts straight. As was the case with Lowell Thomas popularizing “Lawrence of Arabia” and leaving our gal Gertrude out in the cold.

Time to get Gertrude out in the spotlight where she clearly belongs.

You’ve heard it, admit it, you have. Any dame involved in anything the least bit manipulative in nature or related to espionage and she instantly and incorrectly merits the name a “Mata Hari”.

Double Agent or naive floozy? The world may never know the true story of Margarethe Zelle (1876-1917), a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan, that has captured popular imagination as an international woman of mystery during WWI.

Not a great dancer nor a great beauty, divorcee “Mata Hari”, took great advantage of being a first: an Asian Exotic Dancer. This was something new and novel to taunt the European public. All fine and good when the world is at peace and you are viewed as “seductive” and “erotic”, not so good when war comes to town and people get religion because then you become “promiscuous” and a “trollop”.

Mata Hari’s legion of high ranking, military lovers took her back and forth across country lines and kept in her the lavish lifestyle to which she was accustomed. It also garnered some unfortunate attention when Mata Hari claimed she was working for the French government, a claim that could not be verified. Was she the real deal or just reinventing her image ala Madonna?

Mata Hari’s shenanigans eventually caught up to her when French authorities intercepted a German radio massage regarding the activities of spy H-21. The French decoded the message, attributed it to Mata Hari, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The rumors fly that she was a spy, not a spy, a scapegoat, and/or a victim of a set-up and/or unfortunate circumstance. If she was duped, then who did it? It could have been the French or it could have been the Germans, no one really knows, but the general thought amongst scholars leans towards her being a pawn and nothing more.

Margarethe Zelle was tried, convicted and executed in 1917 for treason. And in the grand tradition of outrageous executioner tales, Mata Hari may, or may not, have blown a kiss to the firing squad, flashed her naked bod and claimed “Harlot, yes, but traitor, never!”

I guess we’ll know in another 9 years when the 100 seal on French records is finally broken.