Shortly after the 1916 Rising, and two years into the First World War, Galway, along with all other towns in Ireland, was on edge. The authorities regarded with suspicion people who had expressed nationalist sympathies, or even more scary, if they were German. The week long Easter Rising had taken place on April 24 until 29th, when three months later the notorious Battle of the Somme began on July 1 which would grind on until November.* People tended to see enemies everywhere.
There was at least one German national living in Galway, a kind, cultured man, Valentine Steinberger, who had been professor of Romance Languages at University College Galway since 1886. Emily Anderson had been a student of his, and would later briefly become his assistant when she began teaching at the college.
Some people, however, began to view Steinberger with suspicion. As a teacher he was in a position of influence; he could be urging his students to take up arms, become members of the Irish Volunteers, or become spies. There are rumours, wholly unsubstantiated, that flashing lights could be seen coming from the windows of Steinberger’s house overlooking Galway Bay. Was he signalling German submarines?
The Galway Express, a pro-unionist newspaper, lashed out crying: ‘A number of German born spies are hovering around Galway at the present time. May we suggest to the police and other authorities protecting British interests that any persons found undermining the cause of England, France and Russia, be at once placed in a position that his (or her ) venom will be permanently extracted. This is no time for sentiment. We are fighting to the death.’
Poor Steinberger, aged 63, was arrested at his home in Salthill and imprisoned ‘like the vilest criminal’ along with Thomas Walsh, Professor of Pathology, and two of his students. The college protested robustly at the arrest of Walsh and his students, but such was the xenophobic hysteria at the time, that nothing was said in support of Steinberger. He was sent to prison in England in a cattle boat.
He was however, soon released, but no doubt weakened by his confinement, he shortly died of pneumonia. A totally innocent man, whose son Charles was serving with distinction in the Royal Navy.
Emily Anderson was born into a family where education and critical thinking was much prized. Her father Alexander was Professor of Physics at Galway University before becoming president of the college. Born in Coleraine, to a staunch Ulster Presbyterian family, he had won a scholarship to Cambridge where he became a life-long friend with a fellow Ulster Unionist Joseph Larmor, later Sir Joseph Larmor, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge.
He met his wife Emily Binns, also Presbyterian, from a banking family in Galway, and had four children, Elsie, Emily, Alexander and Helen. Their mother was a committed suffragist and brought her two eldest daughters to meetings. They where home schooled by a series of governesses, where a great emphases was placed on European languages and learning the piano. Their father spoke fluent German, which he learned at Cambridge, and from the age of 14 years the children accompanied him on visits to Germany. Later Emily stayed with families making and maintaining numerous friendships, forming a lasting love of German music and culture which greatly enriched her life.
Emily graduated at Galway University in 1911 with a first class honours degree, with distinction, in French and German. At twenty years of age, she furthered her studies at Berlin University where she thrived, and developed a lasting love of the city; before moving to the university of Marburg, until the outbreak of the First World War forced all foreign students to leave Germany.
Arriving home she worked as an assistant to Professor Steinberger in the German department, and possibly feeling that Galway was an anticlimax after the excitement of German cities took a job teaching languages at a girl’s college in Barbados.
Her decision to leave Barbados (which was not the fulfilling life she wanted ) was prompted by the Steinberger affair, and the university’s decision to divide the former department of Romance Languages in two: a department of French Spanish and Italian; and a separate department of German.
Emily was the outstanding candidate. She became Professor of German at 26 years of age.** She radically updated the curriculum, updating the texts to be studied, to include a detailed knowledge of the history of German literature, and much more which became her legacy to the university when she eventually resigned from the professorship in 1920.
There was however, serious news about her brother Alexander. At the outbreak of war he joined the Connaught Rangers, transferring to the Royal Flying Corps, and was sent to France. While on a reconnaissance flight near Babaume, November 3 1916, his two-seater aircraft was attacked by three German aircraft. His pilot was killed instantly. The plane crashed landed, Alexander was injured but alive. No doubt his knowledge of German was useful. He was a prisoner for the remaining years of the war. It would be three years before he would return to his Galway family still traumatised from the crash and his imprisonment.
Just as Emily was getting her new syllabus for the German department up and running, in the Autumn of 1917, she was approached, possibly by a colleague at Cambridge, who was probably prompted by Joseph Larmor, who would have known the extraordinary fluency Emily had for languages, asking her for help.
There had been a dramatic change in the communications method used by the German military, which needed urgent attention.
By 1916 the German military and diplomatic intelligence systems, had started to move away from the telephone and ground-based wire systems towards wireless telegraphy. It was essential these messages were understood, and Britain fully realised the potential of signals intelligence. All enemy messages must be listened to and decoded. A new cryptographic unit was being set up, would Emily help?
Whether it was because of her brother being a POW in Germany, or the excitement of a job that could help bring the war to an end quickly, she did not hesitate in agreeing to undergo assessment for the work, and if successful to go to France to work in the field. She double-jobbed for a while before resigning from Galway university.
A codebreaking bureau was established at St Omer where Anderson, part of an elite group of four women, were decoding messages between German command posts and soldiers in the field, and contributing vital intelligence for the British and French military.
In the Spring of 1918, after America announced it was coming into the war, Germany made one last effort to grab victory. It launched its infamous Ludendorff Offensive, which had initial success in pushing the British forces back. St Omer became threatened, and the women’s unit, which Anderson had christened ‘The University Lecturers’, which now numbered 12, were relocated to the Paris Plage, on the coast. Adding to the confusion the German codes were changed, making the work of the codebreaker even more urgent.
The German advance however, gradually lost its force through poor equipment, sinking morale, and supplies. It was then met with an attack by three French armies and five American divisions which rapidly crossed the Marne. The initiative had now passed to the Allies who were shortly to begin the Hundred Days Offensive which ended the war.
It was soon clear that Anderson’s services were no longer needed in the field in France. Back in London however, her quite exceptional skills as a codebreaker had been noticed by her superiors and they were anxious to retain her services, not just for the duration of the war, but for the fledgling intelligence service already being planned by senior officers in military and naval intelligence for the post-war period. Anderson had been earmarked for the new organisation, and would resign from her professorship at Galway in due course. Her family were allowed to say only that she worked in the Foreign Office.
Next Week: Reading messages before Hitler saw them
NOTES * One thousand two hundred and four young Galway men were killed in the First World War.
** The professorship of Romance Languages (French, Spanish and Italian ) went to Liam Ó Briain (28 ) who fought under Countess Markievicz at the College of Surgeons, St Stephen’s Green, during the Easter Rising. He was a committed republican, in sharp contrast to Anderson’s unionist background. Ó Briain was imprisoned several times, was co-founder of An Taibhdhearc theatre, and became a popular TV personality. The two professors were apparently very civil to each other in the brief period they were together at the university.
The above story is taken from Queen of Codes, the Secret Life of Emily Anderson, Britain’s Greatest Female Codebreaker, by Jackie Uí Chionna, published by Headline on sale €18.