Karl Lody – a summary

Karl Lody was a German spy and the first to be executed in Britain during the First World War.

Karl LodyBorn in Berlin on 20 January 1877, Karl Hans Lody spoke perfect English with an American accent, having been married to an American and lived in Nebraska. Having obtained a US passport under the name Charles A. Inglis, which allowed him to travel freely, Lody arrived in Edinburgh on 27 August 1914. Staying in a hotel, he hired a bicycle and cycled each day to the docks at the Firth of Forth and Rosyth’s naval base, both of strategic importance during the First World War, in order to observe and take notes.

Snow on their boots

MI5, who had been monitoring letters sent abroad, intercepted Lody’s very first message back to the Germans. The address in Stockholm that Lody had used was well known to MI5, instantly arousing their suspicions. But they did not arrest him immediately, preferring, instead, to monitor his activities. Lody’s letters were usually signed ‘Nazi’, an abbreviation of the name Ignatz, the German form of Ignatius, and nothing to do with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party which did not come into existence until after the war. (‘Nazi’ was also a generic term for an Austro-Hungarian soldier, akin to ‘Tommy’ for a British soldier or ‘Fritz’ for a German one.)

Many of Lody’s letters, some of which were coded, contained misleading information, which MI5 were more than happy to allow through. One example was Lody’s assertion that thousands of Russian troops had landed in Scotland on their way to the Western Front, which may have led to the infamous ‘snow on their boots’ rumour that gained popular currency in wartime Britain.


On 29 September, fearing his cover was about to be blown, Lody moved to Dublin. He travelled via Liverpool and while there made notes describing the Liverpool docks and the ships he saw. This letter, sent without coding, revealed pertinent information. It was at this point MI5 decided Lody had to be stopped.

He was arrested on 2 October in Killarney, County Kerry, from where he’d been planning on visiting Queenstown, a major naval base. Lody was charged with two offences under ‘DORA’, the Defence of the Realm Act, which had only come into effect two months previously – 8 August. Initially, Lody tried to pass himself off as an American citizen but police found a trove of incriminating evidence in his hotel bedroom, including drafts of his letters and telegrams.

A really fine man

Tried in public at London’s Old Bailey, the case, unlike later spying trials, was widely reported in the national press. Lody was held responsible for the sinking of a British cruiser whose movements were known to Berlin thanks to his information. Lody tried to argue that he was an unwilling spy but evidence showed that he had voluntarily signed an agreement with the German admiralty. He refused to name his contact in Berlin: ‘That name I cannot say as I have given my word of honour’. His activities, he said, would ‘hopefully save my country, but probably not me’. Lody’s gentlemanly conduct in court won him much admiration in Britain. But it came as no surprise when on 2 November Karl Lody was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Sir Vernon Kell, head of MI5, described Lody as a ‘really fine man’, and he ‘felt it deeply that so brave a man should have to pay the death penalty.’

The death sentence was approved by King George V.

On the day before his execution, Lody wrote a number of letters. One, to the commanding officer at the Tower of London, thanks him and his staff for their ‘kind and considered treatment.’ In another, to his family in Stuttgart, Lody writes, ‘My hour has come, and I must start on the journey through the Dark Valley like so many of my comrades in this terrible War of Nations.’ (Click here for the full text of both these letters).

A brave man

Karl Lody was executed on the morning of 6 November 1914. When the warder came to take him from his cell, Lody asked him, ‘I suppose you will not care to shake hands with a German spy?’ To which, the officer replied, ‘No. But I will shake hands with a brave man.’

‘To the very end,’ wrote the Daily Mail, ‘Lody maintained the calm imperturbability which characterized him throughout the three day’s trial.’ A warder, describing Lody’s walk to face execution, wrote that the condemned man seemed ‘unconcerned as though he was going to a tea party’. Refusing to be blindfolded, Lody sat down on the wooden chair, folded his arms and crossed his legs. He was executed by an eight-man firing squad.

Karl Lody was the first of eleven German spies to be executed in Britain during the war, and the first person to be executed at the Tower of London since 1747, 167 years before.

1914Rupert Colley

Read more about the Great War in 1914 in 1914: History In An Hour, due 7 November 2013, published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

Plus World War One: History In An Hour also by Rupert Colley.

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