Marthe Richard French: from the notebooks of Farquhar McHarg (Pistoleros 1: 1918)

Marthe Richard, née Betenfeld (15 August 1889, Blâmont – 9 February 1982)

The following extract is from F.M’s notes on a conversation with the then Solidaridad Obrera editor (1917-1919) Ángel Pestaña: “‘Our information on the German special services, has been good —was good, I should say. Until last week a French compañera by the name of Marthe Richard French —or Marthe Regnier —was Von Krohn’s [Lieutenant Commander Hans von Krohn, German naval attaché in Madrid] mistress, and for a spymaster, Von Krohn was remarkably indiscreet, especially where Marthe was concerned.

“‘Marthe Richard’s story was extraordinary. As a child, Marthe ran away from her home in Lorraine to Paris where she was soon caught and taken back to her parents, and placed in a convent — from which she promptly escaped again and returned to Paris where, in 1900, she fell in with Alexandre Marius Jacob, a French anarchist burglar and his partner Rose Roux, who took it upon themselves to befriend and look after the rebel twelve-year old girl. This time she wasn’t caught, or perhaps even looked for. Unfortunately, in 1905 Jacob, Rose and most of the members of his gang were betrayed and arrested for a string of spectacular burglaries the length and breadth of France, and were sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, leaving the sixteen year old Marthe to fend for herself. For a time she turned to prostitution, but then by chance she met and fell in love with — and married — an extremely rich patron who indulged her every whim.

Marius Jacob’s “Nightworkers” (Marius Jacob, bottom right)

“‘One whim was learning to fly and, as a wealthy woman, Marthe took lessons and became one of the first women to obtain a pilot’s certificate in France. Soon after the outbreak of the Great War Marthe’s husband was killed and, ever the adventuress, she was recruited into the French secret service, the Service de Reseignements, by George Ladoux and was posted to Spain where she soon was mixing in the highest circles of Madrid society. Even so, she remained close to the anarchist movement and regularly passed on to us any information she thought might be useful to us.

“‘During her time on the diplomatic cocktail circuit Marthe became romantically involved with Baron Von Krohn, the head of German naval intelligence in Madrid. Von Krohn, always with one eye on the main chance and the other on beautiful women, quickly recruited her into his spy network via the horizontal road to espionage. Before taking her on, however, the Von Krohns, husband and wife, invited her to dinner to test whether or not she spoke German, which she claimed she didn’t — but in fact did. Over dinner the Von Krohn’s and other German guests rudely conversed among themselves, in German, about all Frenchwomen being whores, and inferred that the dessert was poisoned, and discussed how they would get rid of their guest’s body. Marthe, however, didn’t bat an eyelid and continued eating as though she were totally oblivious to the macabre conversation going on around her.

Marthe Richard (c.1918)

“‘Although she and Von Krohn became lovers, the arrogant German was playing her for a fool — which she was most certainly was not — it was the other way round, and it wasn’t long before this astute woman had wheedled out of the kraut spymaster information about German operations in Spain, France and in Morocco — and about the routes the Germans were using to infiltrate spies and saboteurs into France through the Pyrenees. Von Krohn even sent her to Argentina with a box of weevils, which she was to introduce into Allied grain and food supplies. Another of his schemes was poisoning Entente livestock—horses, mules and cattle —and he had worse planned. Marthe discovered that Von Krohn had commissioned a mad Cameroonian professor by the name of Kleine to gelatinise cholera and typhus cultures which were to be dumped in the rivers along the Portuguese border in the hope of provoking a diplomatic incident, thereby forcing Portugal to close its border with Spain and compromise its relationship with the Entente. But the plot will never come to anything. The French have Kleine under close surveillance and the only thing likely to be dumped into the Tagus will be Klein’s body.

Microbiological terrorism, 1917-18 (á la Professor Kleine)

“‘Marthe’s plan was to drug Von Krohn and steal the contents of his safe, but when it came to it the French refused to give her the drugs she needed to dope him, nor would they return her passport so she could return to France. Sensing a double-cross in some nasty internecine Franco German secret service game, Marthe took matters into her own hands and, somewhat impetuously and publicly, ended the affair with Von Krohn during afternoon tea in the salon of the Madrid Ritz. After she’d told him that she was ending the affair, she informed him not only that she had been working for the French all along, but also that she was an anarchist and that she despised him and the regime and class he represented.

“‘Had Marthe broken this bombshell in private there’s no doubt Von Krohn would have killed her there and then with his bare hands, but in such a public place he was powerless. She then telephoned the German Ambassador, Prince von Ratibor, to tell him she had been von Krohn’s lover, which he probably knew anyway, and that she was a French agent to whom Von Krohn had been paying large sums of money out of secret service funds. She also told him that she had had free access to Von Krohn’s safe and regularly photographed the top-secret documents therein.

Max von Ratibor und Corvey (German ambassador, Madrid 1910-1918)

“‘I think her intention in telling all this to Prince von Ratibor was to put the cat among the proverbial pigeons and cause the maximum disruption, confusion and embarrassment to Germany’s special services in Spain, but she underestimated von Ratibor’s and von Krohn’s anger and desire for revenge on her. Once she realised they had put out a contract on her life she knew she was in serious danger and it was time to leave the country. The first she knew of this was when Von Krohn’s pistoleros tried to kill her while she was rowing on the Parque del Retiro boating lake in the middle of Madrid. When the shooting started she jumped overboard and escaped with only a bullet through her shoulder. It could have been a lot worse. We’ve arranged to get her across the border and into France, and in fact she should be safely in Perpignan by now, en route to Marseilles.

“‘Pity! Marthe was a unique source of information. Ethically, however, she felt she had no choice; the duplicity was too much for her. I’m surprised she put up with Von Krohn for so long. He truly is an evil piece of work. He’s a leading light in the Thule Society and is involved in all sorts of arcane satanic practices. We’re not sure what’s happened to him, but I suspect he’ll either be sent home or severely reprimanded. Ratibor is not a forgiving man, and he was not amused by his subordinate’s lack of judgment.

“‘No, the Germans have got a lot to answer for: the deaths of so many of our merchant navy compañeros sunk in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. For years now Von Krohn’s and Canaris’s spy network have been keeping their submarine commanders informed as to cargoes, destinations, routes, itineraries and convoy assembly points of all ships leaving Spanish, Portuguese and French Mediterranean and Atlantic ports. And the dangers aren’t confined to the sea; boats and lives in port are at risk as well. Over the past two years we’ve had more than forty members of the CNT’s Maritime Workers’ Union killed or seriously injured by sabotage in the docks. Also, although Germany’s secret war in Spain is mainly focused on shipping, their agents and proxies have been murdering, bombing and fire­ raising in factories and warehouses throughout the peninsula, including Portugal — and all the while trying to incriminate cenetistas and anarchists as the perpetrators…”

From: The Chronicles of Farquhar McHarg. Pistoleros 1: 1918