Commander Mansfield Smith-Cumming and his son Alistair went driving in Meaux, France in October 1914, near the beginning of WWI. When their Rolls Royce crashed, Smith-Cumming used a penknife to sever his own leg in order to reach his dying son. This story of iron mettle and sacrifice later became legend in the halls of the British Secret Intelligence Service, an organization Smith-Cumming founded in 1909 after being ordered to do so by the Admiralty.
Commander Mansfield Smith-Cumming.
Smith-Cumming’s modus operandi was to partner spies with prostitutes, using one as bait and the other to twist the knife – the latter almost literally, as all agents were required to carry swordsticks. His operation became fairly successful in intelligence gathering during WWI, reporting on construction of the new dreadnoughts, zeppelins, submarines and other military hardware, and also managing to sabotage and destroy many important installations.
During World War I, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia spent a burdensome amount of time reviewing military troops and raising morale up and down the frontlines, and left much of the domestic policy to his wife, the Tsarina Alexandria. During his absence, she began to dismiss long-time ministers and advisers, and relied heavily on a charismatic and influential monk named Grigori Rasputin for advice. Alexander Kerensky, a Socialist lawyer who eventually became Minister of Justice after the Tsar’s abdication in 1917, implicated the Tsarina and Rasputin in over-meddling with military matters – including obtaining secret military plans that could be used to sabotage the war effort.
When it was later rumored that the Tsarina and “Mad Monk” Rasputin’s pro-German policy decisions included seeking a separate peace with the Central Powers, Smith-Cumming – known as “C” in SIS parlance – became worried that Germany and Russia were beginning to become close, and that a possible end to hostilities between those two enemy nations would allow Germany to focus efforts on Great Britain. It was resolved that the SIS should assassinate Grigori Rasputin. His death would hopefully bring an end to all talk of a Russo-German peace.
To that effect, SIS agent Oswald Rayner was sent to St. Petersburg to conspire with his college friend and possible former lover Felix Yusupov, who was the heir to an extremely rich mining and fur trading fortune and also nephew-in-law to Tsar Nicholas II. With the help of SIS agents John Scale and Stephen Alley and other RUssian conspirators, the group planned the death of Rasputin – code-named “Dark Forces” at this point in the operation.
The major element of the plot was Rasputin’s fondness for Yusupov. A trusted confidante, Yusupov saw Rasputin every day and the evidence of court observers noted that there was a possible homosexual relationship. Utilizing promises of sex, Yusupov managed to lure Rasputin to one of his palaces in Petrograd. When he arrived, Rasputin was tortured to ascertain his links with Germany. His body was eventually found floating in the river, his testicles crushed and his body violently beaten with a rubber truncheon. The cause of death? A bullet hole in his forehead, courtesy of Oswald Rayner’s Webley revolver.
A different tale was told in Russia following the murder. In this version, Yusupov, Vladimir Purishkevich, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov, Dr. Stanislaus de Lazovert and Lieutenant Sergei Mikhailovich Sukhotin conspired to bring Rasputin to Yusupov’s house for an intimate dinner. During this dinner, they served Rasputin poisoned wine and pink cakes and noted that he didn’t seem to be affected. It was resolved that Yusupov should then shoot Rasputin, which was done, according to witness testimony, in the “vicinity of his heart.” This was found to be untrue. Yusupov continued to claim that he had shot Rasputin even after a move to the United States in the 1920s, and in a book with Oswald Rayner. It has been argued that Rayner went along with the story as this was the intended version – that Russians had removed a cancer from their own monarchy. It would be a much more potent storyline for international politics than the sensational “British SIS agent tortures and murders Russian drug-addled possibly-psychic homosexual priest in court of Russian Tsar!”
A lasting effect of this historical murder is cemented on every American film made after 1934. In 1932, MGM made a movie called Rasputin and the Empress in which one of the characters was clearly based on Yusupov. Angered by a scene in which the character’s wife was seduced by Rasputin, the Yusupovs sued MGM for libel and won 25000 GBP in damages. To remove all liability, American studios henceforth attached this little disclaimer (and variations thereof) to the ends of their movies, a practice which continued to this day: “The preceding was a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual people or events is entirely coincidental.”