Untold lives blog

14 April 2016

Edward William Charles Noel – political officer and spy

Born on this day in 1886, Edward William Charles Noel remains one of the lesser known British political officers and spies who served in the Middle East during the First World War. In his book, On Secret Service East of Constantinople, Peter Hopkirk likens Noel to Ludovic ‘Sandy’ Arbuthnot, friend of Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s novels.

Noel began his career as a subaltern in the Indian Army and later served as British Vice-Consul at Ahwaz, in Persia. During the First World War he took part in various secret missions, one of which involved assisting the Russian Tsarist General Peter Polovstov and his wife (who were disguised as a United States missionary and his wife) in their escape from Russia. 

Personal file of Edward William Charles Noel

Personal file of Edward William Charles Noel IOR/R/1/4/1284Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

As Hopkirk states, Noel remained throughout his life an elusive character. The British Library holds copies of a published official diary by Noel, which documents his activities on special duty in Kurdistan during 1919, but Noel kept no private diaries and despite living well into old age never felt compelled to write his memoirs.

However, there are various stories about Noel’s early career in the Indian Army. For instance, he may well have been the first (or at least one of the first) to cycle all the way from England to India, in 1909, and again in 1910.

David Fitzpatrick
Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership 

Further Reading:
Peter Hopkirk, On Secret Service East of Constantinople: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire (Oxford, 1995)
Edward William Charles Noel, Diary of Major E.M. Noel, C.I.E., D.S.O., On Special Duty in Kurdistan from June 14th to September 21st 1919 (Basra, 1920).
Documents from the India Office Records about Noel's service are listed in Explore Archives and Manuscripts


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