Although there had been various unorganized (and sometimes unofficial) intelligence activities prior to 1873, in that year the original British Intelligence Branch was established, in the Quartermaster General’s Department, with a staff of seven military officers serving under Gen. Sir Henry Brackenbury (1837 – 1914). By 1899 the staff had increased to 13 officers and in 1904 it was transferred to the War Office under the Directorate of Operations.

Contemporaneously, the Metropolitan Police had developed within Special Branch (still exists) a section which dealt with terrorists and subversives, headed by William Melville (1850 – 1918) from 1893 to 1903, when the activity was transferred to the Home Office and later called The Secret Service Bureau. This unit became the nucleus of MI Section 6, and traditionally its head is called “M”, which derives from Melville. 

After the start of WW1 the Intelligence Branch was upgraded to the Directorate of Military Intelligence. This table lists the sections that were created.

Section Area of Responsibility  
MI-1 Codes and Cyphers  
MI-2 Country Desks – Non-combatant Nations
MI-3 Country Desks -Combatant Nations
MI-4 Maps and Topography  
MI-5 Counter Intelligence and Security
MI-6 Intelligence Gathering and Espionage
MI-7 Censorship of the Press  
MI-8 Censorship of Cables  
MI-9 Censorship of the Post  
MI-10 Supervision of Foreign Military Attachés

During WW2 the Directorate was further expanded to nineteen sections, and many of the WW1 sections were repurposed. Today there are only two of these, and both are stand-alone agencies, being entirely distinct from the Ministry of Defense, the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police:

HM Security Service, still known as ‘MI-5’, and HM Secret Intelligence Service, still known as ‘MI-6’.

Ian Fleming at his home in Jamaica

The fictional character James Bond served with MI-6 during the Cold War era. Bond was the creation of British writer Ian Fleming (1908 – 1964), one of the most popular modern writers in English, with over 100 million copies sold. In addition to the sixteen novels and eight short story collections that Fleming wrote there have been forty-nine Bond novels and adapted screenplays cranked out by others. Bond has been portrayed by seven different actors in twenty-six movies to date.

Memorial Plaque

Ian Fleming’s father was Major Valentine Fleming DSO (1882 – 1917), a banker and Conservative Member of Parliament who was killed in action in France. His obituary in The Times of London was written by his former colleague and friend Winston Churchill.

David Cornwell (1931 – ), who uses the nom de plume ‘John le Carré’, has made a 58 year career out of writing about MI-6, although he has never used that term, preferring to label the agency as ‘the Circus’, which is, however, headed by ‘M’. Cornwell has produced 24 novels, from which there have been derived ten movies and six television shows.

James (“Jim”) Patton BS BA MPA is a retired state official from Shawnee, Kansas and a frequent contributor to several WW1 e-publications, including "Roads to the Great War," "St. Mihiel Tripwire," "Over the Top" and "Medicine in the First World War." He has spent many hours walking the WW1 battlefields, and is also an authority on British regiments and a collector of their badges. An Army Engineer during the Vietnam War, he does work for the US World War 1 Centennial Commission and is affiliated with the WW1 Historical Association, the Western Front Association, the Salonika Campaign Society and the Gallipoli Association.