by John Buchan
Some of you may remember Paul Knight’s talk on Mesopotamia. In that, he mentioned the fall to the Russians of the fortified Ottoman city of Erzerum, in February 1916. Questions remain over the reasons for the sudden Ottoman collapse, and Paul commented that Buchan’s explanation in Greenmantle could well be accurate. I decided it was time to re-read that classic.
My copy is from Oxford University Press’s World’s Classics series with a fascinating introduction and explanatory notes by Kate Macdonald. ISBN 0-19-282953-X.
First, we should say a little about the author, in order to put the book in context. Buchan was in charge of Land Settlement during the British Government’s drive to resettle South Africa after the Boer War, but later returned to England. At the start of the First World War, he became involved in intelligence work. In 1915 he was the Times special correspondent on the Western Front and from late 1915 he worked for the Foreign Office and War Office. He was highly regarded for his knowledge and understanding of the wide geographical nature of the war and the interplay with internal politics in the nations involved. Between 1915 and 1919, he wrote the 24 volumes of Nelson’s History of the War. He was thus in a position to know something of the opinions and concerns of those in high places when he wrote Greenmantle in 1916, just after the genuine events that are the backdrop to his tale.
The story is a further adventure for Richard Hannay, the hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps. As he is convalescing after injuries received in the Battle of Loos, he is called to the Foreign Office and asked to take on an even more dangerous assignment that will see him cross Germany and, by circuitous routes, arrive in Constantinople. From there, he and his companions make their way to Erzerum as it is being bombarded by the Russians. After many adventures and escaping death by a hairsbreadth more than once, they foil the German plot, get information on the weak point of the Ottoman defence to the Russians and ride into Erzerum with the victorious Cossack cavalry. It is a rattling good adventure story and the characters so well drawn and the tale so expertly told that it seems almost believable. It is worth reading for the adventure story alone.
It is the context, however, that gives the historical interest. The plot which Hannay and his accomplices uncover is a German attempt to manipulate a dying Islamic prophet to inspire and inflame the jihad which had been proclaimed against the British and their allies. At Hannay’s initial meeting at the Foreign Office, it is clear that there is serious concern that the call to jihad would be heeded throughout the Moslem world and it is likely that this accurately reflects Foreign Office opinion in 1915/16. It is more questionable whether there was any basis of fact to support the idea of a German conspiracy to use the prophet Greenmantle, but Buchan was friends with both Aubrey Herbert and T E Lawrence and it is possible he had heard speculations or rumours to inspire his tale. Buchan’s detailed knowledge of various theatres of war leads to a convincing description of Hannay’s journey through war time Europe and his visit to Constantinople in 1910 allowed him to describe that area with detail and atmosphere. His theory was that the fall of Erzerum was due to information on the distribution of the Ottoman defences being smuggled to the Russian commander so that they attacked and broke through the one pass that was still weakly protected because the troops withdrawn from Gallipoli could not reach Erzerum until March. There is likely to be truth in this. T E Lawrence was working in the Cairo Intelligence Department in 1915 and is thought to have put the Russians in contact with some Arab officers in Erzerum who were secretly opposed to the Ottoman Government. This could have been the real source of the information, rather than Hannay and his friends.
Behind the adventure story, then, this book gives a feel for the genuine attitudes and conditions in both Europe and the Ottoman Empire in 1915/16, and I thoroughly recommend it. One word of ‘health warning’, though. Like other Buchan novels I have read, it contains comments and turns of phrase that to a modern reader are jarringly racist. This casual, unconscious racism is also a historical fact, however, and would have gone unnoticed when the book was written, an indication of how attitudes and standards have changed in the last 100 years. Another historical point is made by the comprehensive Explanatory Notes. Written in 1993, they assume the reader will have little or no knowledge of the First World War. This was probably accurate at that time but hopefully after the publicity given to the centenary of the War, some of those notes would be unnecessary today.