Book Reviews

On Secret Service East of Constantinople

Peter Hopkirk

ISBN 978-0-7195-6451-2

A few months ago, I wrote a review of John Buchan’s Greenmantle. This book tells the true story of the men and events who inspired that tale. It is remarkable in its theme, scope and readability.

Hopkirk considers that the declaration of jihad posed a very real threat to British rule in India and that maintaining and extending their empires was a prime concern of politicians in Britain, Germany and the Ottoman Empire. While it should be remembered that he is a journalist by training rather than a historian, he has extensive first-hand knowledge of the countries he describes and, from the bibliography, his research has been extremely thorough. In addition, he can tell a rattling good adventure story!

Anchored in a sound basis of the military and political context, Hopkirk, in fact, tells a series of adventure stories. His heroes are mainly intelligence officers and political agents, both British and German. Most were recruited because of their extensive knowledge of the areas in which they were to work, having been diplomats, business men or archaeologists. Most spoke several local languages, were highly intelligent, brave to the point of being fool hardy and definitely individualistic. They would not have fitted into the military mould, but, working more or less as spies and agents provocateurs, they were without equal.

The first part of the book deals with the race by German agents to raise Afghanistan to join the Turks in jihad and invade India to support the thousands there who would rise in response to the Indian revolutionaries whom Germany was also supporting. Their progress was tracked and opposed by a network of British agents and informers throughout Persia. It is remarkable how freely Germany and Britain pursued the war across supposedly neutral Persia! Diplomats such as von Wangenheim, German agents like von Niedermeyer and Wassmuss, Indian revolutionaries like Savarkar and Dayal are shown as real three dimensional people as Hopkirk traces the way their disparate stories interlink.

The later section of the book deals with the even less well known areas of Transcaucasia, Transcaspia, Turkestan and the complex, constantly shifting relationships between Christians and Moslems (and the local groupings within each of those religions) and the various categories Russian revolutionary. Despite British progress in Mesopotamia, in late 1917 and 1918 Enver continued to pursue his dream of a Turkish empire in the Caucasus, extending into Russian territory. To the government of British India, this opened the threat of invading India by the back door. Without spare troops to mount a campaign in this area, Britain sent several small forces to support and train local militias to resist the Turks, and British political agents and intelligence officers travelled the area smuggling gold and roubles to arm the most promising groups. The stories of General Malleson’s Malmiss force and of Dunsterforce are told from the perspective of the political agents and intelligence officers who supported them. Among others, these include Ranald MacDonell and Reginald Teague-Jones. MacDonell had been vice-consul in Baku before the war. He also understood the explosive nature of Caucasian tribalism, as he was himself head of the Scottish Highland Glengarry clan. As a teenager, Teague-Jones spent several years at a German run school in St Petersburg. Fluent in French, German, Russian, Persian and several other Asiatic languages, he worked for the elite Foreign and Political Department of the British Indian government before being transferred to military intelligence early in the war. Having survived multiple adventures, after the war he was falsely accused by the Russian government of ordering and participating in the murder of 26 Bolshevik commissars and had to change his identity. Hopkirk managed to trace his later career.

Using all the skills of investigative journalism to unearth the stories of all these men, Hopkirk has brought them to life. Complex and detailed, this book is so well written that it makes compelling reading. It analyses political intent and depicts a theatre of war that bear no relation to the trenches of the Western Front. I highly recommend it.

Caroline Adams