February 19, 2007

Like Hidden Fire

Category: History,Literature :: Permalink

I’ve read John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle several times.  It’s the second of his Peter Hannay stories and it is set during World War I.  The Germans have teamed up with the Turks and are working to bring about a Holy War in the Islamic world in the hopes that the Muslims will overthrow the British.  Rumors abound about a mysterious figure in the East who is going to lead that Holy War, and Richard Hannay and his friends get caught up in the attempt to stop him.

I enjoyed the novel, but didn’t dream that there was actual history behind it.  Which shows you how little I knew about the history of World War I.  A while back, when I mentioned Greenmantle on this blog, Paul Baxter recommended Peter Hopkirk’s Like Hidden Fire: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire.  It’s the true story behind Greenmantle — and more!

Sure enough, the Germans and the Turks did plot to bring about a Holy War in order to turn the Muslims in Persia, Afghanistan, and India against the British.  Their propaganda even declared that Kaiser Wilhelm had converted to Islam and had made a pilgrimage to Mecca!

Hopkirk traces the development of the plot which looked for quite a while as if it might succeed.  In fact, Buchan had intelligence contacts and may have had inside information.  His friend, Lawrence of Arabia, once commented that “Greenmantle has more than a flavor of truth.”  Buchan’s novel ends with the defeat of Erzerum, but Hopkirk goes further, telling the story of the end of the Holy War as Turkey pushed toward the city of Baku in Transcaucasia.

I’ve heard the complaint that Buchan’s characters often just happen to stumble across plots and clues, making the novels less believable.  On the other hand, if the coincidences and mistakes that Hopkirk records were in fiction, the same charge could be levelled against them.

For instance: Would you believe that in fleeing from capture, Wassmuss (the German “Lawrence of Arabia”), who was trying to get the southern Persians worked up to fight the British, would leave behind his code book?  And that he wouldn’t report it to his superiors?  And that they would end up continuing to use the same code, not knowing that the British could read it?  And that they would send a top secret telegram (the Zimmermann Telegram) to Mexico via lines that ran through Britain?  And that Britain’s Naval Intelligence Director, Sir Reginald Hall, would have been curious about why Wassmuss tried so hard to get his luggage and, though no one else seemed interested in it, would have examined it and discovered the code book?

In fiction, maybe not.  “That’s stretching coincidence,” you might say.  But it happened.  The telegram was sent from the US consulate in Germany to the US state department, where the German consul translated it and then sent it on to Mexico.  But the telegraph lines went via Britain and the British happened to be reading all those telegrams, discovered this one, recognized the code (thanks to Hall), and discovered that the Germans were planning to attack US shipping and were trying to convince Mexico to join in the war in order to reclaim Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  And that, of course, had a lot to do with the States entering World War I (though I remember nothing of this from my high school history class).

Hopkirk writes well and I read the final chapters at a gallop yesterday afternoon, trying to discover what was happening to characters such as Ranald MacDonell, left alone in Baku in the midst of Bolsheviks and anti-Bolsheviks and Muslim-hating Arminians and with Turks approaching, Edward Noel, a real-life “Sandy Arbuthnot,” who was famous for his ability to travel great distances in surprisingly little time and whose escapes and adventures were legendary but who left hardly any records of them (alas!), and Reginald Teague-Jones, who was later (likely falsely!) accused of engineering the slaughter of the twenty-six Baku commissars and who had to change his name and disappear to escape reprisals.

I’ll be reading more of Hopkirk.  And having read this book, I almost want to go back and re-read Greenmantle again!

Posted by John Barach @ 7:08 pm | Discuss (1)

One Response to “Like Hidden Fire

  1. Paul Baxter Says:

    Hopkirk’s writings are all quite engaging. Glad you enjoyed it. It’s fun learning about a part of the world which most of the world has forgotten.

Leave a Reply