Intrigue in Asia in the Great War's wake

July 24, 1994|By Robert Taylor | Robert Taylor,Boston Globe

"I have reports from agents everywhere," says Sir Walter Bullivant, head of the British Secret Service, briefing Richard Hannay in John Buchan's 1916 novel "Greenmantle."

They are, he continues: "pedlars in South Russia, Afghan horse-dealers, Turcoman merchants, pilgrims on the road to Mecca, sheikhs in North Africa, sailors on the Black Sea coasters, sheep-skinned Mongols, Hindu fakirs, Greek traders in the Gulf, as well as respectable Consuls who use cyphers."

In Sir Walter's world, all races, including those "sheep-skinned Mongols," cheered for the Good Guys (imperial Britain). Secret service chiefs recited romantic catalog speeches like Shakespearean actors and initiated fustian exploits (or, as we might call them today, "dirty tricks"). Interestingly enough, the cavalier mood of boys' adventure fiction really characterized World War I in central Asia before a morose ambiguity sullied the motives of spies.

Two years ago, Peter Hopkirk wrote "The Great Game," a lucid chronicle of the Victorian-era maneuverings of England and Russia scrambling to control the key northern approaches to India. "Like Hidden Fire" is an equally lucid and breathless chronicle of the continuation of the Great Game during and immediately after the Great War.

The players have changed; Britain and Russia now oppose Germany and Turkey, but the jewel in the crown still remains India, which Berlin seeks to win by unleashing an Islamic jihad, or holy war.

Mr. Hopkirk has a knack for accessible historical writing. His narrative pace never slackens and his saga reminds us that World War I was indeed a global conflict.

The war boiled across Asia and involved scores of characters as colorful as Lawrence of Arabia; "the German Lawrence," Wilhelm Wassmuss, who convinced the tribes of the Persian Gulf that the kaiser had made a secret pilgrimage to Mecca; and the redoubtable Capt. Oskar von Niedermayer and Otto von Hentig, ordered to elude a British cordon and reach Kabul, where they hoped to persuade the emir of Afghanistan to hurl his armies against India's lightly guarded frontiers.

This is heady stuff, but Mr. Hopkirk or his editors have elected to tell it as a narrative without footnotes. Though one scarcely regrets burdening a good story, abandoning footnotes altogether entails accepting on faith everything an author says.

The research into secret service archives appears scrupulous and the account has the ring of authenticity, yet certain details nag. Consider, for example, "the remote island off the Mexican coast," used by Indian terrorists as a depot for arms acquired in the United States. Does it have a name? There is never a clue.

The German mission to Kabul, the schemes of the sinister Enver Pasha, contriver of the Armenian massacres and visionary of a sprawling new Ottoman empire, and the capture of Erzerum (also the climax of "Greenmantle") occupy the opening chapters.

The second half focuses on the turbulent impact of the Russian Revolution in the Trans-Caspian region, and the execution of the 26 Baku commissars, early martyrs of the Soviet pantheon and a source of dispute between historians in the Soviet Union and those in the West. (The Russians blamed their deaths on a British plot, but Muslim leaders appear responsible.)

Intrigue and double-dealing, however, attended the situation in Baku. A small British force confronted an advancing Turkish army, while the underground activities of rival factions swirled about a single-track railway, the only means of transportation.

Chaos reigned. "There was no Allied policy or strategy toward the Bolsheviks, whom no power recognized and who were not at that time expected to survive for very much longer. Decisions had to be left to those on the spot."

Peter Hopkirk's portrayal of a region in flux, shaken by conflict and the breakdown of established order, discloses the Great Game was still in progress in 1918, even as its consequences continue in the Caucasus today.

He's rather addicted to such phrases as "In the event," and "you may recall," but the limber prose has the swing of Sir Walter Bullivant's briefing all the same.

Title: "Like Hidden Fire: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire"

Author: Peter Hopkirk

Publisher: Kodansha

Length, price: 431 pages, $25

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