Review: On Secret Service East of Constantinople, Peter Hopkirk

Rating: 4 out of 5

This is a fairly long-winded book as it concerns itself with two distinctly different operations. The first of these is the German-Turkish intelligence strike against Persia and Afghanistan, who the Central Powers hoped to bring into the Great War on their side; the second is the British/Russian/Turkish fighting south of the Caucasus. I found the first part disappointing on the whole while the latter more than compensated for the lacklustre appeal of the former.

Part of the problem with the first half is that the author writes British people very well. The Germans, spectacular people as they must have been to thrive in the hostile environments of the East, are in contrast dull. Hostilities within the German party are mentioned numerous times, but generally without much emphasis on what they disagreed about or about the specifics of their arguments. These gaps leave the Germans who led the operations—Wilhelm Wassmuss, Werner Otto von Hentig, and Oskar Niedermayer—much more of an enigma than their contemporary British officers.

The British, amongst whom Reginald Teague-Jones, Edward Noel, and Ranald MacDonell stand out most, were cast much more fully: the reader really learns about their achievements in detail and these people become more than just names on paper. In this way, it is also possible to cheer on the Brits much more than it ever was the Germans. Teague-Jones is the chief protagonist amongst these, as the author recognises by devoting a few extra chapters to him—including his later life as Ronald Sinclair—at the end of the book. The other officers, however, appealed to me more by their actions and determination in Baku.

The author also describes in relatively good detail the controversy surrounding the execution of Stepan Shaumian and his comrade commissars towards the end of 1918. This sounded like an episode on which more comprehensive modern narratives could be written, especially with reference to the importance the event later played in Anglo-Russian relations, though general awareness of the incident remains low.

None of the Russian or Turkish intelligence staff feature in the book. I suspect this is due to the the author favouring his preferred subject (the Great Game) and not venturing too far into other territories, but there could be other reasons for this as well. I was also not treated—though fervently hoping I would be—to a description of the cloak-and-dagger game in the prized jewel of the East, Constantinople, itself. However, I was very pleased to be directed towards John Buchan’s ‘Greenmantle’ which is now waiting to be read in my library.

Overall, I’ve got some gripes with this, but the good far outweighs the bad!

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