BOOK REVIEW / Jolly jousts with Fritz and Johnny Turk: 'On Secret Service East of Constantinople' - Peter Hopkirk: John Murray, 19.99

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The Independent Online
IN THE great, heavy German consulate-general in Istanbul there still hangs a full-length portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II, topped with a Turkish fez. Few now remember that this relic of imperial Germany's relations with the Ottoman Empire was part of a plot that, if the First World War had taken a different course, might have brought not just a railway from Berlin to Baghdad but also a German-dominated corridor from the Baltic to the Indian Ocean.

On Secret Service East of Constantinople shows how Kaiser Wilhelm and Enver Pasha's Turkey attempted this with an Islamic holy war against Britain and British India. The same events inspired John Buchan's spy novel Greenmantle, but, as Peter Hopkirk reveals, the real-life characters had equally amazing adventures.

Their successors are now living such times again. Many are the echoes of Hopkirk's themes today, not least in the massacres between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. After a period of near-anarchy, Russia and its Armenian allies are once again re-establishing control of the Caucasus. A US spy has been killed in bizarre circumstances, rather than a British one, but Russian agents are still stirring up trouble for their enemies.

Hopkirk's colourful narrative adds a little-known dimension to the famous episodes of 80 years ago, and explains others that are just obscure names. There is the humiliation of British expedition to Kut, the forward strategems and revolutionaries of British India and the story of a codebook captured in Persia that was a key to bringing America into the war on the Allies' side. We are also given a new account of Germany's Drang nach Osten that reached its height with the German-backed coup in 1913 which brought the Turkish triumvirate of Enver, Talaat and Jemal to power in Constantinople.

They failed to ignite a holy war but, as Mr Hopkirk relates, it was not for want of efforts by Germany's finest. Wilhelm Wassmuss spent years stirring up Persian tribes against Britain with few resources other than his own redoubtable personality. Against overwhelming odds, Oskar von Niedermayer smuggled German envoys and an Indian revolutionary through Persian deserts and enemy lines to Kabul, trying to bring Afghanistan into the war against Britain. The emir, however, would not be drawn, keeping them waiting for months.

One question that lingers in the modern mind is the attitude of the local peoples in the background. There is no doubt whose side Hopkirk is on: Enver Pasha is an evil genius, desert tribes are usually wily or fickle, Germans tend to be iron-willed or to skulk. But a simple morality well suits these tales of an old- fashioned class of imperial agents of the type featured in Hopkirk's highly acclaimed previous books on Central Asia such as The Great Game.

Hopkirk brings added spontaneity to an already lively narrative by quoting liberally from memoirs. British and German alike showed a now forgotten sense of patriotism, lonely endurance and a lust for adventure. In one story, a wanted White Russian general was smuggled by British agents through the Caucasus in a Bolshevik armoured train, fighting its way through blazing stations as the group drinks champagne and plays poker for high stakes in their rear carriage. In Baku, a lone emissary finds time to play model trains with the son of the local Bolshevik commissar as the Turks and Germans advance.

In one of the more absurd situations, before a captured agent was allowed to return to his countrymen, he had to persuade the local Jungali chieftain that Britons of his type were naturally skinny: his captor thought the British would punish him if their man did not come back plump. Lawrence of Arabia was clearly only one of many spirited heroes of those days of great doings and dreamings in the east.