On Secret Service East of Constantinople: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire Paperback – 12 September 2016
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'Tells with great fluency, authority and narrative skill . . . a story which no single book has told before' (Sunday Telegraph)
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- Paperback : 448 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780719564512
- ISBN-13 : 978-0719564512
- Item Weight : 312 g
- Dimensions : 12.7 x 2.54 x 20.32 cm
- Publisher : John Murray; Reprint edition (12 September 2016)
- Language: : English
- ASIN : 0719564514
- Best Sellers Rank: #72,232 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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In some regards the book is outdated, too. Hopkirk's confident condemnation of Indian nationalists, as if no readers would view the British Empire as anything but an undisputed good, is rather jarring. So too is his depiction of Enver Pasha as a nationalist fanatic, with most modern works being rather more nuanced. Hopkirk devotes a whole chapter to the Zimmermann telegram, based on an alleged link to a German agent in Persia- but Sean McMeekin in his "The Berlin -Baghdad Express" argues that this is entirely founded on a misconception. The book should be praised for its examination of Captain Teague-Jones and the Baku commissars (Hopkirk tells us that, in the former case, he was the first to uncover much of the truth, which I have no reason to doubt) but I believe there may also be some more modern work on this too.
If you don't care too much about being up to date with the latest WW1 scholarship, then the book is fine as a popular history, telling engaging stories about several fronts of the war in the east where secret agents and Lawrence-like figures take centre stage. But I think a modern expert in these areas would find a lot to pick holes in here, and so I think those with a serious interest in the war might want to look elsewhere, or at least treat this only as an introduction to these facets of the war.
Perhaps the main storyline is about the German attempts to incite muslims living under British and Russian rule against their colonial rulers. This involved infiltrations in Persia (trying to get the Shah to invade British India or joint the Turks in their fight against Russia, but at the very least to tie down more British troops in the Gulf region), and a diplomatic mission via Persia to Afghanistan to convince the Afhgan king to invade British India. As we know now, all of this was way too ambitious and almost nothing was achieved - despite admirable efforts by the small German delegation.
Another even more interesting storyline is on the events in the Caucasus - notably Baku - in the confused time from the November 1917 revolution to the end of WWI. I had never realized that the Turks, having now shed the burden of fighting the Russians, embarked on a final desperate offensive and actually managed to capture Baku just before their own capitulation (reportedly one of the reasons for Allenby's success in Jeruzalem and Damascus was the diversion of Turkey's best troops to the Caucasus). There is also an interesting sideline into Central Asia, where 'Transcaspia' (say Turkmenistan) rose against the Bolsheviks and fought them with limited British assistance.
Hopkirk is a phenomenal writer. I really can't praise this book highly enough. Awesome!
RE-READ AUGUST 2019: re-read this book after some 5 years, and enjoyed it just as much. What a story, what phenomenal writing, what a breathtakingly wide scope (covering the storming of Erzerum to shady arms deals in California, from the Zimmermann telegram (which would likely never have been revealed had the British not captured key German codes in the Persian outback) to the Battle of Baku. Just one critical note: Hopkirk might have talked a bit more about the main reason of Persia's importance to the British, namely the vast supplied of oil near the head of the Persian Gulf - this was in fact a good deal more important than Persia's role as a rather forward 'bulwark' of British India....