Note: This book is reviewed by my husband Jim.
Peter Hopkirk has written extensively on the efforts of the British Empire to maintain its control of the Indian subcontinent from incursions from the north and west. In Like Hidden Fire, he traces the clandestine efforts of Germany and Turkey in the First World War to sabotage Britain’s ability to wage war by fomenting jihad in its Empire.
The Germans thought that they, aided by the Muslim Turks, could persuade or bribe the Emir of Afghanistan to invade India. They hoped the Afghans would be joined by their numerous co-religionists in India to revolt against British rule. They would thus divert numerous British soldiers from the Western Front in Europe. The British Indian Army at the time drew most of its sepoys [Indians employed as soldiers in the service of the British] from Muslim subjects rather than from the more peaceful Hindus. Indeed, a substantial sepoy revolt had taken place in 1854, and the loyalty of the Muslim soldiers was always a bit suspect, particularly if they were called upon by their infidel (British) officers to fight other Muslims.
The problem the Germans faced was that there was no easy or obvious way to get to or even communicate with Afghanistan. There was not even a telegraph line between either Turkey or Germany and Afghanistan. The British and the Russians pretty much controlled Persia [modern day Iran], blocking the overland route from eastern Turkey. Only through the stupendous efforts of Captain Oskar von Niedermayer and Captain Werner von Hentig, who rode horseback across the Persian desert, were the Germans able to contact the Emir and enlist his assistance. Throughout their entire trek, the British and Russians (who had been alerted of their mission by spies) were on their heels.
[Note: This map includes Pakistan, but prior to 1947 this area was a part of India. The Hindu Kush mountain range formed a natural barrier between what was then all of India and the country of Afghanistan.]
The Emir of Afghanistan proved to be a wily trader, who apparently prized his annual stipend from the British in India above religious fervor. Nothing came of the German mission, despite its heroics.
The next threat to the British Empire came in the form of a Turkish invasion of the Caucasus with the goal of obtaining the oil of Baku. The first Turkish efforts were turned back by the tsarist armies of Russia, but after the collapse of the tsarist empire in 1917, the Bolsheviks failed to stop the Turks. Hopkirk vividly describes the confusing and complex state of affairs in the region between the Black and Caspian Seas as Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Turkomen, and Bolsheviks tried to sort out their mutual enmities to decide whether they wanted to stop the Turkish onslaught. Meanwhile, the British did their best with meager resources to induce the tribesmen and the Russians (many of whom despised the Bolsheviks) to oppose the Turks.
[Note: This is an inset of the map shown above. Refer to the larger map to get a perspective of where India and Turkey are in relation to the Black and Caspian Seas.]
Although the geographical territory covered in the narrative is immense, the number of protagonists involved in the struggle is remarkably small. The British efforts were conducted by a handful of adventurous intelligence officers and only a few thousand troops. Ultimately, the fate of the area was determined more by events in Europe, involving millions of men, than the few on the scene. By the time the Turks took Baku, the Germans and Ottomans had been defeated in Europe. Even though the Armenians and non-Bolshevik Russians (aided by the British) were able to chase the Bolsheviks from the area in 1918, the Bolsheviks returned in 1920 to stay for 70 years.
Evaluation: An engaging story, well told, about exotic lands.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Published by Kodansha, 1994