The Kaiser’s Mission to Kabul: A Secret Expedition to Afghanistan in World War I by Jules Stewart, London: I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2014, ISBN: 978-178076-8755, 288 pp., $ 30.66 Amazon Hardcover.
The London-based author Jules Stewart also works as a journalist and an historian. Except for Madrid; The History and Albert: A Life, his historical emphasis remains largely on British activity in Afghanistan and India. His other published books include: On Afghanistan’s Plans: The Story of Britain’s Afghan Wars; Crimson Snow: Britain’s First Disaster in Afghanistan; The Savage Border: The Story of the Northwest Frontier; Spying for the Raj; The Pundits and the Mapping of the Himalaya; and The Khyber Rifles: From the British Raj to Al-Qaeda.
Readers interested in military, diplomacy, political intrigue, East Asian, Indian or British history will be familiar with the phrase “the great game”—a 19th century contest between Britain and Russia to establish influence, preferably domination, over those lesser kingdoms and countries that bordered British India. At the turn of the 20th century, “the great game” began again only now Britain and Germany contested in this struggle for domination. Although Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, harkens back to the Russo-British machinations, the 20th century great game, The Kaiser’s Mission to Kabul, brings a fictional Kim to historical and factual life. It is an adventure story from beginning to end filled with numerous examples of German and Afghan exploits, although the Brits and the Turks certainly come off as important players, if not actually irritating and even untrustworthy. The book addresses the German mission from Berlin to Kabul to woo Afghanistan from British patronage, the negotiations, and the mission’s eventual failure, which many readers might predict after learning of the divided command of the two mission leadersâ€”Captain Oskar von Niedermayer answering to the General Army Staff and Lieutenant Colonel Werner von Hentig answering to the Foreign Office.
This account provides in-depth details of Berlin’s joint military and diplomatic planning for the mission to Kabul, to include the actual travel from Berlin in separate parties by the two main protagonists, the horrendous problems encountered getting across Persia to Kabul, their reception in Kabul at the court of Amir Hibibullah when finally arriving after nearly a year of travel, and their eventual escape from Kabul along vastly different routes. The author points to the problem from the mission’s beginning: “who was in charge?” One might assume that the colonel naturally would take command and the captain would follow orders, but such did not happen. For whatever reasons at the start of the mission, Hentig followed Niedermayer’s lead in actually traveling from Berlin to Kabul. The two separate groups of Germans, along with Turkish security troops and numerous servants, finally combined their trek across Persia in Isfahan, departing for Herat, 550 miles away, with 140 men and 236 baggage animals. They traveled mostly at night with day-time temperatures reaching 143 degrees Fahrenheit and arrived in Herat with 37 men and 79 animals, and still another 400 miles to travel to reach Kabul.
Once in Kabul, Hentig decreed the diplomatic mission more important than Niedermayer’s military mission. Hentig was supposed to convince the Amir to drop Afghan’s neutrality and British protection for German protection and an “uncontested” route for Germany’s Turkish ally to travel across Afghan territory and invade northern India. Niedermayer was supposed to train and arm the Afghan army, which at the time consisted of about 50,000 troops, so this army could assist with the Turkish invasion of India. Hentig believed that they had to accomplish the diplomatic mission first for the military mission to eventually succeed, but Niedermayer thought the military mission, especially during a time of war, had precedence. Both men agreed to disagree and both, upon eventually returning to Germany, claimed leadership of the mission while blaming the other for its failure.
After several months as a “guest” of the Amir in Kabul, the German mission realized it had failed in both aspects of its dual mission. The Amir continued to look to Britain for protection (and some hefty increases in patronage fees) and by this time the Turks no longer seemed eager to support German plans to invade India and to gain for Germany economic and political influence in the area.
Niedermayer’s escape route, filled with privations worse than his trip to Kabul, took him west and north across Persia and the Turkish Empire reaching Berlin after nine months. Hentig’s escape was longer and more dangerous. His two-year trek took him east across Turkestan, Tibet, and China, across the Pacific Ocean to the United States, then across the Atlantic to Germany. The two accounts of each man’s return to Germany, although extremely well documented, read like an adventure story from a blockbuster movie. During the time the German mission remained at the Amir’s court, the author sympathetically portrays the conflicting family and political pressures on Amir Habibullah Amir Hibibullah to, on the one hand convince the British Raj of Afghan’s loyalty and, on the other, indicating a willingness to accept German protection and possibly take Afghanistan into war. The Amir made monetary and military demands he knew Germany could not fulfill. From a German military and political perspective, the threat of an invasion into northern India could, and probably would, prevent the British government from moving large numbers of its British and Indian military forces from India to the Western Front. Although the British, under first Viceroy Lord Hardinge and later Viceroy Lord Chelmsford, treated the Amir with deep suspicion if not outright animosity, the Amir remained loyal and the British were able to move over 135,000 of Indian-based forces to Europe, leaving only 15,000 to garrison a country larger than Europe.
The reader will find interesting answers to questions such as “Why did the Muslims of the Middle East believe Kaiser Wilhelm II had converted to Islam? What role did Nasrullah, the younger brother of Amir Habibullah, play in this affair? How was it possible that Habibullah became a Freemason? How did the Berlin Committee, made up of mostly Indian revolutionaries, impact the mission? What did Wilhelm Wassmuss, known as the ‘German Lawrence,’ contribute to the mission? What part did Enver Pasha play in the final demise of the mission?” There are many interesting aspects to this very well written and easy to read book and I certainly recommend it for its historical and diplomatic account of a not very well known aspect of “the great game.”