The British Empire Library

Wassmuss: The German Lawrence

by Christopher Sykes

Wassmuss: The German Lawrence
It is not often that I feel the need to write a review for a book written over 80 years ago and centered on a German agent rather than an imperial actor and one who was principally operating outside of the formal empire in Persia which was technically a neutral country. And yet, it has hard to think of a book that sheds so much light on Britain's informal imperial power and its growing influence in the Middle East during the crucial first decades of the twentieth century. Persia may well have been technically independent, but British background power was certainly growing. In fact, it even held military bases in the country and would even up being responsible for defence and law and order in the southern third of the vast country. Furthermore, this book shines a sharp light on the larger Niedermeyer Expedition, of which Wassmuss was an original member, in its ambitious mission to foment 'Jehad' in the name of the Turkish Caliph throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and into Afghanistan with a view to threatening the Raj in India itself. As if these were not colonial connections aplenty, the author happened to be the son of Mark Sykes who was the politician responsible for the famous, or rather infamous, Sykes-Picot agreement in the wake of the First World War and the author was himself posted to the British Legation in Teheran and was something of an expert on Middle Eastern affairs. The fact that he had personally visited many of the places mentioned in the book and that he had also conducted interviews and meetings with so many of the protagonists gives it added piquancy and credibility. It is also intriguing to read the perspective of a writer writing in the 1930s about events which were still fresh in the mind. It was also written before the Second World War which would shuffle the geopolitical pack of cards in the region once more. It was also written at a time that the Nazis were still in their early days of power, India was still a British colony and the Russian Revolution was still playing itself out through the region. Some of the ethnographic thinking certainly feels dated and sweeping generalisations of peoples, tribes and 'races' (as the author says) certainly need to be taken with due historical hindsight and perhaps a little understanding of contemporary standards. Having said this, I always find it particularly interesting to view the world from an unexpected or unusual vantage point and Christopher Sykes certainly offers that in this book.

It should be pointed out that the book is definitely not an academic book and its style may seem quite strange to the modern reader. It is written in a distinctive, engaging and almost a conversational style. He has interesting asides and tries to save the reader from tedious but important interludes in his narrative. At the heart of this book though is a remarkable story which found World War One being waged in an almost medieval manner in the most exotic of locations in challenging circumstances for all concerned. The book has lovely old-style photographic plates with crisp images of the principal actors. There are useful mini-biographies of these actors in the front of the book alongside summaries of the major tribes involved in the story - and the role of these tribes was critical to the relative success and failure of Wassmuss' endeavour. The book is also bookended with two glorious maps showing the journeys of Niedermayer and Wassmuss in Persia and Afghanistan and another of the crucial Bushire Region where much of Wassmuss' focus was turned towards thanks to the British Persian Gulf base at Bushire. These extra features really help to keep track of the characters in the vast geographical expanse that they operated within.

The author's story predates the action of World War One as he attempts to explain the complicated political arrangement in the first decade and a half of the twentieth century which saw Persia achieve its odd buffer status between the Russian and British governments who had long quarrelled and sparred in their 'Great Game' of shadow boxing and influence throughout Central Asia. The very first sentences of the book grab you with:

"At the beginning of this century England was the most hated country in Europe. The deplorable immorality of the South African War furnished point to the European conception of England: the boorish, lustful, and immense, smother the fine flame of individual gallantry. Curiously enough, in the one part of the world where the old accusation was last made, England had the reputation of the liberator, the upholder of freedom for its own sake, and the gallant opposer of lustful boors. It was a reputation by no means constant, at times quite lost as we grabbed fitfully for a concession..."

Apart from providing an interesting example of the writing style, this opening paragraph reminds the reader of Britain's role in helping to shield Persia from Russian domination for much of the nineteenth century and also hints towards the British role in advising the Shah to create a National Consultative Assembly and a constitution in 1906 in order to gradually shift from absolute power onto a broader but certainly not fully democratic basis. It should be noted that the role of oil in Persia, which was not to be discovered until 1908, is not really dwelled upon overly by the author except when the oilfields were regarded as potential targets during the war. I find this interesting in itself having grown up in a world where the relative geopolitical power of oil has been taken for granted. This is not to say that its importance was not appreciated in the first decades of the twentieth century, just that it was not the defining issue that it would later become. Nevertheless, much of the benign feeling towards Britain was sacrificed when Britain and Russia began to move towards one another due to the threat of the rise of the Kaiser's militarism in Europe and was formalised in 1907 with the Anglo-Russian Treaty. This had an unexpected effect on the 'Great Game' raging in Central Asia but it also brought considerable enmity from Persians who had long been suspicious of Russia's imperial ambitions in the region. This would be one of the factors that Wassmuss would later exploit although much of his good work in this field would be undone by his ostensible allies the Turks who seemed to scare the Persians even more than the Russians and the British with their proximity and brutality as evidenced against the Armenians. To say that the politics of Central Asia were complicated at this point in history is certainly no understatement and it was ripe for intrigue!

Into these politically shifting sands came the almost unbelievable Niedermayer expedition. The scale of its ambition should not be underestimated. This small band of Germans was to try and foment Jehad from North Africa through all of the Middle East and into Central Asia to threaten Britain's colonies and major communications lines. This ambitious project was hatched even before Turkey had formally entered the war on the side of the Central Powers leading to yet more subterfuge and conspiratorial meetings and movements. Much of the expedition was conducted on foot through geographically challenging swathes of politically volatile parts of Central Asia operating under the noses of their enemies the British and the Russians. As already mentioned though, the involvement of the Turks was something of a double edged sword. On the one hand, the Caliph of Constantinople's call for Jehad was undeniably significant and helpful to the Germans. However, many Arabs, Persians and other Central Asian peoples had suffered, or would suffer during the course of the war, terrible privations and persecution at the hands of the Turkish armed forces. Turkey was an imperial power in her own right and had a long history of harsh administration over people's who were only too keen to see the back of them. In the case of the Persians, there was an equally long history of rivalry with their neighbouring Empire with even their form of Islam being in competition with one another. Both Niedermayer and Wassmuss would ultimately struggle to convince many Muslims to rise up against the British whose power and influence was far too subtle and detached for many to be overly concerned about. It also helped that Britain was not actually trying to get these countries to join the war against the Germans but were merely content that they stay neutral and stay out of the war. The Germans were demanding far more but had too little to offer for anyone willing to make the necessary sacrifices and commitments.

Throughout this book there are inevitable parallels that can be made with Lawrence of Arabia, but you do have to be careful with these. Indeed, the Niedermayer expedition itself nearly went down Lawrence's military adviser route in their initial stages as they realised the relative unpreparedness of the British to wage war in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf in particular. A plan was formulated to attack the as yet unguarded oil refineries in Abadan which included sinking German ships as block ships to stop British reinforcements arriving as the Germans and their allies attacked the oilfields from the land side. At the last moment though Berlin lost its nerve and ordered Niedermayer not to engage the British directly for fear of revealing their existence to the world. In hindsight, this was a missed opportunity of epic proportions. Not only did the oilfields continue to pump oil for the Royal Navy and would have their security beefed up, but a successful attack may well have convinced tribes throughout the region of the seriousness of the Central Powers' ambition and willingness to take the fight to the imperial powers of Britain and Russia. You could say that Lawrence of Arabia demonstrated to the Arabs of the Hejaz that the British were serious in their support through providing arms, ammunition, expertise and ultimately by leading them into battle and participating in their war. The Niedermayer expedition on the other hand, returned to a covert diplomatic operation although Wassmuss would at least attempt to take a more active role.

As Wassmuss was an expert in Persian language and culture, it was felt that splitting the group into two would make much more sense. Niedermayer with the main group would still head towards Afghanistan whilst Wassmuss and a smaller party would head towards Central and Southern Persia and attempt to foment Jehad against the British presence there. He was actually captured several times en route by local authorities and even by a British force sent to intercept him in what was technically the neutral zone of Persia. His frequent escapes would form part of his mystique and add lustre to his exploits. I was also very interested to find out that many of the Persian constabulary's officers were Swedish. That is one of the real pleasures of reading books like this written by people who knew the area intimately. You get these interesting insights into a part of the world that was already plugging into a kind of early form of globalisation. Being Swedish, many police were sympathetic to the aims of the Germans and dragged their feet in chasing after them or decided to turn a blind eye at critical junctures. South Persia was a different matter as the British, using their 1907 agreement with the Russians actively policed and defended the approaches to British India. The real British presence though was in Bushire and this formed the natural target of Wassmuss' attention. Bushire was actually in the neutral 'Central' zone rather than the British 'Southern' zone but it had been a British base for many years and was the principal British port in the Persian Gulf. As such it had regular British soldiers, sailors and Royal Marines stationed there and Royal Navy ships and gunboats passed through regularly. In some ways it was the legacy of the gunboat diplomacy days and to start with the British assumed that it was a safe port far away from the active theatres of war and was regarded primarily just as a staging post to support the Mesopotamian Campaign against the Turks further up the Gulf. Wassmuss would attempt to take advantage of this complacency. Tribes around the British base had more reason than most to be suspicious of British designs and the fact that more troops seemed to be coming and going gave added offence to local tribal leaders. The sheer number and variety of tribes was both an opportunity and a problem for Wassmuss. There was always some tribe or other who had some grievance with the Central Persian government who they believed was a puppet of the British and Russians. However, many tribes were interested only in limiting the power and influence of neighbouring tribes and would intuitively take the opposite side to whatever their rivals and neighbours had taken. Wassmuss was able to gain some support by making extravagant promises for future aid but he had little money or equipment that he could hand over presently. Nevertheless he was able to scratch together a force in 1915 to begin an uprising around Bushire. The initial attack was haphazard but did catch the British somewhat off guard. The small garrison fought off the attack but lacked the resources to follow up and punish the offending tribes. This in itself gave heart to the uprising.

When the British did finally get resources together to try and retaliate it sent Royal Marines by gunboats to a tribal coastal town of Dilbar. At first the attack on Dilbar seemed to go like clockwork, but a disastrous friendly fire incident where the gunboats bombarded the wrong treel ine meant that the British took heavy casualties. Of course, despite the British succeeding in their operation, Wassmus and the tribal leaders involved could claim a great victory in that they had inflicted heavy casualties on the so-called invincible British.

A third battle in September 1915, the so-called Second Battle of Bushire, confirmed this trend once more. The British had boosted their forces in Bushire. A half hearted early morning tribal attack on the British was easily repulsed. The British sent cavalry after the force to try and cut them to pieces as they retreated. However fog fell as the cavalry galloped off. A second attack on Bushire the same day also failed, but as the tribal forces retreated they fell upon the British cavalry returning in that thick fog. Once more, they were able to inflict far heavier casualties than the British would have liked. Some 80 British infantry and cavalrymen died in this operation. Tactically, the British more than easily defended their base at Bushire, but morally Wassmuss and the tribes claimed yet another stunning victory!

Strategically, these setbacks could have had a worrying effect on British power in the region. Many Persians in the government in Teheran were wondering if the Germans might not win World War One and were actively considering turning on the British. The author explains though that the timing for the relative British setbacks was actually quite fortuitous. At this particular point in time, the Mesopotamian Campaign seemed to be going well for the British and so it made Persian politicians and tribal leaders hesitate in switching sides and committing to a Central Powers victory. Also, even those tribes that claimed victory over the British were aware of the number of casualties that they had taken and appreciated that the British were only gaining in strength. They grew increasingly reluctant to have any more victories at the cost so far paid.

The author takes an interesting diversion into the meaning of hubris related to one of his own expeditions by car into the Parapamisus Mountains in Afghanistan. Strangely it seems as if all the actors fell into hubris at the tail end of 1915 and early in 1916. Wassmuss and his supporters took various British officials hostage from the neutral zone which ultimately earned him more attention from the British and Persian authorities of the unwanted variety. The Russians were in headlong retreat from the Turks as their military structure began to implode with the strains of a long war. The British were defeated in Kut by the Turks severely undermining their prestige. However those same Turks also made their reputation even more toxic throughout the region as details of the massacres of Armenians circulated. The British responded to their weakened position by creative generalship from General Dyer (who would later be infamously connected to the Amritsar Massacre). He rapidly moved British and Indian troops along the Indian Frontier and in Southern Persia to make them seem as if there were far more soldiers than there actually were. They also formed an interesting paramilitary organisation; the wonderfully named 'South Persia Rifles'. Headed by Sir Percy Sykes (I don't think there is a family connection with the author on this one, but I could be wrong!) and officered largely by Indians, it recruited locally and slowly professionalised throughout the war years. It is another example of just how powerful informal power could be. The British were also able to ride to the rescue when famine seemed likely to take hold throughout Persia as the ravages of war combined with poor weather to create a bad harvest. The British were able to ship in much needed grain and supplies and also managed its effective distribution. This was soft power being wielded cleverly and ultimately to the advantage of the British in the region.

The author does go on to explain how and why the Niedermayer expedition played itself out in Afghanistan where it probably did ultimately help provoke the Third Afghan War but too late to be of any assistance to the Germans. Their return was also remarkable as they split up and undertook equally impressive (but equally diverse) journeys home although a number did end up in Allied custody. Niedermayer was ultimately afflicted with the same problem as Wassmuss in that he had no money or resources to offer the Emir of Afghanistan. Only vague promises of future assistance which the Royal Navy and British Imperial Armies were doing so much to frustrate.

Wassmuss did have one more throw of the dice in 1918 after the collapse of Russia in the wake of their Revolution and their signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and after the Ludendorff Offensives on the Western Front. It seemed to many as if the Germans might be on the verge of victory after all which allowed Wassmuss to gain tribal leaders to his cause once more. There was also some heart once more from elements of the Persian Government who were also preparing to use German victory as a reason to ask the British to leave the Southern zone - especially after the retreat of the Russians from the Northern zone. Once more though the British could call in the regular army in the form of the Mounted Burma Rifles who launched a preemptive strike on tribe considering rising up and also the South Persia Rifles who were increasing in skill and in professionalisation and were able to launch another preemptive strike at Deh Sheikh. Wassmuss' planned 1918 risings were too little too late. By the time they had been hatched the Allies were already back on the offensive on the Western Front. Defeat was soon staring the Central Powers in the face and the capitulation of Turkey in October came as a bitter blow.

Wassmuss' story did not end there though. He was still at large in a technically neutral country. His attempts to escape nearly came to fruition but even when he was captured his exploits still seemed to take on a heroic dimension. His final repatriation to Germany was something of a comedy of errors as British authorities failed to clarify the nature of his return through various Allied controlled ports and bases. He kept being rearrested time and again and his frustrated escort had to keep getting fresh explanations and orders sent out so that they could continue their journey!

His exploits were feted on his return to Germany and he was certainly lauded there as an equivalent to Lawrence of Arabia, bringing a little exotic glory to a country otherwise downcast with defeat, disease and starvation. Interestingly, very like Lawrence, he also grew disillusioned or at least detached from his own role in the uprising. He grew to believe that he had betrayed and taken advantage of those tribal leaders who had given him their support during the war years. He felt that German honour had been sacrificed in not repaying the tribal leaders what had been promised them. This was despite the fact that a defeated Germany could barely scrape together the means to honour these promises. This did not stop Wassmuss from attempting to right what he saw as a historical wrong.

Christopher Sykes goes on to layout the equally remarkable story of this guilty feeling post-war Wassmuss. Just as Lawrence had a hard time coming to terms with the consequences of his actions, Wassmuss became a tortured soul who would eventually return to Persia to try and personally repay the debts incurred through profits from acquiring a farm and introducint modern farming techniques into the region. Alas, this scheme was destined to fail thanks partly to his declining health but also because of those tribal divisions that had let him down so badly during the war years. It did not help that many of the tribal leaders who he had personally fought with had passed away and been replaced by sons and relatives who had not made the same personal connections through those war years. They appear to have taken advantage of a man who was attempting to atone for his actions. It was ultimately a sad end for a noble character who had attempted the extraordinary but without the necessary resources to bring them to fruition. Was he the German Lawrence? Not when measured in battlefield success but perhaps when measured in strategic ambition and also when measured in forming a deep personal affinity for the people he sought to lead but also in the feelings of guilt for being unable to deliver on promises made. Perhaps the differences between the two men were slight after all and they were both certainly fascinating characters.

British Empire Book
Christopher Sykes