Writing Portfolio

3.3.16

John Buchan and the fall of Erzerum


Last month, a First World War centenary passed with little notice; perhaps unsurprising, because it had few lasting effects. On 16th February 1916, Russian forces captured the eastern Turkish fortress-city of Erzerum after a winter campaign that took the Ottomans, who’d recently beaten back Russia’s Western allies at Gallipoli, by surprise.

Although they did capture the coastal city of Trabzon as well, the long-term effects of the Russian campaign were few. A year later, the Russian Revolution happened regardless, and in 1918 the Bolsheviks gave Erzerum and the surrounding area back to Turkey under the terms of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk (an echo of two earlier, nineteenth-century wars in which Russia had taken Erzerum and then returned it in the subsequent peace settlement).

The taking of Erzerum did have an afterlife of sorts, though, with a fictional depiction of the climax of that campaign. Several months afterwards, John Buchan published Greenmantle, his follow-up to The Thirty-Nine Steps which he’d published the previous year. In Greenmantle, the resourceful hero Richard Hannay returns; recuperating from wounds received on the Western Front, he’s summoned by the spymaster he met in his previous adventure and briefed on the political situation in the Middle East – British intelligence having received hints that the Germans and their Ottoman allies are trying to kick-start a Muslim holy war or jihad that will, if it comes off, throw everywhere from Africa to India into turmoil, threatening the stability (or even the very existence) of the British Empire. Hannay teams up with a fellow-officer, Sandy Arbuthnot (a master of disguises and expert on all things Oriental) and an American, John Blenkiron (even though the USA was neutral at the time, Buchan was very big on the notion of an alliance between the great English-speaking nations) and the three make their own ways to Constantinople, and from there they travel to the showdown at Erzerum.

The adventure is a good one, and despite the fact that it was written and published during the war it does allow for some reflection on war-weariness and goes beyond mere stereotypes of the Germans; the ox-necked bully Colonel von Stumm, for example, is contrasted with a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Kaiser when Hannay briefly meets him, and other ‘good’ Germans can be found in the forester’s wife (who shelters Hannay) and Gaudian, an engineer who would return in The Three Hostages. Very popular at the time, it outsold The Thirty-Nine Steps, was apparently enjoyed by the Romanovs and is still in print – and it can still cause controversy with its references to political tensions in the Middle East (in 2005, the BBC had to cancel a radio adaptation following the 7/7 bombings).

There is some truth behind the fiction, for – strange though it may seem – German attempts to unleash jihad on an unsuspecting British Empire were no figment of Buchan’s imagination. When war had broken out in 1914, the Kaiser had vowed to “inflame the entire Muslim world against this hateful, lying and unscrupulous nation” (by which, of course, he meant Britain). Allied with the declining Ottoman Empire, German agents used Constantinople as a base from which to enter the Great Game – that old struggle for supremacy in Central Asia – cultivating rulers in Persia and Afghanistan with gold and guns, and even spreading rumours that the Kaiser had converted to Islam in order to legitimise Germany’s intentions.

Working as he was for British intelligence, Buchan would have had access to secret reports about what Germany was up to in the Middle East; after the war, his friend T.E. Lawrence (presumably one of the models for the Sandy character) observed that “Greenmantle has more than a flavour of truth”. That he was able to continue to write popular fiction in addition to his official work speaks volumes for his capabilities, especially given that he didn’t always stick to the official propaganda line in his novels; in fact he seems to have regarded novel-writing as some sort of release from his official duties as well as a handy means of earning some extra money. As was the case with The Thirty-Nine Steps (and indeed with his pre-war novel The Power-House), here was a tale of brisk action and indeed escapism set against a background that wasn’t so much realistic as all too real. That it is still readable today says a lot for the man’s capabilities as a storyteller par excellence.

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