The Kaiser's Mission to Kabul : A Secret Mission to Afghanistan in World War I
In 1915, at the height of World War I, the Central Powers sent a secret mission, led by Oskar Ritter von Niedermayer and Werner Otto von Hentig, to the court of the emir of Afghanistan, Habibullah Khan. Jointly operated by the governments of Germany and Turkey, the aim of the mission was to persuade the emir to declare full independence from the British Empire,
enter the war on the side of the Central Powers and attack British India. Britain saw this mission as a serious and credible threat - so much so that they tried to intercept the
travellers in Persia en route to Kabul and subsequently implemented their own intelligence mission to ensure that Afghanistan would retain its neutral position. Jules Stewart provides a gripping account of the expedition, highlighting a previously little-known aspect of World
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There are already numerous new books about the First World War and no doubt there will be more to come over the next few years. However, amongst the many there will be a few that stand out and Jules Stewart's book is one of those. He relates in an easy-to-read discursive style the intrigues, negotiations, skulduggery, espionage and military activities that went on behind the scenes as Germany attempted to secretly persuade Afghanistan to give up its neutrality and side with the Central Powers and thereby tie up the considerable military resources in India and prevent their deployment in Europe.
Stewart offers some vital context by discussing Germany's pre war diplomatic efforts to win over the Muslim world in the Middle East and garner strong relations with Turkey. All this was played out against the background of the 'Great Game' - the Anglo-Russian political and military rivalry. The book provides a remarkable and gripping account of how the secret mission was formed and the arduous trek across desert and inhospitable terrain, avoiding Russian and British patrols, to reach Kabul and persuade the Amir to give up his declared neutrality. Through spies and informants the British knew exactly what was happening and kept up pressure on the Amir, who played both sides to his advantage, to hold his neutrality.
What is perhaps more remarkable are the individual accounts of the missions' return to Berlin after the failure to break Afghanistan's neutrality. It is a notable part of the story that I won't spoil! The narrative is clearly linked to sources with some illustrations, comprehensive notes and an effective index. The book highlights a little-known aspect of the Great War and can be recommended without hesitation for the general reader or those seeking further knowledge of the political manoeuvring one-hundred years ago.
Dr Tony Wakeford
Friends of The National Archives.