|Intro||British soldier, intelligence officer and ornithologist|
|A.K.A.||Richard Henry Meinertzhagen CBE DSO, Richard Henry Meinertzhagen, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, Colonel Richard Henry Meinertzhagen, Colonel Richard Henry Meinertzhagen CBE, Richard Henry Meinertzhagen CBE|
|Occupations||Military officer Writer Zoologist Scientist|
|Birth||3 March 1878 (Kensington)|
|Death||17 June 1967 (Kensington)|
Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, CBE, DSO (3 March 1878 – 17 June 1967) was a British soldier, intelligence officer and ornithologist. He had a decorated military career spanning Africa, where he was credited with creating and executing the infamous Haversack Ruse. While early biographies lionized Meinertzhagen as a master of military strategy and espionage, later works such as The Meinertzhagen Mystery present him as a fraud for fabricating stories of his feats and speculated he was also a murderer. The discovery of stolen museum bird specimens resubmitted as original discoveries had raised serious doubts on a number of scores as to the veracity of ornithological records he claimed as well.
Background and youth
Meinertzhagen was born into a wealthy, socially connected British family. His father, Daniel Meinertzhagen, was head of the Frederick Huth & Co. merchant-banking dynasty, which had an international reputation, that one biographer claimed in the introduction to his book was second in importance only to the Rothschilds. His mother was Georgina Potter, sister of Beatrice Webb, a co-founder of the London School of Economics. Meinertzhagen's surname derives from Meinerzhagen in Germany, the home of an ancestor. On his mother's side (the wealthy Potter family), he was of English descent. Among his relations were "many of Britain's titled, rich and influential personages." Although he had his doubts, he also claimed to be a distant descendant of Philip III of Spain. His nephew, Daniel Meinertzhagen (1915-1991), was a chairman of Lazard. His niece, Teresa Georgina Mayor (1915-1996), married Victor Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild.
Young Richard was sent as a boarding student to Aysgarth School in the north of England, then was enrolled at Fonthill in Sussex, and finally at Harrow School, where his stay overlapped with that of Winston Churchill. In 1895, at the age of eighteen, he reluctantly obeyed his father's wishes to join the family bank as a clerk. He was assigned to offices in Cologne and Bremen. There he picked up the German language but remained uninterested in banking. After he returned to the bank’s home office in England in 1897, he received his father’s approval to join a territorial militia of weekend soldiers called the Hampshire Yeomanry. In 1911 he would marry Armorel, the daughter of Colonel Herman Le Roy-Lewis, who commanded the Hampshire Yeomanry.
Meinertzhagen's passion for bird-watching began as a child. He and his brother Daniel were encouraged by a family friend, the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who, like another family friend, Charles Darwin, was an ardent empiricist. Spencer would take young Richard and Daniel on walks around the family home of Mottisfont Abbey, urging them to observe and enquire on the habits of birds. Around 1887 they kept a pet sparrowhawk, which was taken to Hyde Park to let it prey on sparrows. The first serious ornithologist that Richard met was Brian Hodgson. Daniel took an interest in bird illustration which brought them in contact with Archibald Thorburn and led to an introduction to Joseph Wolf and G.E. Lodge. They had first met Richard Bowdler Sharpe at the Natural History Museum in 1886 and noted that he was very fond of encouraging children, showing them around the bird collections.
Lacking the desire to make a career in merchant banking, Meinertzhagen took examinations for a commission in the British Army, and after training at Aldershot was commissioned as a Second lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers on 18 January 1899. He was sent to India to join a battalion of his regiment. Other than routine regimental soldiering, he participated in big-game hunting, was promoted, sent on sick leave to England, and after recovery posted to the relocated battalion at Mandalay in Burma. He was promoted Lieutenant on 8 February 1900. He then started his “zealous campaign” for a transfer to Africa, and in April 1902 was seconded for service with the Foreign Office, who attached him to the 3rd (East African) Battalion of the King's African Rifles. The following month he finally arrived at Mombasa in British East Africa.
Meinertzhagen was assigned as a staff officer with the King's African Rifles (KAR). Again he participated in big-game hunting, but “regarded himself as scientist-explorer first, and only incidentally as a soldier.” His maps, landscape and wildlife drawings proved him an artist of exceptional talent. In 1903 he was delegated to conduct a wild animal census in the Serengeti and Athi plains.
During Meinertzhagen's assignment to Africa, frequent native "risings and rebellions" occurred. By 1903 KAR's retaliatory ventures focused on confiscation of livestock, a highly effective form of punishment, and "the KAR had become accomplished cattle-rustlers." One such punitive expedition was commanded by a Captain F.A. Dickinson of the 3rd KAR with participation by Meinertzhagen, where more than 11,000 stock were captured at the cost of 3 men killed and 33 wounded. The body count on the African side was estimated at 1,500 from the Kikuyu and Embu tribes.
In the Kenya Highlands in 1905, Meinertzhagen crushed a major revolt, the Nandi Resistance, by killing its leader, the Nandi Orkoiyot (spiritual leader) Koitalel Arap Samoei. He arranged a meeting to negotiate by Koitalel's home on 19 October 1905, at which he planned to assassinate him. Meinertzhagen shot Koitalel, while shaking his hand and his men machine-gunned two dozen Nandi tribesmen, including most of Koitalel's advisors. Initially he had been able to orchestrate a cover-up and was to be commended for the incident. He claimed self-defense and eventually, after a third court of inquiry, he was cleared by the presiding officer, Brig. William Manning. Meinertzhagen collected tribal artifacts after this revolt. Some of these items, including a walking stick and baton belonging to Koitalel, were returned to Kenya in 2006. Pressure from the Colonial Department on the War Office eventually brought about Meinertzhagen's removal from Africa, as "he had become a negative symbol" and on 28 May 1906 "he found himself on a ship being trundled back to England in disgrace and in disgust."
Captain Meinertzhagen then spent the latter part of 1906 at "dreary administrative War Office desk jobs pushing papers." However, "... by making full use of his wide network of contacts in high places" he was able to rehabilitate himself and was assigned to the Fusiliers' Third Battalion in South Africa, arriving at Cape Town on 3 February 1907. He served there in 1908 and 1909, then on Mauritius. By 1913, he was again in India.
At the beginning of the First World War, he was posted to the intelligence staff of the British Indian Expeditionary Force. His map-making skills were much valued and recognized, though his assessments of the German Schutztruppe strength and other contributions to the conduct of the Battle of Tanga and the Battle of Kilimanjaro were a complete miss. From January 1915 through August 1916 Meinertzhagen served as chief of British military intelligence for the East Africa theater at Nairobi. His diaried records of this campaign contain harsh assessments of senior officers, of the role played by the Royal Navy and of the quality of the Indian units sent to East Africa. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in February 1916. In November of that year General J.C. Smuts ordered him invalided to England.
Sinai Desert and the Haversack Ruse
During 1917, Meinertzhagen was transferred from East Africa to be put in place at Deir-el-Belah. He made contact with Nili, a Jewish spy network headed by the agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn. Meinertzhagen later asserted that he respected Aaronsohn more than anyone else he ever met. They were instrumental in contacting Jewish officers in the Ottoman army, amongst many other sources, for information, and attempted their defection to the allies. A German Jewish doctor stationed at el-Afulah railway junction gave valuable reconnaissance reports on troop movements south. Meinertzhagen's department produced regular maps from the data showing the dispositions of enemy forces in the desert. In October 1917, the Turks broke up the network by intercepting a carrier pigeon and subjecting the Jews to hideous torture. Sarah Aaronsohn, age 27, a key figure, committed suicide in her home after torture. Meinertzhagen's sources of information dwindled to the occasional prisoner caught out by patrols, and deserters. He is frequently credited with a surprise attack known as the Haversack Ruse in October 1917: during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of the First World War, according to his diary, he let a haversack containing false British battle plans fall into Ottoman military hands, thereby bringing about the British victory in the Battle of Beersheba and Gaza.
The evidence was wrapped in paper used for sandwiches, and taken to General Kress von Kressenstein, who examined the pocket book and mused on its authenticity. According to an account by Turkish Colonel Hussein Husni, Chief of Staff of 7th Army, Meinertzhagen's German-sounding name added to its genuine feel. Von Kressenstein wanted to believe it, which threw the staff into some confused arguments. The ideas of Allenby's general leave-time played on Turk preconceptions about the way British and Australians were thought to behave. The main consequence was a swap in the German High Command, and Mustafa Kemal's resignation. At a time when the British were planning their third attempt to capture Gaza the timing proved critical.
Although Meinertzhagen's participation in this ruse has been discounted (he may have neither planned nor executed it), his stories of the ruse themselves would have a major impact on events in the Second World War. It inspired Winston Churchill to create the London Controlling Section, which planned countless Allied deception campaigns during the war, and such operations as Mincemeat and diversions covering D-Day were influenced by the Haversack Ruse.
Military Intelligence Reservations
Another story from 1917 refers to a number of Arab spies suspected of wandering through British lines in disguise. He caught a couple of Arabs and extracted their Ottoman paymaster, a merchant who lived in Beersheba. Meinertzhagen sent him money with an Arab he knew would talk. The merchant was executed by the Turks. "Near the end of 1917, having participated in no battles, he was ordered back to England for reassignment [and] found office duty as dreary as ever."
Meinertzhagen was outraged by the continual sorties to bomb the enemy camp, given the bombs always missed their target, and invaluable reconnaissance planes were shot down, and with lives lost. One such raid as many as eight planes went down. From an intelligence viewpoint it was pointless as the Germans gave as good as they got in return to no overall gain. He hated the notion that the Holy City of Jerusalem would be bombed from the air, and expressed outrage when this occurred. For example, the bombing of the enemy's HQ at Mount of Olives. But Allenby told him that the Turks had to be induced to escape Jerusalem, northwards if possible, and so a boundary was set at 6 miles no-fighting zone to facilitate their flight.
Palestine and Israel
From the spring of 1918 until August he commuted between England and France, delivering lectures on intelligence to groups of officers – then was assigned full-time to France at GHQ. After the armistice he attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and was Edmund Allenby's Chief Political Officer, involved in the creation of the Palestine Mandate, which eventually led to the creation of the state of Israel. In the film A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia (1990), which depicted the Paris Peace Conference, Meinertzhagen was a major character and was played by Jim Carter. His unpublished diaries hint, among other exploits, at a successful rescue attempt of one of the Czarist-Russian Grand Duchesses, possibly Tatiana (see The Romanov Conspiracies by Michael Occleshaw).
In the August 1920 Report of the Palin Commission, Meinertzhagen was attacked for an alleged bias:
Israeli historian Tom Segev considers Meinertzhagen both a "great anti-semite and a great Zionist," quoting from his Middle East Diary: "I am imbued with antisemitic feelings. It was indeed an accursed day that allowed Jews and not Christians to introduce to the world the principles of Zionism and that allowed Jewish brains and Jewish money to carry them out, almost unhelped by Christians save a handful of enthusiasts in England."
Meinertzhagen was and is considered however a true and valued friend of Zionism. "On 3 December 1947, four days after the UN voted in favour of partition in Palestine, Dr Chaim Weizmann, the modern State of Israel's first president, cabled Col. Richard Meinertzhagen to say, “To you dear friend we owe so much that I can only express it in simple words – May God Bless You”.
In Weizmann's biography he wrote of Meinertzhagen,
“At our first meeting, he told me the following story of himself: he had been an anti-Semite, though all he had known about Jews had been what he picked up in a few casual, anti-Semitic books. But he had also met some of the rich Jews, who had not been particularly attractive. But then, in the Near East, he had come across Aaron Aaronsohn, a Palestinian Jew, also a man of great courage and superior intelligence, devoted to Palestine. Aaronson was a botanist, and the discoverer of wild wheat. With Aaronson, Meinertzhagen had many talks about Palestine, and was so impressed by him that he completely changed his mind and became an ardent Zionist – which he has remained till this day. And that not merely in words. Whenever he can perform a service for the Jews or Palestine he will go out of his way to do so.
Meinertzhagen wrote in his book, Middle East Diary, “But thank God I have lived to see the birth of Israel. It is one of the greatest historical events of the last 2,000 years and thank God I have been privileged to assist in a small way this great event which, I am convinced, will bring benefit to mankind”.
In 1973 Middle East Diary was published in Hebrew, translated by Aharon Amir.
Meinertzhagen was a prolific diarist and published four books based on these diaries. However, his Middle East Diary contains entries that are in all probability fictional, including those on T. E. Lawrence and a bit of absurd slapstick concerning Adolf Hitler. In October 1934, Meinertzhagen claimed to have mocked Hitler in response to being "baffled when Hitler raised his arm in the Nazi salute and said, 'Heil Hitler.' After a moment's thought, Meinertzhagen says he raised his own arm in an identical salute and proclaimed, 'Heil Meinertzhagen'." He claimed to have carried a loaded pistol in his coat pocket at a meeting with Hitler and Ribbentrop in July 1939 and was "seriously troubled" about not shooting when he had the chance, adding "... [I]f this war breaks out, as I feel sure it will, then I shall feel very much to blame for not killing these two."
Authors Lockman and Garfield show that Meinertzhagen later falsified his entries. The original diaries are kept at Rhodes House (the Bodleian Library), Oxford, and contain differences in the paper used for certain entries as well as in the typewriter ribbon used, and there are oddities in the page numbering.
Dates of promotions
- Second lieutenant on 18 January 1899
- Lieutenant on 8 February 1900
- Captain in February 1905
- Major in September 1915
- brevet lieutenant colonel in March 1918
- brevet colonel in August 1918; but he was a major when he retired from the Army in 1925. Upon retirement British officers are granted title and pension of the highest rank held while on active duty, thus he had the right to call himself "Colonel".
He was reinstated as a lieutenant colonel in 1939 in Military Intelligence, G.S.O.-3 (General Staff Officer, 3rd grade); the nature of his duties was confined mainly to public relations work.
Meinertzhagen has inspired three biographies since his death in 1967. Early biographers largely lionized him as a grand elder statesman of espionage and ornithology.
T. E. Lawrence, a sometime colleague in 1919 and again 1921, described him more ambiguously and with due attention to his violence:
Meinertzhagen knew no half measures. He was logical, an idealist of the deepest, and so possessed by his convictions that he was willing to harness evil to the chariot of good. He was a strategist, a geographer, and a silent laughing masterful man; who took as blithe a pleasure in deceiving his enemy (or his friend) by some unscrupulous jest, as in spattering the brains of a cornered mob of Germans one by one with his African knob-kerri. His instincts were abetted by an immensely powerful body and a savage brain....— T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1926
Meinertzhagen himself traced the "evil" side of his personality to a period during his childhood when he was subjected to severe physical abuse at the hands of a sadistic schoolmaster when he was at Fonthill boarding school in Sussex:
Even now I feel the pain of that moment, when something seemed to leave me, something good; and something evil entered into my soul. Was it God who forsook me, and the devil took his place. But whatever left me has never returned, neither have I been able to entirely cast out the evil which entered me at that moment.... The undeserved beatings and sadistic treatment which were my lot in childhood so upset my mind that much of my present character can be traced to Fonthill.
Gavin Maxwell wrote about how his parents would scare him and other children to behave themselves when Meinertzhagen visited with "... remember ... he has killed people with his bare hands..." Salim Ali noted Meinertzhagen's special hatred for Mahatma Gandhi and his refusal to believe that Indians could govern themselves.
In The Meinertzhagen Mystery, Garfield presents a fuller perspective of Meinertzhagen as not only a fraud but also a murderer. The book argues many of Meinertzhagen's accomplishments were myths including the famous haversack incident, which Garfield claims Meinertzhagen neither came up with nor carried out. In another example Garfield researched Meinertzhagen diary records noting three meetings on separate dates with Adolf Hitler. Although Meinertzhagen was in Berlin on these dates in 1934, 1935 and 1939, Garfield found no record of any of these alleged meetings in surviving German chancellory records, British embassy files, British intelligence reports or newspapers of the day.
Garfield's research leads him to speculate that Richard also killed his second wife, Annie (born Anne Constance Jackson daughter of Major Randle Jackson of Swordale, married Meinertzhagen in 1921), an ornithologist, and that her death was not an accident as claimed and ruled in court. She died in 1928 at age 40 in a remote Scottish village in an incident that was officially ruled a shooting accident. The finding was that she accidentally shot herself in the head with a revolver during target practice alone with Richard, but Garfield argues Meinertzhagen shot her out of fear that she would expose him and his fraudulent activities. Storrs L. Olson has pointed out some errors in Garfield's research, while confirming the validity of its overall negative tone.
As Garfield writes, "From boyhood on [Meinertzhagen] had been in tune with nature; he took photographs, made drawings and provided armchair tourists with keen descriptions of rain forests and snowy mountains ... and discovered new (previously unrecorded) species of bats, birds, and mallophaga (bird lice)". He became a chairman of the British Ornithologists' Club and a recipient in 1951 of the Godman-Salvin Medal; the British Museum (Natural History) named a room after him.
Meinertzhagen "first achieved a sliver of international fame when he discovered, killed, stuffed, and shipped back to London the first known to Europeans Giant African Forest Hog, soon dubbed Hylochoerus meinertzhageni, and attributed to Richard Meinertzhagen". At that time, while on active duty in 1903, he was "fearlessly exploring and mapping areas no European had seen before." He later also discovered the Afghan snowfinch or Montifringilla theresae, and the Moroccan Riparia rupestris theresae and named them, and ten others, after Theresa Clay.
He edited Nicoll's Birds of Egypt in 1930. Michael J. Nicoll was a friend and Assistant Director of the Zoological Gardens at Giza; Nicoll attempted to write a comprehensive guide to the ornithology of Egypt, but died in 1925 before it could be published. The work was finished by Meinertzhagen with contributions of his own independent research and illustrations. It was printed with the title "that seems appropriate," "Nicoll's Birds of Egypt by Col. R. Meinertzhagen."
In 1948–49, he was accompanied by Dr. Phillip Clancey on an ornithological expedition to Arabia, Yemen, Aden, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa. As the author of numerous taxonomic and other works on birds, and possessing a vast collection of bird and bird lice specimens, he was long considered one of Britain's greatest ornithologists. Garfield, however, claims Meinhertzhagen's magnum opus, Birds of Arabia (1954), was based on the unpublished manuscript of another naturalist, George Bates, who has been insufficiently credited in the work.
In the 1990s, an analysis of Meinertzhagen's bird collection at the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire, revealed large-scale fraud involving theft and falsification. The birds claimed as specimens collected by Meinhertzhagen matched with the ones that had been reported missing and the examination of the style of specimen preparation and the DNA sequences of the cotton used inside them matched the cotton used in other specimens prepared by the collectors of the stolen specimens. This also corroborated hear-say and other evidence on the specimen fraud. Many of the specimens that he submitted as his own were found to be missing samples belonging to the Natural History Museum and collected by others, such as Hugh Whistler. A species of owl, the forest owlet thought to have gone extinct was rediscovered in 1997 based on searches made in the locality where the original specimens were collected. Searches for the bird had failed before as these were made in a locality falsely claimed by Meinertzhagen. More research by Rasmussen and Robert Prŷs-Jones indicates the fraud was even more extensive than first thought.
In 1911, Meinertzhagen married Armorel, the daughter of Colonel Herman Le Roy-Lewis, who commanded the Hampshire Yeomanry. This marriage was dissolved in 1919.
In 1921 Meinertzhagen married Anne Constance Jackson, a fellow ornithologist and the daughter of Major Randle Jackson of Swordale, Ross-shire in Scotland. They had three children: Anne (born 1921), Daniel (born 1925) and Randle (born 1928). From about 1926 Meinertzhagen started to have a cold relationship with his wife and became increasingly close with his cousin Tess Clay, then aged fifteen - spending much time with her and her sisters.
In 1928, three months after the birth of Randle, Anne was killed, aged 40, at her birth village of Swordale. The finding, ruled in court, was that she accidentally shot herself in the head with a revolver during target practice alone with Richard. As noted above, Brian Garfield's research led him to speculate that in fact she was murdered by Meinertzhagen, out of fear that she would expose him and his fraudulent activities.. This idea was never conclusively proved or disproved.
Annie Constance Meinertzhagen left ₤113,466 (net personalty ₤18,733) in her will to her husband if he remained her widower, while if he remarried he was to get an annuity of ₤1200 and interest in their London home for life..
In fact, Meinertzhagen never married again, but had a lasting relationship with Tess Clay, more than three decades his junior. The unmarried couple lived in adjacent buildings originally constructed with an internal passage connecting the foyers of the two houses. Clay was his housekeeper, secretary, "confidante" and later scientific partner who studied and eventually documented the vast collections of bird lice that Meinertzhagen had gathered. When they traveled they sometimes took separate rooms. He introduced her as his housekeeper or cousin or sometimes, inaccurately, as his niece. It is unknown if Meinertzhagen and Clay's relationship was "physical": Meinertzhagen's friend Victor Rothschild asked Meinertzhagen this outright, but was told "in no uncertain terms to shut up"; and a 1951 article in TIME referred to their relationship with "wink-wink, nudge-nudge innuendo".
Meinertzhagen wrote numerous papers for scientific journals such as the Ibis, as well as reports on intelligence work while in the army. Books authored or edited by him include:
- 1930 – Nicoll's Birds of Egypt. (Ed), (2 vols). London: Hugh Rees
- 1947 – The Life of a Boy: Daniel Meinertzhagen, 1925–1944. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd
- 1954 – Birds of Arabia. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd
- 1957 – Kenya Diary 1902–1906. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.
- 1959 – Middle East Diary, 1917–1956. London: Cresset Press
- 1959 – Pirates and Predators. The piratical and predatory habits of birds. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd
- 1960 – Army Diary 1899–1926. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd
- 1964 – Diary of a Black Sheep. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd