Niedermayer-Hentig Expedition – German expedition to Afghanistan during World War 1


The Niedermayer-Hentig Expedition was a diplomatic mission sent by the Central Powers to Afghanistan in 1915-1916. The purpose was to encourage Afghanistan to declare full independence from the United Kingdom, enter World War I on the side of the Central Powers, and attack British India. The expedition was sent as a part of the Indo-German efforts to provoke a nationalist revolution in India. Nominally headed by the exiled Indian prince Raja Mahendra Pratap, the expedition was a joint operation of Germany and Turkey and was led by the German Army officers Oskar Niedermayer and Werner Otto von Hentig. Other participants included members of the Indian nationalist organisation called the Berlin Committee, including Maulavi Barkatullah and C. R. Pillai, while the Turkish effort was represented by Kazim Bey, a close confidante of Enver Pasha.

Britain saw the expedition as a serious threat. Britain and its ally Russia unsuccessfully attempted to intercept it in Persia during the summer of 1915. Britain waged a covert intelligence and diplomatic offensive, including personal interventions by the Viceroy Lord Hardinge and King George V, to maintain Afghan neutrality.

The mission failed in its main task of rallying Afghanistan, under Emir Habibullah Khan, to the German and Turkish war effort, but it influenced other major events. In Afghanistan, the expedition triggered reforms and drove political turmoil, culminating in the assassination of the Emir in 1919, precipitating the Third Afghan War. It influenced the Kalmyk Project of nascent Bolshevik Russia to propagate socialist revolution in Asia, with one goal being the overthrow of the British Raj. Other consequences included formation of the Rowlatt Committee to investigate sedition in India as influenced by Germany and Bolshevim, and changes in the Raj’s approach to the Indian independence movement immediately after World War I.

Mahendra Pratap, centre, with (right to left) Maulavi Barkatullah, Werner Otto von Hentig, Kazim Bey, Walter Röhr. Kabul, 1916

In August 1914, World War I began when alliance obligations arising from the war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary brought Germany and Russia to war, while Germany’s invasion of Belgium directly triggered Britain’s entry. In November, after a series of military events and political intrigues, Russia declared war on Turkey, causing Turkey to join the Central Powers in fighting the Entente Powers. In response to war with Russia and Britain, and further motivated by alliance with Turkey, Germany accelerated plans to weaken its enemies by targeting their colonial empires, including Russia in Turkestan and Britain in India, for political agitation.

Germany nurtured prewar links with Indian nationalists. For years, Indian nationalists had used Germany, Turkey, Persia, the United States, and other countries as bases for anti-colonial work directed against Britain. As early as 1913, revolutionary publications in Germany regularly referred to the approaching war between Germany and Britain and the possibility of Germany supporting Indian nationalists. In the war’s early months, German newspapers devoted considerable coverage to Indian distress, social problems, and British colonial exploitation.

German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg encouraged this activity. This German effort was led by prominent archaeologist and historian Max von Oppenheim, who headed the new Intelligence Bureau for the East and formed the Berlin Committee, which was later renamed the Indian Independence Committee. The Berlin Committee offered money, arms, and military advisors according to plans made by the German foreign office and Indian revolutionaries in exile such as the Ghadar Party in North America. From elsewhere in Asia and from the United States, clandestine shipments of arms and men reached India with which the planners hoped to trigger a nationalist mutiny.

Mehmed V, the Sultan of Turkey, was then regarded as the Caliph by a substantial part of the Islamic world.

In Turkey and Persia, nationalist work was evident by 1909, under the leadership of Sardar Ajit Singh and Sufi Amba Prasad. Reports from 1910 indicate that Germany was already contemplating efforts to threaten India through Turkey, Persia, and Afghanistan. Germany had built close diplomatic and economic relationships with both Turkey and Persia from the late 19th century. Von Oppenheim had mapped Turkey and Persia while working as German secret agent. The Kaiser toured Constantinople, Damascus and Jerusalem in 1898 to bolster the Turkish relationship and to portray solidarity with Islam, a religion professed by millions of subjects of the British Empire, in India and elsewhere. The German Intelligence Bureau for the East spread propaganda through the region referring to the Kaiser as Haji Wilhelm, fostered rumours that the Kaiser had converted to Islam following a secret trip to Mecca, and portrayed him as a savior of Islam.

In Turkey in 1913, a coup led by Enver Pasha sidelined Sultan Mehmed V and concentrated power in the hands of a junta. Despite the secular nature of the new government, Turkey retained its traditional influence over the Muslim world. Turkey ruled Hejaz until the Arab Revolt of 1916 and controlled the Muslim holy city of Mecca throughout the war. Its Sultan’s title of Caliph was recognised as legitimate by most Muslims, including in Afghanistan and India.

Once at war, Turkey joined Germany in taking aim at the opposing Entente Powers and their extensive empires in the Muslim world. Enver Pasha had the Sultan proclaim Jihad. His hope was to provoke and aid a vast Muslim revolution against the Entente Powers, particularly by Muslims in India. Translations of the proclamation were also sent to Berlin for propaganda and distribution to Muslim troops of the Entente Powers. However, while widely heard, the proclamation did not have the intended effect of mobilising global Muslim opinion on behalf of Turkey or the Central Powers.

Early in the war, the Emir of Afghanistan declared neutrality. The Emir feared the destabilizing influence on his subjects of the Sultan’s call to jihad as Turkey’s entry aroused widespread nationalist and pan-Islamic sentiments in Afghanistan and Persia. The Anglo-Russian entente of 1907 designated Afghanistan to the British sphere of influence. Britain nominally controlled Afghanistan’s foreign policy and the Emir was granted a monetary subsidy by Britain. However, in reality, Britain had almost no effective control over Afghanistan. For Britain, Afghanistan was perceived as the only state capable of invading India, and remained a serious threat.

In the first week of August 1914, the German Foreign Office and military, including von Moltke, suggested attempting to use the pan-Islamic movement to destabilise the British Empire and begin an Indian revolution. The argument was reinforced by Germanophile explorer Sven Hedin in Berlin two weeks later. General Staff memoranda in the last weeks of August confirmed the perceived feasibility of the plan, predicting that an invasion by the Emir of Afghanistan could cause a revolution in India.

With war, revolutionary unrest increased in India. Some Hindu and Muslim leaders secretly left to seek help of the Central Powers for an Indian revolution. The pan-Islamic movement in India, particularly the Darul Uloom Deoband, also made plans for an insurrection in the North-west India with support from Afghanistan and the Central Powers. Mahmud al Hasan, the principal of the Deobandi school, left India to seek the help of Galib Pasha, the Turkish governor of Hijaz. Another Deoband leader, Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi, traveled to Kabul to seek the support of the Emir of Afghanistan. They initially planned to raise an Islamic army headquartered at Medina, with an Indian contingent at Kabul. Mahmud al Hasan was to command this army. While at Kabul, Maulana came to the conclusion that focusing on the Indian Freedom Movement would best serve the pan-Islamic cause. Ubaidullah proposed to the Afghan Emir that he declare war against Britain. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad is known to have been involved in the movement prior to his arrest in 1916.

Enver Pasha conceived an expedition to Afghanistan in 1914. He envisioned it as part of a pan-Islamic venture, directed by Turkey, with some German participation. The German delegation to this expedition, chosen by Oppenheim and Zimmermann, included Oskar Niedermayer and Wilhelm Wassmuss. An escort of nearly a thousand Turkish troops and German advisers were to accompany the delegation through Persia into Afghanistan, hoping to rally local tribes to jihad.

The mission faltered from conception. In an ineffective ruse, the Germans attempted to reach Turkey by traveling overland through Austria-Hungary in the guise of a traveling circus, eventually reaching neutral Romania. Their equipment, arms, and mobile wireless stations were confiscated by Romania after Romanian officials discovered the wireless aerials sticking out through the packaging of the “tent poles”. Replacements could not be arranged for weeks, while the delegation waited at Constantinople. To reinforce the Islamic identity of the expedition, it was suggested that the Germans wear Turkish army uniforms, but this the Germans refused. Differences between Turkish and German officers, including the reluctance of the Germans to accept Turkish control, further compromised the effort. Eventually, the expedition was aborted.

The attempted expedition had a significant consequence. Wassmuss left Constantinople to organise the tribes in south Persia to act against British interests. While evading British capture in Persia, Wassmuss inadvertently abandoned his codebook. Its recovery by Britain allowed the Allies to decipher German communications, including, eventually, the Zimmermann Telegram. Oskar Niedermayer led the group following Wassmuss’s departure.

In 1915, a second expedition was organised mainly through the German Foreign Office and the Indian leadership of the Berlin Committee. Germany was now intricately involved in the Indian revolutionary conspiracy and provided it with arms and funds. Lala Har Dayal was prominent among the Indian radicals liaising with Germany and was expected to lead the expedition. When Har Dayal declined, the exiled Indian prince Raja Mahendra Pratap became the leader.

Mahendra Pratap was the chief of the Indian princely states of Mursan and Hathras. He had been involved with the Indian National Congress in the 1900s, attending the Congress session of 1906. Pratap toured the world in 1907 and 1911, and in 1912 contributed substantial funds to Gandhi’s South African movement. Pratap left India for Geneva at the beginning of the war, where Virendranath Chattopadhyaya of the Berlin committee met him. Chattopadhyaya’s efforts, along with a letter from the Kaiser, was able to convince Pratap to lend his support to the Indian nationalist cause.[20] Pratap agreed to lend his weight on the condition that the arrangements were made with the Kaiser himself. A private audience with the Kaiser was arranged, at which Pratap agreed to nominally head the expedition.

Prominent among the German members of the delegation were Niedermayer and von Hentig. Von Hentig was a Prussian military officer who had served as the military attaché to Beijing in 1910 and Constantinople in 1912. Fluent in Persian, von Hentig was appointed secretary of the German legation to Tehran in 1913. In the early months of the war, von Hentig was serving on the Eastern front as a lieutenant with the Prussian 3rd Cuirassiers when he was recalled to Berlin for the expedition.

Like von Hentig, Niedermayer had served in Constantinople before the war and spoke fluent Persian and other regional languages. A Bavarian artillery officer and a graduate in Geography, Geology and Philology from the University of Erlangen, Niedermayer had traveled from Persia to India in the two years preceding the war. He returned to Persia to await further orders after the first Afghan expedition was aborted. Niedermayer was tasked with the military aspect of this new expedition as it proceeded through the dangerous Persian desert between British and Russian areas of influence in Persia. The German delegation further included the German officers Günter Voigt and Kurt Wagner.

Accompanying Pratap in the expedition were other Indians from the Berlin Committee, notably Champakaraman Pillai and the Islamic scholar and Indian nationalist Maulavi Barkatullah. Barkatullah had behind him a long association with the Indian revolutionary movement, having worked with the India House in London and in New York from 1903. In 1909, he moved to Japan, where he continued his anti-British activities. Taking the post of Professor of Urdu at Tokyo University, he visited Constantinople in 1911. However, his Tokyo tenure was terminated under diplomatic pressure from Britain. He returned to the United States in 1914, later proceeding to Berlin, where he joined the efforts of the Berlin committee. Barkatullah had as early as 1895 been acquainted with Nasrullah Khan, the brother of the Afghan Emir, Habibulla Khan.

Pratap chose six Hindu Afridi and Pathan volunteers from the prisoner-of-war camp at Zossen. Before the mission left Berlin, two more Germans joined the group: Major Dr. Karl Becker, who was familiar with tropical diseases and also spoke Persian, and Walter Rohr, a young merchant fluent in Turkish and Persian.

The titular head of the expedition was Mahendra Pratap, while Von Hentig was nominated the Kaiser’s representative. He was to accompany and introduce Mahendra Pratap and was responsible for the German diplomatic representations to the Emir. For the mission, an account with 100,000 pounds sterling in gold was deposited at the Deutsche Bank in Constantinople. Before it left Berlin, the expedition was also given gold plus gifts for the Emir, including jeweled watches, gold fountain pens, ornamental rifles, binoculars, cameras, cinema projectors, and an alarm clock.

Supervision was assigned to the German ambassador to Turkey. The Ambassador was Hans von Wangenheim, but as he was ill, his functions were delegated to Prince zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg. Following Wangenheim’s death in 1915, Count von Wolff-Metternich was designated his successor. He had little contact with the expedition.

To evade British and Russian intelligence, the group split up, beginning their journeys on different days and separately making their ways to Constantinople. Pratap and von Hentig, with a German orderly and an Indian cook, began their journey in early spring 1915, travelling via Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, Sofia and Adrianople to reach Constantinople. At Vienna, they were met briefly by the deposed Khedive of Egypt, Abbas Hilmi.

Reaching Constantinople on 17 April, the party waited at the Pera Palace Hotel for three weeks while further travel arrangements were arranged. During this time, Pratap and Hentig met with Enver Pasha and enjoyed an audience with the Sultan. On Enver Pasha’s directions, a Turkish officer, Lieutenant Kasim Bey, was deputed to the expedition as the Turkish representative, bearing official letters addressed to the Afghan Emir and the Indian Princely states. At Constantinople, two Afghans from the United States joined.

The group, now approximately twenty people, left Constantinople in early May 1915. It crossed the Bosphorus to take the unfinished Baghdad Railway to Baghdad. The Taurus mountains were crossed on horseback taking — as von Hentig reflected — the same route taken by Alexander the Great, Paul the Apostle, and Frederick I. The group crossed the Euphrates at high flood to finally reach Baghdad towards the end of May.

As Baghdad raised the spectre of an extensive network of British spies, the group again split. Pratap and von Hentig’s party left Baghdad on 1 June 1915 to make their way towards the Persian border. Eight days later they were received by the Turkish military commander Raouf Bey at the Persian town of Krynd. Leaving Krynd, the party reached Turkish-occupied Kermanshah on 14 June 1915. Some members were sick with malaria and other tropical diseases. Leaving them under the care of Dr. Becker, von Hentig proceeded towards Tehran to decide on the subsequent plans with Prince Heinrich Reuss and Oskar Niedermayer.

Persia at the time was divided into British and Russian spheres of influence with a neutral zone in between. Germany exercised influence over the central parts of the country through the consulate in Ishafan. The local population and the clergy, opposed to Russian and British semi-colonial designs on Persia, offered support. Through the end of June, Niedermayer and von Hentig’s groups reconnoitered Ishafan. The Viceroy of India was already receiving reports of pro-German sympathies among Persian and Afghan tribes. Details of the progress of the expedition were being keenly sought by British intelligence. By now, British and Russian columns close to the Afghan border, including the Seistan Force, were hunting for the expedition. If the expedition was to reach Afghanistan, it would have to outwit and outrun its pursuers in the extreme heat of the Persian desert over thousands of miles, through natural hazards and evading brigands and ambushes.

By early July, the sick at Kermanshah had recovered and rejoined the expedition. Camels and water bags were purchased, and the parties left Ishafan separately on July 3, 1915 for the journey through the desert, hoping to rendezvous at Tebbes, half way to the Afghan border.[28] Von Hentig’s group travelled with twelve pack horses, twenty four mules, and a camel caravan. Through the march, efforts were made to throw off the British and Russian patrols. False dispatches spread disinformation on the group’s numbers, destination, and intention. To avoid extreme daytime heat, they travelled by night. Food was found or bought by Persian messengers sent ahead of the party. These scouts also helped identify hostile villages and helped find water. The group crossed the Persian desert in forty nights. Dysentery and delirium plagued the party, some Persian guides attempted to defect, and camel drivers had to be constantly vigilant for robbers. On 23 July, the group reached Tebbes – the first Europeans after Sven Hedin. They were soon followed by Niedermayer’s party, which included the Africa explorer Wilhelm Paschen and six Austrian and Hungarian soldiers escaped from Russian POW camps in Turkestan. The arrival was marked by a grand welcome by the town’s mayor. However, the welcome meant the party was spotted.

The expedition now had to race against time. Ahead were British patrols of the East Persia Cordon and Russian patrols. The expedition was still 200 miles from the Afghan border. By September, the German codebook lost by Wilhelm Wassmuss had been deciphered, which further compromised the situation. Oskar Niedermayer, now in charge, emerged a brilliant tactician. He sent three feint patrols, one to northeast to draw away the Russian troops and one to the southeast to draw away the British, while a third patrol of thirty armed Persians, led by a German officer, Lieutenant Wagner, was sent ahead of the main body to find a route. The first group, after leading the Russians astray, was to remain in Persia to establish a secret desert base as a refuge for the main party. The second group, after luring away the British, was to fall back to Kermanshah and link with a separate German force that was in Persia at the time under Lieutenants Zugmayer and Griesinger. All three parties were ordered to spread misleading information about their movements to any nomads or villages they crossed. Meanwhile, the main body headed through Chehar Deh for the region of Birjand, closest to the Afghan frontier. The party covered forty miles before it reached the next village, where Niedermayer halted to await word from Wagner’s patrol. The villagers were meanwhile barred from leaving. Word from Wagner, however, was bad. His patrol had run into a Russian ambush, eliminating the desert refuge. The expedition proceeded towards Birjand with forced marches, keeping about one day ahead of the British and Russian patrols. Other problems still confronted Niedermayer, among them the opium addiction of his Persian camel drivers. He had to stop the Persians a number of times from lighting up tufts of dry grass to light their pipes for fear of being spotted. Men who fell behind were left. Some of the Persian drivers attempted to defect, with gold and gifts. On one occasion, a driver was shot while he attempted to flee and betray the group.

A map by Reginald Dyer illustrating the Sistan border with Afghanistan. Dyer led the Sistan force hunting for infiltrating German agents through much of 1916.

Although the town of Birjand was small, it had a Russian consulate. Niedermayer correctly guessed additional British forces may be present. He therefore had to decide whether to bypass the town by the northern route patrolled by Russians, or the southern route where British patrols were hunting for them. He could not send any reconnaissance. However, his Persian escort’s advice that the desert north of Birjand was notoriously harsh finally convinced him that this would be the route his enemies would least expect him to take. Sending a small decoy party southeast to spread the rumour that the main body would soon follow, Niedermayer headed for the barren north. His feints and disinformation were taking effect. The pursuing forces were spread thin, hunting for what they believed at times to be a large force and at other times looking for a second, non-existent German force heading east from Kermanshah. The group now moved both by day and by night. From nomads, Niedermayer learnt the whereabouts of British patrols looking for them. He lost men through exhaustion, defection and desertion. On occasions, deserters would take the party’s spare water and horses at gunpoint. Nonetheless, the forced march brought the expedition on the second week of August near to the Birjand-Meshed road, eighty miles from Afghanistan. Here, the Kaiser’s bulkier and heavier gifts to the Emir, including the German wireless sets, were buried in the desert for retrieval later. An advance patrol reported seeing British columns on the road. Niedermayer presumed the road to be watched by British spies, since all caravans entering Afghanistan must cross it. With scouts on the lookout, the expedition crossed it under the cover of night. Only one obstacle, the so-called “Mountain Path”, remained before they were clear of the Anglo-Russian cordon. This heavily patrolled path lay thirty miles further east, through which ran Entente telegraph lines for maintaining communication with remote posts. However, even here, Niedermayer escaped. His group had covered 255 miles in seven days, through the barren Dasht-e Kavir. On 19 August 1915 the expedition reached the Afghan frontier. Mahendra Pratap’s memoirs describes the group as left with approximately fifty men, less than half the number who set out from Ishafan seven weeks earlier. Dr. Becker’s camel caravan was lost and he was later captured by Russians. Only seventy of the 170 of the horses and baggage animals survived.

Another map by Reginald Dyer. Birjand is in the periphery of the Lut Desert, in Persia near Afghanistan.

Crossing into Afghanistan, the group found fresh water in an irrigation channel by a deserted hamlet. Albeit teeming with leeches, the water saved the group from dying of thirst. Marching for another two days, it reached the vicinity of Herat, where they were able to make their first contact with Afghan authorities. Unsure what reception awaited them, Barkatullah, as an Islamic scholar of some fame, was sent ahead by von Hentig to advise the governor about the expedition’s arrival with the Kaiser’s message and gifts for the Emir. The governor sent a grand welcome, with noblemen bearing cloths and gifts, a caravan of servants, and a column of hundred armed escorts to invite the expedition into the city as guests of the Afghan government. On 24 August, the expedition entered Herat, with von Hentig in the lead in his Curassiers uniform, in a procession welcomed by Turkish troops headed by a Turkish captain. They were housed at the Emir’s provincial palace. They were officially met by the governor a few days later when, according to British agents, von Hentig showed him the Turkish Sultan’s proclamation of Jihad and announced the Kaiser’s promise to recognise Afghan sovereignty and provide German assistance. The Kaiser also promised to grant Afghanistan territory as far north as Samarkand in Russian Turkestan and as far into India as Bombay.

The Viceroy of India had already warned the Emir of approaching “German agents and hired assassins”. The Emir had promised the Viceroy to arrest the expedition if it managed to reach Afghanistan. However, under a close watch, the expedition members were given the freedom of Herat. The governor promised to arrange for the 400-mile trip east to Kabul in another two weeks. Suits were tailored and horses given new saddles so they were presentable to the Emir. The trip was arranged to avoid the southern route through Kandahar, possibly because Afghan officials wished to avoid fomenting unrest in the Pathan region close to India. On 7 September, the group left Herat for Kabul with Afghan guides, in a 24-day trip through the northern, harsher, Hazarajat route over the barren mountains of Central Afghanistan. Enroute the expedition was again careful to spend enough money and gold to ensure popularity amongst the local people. Finally, on October 2, 1915, the expedition reached Kabul. It was received by a “salaam” by the local Turkish community and a Guard of honour by Afghan troops in Turkish uniform. von Hentig describes receiving cheers and a grand welcome from the local inhabitants of Kabul.

At Kabul, the group was housed at the Emir’s palace at Bagh-e Babur accommodated as Guests of State and their provisions arranged for. Despite the comfort and the welcome, however, it was soon clear that they were all but confined. Armed guards were placed around the palace, ostensibly for “the group’s own danger from British secret agents” and armed guides escorted them on their journeys. Meanwhile Emir Habibullah, reportedly in his summer palace at Paghman, responded for nearly three weeks with only polite non-committal replies to requests for audience. An astute politician, it was clear that the Emir was in no hurry to receive his guests while he found out as much as he could about the members and liased with British authority at New Delhi. It was only after Niedermayer and von Hentig threatened Hunger Strike that anything moved. In the meantime, von Hentig learnt as much as he could about his eccentric host. Emir Habibullah was, by all measures, the lord of Afghanistan. He considered it his divine right to rule and the land his property. He owned the only newspaper,Siraj-al-Akbar; the only drug store; all the automobiles in the country (Rolls Royces all of them) and only allowed himself to collect stamps and be photographed.

The Emir’s brother, prime minister Nasrullah Khan, on the other hand was a man of religious convictions. Unlike the Emir, he spoke the local language Pashto fluently, dressed in traditional Afghan robes, and interacted more closely with border tribes. While the Emir humoured British India, Nasrullah Khan held more pro-German sympathy. Nasrullah’s views were shared by his nephew, Amanullah Khan, the youngest and most charismatic amongst the Emir’s sons. The eldest son Inayatullah Khan was in charge of the Afghan army. In this political situation, the mission expected more sympathy and consideration from Nasrullah and Amanullah.

Finally on 26 October 1915, the Emir granted audience at his Palace at Paghman, which allowed him privacy from British secret agents. The meeting, which lasted the entire day, begun in an uncomfortable note, with Habibullah in a prolonged opening address summing up his views on the expedition as—
I regard you as merchants who will spread out your wares before me. Of these goods, I shall choose according to my pleasure and my fancy, taking what I like and rejecting what I do not need.

He expressed surprise that a task as important as the expedition’s was entrusted to such young men. von Hentig had to convince the Emir that the mission did not consider themselves merchants, but instead brought word from the Kaiser, the Ottoman Sultan and from India, wishing to recognise Afghanistan’s complete independence and sovereignty. The Kaiser’s typewritten letter, compared to the handsome Ottoman greeting failed to settle the Emir’s suspicions, who doubted its authenticity. von Hentig’s explanations that this was the only available instrument at the Kaiser’s field headquarters before the group’s hurried departure may not have convinced him entirely. von Hentig forwarded the invitation to join the war on Central side, explaining the war situation as favourable, and invited the Emir to declare independence. This was followed by a presentation from Kasim Bey explaining the Ottoman Sultan’s declaration of Jihad, Turkey’s desire to avoid a fratricidal war between Islamic people, and her message to Afghanistan, which was similar to the Kaiser’s. Subsequently, Barkatullah invited Habibullah to declare war against the British empire and to come to the aid of India’s Muslims. It was Barkatullah, further, who proposed to the Emir that he allow Turco-German forces to cross Afghanistan for a campaign towards the Indian frontier, to which he hoped the Emir would join forces. Barkatullah and Mahendra Pratap, both eloquent speakers, further pointed out the rich territorial gains the Emir stood to acquire by joining the central powers.

The Emir’s reply was, however, shrewd but frank. He noted Afghanistan’s vulnerable strategic position between the two Allied nations of Russia and Britain, and the difficulties of any possible Turco-German assistance to Afghanistan, especially given the presence of the Anglo-Russian East Persian cordon. Further, he was financially vulnerable, depending on British subsidy and institutions for his fortunes and the finance of his army and kingdom. The mission had no immediate answers to his questions on strategic assistance, arms, and funds. Merely tasked to provoke the Emir to join a holy war, it had not the authority from Europe to promise anything. Nonetheless, it expressed hopes of an alliance in near future with Persia (which Prince Henry of Reuss and Wilhelm Wassmuss worked on) which would bridge the Emir’s needs. This first meeting, although it reached no firm outcome, has however been noted by historians as a cordial one which helped open communications with the Emir and allowed the mission to hope for success.

This meeting was followed by another eight hour meeting in October 1915 at Paghman, followed by more audiences between the Emir and the mission at Kabul. The messages were the same as those in the first audience. The meetings would typically begin with Habibullah opening the conference describing his daily routine, followed by words from von Hentig on politics and history before it veered to discussions on Afghanistan’s position on the proposition from the Central powers allowing right of passage for Central troops, breaking with Britain, and declaring independence. The expedition expected a Persian move on the Central side, holding out on hopes that this would convince the Emir. Further Niedermayer argued in these meetings that German victory was imminent, outlining the compromised and isolated position Afghanistan would find herself if she was still allied to Britain. The Emir at times met with the Indian and German delegates separately, promising to consider the propositions but never committing himself to it. He wished to seek concrete proof that Turco-German reassurance of military and financial assistance was feasible. In a letter to Prince Henry of Reuss in Tehran (which the messenger delivered to Russians instead), von Hentig asked for Turkish troops, while Walter Röhr wrote to the prince later that a thousand Turkish troops armed with machine guns along with another German expedition headed by himself should be able to draw Afghanistan into the war. Meanwhile, Niedermayer advised Habibullah on reforming his army with mobile units equipped with more modern weaponry.

Habibullah Khan, Emir of Afghanistan during World War I. Habibullah was closely allied to British India.

Through the Emir’s vacillating position the mission found a more sympathetic and ready audience in the Emir’s brother prime minister Nasrullah Khan, and the Emir’s younger son Amanullah Khan. Nasrullah Khan had been present at the first meeting at Paghman, and in secret meeting’s with the “Amanullah party” at his residence, he encouraged the mission. Amanullah Khan gave the group reasons to feel confident, even as rumours of these meetings reached the Emir. Messages from von Hentig to Prince Henry that were intercepted by British and Russian intelligence were subsequently passed on to Emir Habibullah. These suggested that von Hentig was prepared to organise “Internal revulsions” in Afghanistan if that was necessary to draw Afghanistan into the war. Habibullah found these concerning, and discouraged meetings with his sons except in his presence. All of Afghanistan’s immediate preceding rulers save Habibullah’s father had died of unnatural causes, and his own immediate relatives being pro-German while he allied with Britain gave him justifiable grounds to fear for his own safety and his kingdom. von Hentig describes one audience with Habibullah where von Hentig’s pocket alarm clock went off. Designed to impress Habibullah, it instead frightened him, possibly believing it to be a bomb about to go off. Despite von Hentig’s reassurances and explanations, the meeting was a short one.

Through the months that the expedition stayed in Kabul, Habibullah fended off pressures to commit to the Central effort with what has been described as “masterly inactivity”. He waited for the outcome of the war to be predictable, announcing to the mission his sympathy for Central powers, and asserting his willingness to lead an army into India— if and when Turco-German troops were able to support him. Hints that the mission would leave if nothing could be achieved were placated with adulations and invitations to stay on. Meanwhile, they were allowed to venture into Kabul freely, which the members put to good use on a successful Hearts and Minds campaign, spending plenty of money on local goods and paying cash. Two dozen Austrian prisoners of war who had escaped from Russian camps were used by Niedermayer to construct a Hospital. Kasim Bey, meanwhile, acquainted himself with the local Turkish community and sought to further Enver Pasha’s message of Pan-Turanian Jihad and unity of Turkish tribes. Habibullah tolerated the increasingly anti-British and pro-Central tone being taken by his newspaper Siraj al Akhbar, whose editor— his own father-in-law Mahmud Tarzi— took Barkatullah as an officiating editor in early 1916. Tarzi published a series of inflammatory articles by Raja Mahendra Pratap and printed anti-British and pro-Central articles and propaganda. By May 1916, the tone in the paper was deemed serious enough for the Raj to intercept the copies to India.

Through German links with Ottoman Turkey, the Berlin Committee at this time established contact with Mahmud al Hasan at Hijaz while the expedition itself was now met at Kabul by Ubaidullah Sindhi’s group.

Nasrullah Khan, then Prime Minister of Afghanistan. Nasrullah closely supported the Expedition.

A number of political events and progress took shape in December 1915, allowing the mission to celebrate some success on Christmas Day that year at Kabul with wine and cognac left behind from the Durand mission forty previously which Habibullah lay at their disposal. These events included the foundation of the Provisional Government of India that same month, and a shift from the Emir’s usual avertive stance to offer discussions on a German-Afghan treaty of friendship.

In November, the Indian members decided to take a political initiative which they believed would convince the Emir to summon for Jihad, and if that was unlikely, have his hand forced by his advisors. On December 1, 1915, the Provisional Government of India was founded at Habibullah’s Bagh-e-Babur palace in the presence of the Indian, German and Turkish members of the expedition and friends. It was declared a revolutionary government-in-exile which was to take charge of independent India when British authority had been overthrown. Mahendra Pratap was proclaimed President, Barkatullah the Prime minister, the Deobandi leader Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi the Minister for India, Maulavi Bashir its war Minister, and Champakaran Pillai the Foreign Minister. Support was obtained from Galib Pasha proclaiming Jihad against Britain, while recognition was sought from Tsarist Russia, Republican China and Japan.[56] The Government would later attempt to obtain support from Soviet leadership. After the February Revolution in Russia in 1917, Pratap’s government corresponded with the nascent Soviet government. In 1918, Mahendra Pratap met Trotsky in Petrograd before meeting the Kaiser in Berlin, urging both to mobilise against British India.

December 1915 also saw concrete progress on the mission’s Turco-German objective. The Emir informed von Hentig he was ready to discuss a treaty of Afghan-German friendship. This however, the Emir told von Hentig, would take time and require extensive historical research. Work on the treaty began with drafts proposed by von Hentig himself. This draft was finalised on 24 January 1916. Amongst its ten articles were clauses recognising Afghan independence, declaration of friendship with Germany and establishment of diplomatic relations— von Hentig himself accredited the “Embassy secretary of the German Empire”. In addition, the treaty would guarantee German assistance against Russian and British threats if Afghanistan joined the war on the Central side.[54] The Emir’s army was to be modernised, with Germany providing 100,000 modern rifles, 300 artillery pieces, other equipments for modern warfare. The Germans were to be responsible for maintaining advisors and engineers, and was to maintain a supply route overland through Persia for arms and ammunition. Further, the Emir was to be paid £10,00,000. Historians have pointed out that the German guarantees were dubious. In spite of this however, Hentig and Niedermayer both signed this document. It granted, as von Hentig argued in a telegram to the foreign office, an initial basis to begin work in Afghanistan in preparation for an Afghan invasion of India. Oskar Niedermayer explained that the Emir intended to begin his campaign as soon as Germany could make available 20,000 troops to protect Afghan—Russian front, and asked for urgent provisions for wireless sets and substantial shipment of arms. Further, Niedermayer required at least a million pounds initial funding. He judged the condition an offensive into India ideal, and informed General staff to expect the campaign to begin in April.

At the end however, Emir Habibullah went back to his vacillating inactivity. He was aware the mission was finding support within his own council and had excited his volatile subjects. A Durbar was called by Habibullah four days after signing the draft treaty, where the grand meeting expected a call to Jihad. Instead, he reaffirmed his neutrality to the large crowd, explaining that the war’s outcome was still unpredictable and he stood for national unity instead. Through the spring of 1916, he continuously deferred the mission’s overtures and gradually increased the stake, demanding that India rise in revolution before he began his campaign. Further, it was clear to Habibullah that the treaty required the Kaiser’s signature before it held any value and that for Germany to even attempt to honour the treaty, she would have to be in a strong position in the war. It was a good insurance policy for Habibullah.

Meanwhile, British intelligence reports worried him that he himself may be assassinated and his country may face a Coup d’etat. His tribesmen were unhappy at Habibullah’s perceived subservience to the British, and his council and relatives openly spoke of their suspicion at his inactivity. Habibullah began purging his court of officials who were known to be close to his brother Nasrullah and his son Amanullah. He recalled emissaries he had sent to Persia for talks with Germans and Turks for military aid. Meanwhile, the war itself took turn for the worse for the Central powers. The Arab revolt against Turkey and the Fall of Erzerum to the Russians ended hopes of sending a Turkish division to Afghanistan. German influence in Persia also declined rapidly, ending hopes that Goltz Pasha could lead a Persian volunteer division to Afghanistan. The mission itself came to realise that the Emir deeply mistrusted them. A further attempt by British intelligence to feed false information to the mission, purportedly originating from Goltz Pasha, convinced von Hentig that they made attractive presents from the Emir to the Viceroy if it came to that. A last offer was made by Nasrullah in May 1916 to remove Habibullah from power and take charge of frontier tribes in a campaign against British India. von Hentig, however, knew by now it would be fruitless. With the Indian members choosing to stay behind, persisting in their attempts at alliance with regional powers, the Germans ultimately left Kabul on May 21, 1916. Curt Wagner was instructed by Niedermayer to stay behind at Herat and act as a Liaison officer.

Ancient rules of hospitality had protected the expedition in Afghanistan. They knew however that once out of the Emir’s lands, the Anglo-Russian forces as well as the marauding tribesmen of Persia would chase them mercilessly. The party split up into multiple groups, each making its own way back to Germany independently. Niedermayer headed west, attempting to run the Anglo-Russian cordon and escape through Persia, while von Hentig made for the route over the Pamir Mountains towards Chinese Central Asia. Having served in Peking before the war, von Hentig was familiar with the region and planned to make Yarkand a base from which to make a last attempt for local Muslim unrest against Anglo-Russian interests in the region, which would force the dispatch of troops for protection. He later escaped over the Hindu Kush, avoiding his pursuers for 130 days as he made his way on foot and horseback through Chinese Turkestan, over the Gobi desert, and subsequently through China and Shanghai. From there, he stowed away on an American vessel to Honolulu where, following the American declaration of war, he was exchanged as a diplomat via San Francisco, Halifax and Bergen, finally reaching Berlin on 9 June 1917. Niedermayer meanwhile escaped through Russian Turkestan towards Persia. In Turkestan, he was robbed and left for dead, and a wounded Niedermayer was at times reduced to begging before he reached friendly lines, finally arriving in Tehran on 20 July 1916. Kurt Wagner finally left Herat on October 25, 1917, making his way through northern Persia to reach Turkey on January 30, 1918. At Chorasan in Persia, he tried to rally Persian democrat and nationalist leaders, who promised to raise an army of 12,000 if Germany provided military assistance.

Mahendra Pratap, meanwhile, attempted to seek alliance with Tsar Nicholas II from February 1916, but his messages remained unacknowledged.[56] The 1917 Kefrensky Government also refused visa to Pratap, aware that he was considered a “dangerous seditionist” by the British Government. It was Lenin’s Bolshevik government with whom Pratap was able to correspond more closely. He visited Tashkent in February 1918 at the invitation of Turkestan authorities followed by a visit to Red Petrograd where he met Trotsky. He and Barkatullah remained in touch with the German government and with the Berlin Committee through the latter’s secret office in Stockholm,. After Lenin’s coup, he acted at times as liaison between the Afghan government and the Germans, hoping to revive the Indian cause. In 1918, Pratap suggested to Trotsky, at Petrograd, a joint German-Russian invasion of Indian frontiers. He recommended a similar plan to Lenin at Moscow in 1919, whom the Narkomindel arranged for Pratap to meet while the latter was on his way to Berlin to seek the Kaiser’s assistance. He was accompanied at Moscow by Indian revolutionaries of the Berlin committee who were at the time turning to communism.

The East Persian Cordon was established in the Sistan province of southeast Persia to prevent the Germans from crossing into Afghanistan and to protect British supply caravans in Sarhad from Damani, Reki and Kurdish Balushi tribes who may be tempted by German gold.[64] The small force of 2nd Quetta Brigade maintained in Western Balochistan since the beginning of the war was expanded in July 1915 and became the East Persia Cordon stretching from Russian Turkestan to Baluchistan. A similar Russian cordon was established to prevent infiltration into north-west Afghanistan. From March 1916 the force became the Seistan Force under the direction of General Kirkpatrick, the Chief of General Staff in India. The cordon was initially under the command of a Colonel J.M.Wilkeley before it was taken over by Reginald Dyer in February, 1916. The cordon’s task was to “intercept, capture or destroy and German parties attempting to enter Sistan or Afghanistan”, and to establish intelligence system and watch for the Birjand-Merked road. Persian subjects were ordered not to be targeted as long as Persia remained neutral so long as they were not accompanying the Germans or serving as German courier.

The following is part of the text of a despatch by General Sir Charles Monro, Commander-in-Chief, India, on military operations in the Indian Empire from March 1916 to March 1917, published in the London Gazette on 31 October 1917:“ In conjunction with the Russians a small force was maintained in East of Persia to ensure the tranquillity of this region and frustrate the activity of German agents. Raids on the lines of communication of the force were made by certain tribes of Persian Baluchistan, notably the Damanis of Sarhad. In order to prevent these, and to control the Damanis, Brig.-Gen. R. E. Dyer, Commanding in East of Persia, moved a part of his force to Khwash in May, 1916.

In July the hostile attitude of the Damanis necessitated punitive measures. The Damanis are divided into two main sections, the Yarmahomedzais and the Gamshadzais. Brig.-Gen. Dyer determined to move to Gusht in order to intervene between these two sections, and to deal with each in detail. Operations in the vicinity of Gusht from 12th July to 29th July resulted in the capture of the bulk of the Yarmahomedzai flocks and herds, the infliction of considerable loss, and the separation of the two Damani sections. During this period several small actions were fought under trying conditions of climate and terrain, the chief engagement being one at Kalag, near Gusht, on 21st July.

During August General Dyer traversed without opposition a large part of the Gamshadzai country, returning to Khwash on 24th August.

On the 5th October, 1916, Brig.-Gen. Dyer returned to India on account of ill-health, and was succeeded in command of the Sistan force by Brig.-Gen. C. O. Tanner.

As a result of the above operations agreements were arrived at with the chiefs of the Damanis, by which they promised to pay certain fines and to refrain from future hostility. The fines imposed have now been paid in full, and the settlement has allowed of a portion of the Sistan force being withdrawn to Quetta. The troops maintaining a cordon in Sistan were engaged with hostile bodies on three occasions.

At Lirudik on 13th April, 1916, a force of 70 men of the Punjabis with a party of levies, under Capt. A. D. Bennett, Punjabis, inflicted considerable loss on a lashkar estimated at 700 men.

At Kalmas, on 26th September, a party of 23 men of the Light Cavalry and 36 levies, under the command of 2nd Lt. Wahl, attached Light Cavalry, defeated a party of gunrunners, capturing a large number of rifles, ammunition, and camels. 2nd Lt. Wahl was killed on this occasion.

Near Chorab, on the 24th March, 1917, a party consisting of 16 men of the Light Cavalry and one British officer and 25 men of the Punjabis, the whole under the command of Captain J. A. C. Kreyer, Cavalry, attacked a gunrunner’s caravan. The whole of the transport of 20 camels, as well as 447 rifles and some 23,600 rounds of ammunition were captured.

Following the Revolution in Russia, the Malleson Mission was sent to Trans-Caspia and the Seistan Force became the Lines of Communication for the Mission from September 1918 under the orders of the 4th (Quetta) Division. With the withdrawal of the force from Trans-Caspia, the troops in Persia were withdrawn and the last elements left in November 1920.

A column of troops of the Sistan force at Gusht in July 1916. The Force was then commanded by Reginald Dyer, later notorious for having ordered the Amritsar massacre.

British efforts against the conspiracy and subsequently the expedition began in Europe itself. Even before Mahendra Pratap met the Kaiser, attempts were made by British intelligence to assassinate V.N. Chatterjee while on his way to Geneva to invite Pratap to Berlin. British agents where known to be present in Constantinople, Cairo, and in Persia. The main efforts were however directed at intercepting the expedition before it managed to reach Afghanistan, and thence to exert pressure to ensure that the Emir maintained his neutrality. British intelligence in Persia, under the efforts of Sir Percy Sykes, also intercepted communication between the expedition and Prince Reuss in Tehran through various means. Among these were letters from von Hentig captured in November 1915 detailing the meetings with the Emir as well as messages from Walter Röhr detailing the requirements for arms, ammunition and men.The most dramatic intelligence coup however was a message from von Hentig asking for a thousand Turkish troops and the necessity for “internal revulsions” in Afghanistan if need be. This message found its way to Russian intelligence and through them to the Viceroy who passed on an inflated summary and warned the Emir of the possibility of a coup funded by the Germans and the threat to his life. In summer 1916, intelligence captured in Pujab letters sent by the Indian provisional government’s Ubaidullah Sindhi to Mahmud al Hasan, which were addressed to the Turkish authority and the Sherif of Mecca. The letters, written in Persian on Silk cloth, were found sewn into the messenger’s clothes when he was betrayed in th Punjab, earning the name the Silk Letter Conspiracy. Mahendra Pratap’s private secretary Harish Chandra was captured in Europe in October 1915. In August 1915, Harish Chandra had returned to Switzerland after a visit to India when he had carried messages from Mahendra Pratap to Indian princes. Chandra now divulged details of the Provisional government of India and of the expedition and further passed on to British intelligence letters from Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg and Mahedra Pratap addressed to Indian princes. Subsequently, Chandra was sent as a double agent to the United States in 1917 to investigate and report on the finances of the Ghadar Party and the revolutionary movement in Washington. Also used as a double agent was a man by the name of Sissodia who, claiming to be from a Royal family of Rajputana, attempted to infiltrate the Germans and Berlin committee through Zurich.

The Afghan Emir was warned by New Delhi of the approach of the expedition even while efforts were underway to intercept it in the Persian desert. After it crossed into Afghanistan, the Emir was asked to arrest the members. However, Habibullah humoured British pressure without obliging the Viceroy’s requests. He assured the Viceroy that he intended to remain neutral, but he could not take any action that were overtly pro-British. Indian intelligence also became aware— after the expedition had been Kabul for sometime— that they carried with them highly inflammatory letters from the Kaiser and the Turkish sultan. Russians further voiced through British channels their concerns at the Emir’s tolerance of the German presence and their intrigues with Pro-German Afghan counsels. By December 1915, New Delhi felt it necessary to put more weight on the Afghans. Communications between the British empire and Kabul had been hitherto through the Viceroy at Delhi. Acutely aware the pressure on Habibullah from his pro-German relatives and the strong anti-British feeling among his tribes, Hardinge now suggested that a letter from King George himself may help Habibullah maintain his neutrality. Accordingly, a personal handwritten letter addressed personally to Habibullah, written on Buckingham Palace stationery, was sent by George V praising the Emir for his steadfast neutrality and promising to increase his subsidy. The letter, which addressed Habibullah as “Your Majesty”, was intended to encourage Habibullah and make him feel an equal partner to the empire. It had its intended effect. Habibullah sent verbal communication through British agents in Kabul that he could not acknowledge the letter formally because of political pressure, but he nonetheless sent reassurances he would remain neutral.

Following the draft treaty January 1916, apprehensions grew in Delhi of trouble from Frontier tribes. Indian Intelligence received rumours of letters from Habibullah to his tribal chiefs in Spring 1916 exhorting holy jihad. An alarmed Hardinge called a grand Jirga of 3000 tribal chiefs in Peshawar, where an impressive bombing displays were put on using aircraft. Hardinge further announced the British empires goodwill by increasing the subsidies to the chiefs. These measures too helped convince the frontier tribes that Britain remained in a strong position in the war and that Indian defences were impregnable.

At the time, the expedition greatly disturbed the Russian and British influences in Central and South Asia, and raised concerns among the two European powers for the safety of their interests in the region. Further, it nearly succeeded in propelling Afghanistan into the war. After the war, the pre-war offers and liaisons of the mission with figureheads of Afghan politics influenced the political and social situation in the country, starting a process of political change that culminated in the 1919 assassination of Habibullah and transfer of power to Nasrullah and subsequently Amanullah. This was followed closely by the Third Anglo-Afghan War that led to Afghan Independence.

Historians have pointed out that in its political objectives, the expedition was three years premature. However, it planted the seeds of sovereignty and reform in Afghanistan, and its main themes of encouraging Afghan independence and breaking away from British influence were gaining ground in Afghanistan by 1919. Habibullah’s steadfast neutrality alienated a substantial proportion of his family members and council advisors, and further fed discontent among his subjects. Further, his communications to the Viceroy in early February 1919 demanding complete sovereignty and independence over foreign policy was rebuffed by Britain. Two weeks later, Habibullah was assassinated during a hunting trip. The Afghan crown passed to Nasrullah Khan before Habibullah’s younger son Amanullah Khan assumed power. Both had been staunch supporters of the expedition. The immediate effect of this upheaval was the precipitation of the Third Anglo-Afghan War, in which a number of brief skirmishes were followed by the Rawalpindi treaty, and Britain finally recognised Afghan independence. Amanullah proclaimed himself the king. Among the first countries to recognise the independent Afghan Government was Germany.

Through the next decade, Amanullah Khan instituted a number of social and constitutional reforms which had been first advocated by the Niedermayer-Hentig expedition. The reforms were instituted under a ministerial cabinet, and the first steps towards female emancipation began with women of the royal family taking off their veils. Educational institutions were opened to women and the education system itself was reformed, with a secular emphasis and with teachers from outside Afghanistan. Among these was a German School that opened in Kabul which at one point offered the von Hentig Fellowship devoted to Postgraduate study in Germany. Medical services in Afghanistan was reformed and a number of Hospitals built during this time. Amanullah Khan also embarked on an industrialisation drive and nation building projects which received substantial German collaboration. By 1929, Germans were the largest European group in Afghanistan, German corporations like Telefunken and Siemens were amongst the most prominent firms involved in Afghanistan, and the German Flag carrier Deutsche Luft Hansa became the first European airline to start a service to Afghanistan.

Mahmud Tarzi. Foremost among Afghan intellectuals who supported the mission, Tarzi later influenced King Amanullah Khan’s reforms.

It has been suggested that the Kalmyk Project, the name given to Soviet plans to launch a surprise attack on the northwest frontier of India via Tibet and other Himalayan buffer states, may have been prompted by Mahendra Pratap’s efforts and his advice to the Soviet leadership, People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, and to Vladimir Lenin in 1919 when, along with other Indian revolutionaries, he pressed for a joint Soviet-Afghan campaign into India.

Soviet Russia herself intended to nurture political upheaval in British India in its strategy against British imperialism. In 1919, she sent a diplomatic mission headed by an “orientalist” by the name of N.Z. Bravin. Among other works, this Bravin expedition established links at Herat with the Austrian and German remnants of the Niedermayer-Hentig expedition and liaised with the Indian revolutionaries in Kabul. Bravin proposed to Amanullah a military alliance against British India and a campaign for which Soviet Turkestan would bear the costs. These negotiations however failed to reach concrete conclusions before the Soviet advances were detected by British Indian intelligence. A later soviet plan considered raising a force of nearly forty thousand cavalry from Turkestan or the Urals, which would advance to India through Afghanistan with help from Afghan tribes who may rally against Amanullah. However, these plans presented their own problems. Amongst other routes to India that were explored were plans to foment unrest in Tibet and the Himalayan buffer states of Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and Thailand and Burma through the Buddhist Kalmyk people, and use these places as a staging ground for revolution in India. This offered the shortest route to the revolutionary heartland of Bengal. It was to proceed under the cover of a scientific expedition to Tibet under Indologist Fyodor Shcherbatskoy, and arm the indigenous people in the North-East Indian region with modern weaponry before a regular supply could be arranged. The project had the approval of Lenin. Pratap himself had a strong obsession with Tibet, and made efforts as early as 1916 to penetrate into the Himalayan Kingdom to cultivate anti-British propaganda. His efforts were resumed after his return from Moscow in 1919. Pratap, further, was close to Fyodor Shcherbatskoy and Sergey Oldenburg. Privy to the organisation’s designs in the region, he intended to participate in the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs’ planned expedition to Tibet in summer 1919.

However, the Kalmyk project was ultimately shelved following the Czech uprising in the Trans-Siberian railway. Pratap himself set out alone to unsuccessfully pursue his goal in Tibet.

Fyodor Shcherbatskoy, under whom the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs proposed to send a “Scientific expedition” to Tibet.

The war-time conspiracy which initially led to the conception of the expedition, the presence of Pratap’s Kabul mission in Afghanistan and its overtures to Bolshevik Russia, and the active revolutionary movement that still existed in Punjab and Bengal led to the appointment in British India of a Sedition committee in 1918 chaired by Sydney Rowlatt, an English judge. In the midst of a worsening civil unrest throughout India, it was tasked to evaluate German and Bolshevik links to the Indian militant movement, especially in Punjab and Bengal. On the recommendations of the committee, the Rowlatt Act, an extension of the Defence of India act of 1915, was enforced in India.

A number of events followed the passage of the Rowlatt Act in 1919 which were influenced by the conspiracy. At the time, British Indian Army troops were returning from the battlefields of Europe and Mesopotamia to an economic depression in India. The Ghadar Conspiracy of 1915 and the Lahore conspiracy trials were still in public attention. News was also beginning to reach India of the Indian Voluntary corps who, influenced by Ghadarites, fought on behalf of the Turkish Caliphate, as did reach news of Indian communists. Mahendra Pratap himself was shadowed by British agents through Central Asia during his journeys to and from Germany via Soviet Union, among them Frederick Marshman Bailey. The third Anglo-Afghan war began in 1919 in the wake of Amir Habibullah’s assassination and institution of Amanullah in a system blatantly influenced by the Kabul mission. Pratap, who had been in Berlin at the time the war broke out, returned to Kabul at the news of the war, for which the Germans provided him air transport.

It was at this time that the pan-Islamic Khilafat movement began in India and Gandhi, until then relatively unknown in the Indian political scene, began emerging as a mass leader. His call for protest against the Rowlatt act achieved an unprecedented response of furious unrest and protests. The situation, especially in Punjab, deteriorated rapidly with disruptions of rail, telegraph and communication systems. The movement was at its peak before the end of the first week of April, with some recording that “practically the whole of Lahore was on the streets, the immense crowd that passed through Anarkali was estimated to be around 20,000.” In Amritsar, over 5,000 people gathered at Jallianwala Bagh. This situation deteriorated perceptibly over the next few days. The British authority feared a more sinister conspiracy for rebellion brewing under the veneer. Michael O’Dwyer is said to have been of the firm belief that these were the early and ill-concealed signs of a conspiracy for a coordinated uprising around May, on the lines of the 1857 revolt, at a time when British troops would have withdrawn to the hills for the summer. The Amritsar massacre, as well as responses preceding and succeeding it, contrary to being an isolated incident, was the end result of a concerted plan of response from the Punjab administration to suppress such a conspiracy. James Houssemayne Du Boulay is said to have ascribed a direct relationship between the fear of a Ghadarite uprising in the midst of an increasingly tensed situation in Punjab, and the British response that ended in the massacre.

The Provisional Government of India, after 1919, sought help from Communist Russia. A number of its members as well as Indian revolutionaries of the Berlin committee sought Lenin’s help for the Indian movement. Some were involved in the early Indian communist movement. With a price on his head, Mahendra Pratap himself travelled under Afghan nationality for a number of years before his return to India after 1947. He was subsequently elected to the Indian parliament. Barkatullah and C.R. Pillai returned to Germany after a brief period in Russia. Barkatullah subsequently moved back to the United States, where he died in San Francisco in 1927. Pillai was associated with the League against imperialism in Germany, where he was witness to the Nazi rise to power. Pillai was killed in 1934. Ubaidullah proceeded to Soviet Russia, where he spent seven months at the invitation of the Soviet leadership, and was afforded official treatment as a guest of the state. During this period, he studied the ideology of socialism. Sindhi was impressed by Communist ideals during his stay in Russia. In 1923, Ubaidullah left Russian for Turkey, where he initiated the third phase of the Waliullah Movement in 1924. He issued the Charter for the Independence of India from Istanbul. Ubaidullah travelled through the holy lands of Islam before permission for his return was requested for by the Indian National Congress. In 1936, the Indian National Congress requested his return to India, and was subsequently permitted to return. He undertook considerable work in interpretation of Islamic teachings. Ubaidullah died on 22 August 1944 at Deen pur, near Lahore.

Both Oskar Niedermayer and Werner Otto von Hentig returned to Germany and subsequently enjoyed celebrated careers. On von Hentig’s recommendation, Niedermayer was knighted and bestowed with the Military Order of Max Joseph upon his return to Germany. He was asked to lead a third expedition to Afghanistan in 1917, but declined. Niedermayer subsequently joined the Reichswehr at Moscow before retiring from service in 1933 and joining the University of Berlin. He was recalled to active service during World War II, serving in Ukraine. He was taken prisoner at the end of the war, and died in a Soviet PoW camp in 1948. Werner von Hentig himself was honoured with the Hohenzollern House Order by the Kaiser himself. He was considered for the Pour le Merite by the German Foreign office, but the rules of recommendation meant Bothmann-Hollweg, von Hentig’s superior in the mission, was not eligible to recommend him since the latter did not hold the honour himself. He subsequently embarked on a diplomatic career, serving as German consul-general to a number of countries. He influenced the decision to limit the German war effort into middle-east during World War II. In 1969, von Hentig was invited by Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah as a guest of honour to the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Afghan independence, where he was given a red carpet reception by those who remembered him. von Hentig also penned in German his memoirs of the expedition.

The Great Game is a British term for what the British saw as a strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia. The classic Great Game period is generally regarded as running approximately from the Russo-Persian Treaty of 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. At the start of the 19th century there were some 2000 miles separating British India and the outlying regions of Tsarist Russia. Much of the land in between was unmapped. The cities of Bukhara, Khiva, Merv, Kokand and Tashkent were virtually unknown to outsiders. As Imperial Russian expansion threatened to collide with the increasing British dominance of the occupied lands of the Indian sub-continent, the two great empires played out a subtle game of exploration, espionage and imperialistic diplomacy throughout Central Asia. The conflict always threatened, but never quite developed into direct warfare between the two sides. The centre of activity was Afghanistan. The stories of epic travel, espionage, tribal war and political intrigue make for fascinating reading and resound down to us to even this day.

See ebooks on The Great Game here

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