Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Afghanistan in World War I (2): “England must lose India” – Afghanistan as a German bridgehead

Thomas Ruttig 26 min

100 years ago and a good year after the outbreak of World War I, a German political-military mission crossed the border into Afghanistan on the night of 19 to the 20 August 1915. Oskar Ritter von Niedermayer and Werner Otto von Hentig, a Bavarian military officer and a Prussian diplomat, both with Persian experience, led the mission. It was tasked by the German Kaiser to establish bilateral diplomatic relations and persuade Afghanistan’s then ruler Amir Habibullah to lend his support to the Germans, and their ally – Ottoman Turkey – to undermine British rule over India. In this second part of a loose series under the title “Afghanistan in World War I” (part 1, “Afghans in the Kaiser’s jihad”, can be read here), AAN’s senior analyst Thomas Ruttig looks at Germany’s Orient policy. He also decribes the political ramifications of the expedition from Berlin across Turkey and the Persian desert to Herat, dodging British and Russian troop cordons and pushing open the door for the first non-British government to establish direct diplomatic relations with thereto isolated Afghanistan.

The expedition after their arrival in Kabul, with Hentig (seated, 2nd from left) and Niedermayer (seated 3rd from l.). Photo from: Niedermayer's book, In der Glutsonne Irans.The expedition after their arrival in Kabul, with Hentig (seated, 2nd from left) and Niedermayer (seated 3rd from l.). Photo from: Niedermayer's book, In der Glutsonne Irans.

We passed the place that was marked as the border of Afghanistan around ten o’clock in the night. It was the night of the 19 to 20 August [1915]. Finally, at one in the morning, we reached some water holes, called kelend … We had not encountered such nasty slurry on our whole track: a bitter, salty brine, tasting and smelling of camel dung and all kind of other products of decay; because of the night, we were unable to recognise its colour, but we could guess it … The thermometer, in the hottest hours [of the day], showed 52 centigrade in the shade.

What sounds like a scene from a Western movie, somewhere in Mexico is, in fact, the rendering of Oskar Ritter von Niedermayer (1885-1948), a German military officer. A year after the outbreak of World War I, he had just crossed the Iranian desert leading a group of German, Turkish, Indian, and Pashtun fellow travellers with Arab and Persian support staff, sneaking through the lines of British-Indian and Russian forces who wanted desperately to prevent them to reach their destination, Afghanistan. It was an official mission. Niedermayer and his co-leader, the Kaiserliche Legationssekretär (Imperial Legation Secretary) Werner Otto von Hentig (1886-1984), a German diplomat, had been tasked by the German Kaiser to establish official contacts with the ruler of Afghanistan and, hopefully, win him over as a war ally.

Therefore, this border crossing was a historic moment. With the arrival of the group – later known as the Niedermayer-Hentig expedition – on Afghan soil, the country’s decades-long isolation from the outside world was broken. It had been imposed on Afghanistan as a result of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80) that had been fought on the premise that Britain needed to protect the western access to its Indian crown colony from a Russian threat. After that war, Afghanistan had formally remained an independent country but had to accept, in the 1879 Treaty of Gandamak, that it would, in future, pursue foreign relations only through, and with, the permission of British Viceroy of India.

The Kaiser’s jihad

“If we shall bleed to death, England must at least lose India” – the German Kaiser Wilhelm II wrote this sentence as a comment on a cable sent by his ambassador to Russia on 30 July 1914, two days after the outbreak of World War I, discussing the German strategy for ‘the East.’ The Kaiser added that German diplomats and agents “have to incite the entire Islamic world to a violent uprising against this odious, deceitful and unscrupulous nation of shopkeepers”; his derogative for Britain.

The German-inspired jihad was legitimised by the Ottoman Sultan of Turkey, Mehmet V. Reshad, then still the Caliph of the worldwide Muslim umma (a title he would lose after the defeat in the war), when he issued a fatwa on 11 November that year declaring jihad on the Entente powers. While the Ottoman Empire was ogling a territorial expansion in the Caucasus, Persia and Central Asia, Germany wanted to threaten, not only British, but also Russian colonies with their large Muslim populations – or, at least, undermine the fighting power of both its adversaries; particularly Britain and Russia were heavily reliant on Muslim troops. India had 66 million Muslims in 1911 while Russia had 20 million immediately before WWI, half of them in Central Asia.

Had the Germans succeeded, General (now Lord) David Richards, a former ISAF commander, wrote in his foreword to Jules Stewart’s The Kaiser’s Mission to Kabul (2014; the only English-language book available on the Niedermayer-Hentig expedition), “Britain would have to divert more than 135,000 men from other theatres of war [the main European WWI battlefields] to defend the subcontinent successfully.”

Various German institutions implemented the Kaiser’s idea. In November 1914, the army general staff, together with the Auswärtiges Amt, the foreign office, established the “Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient” (NfO) (the Intelligence Office for the East). It was run by the archaeologist and ‘Orient expert’ Max Freiherr (Baron) von Oppenheim, son of a rich banker and a lesser known German ’Lawrence of Arabia’ who, before the war, had excavated the culture of Tell Halaf in what now is north-eastern Syria. Based in Berlin, the NfO produced analyses and spread propaganda at the frontlines and among prisoners of war. Among its targets were the PoWs of Muslim background. In a PoW camp south of Berlin (see my earlier dispatch, here), it recruited a number of former British-Indian soldiers, mainly Afridi Pashtuns, most of whom had not been captured, but had switched sides on the frontlines in western Europe, eager to fight the jihad against their colonial masters. They were to accompany Hentig, the foreign office’s man and a Prussian, and Niedermayer, a Bavarian cavalry officer, to Afghanistan, both in their late twenties.

Enver Pasha’s dream

The idea of an expedition to Afghanistan, however, was not of German origin. It actually came from Enver Pasha, the Turkish minister of war and one of the triumvirate of the Young Turks who had taken power in a coup in 1913 and rendered the Caliph mainly a religious fig-leaf. Enver already had sent diplomatic envoys to Kabul to seek Afghan backing for the Central Powers. (1) One was the member of parliament of Smyrna (Izmir), Obeidullah Effendi, who carried a honorific sword for the Amir. Although it seems that none of them got through, Enver told the Germans that the Afghan Amir, Habibullah, had indicated that he was ready to join their cause.

The message seemed to have come from Turkish military officers and engineers working in Kabul as instructors for the Afghan army and at the Habibia college (see a related AAN dispatch here) founded in 1903. Their head was Khairy Bey, who had come to Kabul “in the last year before the outbreak of war, in order to train the Afghan army,” as Emil Rybitschka, an Austrian PoW, who had fled to Afghanistan and was already in Kabul when the Hentig-Niedermayer expedition arrived, writes in his memoirs, Im gottgegebenen Afghanistan (In God-Given Afghanistan). Khairy Bay, as a front comrade, was a close confidant of Enver Pasha. In Kabul, he had established an army training battalion, as well as a model squadron and a model artillery battery. (2) In December 1914, Enver even claimed that Habibullah had sent a telegram asking whether he was should strike against Russia or India. Another Turkish officer, Mahmud Sami, who had come to Afghanistan on his own (he had to flee his country after he killed a comrade in his garrison during a brawl), had risen to become the mentor of the Afghan crown prince Enayatullah.

On 10 August 1914, Enver proposed to Germany to attach German military officers to a Turkish-led expedition to Kabul through Persia. The Germans were also to pay for the project. Habibullah’s alleged position had been confirmed to the Germans independently at the time by the Swedish pro-German Central Asia explorer Sven Hedin (3) who had been received by the Kaiser for several times (he had actually never travelled to Afghanistan, though).

Germany’s view of Afghanistan

In the same month the NfO was established, in November 1914, von Oppenheim submitted to the Kaiser his famous “Memorandum with Regard to Revolutionising the Islamic Realms of our Enemies” (Denkschrift betreffend die Revolutionierung der islamischen Gebiete unserer Feinde). (4)

The document starts with the following statement:

The main pre-requisite for revolutionising the Islamic realms of our enemies is an active collaboration of the Turks under the banner of the Sultan-Caliph …

It can be concluded that the planned Turkish collaboration and the required organisation of the same will develop adequately without our contribution. We must provide Turkey with manpower, money and material and, here, sufficient results can be achieved only with large means. Half measures would be meaningless. Action against Egypt and India is most important; perhaps, it will be of decisive importance. A successful land war of Turkey against Russia and the Caucasus is of secondary importance. (5)

After giving assessments of the internal situation of Egypt and Russian Central Asia and later India, Morocco and other French colonies in North Africa, Oppenheim turned his focus on Persia and Afghanistan:

The Persian population is, all in all, and particularly in the cities, effete and, in the recent years, has been troubled by internal unrest. Despite its internal decay, Persia has indeed not fully lost its former importance for the Orient. Today, it still maintains large mental influence on India, Afghanistan and the Russian Islamic regions. The mood in Persia indeed is anti-Russian and anti-English. (6)

What Oppenheim does not mention, and what Niedermayer and Hentig would later learn the hard way, is that the mood was also anti-Turkish, as the expansionist dreams of the Ottomans had not remained hidden to the Iranians. Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, author of an essay about the Oppenheim memorandum, also points out that the original document discussed the possibility of an anti-Russian war staged from Persia, in order to attack the oil wells of Baku and undermine Russia’s economy and military strength.

Oppenheim pinned particular hope on a key role for Afghanistan in his revolutionising efforts, so that chapter is much longer than the one about Persia:

Given its oriental setting, Afghanistan is a firmly established statehood and, despite its small population, a power that should not be underestimated. Its ruler is autocratic and receives high annual subsidies from the Anglo-Indian government that, however, by the Afghans is perceived as a tribute to its ruler. The population is belligerent and proud. From the beginning, I considered the participation of the Amir of Afghanistan and his invasion of India as one of the most important moments in the case of a war of Germany with England. A large, general Indian uprising will only occur when Afghan troops will victoriously enter the Indus valley, naturally only after India itself has been prepared for revolution. The proposal, made immediately after the outbreak of the war by Enver Pasha, to attach some twenty German officers to a Turkish mission to be sent to Afghanistan, appears to me like a stroke of luck. I take it that exclusively active or inactive officers with a special suitability for that purpose and, at the same time, some people with knowledge of the languages and the region should be dispatched to collect the Afghan army and lead it in the fight against England. – Given the fanatical Islamic Afghans, the call by the Sultan-Caliph and the lead of the whole affair by the Turks is a prerequisite. I had hoped that the entire plan would be set into work silently, but with greatest energy by the Foreign Office and the military administration. Unfortunately, however, the latter had not deemed it opportune at that moment to second active or mobilised officers, and the Foreign Office deemed itself forced to hand over the advertisement for participants to a non-official commission that found a number of enterprising people, including some former officers, adventurous explorers, tropical farmers, etc. It was particularly welcome that several thorough Persian hands, like the former consular administrator of Bushir [at the Persian south coast], Wassmuss, and First Lieutenant Niedermayer from the 10th Royal Bavarian Field Artillery had been attached to the expedition. Furthermore, several Indians will join who belong to a committee of fanatical nationalists that gathered in Germany in order to prepare for an Indian revolution. Our Afghan expedition, in its current composition, is – in my humble consideration – not capable to guarantee an Afghan success.] (7)

According to the original memorandum (quoted in a 2006 dissertation), Oppenheim’s scenario was that:

after the first larger battle won by the Turks, England’s fate in Egypt will be sealed. The Suez Canal will be blocked, and then one can count on a wild uprising in India, particularly when, by then, Afghanistan has invaded Northern India.

Oppenheim concludes with the following remarks:

As I was able to learn from my twenty years in the Orient, Our most gracious Kaiser and Master enjoys an overwhelming esteem and general deeply felt adoration in all parts of the Islamic world. Money must not play any role in this presented matter. The intelligence service in the Islamic countries must be expanded according to the serious circumstances. [It] is necessary that … in a well-designed joint organisation … the administrations of the navy and the army work hand-in-hand with the Foreign Office. (8)

The long way east

The German expedition actually consisted of three different groups that were dispatched subsequently. It started all but well. Soon Oppenheim, who had indirectly lamented the somewhat rag-tag character of the first group and had appealed for, what today would be called, inter-agency cooperation, was proven right.

The first group set off from Berlin on 6 September 1915 under the lead of Wilhelm Wassmuss (originally Waßmuß, 1880-1931), the only one with real experience in the region. In Istanbul (then known as Constantinople), some of its members checked in at the high-end Pera Palace Hotel as belonging to an “Afghanistan expedition,“ compromising the secret character of the mission from the very beginning. They got drunk regularly and behaved arrogantly towards their Turkish hosts, which soon alienated them. Wassmuss gave up on them and joined Niedermayer who had already travelled (and recced) Khorassan, i.e. north-eastern Persia, during a trip in 1912/13 and also spoke Farsi (Persian) fluently. During that time, Niedermayer had reached the Afghan border at Zulfeqar, and travelled down the Harirud river to Sarakhs, on the Iranian side of the border.

The Bavarian departed to Constantinople later that month, in September 1914. Just returned from India in spring 1914 (on his way back from his Khorasan), he was sceptical about the theory of an Indian revolutionary uprising which, as he wrote in his memoirs Unter der Glutsonne Irans (Under the Blaze of Iran’s Sun; only in German), was nourished by those “revolutionary Indians who had rushed [to Germany] from all over the world.”

Niedermayer’s group, consisting of 17 members, plus some 120 support staff and 236 mount and pack animals, left Constantinople on 5 December 1914, via Alexandrette (Inkanderun, in today’s south-eastern Turkey) to Aleppo where they arrived on 13 December 1914. Despite the Turks having opted out of the expedition, four Ottoman officers and 27 soldiers had remained in the party, led by Kasim [Qassim or Kazem?] Bey, as Enver Pasha’s eyes and ears. In Aleppo, Wassmuss – with three Indians – parted ways and marched to Southern Persia on 28 January 1915 where he started anti-British guerrilla activities among the local tribes. The Indians, all Hindu Brahmins, planned to stir up trouble amongst the Indian soldiers who were serving with the British troops and to cause defections. As most of the British-Indian soldiers were Muslims, three of the expedition’s Indians adopted Muslim names and had themselves circumcised by Wassmuss’ camp doctor, Lenders. Their efforts earned Wassmuss the nickname “German Lawrence” among his British enemies.

Niedermayer initially had planned to go to southern Khorassan, around Mashhad, an area he was familiar with. From there, he wanted to start secret negotiations with Kabul. It is unclear why he dropped this plan and opted for the direct approach – most likely this was because of the heavy British troop presence in the area, which belonged to the British-occupied zone of Persia, repelled him.

A month later, on 21 February 1915, Niedermayer’s group moved on from Aleppo to Baghdad where they met the official head of the mission, Rauf Bey, member of the Young Turks’ leading circle and a political rival of Enver Pasha. But Rauf confronted Niedermayer with the news that the joint Afghan endeavour had been cancelled. He claimed that the Turks had been unable to establish a connection with Amir Habibullah and that it was, therefore, unclear whether the group would be allowed to cross the Persian-Afghan border. In order to make his message clear, he even confiscated the expedition’s entire equipment – which was only returned (with the exception of the machine guns) after a strong protest by the German Embassy.

That was probably a lie. With the onset of the war, Turkey had changed goalposts and followed its own expansionist aims vis-à-vis Persia that, under British and Russian pressure, had declared its neutrality in the war on 1st November 1914. In January, Turkey already had occupied Iranian Azerbaijan, with its capital Tabriz that, so far, had been held by Russian troops. However, Niedermayer needed the Persians ­– particularly the constitutionalist party that had risen up in a revolution in 1905, but were suppressed with the help of Russian troops. He hoped they would at least support him in his Afghanistan mission, if not take over the government again and join the war as allies. Niedermayer wrote that:

I had to realise that Turkey wished to consider the Turkish-Persian border areas, as all activity in the eastern Islamic states, as their very own political domain, in which it, as dominant Islamic power by the proclamation of the Holy War, believed to have the strongest influence, and that any German activity, that would not … play out under exclusively Turkish control, would be fought. (9)

Niedermayer was not too unhappy, though. He had felt that the Germans were too dependent on their Turkish hosts and he had disliked being under Turkish command. So he decided to do it alone. He split his group into three groups that set off towards Tehran on 28 March 1915 via the Turkish-Persian border town of Khaneqin, accompanied by an Austrian diplomat designated to become his country’s envoy in Persia. On 3 April, they crossed the border and marched on to Qasr-e Shirin, Kermanshah and Qom, to arrive finally in the Persian capital on 25 April 1915. As a reaction, Russian troops moved toward Tehran, but were stopped.

From Tehran, Niedermayer sent out people to Russian Turkestan “to liberate the German and Austrian prisoners of war there” – there was a large number of Russian PoW camps with millions of inhabitants. he had already encountered Austrians in Iran who had escaped from there. Advised by the Austrian military attaché in Tehran, he included a “larger number” of them into his group.

The merger of the Hentig and Niedermayer groups

In mid-June, while Niedermayer still was in Tehran, the third expedition corps arrived in Persia via Vienna and Constantinople. After the disaster in Constantinople and the end of the German-Turkish joint venture, Berlin had realised that it needed a fully authorised diplomat to establish official relations with Afghanistan. (Niedermayer lacked such credentials.) This was Hentig.

According to his own memories Mein Leben – eine Dienstreise (My Life – A Business Trip), Hentig had been told in March 1915 that he “had been chosen to lead a political mission” to Kabul. Niedermayer’s group, in contrast, he called an “instruction mission“ for the Afghan army, adding that “Niedermayer did not have any legitimisation“ for the political part. The rivalry between the two would dominate much of the onward journey, with Niedermayer not accepting Hentig’s lead. The mutual dislike is also palpable in their respective memoirs.

Hentig was accompanied by the Indian Raja (Prince) Mahendra Pratap and Professor Mawlawi Abdul Hafiz Muhammad Barakatullah. Previously, Pratap had been the ruler of a small (lost) statelet, Mursan in today’s Uttar Pradesh, but he was able to present himself as influential and was even granted an audience with the Kaiser, who gave him a letter to the Afghan Amir. Barakatullah, a Muslim scholar from Bhopal, belonged to the Ghadr Party, an Indian pro-independence movement with a worldwide net (from the United States to Japan) that prepared for an armed anti-British uprising. (Ghadr was led by Har Dayal, an Indian revolutionary nationalist and anarchist, who had to flee the US where he met Barakatullah in 1914. There, he became member of Oppenheim’s committee that Barakatullah also joined.) Barakatullah advocated for a great pan-Islamic alliance led by Afghanistan, which he expected to become “the future Japan of Central Asia.” (In 1905, Japan had become the first Asian nation to defeat a European power, Russia, in a war.) The two Indians planned to set up an Indian government-in-exile in Kabul. (More about this in a future dispatch.)

Hentig even says that the Afghan mission was an idea of Pratap. (This, in turn, ignores the initial Turkish plan on which Oppenheim had built his.) Pratap’s plan was, Hentig writes, “to go to Afghanistan with German support, win over the Amir for the liberation of India [with the help of the independent Pashtun tribes beyond the Durand Line]. We were tasked to get him to Kabul, introduce him there, further his work, but also to establish direct relations with the autonomous country and his ruler”, including to “recognise his sovereignty in matters of foreign affairs.” Still, Hentig writes, quoting his superior at the Foreign Office, “this mission was described to me as possibly decisive for the war.”

He and Pratap carried a letter from the Kaiser to the Afghan Amir Habibullah (the original of which is unknown; only a draft has survived), saying:

I am convinced that Your Majesty shall provide to the Muslims in the vicinity of Your Sublime Empire languishing in [Russian and English] bondage in India, Belochistan and Russian-Asia Your Majesty’s powerful assistance and support them in their now commencing liberation struggle with might and perseverance by the glorious Afghan army. (10)

With Pratap and Barakatullah, he had visited the PoW camp at Wünsdorf where some imprisoned Afridis declared their interest in joining the expedition, not least, as Hentig remarks, due to the “convincing explanations of two senior fellow-countrymen who indeed had rushed to Germany from the United States ‘to fight for Islam’.” Those gentlemen were Abdul Rahman, 56 years old, and Sobhan Khan, two Yusufzai “Pathans” who, according to Hentig, had run a Mexican restaurant at the west coast, which they sold when they heard about the Turkish sultan’s jihadi fatwa. (There were no further details on their background or even relationship to each other.) The two, he adds, “selected a corporal, a sergeant and three men; another prisoner, not a defector as the five, Sayed Achmed [sic] from Bunir, was recommended to me by his comrades as a good cook.” According to Hentig, the names of three others were: Mohabat Khan, Itbar [Etebar?] Gul and Mir Mast. The latter later stayed at Habibullah’s court, as a member of the Amir’s guard. (Niedermayer does not even to bother name one of them.)

Some Afridi members of the expedition, from left to right: Mir Mast, Itbar Gul, Mohabat Khan, the cook Sayed Ahmad, and Abdul Rahman and Sobhan Khan who came from the US. Photo from Hentig, From Kabul to Shanghai.

Some Afridi members of the expedition, from left to right: Mir Mast, Itbar Gul, Mohabat Khan, the cook Sayed Ahmad, and Abdul Rahman and Sobhan Khan who came from the US. Photo from Hentig, From Kabul to Shanghai.

Hentig’s group consisted of 14 men altogether, plus the same number of support staff and 36 mount and pack animals. A first contingent, comprising three of the Afridi and a wireless station, departed in early April 1915, disguised as a travelling circus, with antennas being ‘tent poles.’ Hentig does not mention – but Niedermayer does – that the whole show had its cover blown on its transit through neutral Rumania where the ‘tent’ and weapons, including machine guns, were confiscated by the customs service. Hentig, Pratap, Barakatullah and three more Afridis were in the second contingent.

Coming from Tehran and Isfahan respectively, Hentig’s and Niedermayer’s groups finally united in the Eastern Persian desert oasis of Tebbes – Hentig calls it “the hottest town on earth” – on 23 July 1915. Niedermayer’s men had marched for 17 days under Iran’s blazing sun through the Dasht-e Kewir (“The Grand Desert“). Hentig’s group had taken 20 days. He described rides of up to 16 hours, without a single drop of water to drink and hallucinating, with the caravan often losing its way, before reaching the day’s destination, a robat (a raidhouse) with a well, often only containing salty water, a hawz (a natural water hole) or an ambar, a water tank that, Hentig said, had been put up by “religious foundations.” Niedermayer mentions places called Talkhab (Bitter Water) and Chah-e Paniri (Cheesy Well).

Hentig wrote from one of the stops, Meridjonn [Marijan?] where they paused for two days:

The area is very poor, and the people not very accommodating, apparently because they are regularly robbed by caravans coming through. We had to acquire eggs and dates from a place 25 kilometres away. Milk and mast (sour milk) were not given away at all, only bread. The life in a desert caravansarai is terrible. Over the day, one rests in a dusty stable together with the horses. One does not even dare to leave the animals out in the sun. Their drivers move with the shadow around the stable, only at noon, when the sun is in its zenith, they shelter in the door opening. It is only nice at night, but that’s when we are on the march most of the time.

Tebbes was already situated beyond the mountain ranges of eastern Persia, which Niedermayer called “the natural Persian-Afghan border”, with its “old border watchtowers.” The flatlands unto the border, he added, was locally known as “Afghanistan’s soil“ – most likely Khak-e Afghan(istan) in original; “up to here, the Afghans were driving their flocks.”

After two weeks of recuperation in Tebbes, on 7 August 1915, the finally united expedition set off to the Afghan frontier destined for the fortified border town of Jesdun [Yazdan?].

Afghanistan’s position at the outbreak of WWI

For the Afghan Amir, Habibullah, the Germans did not appear unannounced at his western border. Apart from the Turkish attempts to establish contact, the British-Indian government had informed him of the Niedermayer-Hentig expedition’s approach as British agents had tracked this from the very beginning.

For Habibullah a time of wavering began. He had been Afghanistan’s ruler since 1901, when his father, “the Iron Amir” Abdul Rahman (r. 1880-1901), died in his Bagh-e Bala summer palace in Kabul (peacefully in bed, unlike most Afghan rulers before and after him). He had ensured the British that no non-British mission would be allowed onto Afghan territory and that he would disarm them as soon as they crossed the border. But he didn’t. As the American author Ludwig W. Adamec wrote in his still standard 1974 oeuvre Afghanistan’s Foreign Affairs to the Mid-Twentieth Century:

At the outbreak of World War I, it was Habibullah’s task … to pursue a policy that provided for every eventuality, including the one that Germany might be victorious in the war. (…) Afghanistan’s policy of defensive isolation appeared no longer workable, or indeed desirable.

Furthermore, Afghanistan’s assurance to England to stay internationally isolated was no longer of importance. Meanwhile, this matter had been solved by the 1907 British-Russia accord that demarcated both sides’ Central Asian zones of interest, with Russia relinquishing any ambitions on Afghanistan. The accord also split Persia into three zones, a Russian-occupied north, a British-occupied south and a neutral zone in the middle. It was through this latter area that Niedermayer and Hentig would travel.

Simultaneously, Habibullah had come under domestic pressure, from the Islamic clergy and anti-British elements at his court who had started perceiving Germany as a potential ally, to get rid of the hated British dominance. These circles had been encouraged by the German-Ottoman alliance that had been in the making long before the war, with a high-profile visit of the Kaiser to Turkey in 1898, the initial German victories at the Western Front and in Russia after the outbreak of WWI and the Sultan’s declaration of jihad. There were even rumours in Central Asia and the subcontinent that the Kaiser, if not the whole German nation, had embraced Islam.

To the green valleys of Herat

After 12 more dramatic days from Tebbes onwards, via Bushruye and Tun, harassed by local gangs of highwaymen, dodging the British-led South Persia Rifles under the command of Brigadier-General Sir Percy Sykes (11), the so-called East Persia Cordon established by British troops from Quetta and, by sheer luck, a Russian cossack detachment, 150 men strong, with machine guns and two artillery pieces, with a 23 hours’ march through waterless areas, they reached the border town of Jesdun. It turned out to be derelict. Niedermayer noted: “The people in Jesdun were even unable to tell us where the next Afghan border guards were deployed and how the road in front of us would look like.” This is how unconnected both neighbouring countries were at that time. “They believed, however, that there were some wells. … We only could take with us some brackish water that, with the time, started to taste sweet for us.”

From Jesdun, Barakatullah and Kasim Bey, the Turk, as Muslims, were sent with some of the Afridis as guards as an advance party to announce the group to the governor of Herat.

According to Hentig, they had spent the last night in Persia in the “black tent of an old Afghan“ who had been banished from his own country 30 years earlier for an unnamed crime. In the night from 19 to 20 August, the expedition crossed the border. (12) According to Niedermayer, out of 140 men and 236 animals, 37 men and 79 animals made it to the Afghan side. (13) The others had died from fighting or from diseases, starvation and the lack of water; some also had defected.

The welcome on the Afghan side, as described by Niedermayer, made clear to them that the end of their travails had been reached:

Towards 5 in the morning [of 21 August], we reached the abandoned and dilapidated settlement of Mogul Betscheh. At midnight [of 22 August] we set off … At 6 in the morning, we passed by some fields; their fresh green colour was an unfamiliar view for us. We needed all out strength to prevent the animals from rushing into the fields, in which some Afghans were working, clothed in white linen. Two hours later we stumbled into the first Afghan village, Pereh – a miserable, sad pile. We were received and accommodated by the astonished natives with kindness, but with a certain shy reservation. One could not hold this against those people who, in their lives, had not seen any European. (14)

In the afternoon of the same day, a caravan sent by the Herat governor picked the Germans up in Pereh. Its leader “welcomed us in the name of his master as guests of the Afghan government.” Niedermayer describes him as follows but does not give a name: He wore “a long, dark green military tunic with shiny buttons, high leather boots that reminded of the Russian style and a grey half cylinder hat in old English fashion – white turbans, the usual headgear in Afghanistan, were generally not used by higher-ranking Afghans. … The court official was accompanied by two runners who stuck in a medieval-looking gear.” (15)

Soon we saw in front of us the wide, green valley of Herat, full of magnificent gardens and field, behind which high, barren mountains towered. A wonderful view… Soon, real, shadow-giving trees lined the road, and we rode along between fields that were criss-crossed by numerous water veins and canals that were diverted from Herirud river…

At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, we reached the city of Herat that was encircled by high, thick mud walls and were greeted, friendly and respectfully, by the population. We were not yet allowed to enter the city itself. We were led along its eastern fringes, through a shadowy alley, to a magnificent garden palace of the Amir at the northern mountain slopes that was assigned to us as accommodation. In our honour, a large table with selected treats was laid out, rice, mutton, chickens, melons in plenty. … After the ordeals of the past months, this was an unimaginable fairy tale land. (16)

Undoubtedly, the German breakthrough into Afghanistan was a political coup.

The expedition led by Hentig and Niedermayer was the first non-British diplomatic mission into the isolated country of Afghanistan since Russia had sent one and, with it, triggered the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878. But it was still a long way to winning over Amir Habibullah in Kabul as an ally of the central powers.

The expedition would have to wait for two more weeks in Herat before permission to travel on to Kabul arrived from the capital. There, they would seek an audience with the Amir and finally negotiate a bilateral treaty – marking the beginning of official Afghan-German relations; 100th anniversay of which will be marked soon officially. But it was the dramatic border crossing of Niedermayer’s and Hentig’s men in the night from 19 to 20 August, exactly 100 years ago, that was the crucial door opener.

(To be continued)

Herat governor Mahmud Sarwar Khan. Photo from Niedermayer's book, In der Glutsonne Irans.

Herat governor Mahmud Sarwar Khan. Photo from Niedermayer’s book, In der Glutsonne Irans.


(1) In World War I, the so-called Central Powers (mainly Germany, Austro-Hungaria and Ottoman Turkey) were facing the Entente (mainly Great Britain, France, Russia and Italy).

(2) Some of these Turkish instructors are buried in Kabul, in a separate, fenced slot at Shuhada-ye Salehin cemetery. (PHOTO.)

(3) Quoted from German archive documents by Adamec, p 17.

(4) There is no full original version of this document publicly available. Most sources use a shorter version by Oppenheim’s assistant Karl E. Schabinger who called his document a transcript of the “relevant“ parts of the original. Quoted from Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, “Max von Oppenheim und der Heilige Krieg. Zwei Denkschriften zur Revolutionierung islamischer Gebiete 1914 und 1940“ that contains Schabinger’s full text.

(5) This, and all English quotes from German sources in this text, are my translations. Here is the German original of this text passage:

Die Hauptvorbedingung für eine Revolutionierung der islamischen Gebiete unserer Feinde ist eine intensive Mitwirkung der Türken unter der Fahne des Sultan-Kalif (…).

Es ist ausgeschlossen, dass die gedachte türkische Mitwirkung und die erforderliche Organisation derselben sich ohne unsere Mitwirkung zweckentsprechend entwickeln kann. Wir müssen der Türkei Menschen, Geld und Material zur Verfügung stellen, und hierbei wird nur mit großen Mitteln Genügendes erreicht werden können. Halbe Maßnahmen würden zwecklos sein. Das Vorgehen gegen Ägypten und Indien ist am wichtigsten; vielleicht wird es von ausschlaggebender Bedeutung werden. Ein erfolgreicher Landkrieg der Türkei gegen Russland und Kaukasus steht in zweiter Linie.

(6) The German original:

1. Die persische Bevölkerung ist im großen Ganzen, besonders in den Städten, verweichlicht und in den letzten Jahren durch innere Unruhen durchwühlt. Trotz des inneren Verfalls hat Persien seine alte Bedeutung für den Orient durchaus nicht völlig verloren. Es hat heute noch einen großen geistigen Einfluss auf Indien, Afghanistan und die russisch-islamischen Gebiete. Die Stimmung Persiens ist durchaus anti-russisch und anti-englisch.

(7) The German original:

VII. Afghanistan ist ein für orientalische Verhältnisse fest gefügter Staat und trotz seiner geringen Einwohnerzahl eine nicht zu unterschätzende Macht. Sein Fürst ist autokratisch und erhält von der anglo-indischen Regierung eine hohe jährliche Subsidie, was aber von den Afghanen als ein ihrem Fürsten gewährter Tribut angesehen werden soll. Die Bevölkerung ist kriegerisch und stolz. Seit jeher habe ich für den Fall eines Krieges Deutschlands mit England die Beteiligung des Emirs von Afghanistan und seinen Einmarsch in Indien für eines der bedeutungsvollsten Momente gehalten. Ein großer allgemeiner indischer Aufstand wird erst dann einsetzen, wenn die afghanischen Truppen siegreich in das Industal eindringen, natürlich nachdem Indien selbst entsprechend zur Revolution vorbereitet worden ist. Der schon kurz nach Beginn des Krieges gemachte Vorschlag Enver Paschas, einer von ihm nach Afghanistan zu entsendenden türkischen Mission etwa zwanzig deutsche Offiziere beizugeben, erschien mir wie ein Glücksgeschenk. Ich ging davon aus, dass ausschließlich aktive oder inaktive für diesen Zweck besonders geeignete Offiziere und gleichzeitig mit ihnen einige sprach- und landeskundige Leute entsandt werden sollten, um die afghanische Armee zusammenzufassen und im Kampf gegen England zu führen. – Bei den fanatisch islamischen Afghanen erschien die Aufforderung des Sultan-Kalif und die Leitung der ganzen Angelegenheit durch die Türken Vorbedingung. Ich hatte gehofft, dass der ganze Plan im Stillen, aber mit größter Energie durch das Auswärtige Amt und durch die Militärverwaltung in das Werk gesetzt werden würde. Leider hat es die letztere jedoch im damaligen Augenblick nicht für opportun gehalten, aktive oder eingezogene Offiziere abzugeben, und das Auswärtige Amt glaubte sich gezwungen, die Werbung von Teilnehmern einer zum Teil nicht amtlichen Kommission zu übertragen, die dann eine Anzahl unternehmender Leute gewann, davon einzelnen frühere Offiziere, abenteuerlustige Forschungsreisende, Tropen-Pflanzer usw. Es war besonders zu begrüßen, dass einige gründliche Persienkenner wie der bisherige Konsulatsverweser von Buschir, Waßmuß und Oberleutnant Niedermayer vom königlich-bayrischen Feldartillerie-Regiment Nr. 10 der Expedition zugeteilt wurden. Außerdem werden einige Inder sich anschließen, die einem zur Vorbereitung einer indischen Revolution in Deutschland zusammen- getretenen Komitee fanatischer Nationalisten angehören. Unsere afghanische Expedition ist in ihrer gegenwärtigen Zusammensetzung meines gehorsamen Erachtens nicht in der Lage, einen afghanischen Erfolg zu verbürgen.

It is not mentioned by Oppenheim here that he himself had cobbled together and led this Indian Independence Committee. Another author, Hans-Ulrich Seidt, adds that the Indian members of Oppenheim’s committee had committed themselves to “terrorist violence.”

A Pakistani author, Abdullah Khan, mentions that in 1915, there was a group of 15 Indian (Muslim) students from Lahore in exile on Kabul that had earlier planned assassinations of British official in India but were discovered and had to flee. It is unclear whether there was any connection with the committee in Berlin.

(8) The German original:

Wie ich mich aus meinem zwanzigjährigen Aufenthalt im Orient überzeugen konnte, genießt unser gnädigster Kaiser und Herr in allen Teilen der islamischen Welt ein ungeheures Ansehen und allgemeinste tief gehende aus dem Herzen kommende Verehrung. Geld darf im vorliegenden Fall keine Rolle spielen. Der Nachrichtendienst nach den islamischen Ländern muss den ernsten Verhältnissen entsprechend eine Erweiterung finden. … [Es] ist notwendig, dass … in wohl überlegter Gesamtorganisation … die Behörden der Marine und der Militärverwaltung mit dem Auswärtigen Amt gemeinsam Hand in Hand arbeiten« 

(9) The German original:

… musste ich erkennen, daß die Türkei das türkisch-persische Grenzgebiet, wie überhaupt alle Tätigkeit in den östlichen islamischen Staaten als ihre eigenste politische Domäne zu betrachten wünschte, in der sie als islamische Vormacht durch die Ausrufung des Heiligen Krieges den stärksten Einfluß zu haben glaubte, und daß jede deutsche Tätigkeit, die nicht … unter ausschließlicher türk Kontrolle sich abspielte, bekämpft würde.

(10) The German original:

Ich bin überzeugt, dass Eure Majestät den in der Umgebung Ihres erhabenen Reiches wohnenden, in der [britischen und russischen] Knechtschaft schmachtenden Muslims in Indien, Beludschistan und Russisch-Asien Euerer Majestät mächtigen Beistand zuteil werden lässt und sie in dem jetzt anhebenden Befreiungskampfe mit Kraft und Ausdauer durch das ruhmvolle afghanische Heer unterstützt.“

(11) Sykes, as most of his main adversaries ­– Niedermayer and Wassmuss – was an explorer himself and had extensively Persia and Central Asia. During his Khorasan trip in 1913, Niedermayer even had met Sykes – then consul in Mashhad – in his residence there. Sykes  even wrote a book about Wassmuss later, giving him the name “the German Lawrence of Arabia.”

(12) Hentig (according to a letter published in 2003) gives the 22 August, but this seems to be a mistake.

(13) It is not clear whether these figures include Hentig’s group, too.

(14) The German original:

Um Mitternacht brachen wir auf … Um 6 Uhr morgens kamen wir an Feldern vorbei; deren frische grüne Farbe war ein ungewohnter Anblick für uns. Es bedurfte aller Anstrengung, die Tiere abzuhalten, sich in die Felder zu stürzen, in denen einige in weiße Leinengewänder gekleidete Afganen arbeiteten. Zwei Stunden später wankten wir in das erste afganische Dorf Pereh – ein elender, trauriger Haufen. Wir wurden von den erstaunten (124) Eingeborenen liebenswürdig, aber mit einer gewissen scheuen Zurückhaltung, aufgenommen und untergebracht. Das konnte man den Leuten, die noch nie in ihrem Leben Europäer gesehen hatten, auch nicht verdenken.

Niedermayer spells “Afgan” here, not “Afghan”, in the original.

(15) The German original:

Um Mitternacht brachen wir auf … Um 6 Uhr morgens kamen wir an Feldern vorbei; deren frische grüne Farbe war ein ungewohnter Anblick für uns. Es bedurfte aller Anstrengung, die Tiere abzuhalten, sich in die Felder zu stürzen, in denen einige in weiße Leinengewänder gekleidete Afganen arbeiteten. Zwei Stunden später wankten wir in das erste afganische Dorf Pereh – ein elender, trauriger Haufen. Wir wurden von den erstaunten Eingeborenen liebenswürdig, aber mit einer gewissen scheuen Zurückhaltung, aufgenommen und untergebracht. Das konnte man den Leuten, die noch nie in ihrem Leben Europäer gesehen hatten, auch nicht verdenken.“ … am nachmittag von Karawane des Herater Gouverneurs abgeholt, deren Anführer „uns im Namen seines Herrn als Gäste der afganischen Regierung willkommen hieß“, der „einen langen dunkelgrünen Uniformrock mit glänzenden Knöpfen, hohe Lederstiefel, die an russische Bekleidungsart erinnerten, und einen grauen Halbzylinder nach alt-englischer Art“ trug – „weiße Turbane, die in Afganistan allgemein übliche Kopfbedeckung, trugen die höheren Afganen gewöhnlich nicht“ (125) „begleitet wurde der Hofbeamte von zwei Läufern, die in einem mittelalterlicher Tracht ähnelndem Gewande steckten“ …

(16) The German original:

Bald darauf sahen wir das weite, grüne, von herrlichen Gärten und Feldern erfüllte Tal von Herat, hinter dem sich hohe, kahle Gebirge auftürmten, vor uns liegen. Ein wundervoller Anblick… Bald war der Weg von richtigen schattenspendenden Bäumen (126) eingefaßt, und wir ritten zwischen Feldern dahin, die von zahlreichen dem Herirud entleiteten Wasseradern und Kanälen durchflossen waren…

Um 4 Uhr nachmittags erreichten wir die von hohem, dicken Lehmmauern umgebene Stadt Herat, von der Einwohnerschaft freundlich und ehrerbietig begrüßt. Die Stadt selbst durften wir noch nicht betreten. Man führte uns an ihrer Ostseite vorbei durch eine schattige Allee in ein an den nördliche Berghängen gelegenes herrliches Gartenschloß des Emirs, das man uns zur Unterkunft anwies. Man hatte uns zu Ehren eine große Tafel mit auserlesenen Genüssen vorbereitet, Reis, Hammel, Hühner, Melonen in Fülle. … Nach den Qualen der vergangenen Monate ein unfaßbares Märchenland.“


Books/literature consulted for this article

Abdullah Khan, Ubayd Allah Sindhi’s Mission to Afghanistan and Soviet Russia, Peshawar: Hanns Seidl Foundation, 2000.

Ludwig W. Adamec, Afghanistan’s Foreign Affairs to the Mid-Twentieth Century, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1974.

F[elix Gustav] Börnstein-Bosta, Mandana Baschi: Reisen und Erlebnisse eines deutschen Arztes in Afghanistan. Berlin: Verlag von Reimar Hobbing, 1925.

Werner Otto von Hentig, „Gedächtnisaufzeichnungen über den Inhalt meiner Kurt Wagner in Herat anvertrauten Papiere“, in: Hans Wolfram von Hentig (ed), Von Kabul nach Schanghai, Konstanz: Libelle, 2003.

Werner Otto von Hentig, Ins verschlossene Land: Ein Kampf mit Mensch und Meile, Potsdam: Ludwig Voggenreiter Verlag 1928.

Werner Otto von Hentig, Mein Leben – eine Dienstreise, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963.

Rudolf A. Mark, Krieg an fernen Fronten: Die Deutschen in Zentralasien und am Hindukusch 1914–1924, Paderborn et al: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2013.

Dagobert von Mikusch: Wassmuss – der deutsche Lawrence, Leipzig: Paul List Verlag, 1937.

Oskar Ritter von Niedermayer; Unter der Glutsonne Irans, Hamburg: Uhlenhorst-Verlag Curt Brenner, 1925.

Salvador Oberhaus, “Zum wilden Aufstande entflammen: Die deutsche Ägyptenpolitik 1914 bis 1918. Ein Beitrag zur Propagandageschichte des Ersten Weltkrieges, Inaugural-Dissertation,” Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, 2006.

Barry Rubin and Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, ‪Yale University Press, 2014.

Emil Rybitschka, Im gottgegebenen Afghanistan: Als Gäste de Emirs. Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1927.

Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, „Max von Oppenheim und der Heilige Krieg. Zwei Denkschriften zur Revolutionierung islamischer Gebiete 1914 und 1940“.

Hans-Ulrich Seidt, Berlin, Kabul, Moskau: Oskar Ritter von Niedermayer und Deutschlands Geopolitik, München: Universitas, 2002.

Jules Stewart, The Kaiser’s Mission to Kabul London: I.B. Tauris, 2014.

Herbert Tichy, Afghanistan, Berlin: Wegweiser-Verlag, 1940.

Several Wikipedia articles about biographic details of persons mentioned in this article.


allies amir Anglo-Afghan War expedition Germany Great Britain Habibullah Hentig History India Niedermayer Russia World War I WWI