Richard Meinertzhagen in 1922
|Born||3 March 1878
|Died||17 June 1967
Meinertzhagen was born into a socially connected, wealthy British family. Richard's father, Daniel Meinertzhagen VI, was head of a merchant-bank dynasty with an international reputation, second in importance to the Rothschilds. His mother was Georgina Potter, sister of Beatrice Webb, a co-founder of the London School of Economics. Meinertzhagen's surname derives from the town Meinerzhagen in Germany, the home of an ancestor. On his mother's side (the wealthy Potters), he was of English descent. Among his relations, in large numbers, were “many of Britain’s titled, rich and influential personages.” Although he had his doubts, he was a distant descendant of Philip III of Spain.
Young Richard was sent as a boarding student to Aysgarth in the north of England, then was enrolled at Fonthill in Sussex and finally at prestigious Harrow where his time overlapped with Winston Churchill. In 1895 at age eighteen, with reluctance, he obeyed his father and joined the family bank as a clerk. He was assigned to offices in Cologne and Bremen. He picked up the German language but remained uninterested in banking. After he returned to England in 1897 to the bank’s home office he received his father’s approval to join a territorial militia of weekend soldiers called the Hampshire Yeomanry.
As a child his passion for birdwatching began; he was encouraged by a family friend, the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who, like another family friend, Charles Darwin, was an ardent empiricist. Spencer would take young Richard on walks, urging him to study the natural world: "Observe, record, explain!"
Lacking the desire to make a career in merchant banking, Meinertzhagen took the examinations for a commission in the Royal Fusiliers, and after training at Aldershot was commissioned in 1899. He was sent to India to join a battalion of the Fusiliers. Other than routine regimental soldiering, he participated in big-game hunting, was promoted, sent on sick leave to England, and after recovery posted to the relocated battalion at Mandalay in Burma. He then started his “zealous campaign” for a transfer to Africa, and finally, in May 1902 he arrived at Mombasa in British East Africa.
Meinertzhagen was assigned as a staff officer with the King's African Rifles (KAR). Again, he participated in big-game hunting, but “regarded himself as scientist-explorer first, and only incidently as a soldier.” His maps, landscape and wildlife drawings proved him an artist of exceptional talent. In 1903 he was delegated to conduct a wild animal census in the Serengeti and Athi plains.
During Meinertzhagen’s assignment to Africa, frequent native 'risings' and 'rebellions' occurred. By 1903 KAR’s retaliatory ventures focused on confiscation of livestock, a highly effective form of punishment, and "the KAR had become accomplished cattle-rustlers." One such punitive expedition was commanded by a Captain F. A. Dickinson of the 3rd KAR with participation by Meinertzhagen, where more than 11,000 stock were captured at the cost of 3 men killed and 33 wounded. The body count on the African side was estimated at 1,500 from the Kikuyu and Embu tribes.
In the east African Kenya Highlands in 1905, Meinertzhagen crushed a major revolt by murdering the Nandi Orkoiyot (spiritual leader) Koitalel Arap Samoei who was leading it. He shot Koitalel, who had come to negotiate, on 19 October 1905, while shaking his hand. Initially he had been able to orchestrate a cover-up and he was to be commended for the incident in which two dozen Nandi were machine-gunned. Eventually, after a third court of inquiry, he was cleared by the presiding officer, Brigadier William Manning. Meinertzhagen collected tribal artifacts after this revolt. Some of these items, including a walking stick and baton belonging to Koitalel, were returned to Kenya in 2006. Pressure from the Colonial Department on the War Office eventually brought about Meinertzhagen’s removal from Africa, as "he had become a negative symbol" and on 28 May 1906 "he found himself on a ship being trundled back to England in disgrace and in disgust."
Captain Meinertzhagen then spent the latter part of 1906 at "dreary administrative War Office desk jobs pushing papers." However, "... by making full use of his wide network of contacts in high places" he was able to rehabilitate himself and was assigned to his regiment’s [the Fusiliers] Third Battalion in South Africa, arriving at Cape Town on 3 February 1907. He served there in 1908 and 1909, then on Mauritius. By 1913 he was again in India.
At the beginning of World War I he was posted to the intelligence staff of the British Indian Expeditionary Force. His map making skills were much valued and recognized; his assessments of the German Schutztruppe strength and other contributions to the conduct of the Battle of Tanga and the Battle of Kilimanjaro were a complete miss. From January 1915 through August 1916 Meinertzhagen served as chief of British military intelligence for the East Africa theater at Nairobi. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in February 1916. In November of that year General J.C. Smuts ordered him invalided to England.
Meinertzhagen was frequently credited with a surprise attack known as the Haversack Ruse in October 1917: During the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of World War I, according to his diary, he let a haversack containing false British battle plans fall into Ottoman military hands, thereby bringing about the British victory in the Battle of Beersheba and Gaza. The incident and attack are depicted in the 1987 film The Lighthorsemen. "Near the end of 1917, having participated in no battles, he was ordered back to England for reassignment [and] found office duty as dreary as ever."
While Meinertzhagen has been discredited with regard to his participation in this event (it is claimed he neither planned nor executed it), the event itself would have a major impact on events in World War II. It inspired Winston Churchill to create the London Controlling Section which planned countless the Allied deception campaigns during the war, and such operations as Mincemeat and the cover operations for D-Day were influenced by the Haversack Ruse.
From the spring of 1918 until August he commuted between England and France, delivering lectures on intelligence to groups of officers – then was assigned full-time to France at GHQ. After the armistice he attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and was Edmund Allenby's Chief Political Officer, involved in the creation of the Palestine Mandate, which eventually led to the creation of the state of Israel. In the film A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia (1990), which depicted the Paris Peace Conference, Meinertzhagen was a major character and was played by Jim Carter. His unpublished diaries hint, among other exploits, at a successful rescue attempt of one of the Czarist-Russian Grand Duchesses, possibly Tatiana (see The Romanov Conspiracies by Michael Occleshaw).
Israeli historian Tom Segev considers Meinertzhagen both a "great antisemite and a great Zionist," quoting from his Middle East Diary: "I am imbued with antisemitic feelings. It was indeed an accursed day that allowed Jews and not Christians to introduce to the world the principles of Zionism and that allowed Jewish brains and Jewish money to carry them out, almost unhelped by Christians save a handful of enthusiasts in England."
He was a prolific diarist and published four books based on these diaries. However, his Middle East Diary contains entries that are in all probability fictional, including those on T. E. Lawrence and a bit of absurd slapstick concerning Adolf Hitler. In October 1934, Meinertzhagen claimed to have mocked Hitler in response to being "baffled when Hitler raised his arm in the Nazi salute and said, 'Heil Hitler.' After a moment's thought, Meinertzhagen says he raised his own arm in an identical salute and proclaimed, 'Heil Meinertzhagen'." He also claimed to have carried a loaded pistol in his coat pocket at a meeting with Hitler and Ribbentrop in July 1939 and was "seriously troubled" about not shooting when he had the chance, adding "... [I]f this war breaks out, as I feel sure it will, then I shall feel very much to blame for not killing these two." Authors Lockman and Garfield show that Meinertzhagen later falsified his entries. The original diaries are kept at Rhodes House (the Bodleian Library), Oxford, and contain differences in the paper used for certain entries as well as in the typewriter ribbon used, and there are oddities in the page numbering.
Early biographers largely lionized him, until after his fraud was documented, but T. E. Lawrence, a sometime colleague in 1919 and again 1921, described him more ambiguously and with due attention to his violence:
Meinertzhagen knew no half measures. He was logical, an idealist of the deepest, and so possessed by his convictions that he was willing to harness evil to the chariot of good. He was a strategist, a geographer, and a silent laughing masterful man; who took as blithe a pleasure in deceiving his enemy (or his friend) by some unscrupulous jest, as in spattering the brains of a cornered mob of Germans one by one with his African knob-kerri. His instincts were abetted by an immensely powerful body and a savage brain....
– T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1926
While in India he killed one of his personal assistants in a fit of rage and had the local police officer cover it up as a death due to plague. Salim Ali notes Meinertzhagen's special hatred for Mahatma Gandhi and his refusal to believe that Indians could govern themselves. Gavin Maxwell wrote about how his parents would scare him and other children to behave themselves when Meinertzhagen visited with "... remember ... he has killed people with his bare hands..."
Meinertzhagen's second wife, the ornithologist Anne Constance Jackson, died in 1928 at age 40 in a remote Scottish village in an incident that was ruled a shooting accident. The official finding was that she accidentally shot herself in the head with a revolver during target practice alone with Richard. There is speculation that the shooting was not an accident and that Meinertzhagen shot her out of fear that she would expose him and his fraudulent activities.
After Anne's death his companion was Theresa "Tess" Clay, thirty-three years his junior. Meinertzhagen lived at No. 17 and Theresa at No. 18 Kensington Park Gardens, Notting Hill, London. The buildings were originally constructed with an internal passage connecting the foyers of the two houses. She was his housekeeper, nanny to his children, secretary, "confidante" and later scientific partner who studied and eventually documented the vast collections of bird lice that Meinertzhagen had gathered. He introduced her as his housekeeper or cousin or sometimes, inaccurately, as his niece. When they traveled they took sometimes separate rooms.
Meinertzhagen himself traced the "evil" side of his personality to a period during his childhood when he was subjected to severe physical abuse at the hands of a sadistic schoolmaster when he was at Fonthill boarding school in Sussex. He was apparently also traumatized by the indifference of his mother to his plight:
Even now I feel the pain of that moment, when something seemed to leave me, something good; and something evil entered into my soul. Was it God who foresook me, and the devil took his place. But whatever left me has never returned, neither have I been able to entirely cast out the evil which entered me at that moment ... The undeserved beatings and sadistic treatment which were my lot in childhood so upset my mind that much of my present character can be traced to Fonthill.
Richard Meinertzhagen inspired three biographies since his death in 1967 and was lauded as one of the grand elder statesman of espionage and ornithology. His diaries provided source material for historians and books, for countless exploits of arms and wit against the enemies of the British Empire. He was trusted by Churchill, David Lloyd George, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben Gurion, T.E. Lawrence and many more.
Brian Garfield's 2007 book The Meinertzhagen Mystery attempts to show that he bamboozled them all, that Meinertzhagen lived (as the subtitle of the book states) "[t]he Life and Legend of a Colossal Fraud." Detailed in 352 pages are the many ways in which he was a liar and a charlatan. It debunks many myths and proves that previously accepted "facts" about his life and feats are untrue, including the famous haversack incident, which Meinertzhagen neither came up with nor carried out. Meinertzhagen recorded in his published diaries three meetings on separate dates with Adolf Hitler. Although Meinertzhagen was in Berlin on these dates in 1934, 1935 and 1939, author Garfield found no record of any of these alleged meetings in surviving German chancellory records, British embassy files, British intelligence reports or newspapers of the day.
"People’s views of [Meinertzhagen] seldom coincide, but one mystery that connects the dots even while it obscures them is this: How and why did such a large number of diverse people of prominence share knowledge of his fakery, or at least suspect it — and chose not to disclose it?"
"From boyhood on [Meinertzhagen] had been in tune with nature; he took photographs, made drawings and provided armchair tourists with keen descriptions of rain forests and snowy mountains ... and discovered new (previously unrecorded) species of bats, birds, and mallophaga (bird lice)." He became a chairman of the British Ornithologists' Club and a recipient of a Godman-Salvin Medal; the British Museum (Natural History) named a room after him.
Meinertzhagen "first achieved a sliver of international fame when he discovered, killed, stuffed, and shipped back to London the first known to Europeans Giant African Forest Hog, soon dubbed Hylochoerus meinertzhageni, and attributed to Richard Meinertzhagen." At that time, while on active duty in 1903, he was "fearlessly exploring and mapping areas no European had seen before." He later also discovered the Afghan Snowfinch or Montifringilla theresae, and the Moroccan Riparia rupestris theresae and named them, and ten others, after Theresa Clay.
He edited Nicoll's Birds of Egypt in 1930. Michael J. Nicoll was a friend and Assistant Director of the Zoological Gardens at Giza; Nicoll attempted to write a comprehensive guide to the ornithology of Egypt, but died in 1925 before it could be published. The work was finished by Meinertzhagen with contributions of his own independent research and illustrations. It was printed with the title "that seems appropriate," "Nicoll's Birds of Egypt by Col. R. Meinertzhagen."
As the author of numerous taxonomic and other works on birds, and possessing a vast collection of bird and bird lice specimens, Meinertzhagen was long considered one of Britain's greatest ornithologists. Yet his magnum opus, Birds of Arabia (1954), is believed to have been based on the unpublished manuscript of another naturalist, George Bates, who is not sufficiently credited in that book.
In the 1990s an analysis of Meinertzhagen's bird collection at the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire, revealed large scale fraud involving theft and falsification. Alan Knox, who uncovered the fraud, said in 1993: "Meinertzhagen had stolen the best specimens of other people's collections and then proceeded to fabricate data to go with them." More recent research by Rasmussen and Prys-Jones indicates the fraud was even more extensive than first thought. Many of the specimens that he submitted as his own were found to be missing samples belonging to the Natural History Museum and collected by others, such as Hugh Whistler.
Meinertzhagen wrote numerous papers for scientific journals such as the Ibis, as well as reports on intelligence work while in the army. Books authored or edited by him include: