Musings / Such a Strange Bird

The revisionist vultures are now about to pick at Meinertzhagen's carcass.

Michael Fox
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Michael Fox

Unless you are an Australian, you are unlikely to have seen "The Lighthorsemen." The film, made in 1987, tells the thrilling story of the charge on Be'er Sheva on October 31, 1917, of the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade. Unlike the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava immortalized by Tennyson, the attack, though a frontal assault on Turkish artillery and machine guns, was successful and Australian casualties were gratifyingly low. Some military historians credit the ultimate victory of General Allenby in Palestine to the Australian achievement at Be'er Sheva. The key to success was surprise - achieved by what came to be known as "the Haversack Ruse."

The haversack in question was the property of an extraordinary character, a British intelligence officer named Richard Meinertzhagen. Despite his German-sounding name, Meinertzhagen was as English as they come and is played in the film by the exquisite Anthony Andrews (chiefly remembered for his part as the doomed Lord Sebastian Flyte in the television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel "Brideshead Revisited"). The Australian filmmakers cannot have relished giving a Pom even a smidgen of credit for their triumph but, in truth, it was unavoidable. The insanely brave Meinertzhagen, who had a habit of roaming alone on horseback behind enemy lines, permitted himself to be pursued by a Turkish patrol and, in his apparent haste, "dropped" a haversack containing what purported to be the British plan of battle. The plans, in an easily deciphered code, indicated that the British were going to attack Gaza rather than Be'er Sheva. They had been expertly forged by Meinertzhagen. The ruse worked; the Turks committed their main forces to the defense of Gaza, leaving a small garrison to protect Be'er Sheva.

When I saw the movie at a private screening in a garden in Herzliya, Meinertzhagen's was already a name familiar to me, a fact that I was anxious to divulge to anyone who would listen. I own to a tendency - one that I have, without success, tried to eradicate all my life - to share with others nuggets of information in my possession. I am the boy in the class with a darting hand, who cries: "Please sir: Ask me sir. I know the answer sir." It is of a piece with an unconquerable desire to correct perceived grammatical solecisms and factual errors. I have a habit of reading a book with a pencil at the ready, poised to scrawl my improvements in the margin. I even had the gall to start a correspondence with the (as I discovered) astonishingly courteous Colin Dexter, the author of the splendid Inspector Morse novels, on the meaning of a Latin term that I believed he had misused. My motive for attempting to overcome this unselfish desire to educate others is that I have found that, in general, the recipients of my generosity show no sign of appreciating my efforts.

Bursting to tell

That evening I was bursting to tell the assembled throng a few of the facts that I had gleaned about Meinertzhagen. He was an eccentric, of a type that, over two or three centuries, has come to be seen as a speciality of the British ruling class. What set him apart from other English oddities was that, like that other lunatic British soldier, Orde Wingate, he liked Jews and, from an early date, he advocated the establishment of a Jewish state. In a remarkable letter to the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, of March 25, 1919, Meinertzhagen contrasts "the virile, brave, determined and intelligent" Jews with the "stupid, dishonest" Arabs. He prophesies that a national home for the Jews must develop sooner or later into sovereignty. In the inevitable resultant clash, he urges the British government, in its own interest, to side with the Jews. But while Wingate's name appears on numerous locations throughout Israel, it was only in 1997 that Meinertzhagen Square was dedicated in Jerusalem - the first and, so far, sole concrete recognition of Meinertzhagen's contribution.

But it was in respect of his lifelong passion for rare birds that Meinertzhagen would have liked to have been remembered. He became known as one of the greatest of all amateur ornithologists. His vast collection of stuffed birds was world famous. I should say that, in general, I have a profound distrust of collectors and hobbyists. Grown-ups should do grown-up things. As a child I caught mumps, measles, scarlet fever, chicken pox and a bad dose of philately. I got over them all and when I became a man, in the words of my coreligionist, Paul of Tarsus, I put away childish things. And some of those things beggar the imagination.

According to Wikipedia, you can become a lotologist by collecting lottery tickets, a sucrologist by collecting sugar sachets or a notologist by collecting banknotes. I didn't know they were called notologists, but there are plenty of them around. And what about collecting airsickness bags, another hobby listed in the encyclopedia? Are they called vomitologists and do they specialize in either mint or used items?

But, little as I am attracted to hobbies in general, I do understand the fascination of birds. Alfred Hitchcock, who had a pathological hatred of birds, might not have agreed, but the thought of a world without birdsong is, to my mind, intolerable. That is what made the title of the book that launched the whole environmental movement - Rachel Carson's "The Silent Spring" - so potent. It is hard not to have some interest in birds in Israel. Israel may be poor in natural resources, but it is a birdwatcher's paradise and I challenge anyone who believes himself indifferent to the attraction of birds not to be infected by the enthusiasm of the charismatic Dr. Yossi Leshem, Israel's birding guru.

It was Yossi who inspired us to look round our own suburban garden where we see and hear dozens of species, few or which we can identify. Of the ones I do recognize, I have a handful of favorites: wagtails, hoopoes, the occasional kingfisher - resplendently blue in flight - and my own favorites, the diminutive, and so beautiful, sunbirds. A pair of them decided to nest in our pergola this year; we spent weeks watching the tiny parents fly in and out of the nest, little larger than a ping-pong ball, clutching morsels to feed the chicks that we never actually succeeded in seeing.

Beyond the pale

If Meinertzhagen loved birds - and I suppose he did - he had a funny way of showing it. He slaughtered them in large numbers so as to add their skins to his collection. Why his name was fresh in my mind at the time I saw him glamorized on the screen by Anthony Andrews was that only two or three weeks before, I had read a magazine article on his ornithological activities. The article, in the May 29th issue of The New Yorker, was by a staff writer, John Seabrook, and was entitled "Ruffled feathers," subtitled "Uncovering the biggest scandal in the bird world."

It seems that Meinertzhagen was a serial thief. He persistently stole bird skins from London's Natural History Museum and from private collections such as that of Lord Rothschild at Tring. Yet although it was a fairly open secret in ornithological circles, the strange British code remained unbroken. In Britain, morality is a vice of the middle classes. Members of the ruling class can, with impunity steal or lie. Or worse. When Sir Anthony Blunt was unmasked as a major Soviet spy, it was felt to be bad form to deprive such a fine scholar of his post as curator of the Queen's Pictures.

But Meinertzhagen committed a much greater scientific crime than larceny. He did the scientifically unforgivable. The man who had forged the British war plans to bamboozle the Turks faked ornithological data to fool fellow ornithologists. Tags on the feet of birds showing where and when they had been collected had been replaced with tags, forged by Meinertzhagen, indicating a false provenance that served the purposes of Meinertzhagen. In scientific circles, theft might be regarded as just one of those things, but forgery is beyond the pale.

There have, to date, been three biographies of Meinertzhagen, all of them flattering. That is now about to change. To use an avian analogy that he might have appreciated, the revisionist vultures are now about to pick at Meinertzhagen's carcass. A new book on Meinertzhagen is about to be published: "The Meinertzhagen Mystery: The Life and Legend of a Colossal Fraud" by Brian Garfield is unlikely to be another hagiography. The publisher's description of the book does not bode well. It discredits the Haversack Ruse; it casts doubt on many of the exploits that Meinertzhagen claimed for himself in his diaries; it repeats The New Yorker's charges of theft and forgery in greater detail; it suggests that he might have murdered his wife and, for good measure, it claims that, though he was a genuine Zionist, he flirted with Nazism in the thirties.

Please may we have our square back?