Confidence - or Spook?
I’ve just read a book telling one of the most bizarre stories I can recall, so unlikely that it had me several times pausing, researching, checking to see if it was really true, or some kind of sophisticated hoax. The book is called “The Confidence Men”, written by an American journalist - Margalit Fox - and the story it tells is perfectly true.
In the summer and early autumn of 1915, the British expeditionary force (mostly comprising Indian regiments) in Mesopotamia was advancing from Basra up the River Tigris with the aim of capturing Baghdad, and thus inflicting a heavy defeat on the Ottoman Turks. It didn’t go entirely to plan, you may not be surprised to learn, as in 1915, the British forces were still really struggling to adapt to wars of greater intensity than the colonial conflicts of the late nineteenth century, and after reaching a town called Ctesiphon - actually not that far south of their target - the advance ground to a halt, and then the commander took the decision to retreat to a place called Kut-al Amarah, further south, enclosed by a bend in the river.
Now, I’m no military strategist, but I think even I can see that choosing to install yourself in a location, in enemy territory, that has a river on three sides is probably sub-optimal. The Ottoman Turks pretty quickly worked out that if they put their artillery on the river bank, they had already completed three-quarters of the encirclement of Kut, and it didn’t take them long to seal off the fourth side as well. All they had to do was fire their guns, and wait. Initially, the British were confident; they had plenty of food, ammunition, water and men. But as the siege wound on, they began to run out of all of them, and a couple of relief column attempts failed to break through to Kut. So, the inevitable came, and in April 1916 Kut surrendered. The few photographs there are show how emaciated the British and Indian troops were. They were marched off to prisoner of war camps.
This is where the story of the confidence men really begins. Amongst the officers was an Anglo-Welshman named Elias Henry Jones, and he was with a group that was sent off on a long, difficult trek to a place called Yozgad, deep in the wilds of Asia Minor, where the Turks had established an officers’ POW camp. So much in the wilds was it that it effectively had no fencing, since there was not really anywhere to escape to, so harsh was the surrounding environment. There was also a diktat from the Turkish Commandant that if anyone escaped, he would punish those who remained, with starvation, torture and eventual - possible - death.
But Jones was determined to escape, and he found a fellow spirit in an Australian pilot, Cedric Hill, who had been captured in Sinai, and sent to Yozgad. Amongst other things, Hill was a skillful magician; between them, they hatched the most unlikely escape plot imaginable. They built a ouija board, and began holding séances among their fellow prisoners. They created a dictionary of words that they could use to trigger - seemingly - bits of mind-reading. Through the camp interpreter, they got the Turks involved in their fortune telling. And then, using the “Spook” - the spiritual presence that they claimed controlled the ouija board - they created a fiction that they had knowledge of a series of clues which could lead to the discovery of a hoard of gold, buried by an Armenian just before the Turkish genocide of the Armenian people. That prospect of riches for the taking was the trigger that involved the Commandant - their play-acting was clearly of a convincing nature. The final stage of the scheme was to feign madness, so that they would be sent to Constantinople, from where they hoped their madness would lead to them being repatriated on medical grounds. This was done with the connivance of the Commandant and his cronies; Jones and Hill made them believe that they needed to be in Constantinople to keep the “Spook” onside. And it worked. They were eventually incarcerated in a Turkish mental institution in Constantinople, and finally repatriated in the late summer/early autumn of 1918.
What is so difficult to believe about this story is that for not far short of two years, the two of them bluffed not only the Turkish camp Commandant and his acolytes, but also their own fellow prisoners, who also were largely convinced of the reality of the “Spook”-driven ouija, and then finally a senior Turkish mental health doctor. And yet it’s true. Confidence Men, indeed.
The Confidence Men, by Margalit Fox, is published by Profile Books Ltd, and Random House in the USA.
On a different note, it was sad to learn of the death of David Duckham, a rugby hero of my adolescence. In a very sterile period for England rugby, he stood out as a shining example of attacking flair. While he didn’t win much with England, he was an essential part of the victorious British Lions team in New Zealand in 1971 and the Barbarians side of 1973, which famously beat the All Blacks in Cardiff. Perhaps the greatest tribute to him was the affection in which the Welsh supporters held him (unusual for an Englishman), at a time when their own backline contained the talent of Edwards, John, Bennett, Davies and Williams(X2).