An elite force, a secret mission,
a fleet of Model-T Fords, a far flung corner of WWI
Allen & Unwin, 2017
Paperback 248pp RRP: $29.99
Reviewer: Kevan Sanderson, December 2018
I was excited to read Barry Stone’s Secret Army as it was written about late stage events of the First World War in the Caucasus region, a geographical area that has always interested me, possibly because the region is relatively unknown and about which, little is written. It is perhaps a good thing that my curiosity has not been sated by Stone as this book reveals little about either the region or the events that the book purports to describe! The blurb on the back cover describes an ‘elite force, secretly assembled’, which ‘remains an enigma even today’ and Secret Army does nothing to unravel that enigma.
The time is 1917/18 and the scene is the Middle East between the Caucasus Mountains and the Euphrates River and between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, encompassing states as cloaked in mystery such as Persia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Kurdistan, forever resisting domination and subjugation by Persians, Russians and Turks. Add to this mix a savage and undisciplined conflict between Bolsheviks and Russian Imperialists arising from the Russian October Revolution, attempted genocide, by the Turks, of Christian Armenians and the perpetual struggle by the Kurds and Azerbaijanis against all oppressors. Finally, stir the pot with the Germans, who are at war with both the British and the Russians, seeking to stabilise the region under German military control and threaten the Caucasus oilfields and the British overland route to India.
Stone has undertaken the formidable task to make sense of the region, the characters and the events, from deficient or unsubstantiated sources, and fails miserably.
The book is not a long read, comprising four chapters bounded by an Introduction and an Epilogue which are the most interesting. Unfortunately reading this work is arduous as the chapters are rambling and what little information or details about what was actually happening is provided in a very unstructured fashion that I found difficult both to read and to comprehend.
Stone’s Introduction whets the readers’ appetite with ‘a bold plan was conceived’ . . . to send a small elite force to train sympathisers creating an effective fighting force to stem the enemy’s expansion. Stone describes the ‘Secret Army’ as a ‘group of hand-picked volunteers with one year’s minimum experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front and the book vaguely follows several characters, presumably the only ones the author could find documents. They were sent on a whim with vague directives and quickly became an afterthought; support was minimal and leadership mediocre. It is hard to believe that they could have any influence except at a very individual level in cases that have been largely un-documented.
The Epilogue provides brief descriptions of what became of the main characters that I found interesting as far as it goes. However the characterisation in the main body of the book does not engage the reader because the characters are difficult to follow. There is only one very large-scale map and many, if not most of the places referenced in the book cannot be found on it.
My conclusion on reading the book is that the Secrecy of the Secret Army came about not so much as a result of clever strategy and espionage but rather because the army was given no instructions and what they did achieve or accomplish is a secret because it was poorly and possibly not credibly documented. This book does nothing to clarify either point.
The RUSI VIC would like to thank the publishers for their kindness in providing a review copy.