Gentleman Savage: The Dark and Twisted Legacy of Col. Richard Meinertzhagen

In 1962, Ian Fleming was asked by New Yorker writer Geoffrey Hellman about why he believed his Bond novels were so successful. Fleming’s (intoxicated) reply was that “People are lacking in heroes in real life today… I think people absolutely long for heroes.” (1) Indeed the same could not only be said for why the character of Bond was created, but also for why other 20th century heroes of fiction came about. Indiana Jones, Captain Kirk, and Han Solo all originated during and after a time when soldiers returning from Vietnam were being spat on, the bra-burners were driveling on about how women needed men like fish needed bicycles, and anyone not a part of the cultural revolution was left wondering where all the heroes had gone.

As cloaked backlash I suspect, these fictional characters were fashioned to be men who weren’t afraid of being unpopular. They were pioneers. Adventurers. Rebels. Everything a 60s man and post-60s man envied. The embodiment of Rob Siltanen’s salute to the “misfits” in that they were square rugged pegs in round countercultural holes. They fought wars. They explored. They stood up for right and opposed wrong. In sum, the creations of these strong male characters and their stories were necessitated by the latter half of the last century feeling nostalgic about its first half; the first half of the 20th century being a time when late-stage empires with mechanized weaponry clashed, daring individuals like Charles Lindbergh and the Wright brothers staked their lives and reputations on the boundaries of aviation, and a blunt gritty style of storytelling was being produced by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. The early-20th century, in essence, was a time of guts, gallantry, and innovation in the face of existential uncertainties, and this was the reason for its romanticization in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Thus it follows that the “big two” real life-inspirations behind Indiana Jones, Captain Kirk, James Bond and the like, were the famous early-20th century badasses T.E. Lawrence and John Pendlebury. We all recognize T.E. Lawrence because of his nickname “Lawrence of Arabia”, and we recognize John Pendlebury because of his reputation as the one-eyed “fighting archaeologist” who died in a battle against Nazi paratroopers on the island of Crete in 1941.

But I say these are the “big two” inspirations of our most lovable heroes of American and British lore, because there was a third smaller inspiration for these characters that rarely gets mentioned today: Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen (1878-1967).

I first became acquainted with Richard Meinertzhagen when I was 19, and a cadet in ROTC considering whether or not to enlist in the Army (which I eventually did). John Lord's Duty, Honor, Empire— a biography of Meinertzhagen— had been given to me as a gift and I quickly became enthralled with the man and his legacy. I decided that Meinertzhagen was a personal hero of mine, and embodied the type of soldier I wanted to be in my own life. It wasn't until I read Brian Garfield's The Meinertzhagen Mystery a year or so later that my opinion on the adventurer changed and my vision of him shattered. But more on that later.  

To be clear, the not-so-famous Col. Meinertzhagen wasn’t always so obscure. Especially during the time he was alive. The second son of a family of wealthy English bankers and a nephew of Beatrice Webb (one of the founders of the London School of Economics), Richard’s life as a boy was filled with Britain’s most prestigious figures that were considered family friends, including Oscar Wilde and Charles Darwin (2) (3). His childhood mate at school was none other than future Prime Minister Winston Churchill (4).

The colonel had always been an adventurous personality. As a boy he enjoyed fishing, hunting, and studying birds with his older brother Dan on the Meinertzhagen’s large estate of Mottisfont. Mottisfont, as an aside, had its own history that long proceeded the existence of the Meinertzhagen family. Built in 1201, the estate had originally been an abbey up until the 16th century when King Henry VIII seized it. There was a legend that the estate was haunted by the wandering ghost of a murdered monk, and young Richard could often be found by the servants “hunting” the elusive spirit.

However, it was Richard’s meeting the famed explorer Harry Johnston at the age of 10 that proved to be the catalyst for the future colonel’s desire to become an explorer himself— particularly in Africa. Johnston, who discovered the okapi and later became the first recipient of the Livingstone Medal, had sat young Meinertzhagen on his knee and revealed to the boy all the tales of wonder and danger from his years in the horn of Africa. “From that time I would have a tremendous desire,” Richard would later recollect, “to visit the Dark Continent and see for myself the big game, the huge tropical lakes, and all the wonders.” (5)

Richard’s hunger for thrill, glory, and peril only intensified upon the death of his brother Dan a decade later in 1898. It had fallen upon Dan to learn the family banking business (which Richard considered to be incredibly dull), but when Dan contracted peritonitis and died shortly thereafter, the burden of banking was to fall to Richard— at this time 20-years-old. In short time, the young Meinertzhagen stood up to his mother and father and informed them that he would no longer allow them to entertain notions of the banking business continuing through him, and that he was determined to not waste his life on the trivial and the mundane. He desired, rather, to devote his life to the service of Her Majesty’s empire.

It is at such a point when the legend of this Richard Meinertzhagen begins, and of which I will now give a brief overview.

As a newly commissioned officer en route to India in 1899, Richard recorded an incident in his journal wherein he saved a young kidnapped English girl from being prostituted by a group of cunning Egyptians as he was wandering the streets in Port Said (6). After arrival in India, another diary entry has him keeping a pet elephant that he rode regularly around the formations of British soldiers at the garrison in Nasirabad (7). He would remain in India until 1901.

From 1902 to 1906, we find Lt. Meinertzhagen in the King’s African Rifles on the outskirts of Nairobi in British East Africa (present-day Kenya). There he battled barbarous tribes like the Kikuyu and the Nandi (8), who, according to Meinertzhagen, had a habit of not only abducting and murdering British soldiers, but also of defiling their corpses and destroying them beyond recognition; he fought the Tetu— careful to avoid the pits they had dug, studded with sharpened stakes— because the tribe had butchered a group of Indian traders (9); while on the horn Richard also hunted his share of dangerous and exotic beasts, including rhino, lion, waterbuck, and hippo; and he spied on the Germans in Moshi and in Taveta (both located in present-day Tanzania) (10). He achieved all of these things by the time he was 25. It was also in Africa where Richard Meinertzhagen’s work in the field of ornithology began. Throughout his various military adventures, Richard simultaneously studied the honeyguide and other continental birds, and the British Natural History Museum would go on to display 20,000 of his findings and specimens in their galleries for decades to come (11) (12).

In Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), where Richard Meinertzhagen was in 1914, the adventurer— a Captain at this point— was tasked by Her Majesty’s government to gather intelligence on a railway planned by the Russian government. Britain feared the Russians were building this railway in an effort to bulk up presence and seal off the Persian Gulf (13). To compound the issue, the Germans were also planning a railway, and none of these three empires had any real say over what went on in the region because Mesopotamia then belonged to the Ottomans. Captain Meinertzhagen, according to his diaries, gathered intelligence on this planned railway by traveling from Baghdad to the ancient cities of Babylon and Nineveh to Mosul, all the while surviving floods, severe sandstorms, violent mobs, and the “curse of an ancient tomb” (14).

From the Sinai Desert (1917) to the Paris Peace Conference and Palestine (1919-1921), and from Dunkirk (1940) to the founding of the nation of Israel (1948), along with many other travels in between these years and too various to include in an article as brief as this one, it is easy to see how the life and long career of (the eventual Colonel) Richard Meinertzhagen became one of the pillars of the 20th century film heroes mentioned above.

The photos of the man tend to evoke a masculine reverence in the hearts of red blooded American and British males. A type of reverence that has to do with a subconscious longing for the days when guys didn’t wear skinny jeans and demand gluten-free everything. In these photographs we see a man with a big bushy beard; a pipe protruding from his mouth; or standing confidently— in the familiar “Captain Morgan” position— with his rifle slung over his shoulder and a wide grin on his face with a picturesque rugged landscape in the background. The image of Meinertzhagen, in sum, was in every sense of the term, “Gentleman Savage”.

Confirmations of Meinertzhagen’s travels to the countries he wrote about (military records, foreign cables, etc.) seemed to provide plenty of reasons to believe the wild and outlandish accounts often found in his writings: In 1910 while in Greece, Meinertzhagen claims he found himself on a derailed train that had slid off of a cliff until it dangled halfway over the precipice. He spotted a girl clinging desperately to the outboard— legs dangling over the abyss— and in complete disregard for his own preservation, Richard rescued the girl and escaped mere moments before the rest of the train fell completely off the mountain (15). Deep in the bush of Africa once again during World War I, a German officer is having a solo Christmas feast in his tent when Richard bursts through with his rifle and puts a hole in the man’s chest, causing him to slump dead onto his plate. Richard then takes a seat, tells the deceased “Why waste a good dinner?” and finishes the food himself (16) (17). Five years before the Second World War, Richard meets Adolf Hitler during an intel-gathering trip to Berlin, and writes in his diary that he regrets not having the political foresight to have shot him with the revolver he carried in his pocket while he had the chance (18).

It would be fair to say that Richard Meinertzhagen loved writing as much as he loved birds and almost as much as he loved adventure. His published works include: Nicoll’s Birds of Egypt (1930), The Life of a Boy (1947), Birds of Arabia (1954), Kenya Diary 1902-1906 (1957), Middle East Diary 1917-1956 (1959), Pirates & Predators: The Piratical & Predatory Habits of Birds (1959), Army Diary 1899-1926 (1960), and Diary of a Black Sheep (1964).

So how is it possible, then, for a man who lived such a colossal life to fade into obscurity? Why do we all know the names “T.E. Lawrence” and “John Pendlebury”, but the name of this colonel yields only shrugs? I will tell you the reason.

So far I have presented an overview of Meinertzhagen that he— if still alive— would likely have presented of himself. That is, I have told the stories about him that he often enjoyed telling, and I have spoken about his impressive military record throughout most of the early-20th century’s major conflicts. Without a doubt if the colonel were still living today and reading this mini-biography, he would wish me to stop here— and it would be a great place to stop…

Except…

Unfortunately for those of you who have already fallen in love with this man because of the image of him I have so far given, a great portion of Richard Meinertzhagen’s written adventures have proven to be outright fabrications. That, ultimately, is the reason he’s been forgotten as an “iconic figure”. Meinertzhagen was a liar. A con man. And as I go on you will find that this was not even the worst of what he was.

You will recall near the beginning of this piece I said, after talking about Richard Meinertzhagen quitting the family banking business, that at that point “was when his legend begins”. This is because— from the very beginning of his military career until the time of his death— Meinertzhagen filled his diaries with accounts that were either false or unverifiable and far-fetched.

For one, there is no record of him having saved a young English girl from being prostituted by Egyptians at Port Said, though, in his diaries he claims to have entrusted her to the care of the British consul and the consul’s wife. If this had really happened, it would have been included in the consul’s correspondence for the month of April 1899 (when Meinertzhagen says the event occurred) (19). But no incident of a victimized English adolescent is recorded.

Secondly, there are also no records— save for Meinertzhagen’s own account— of his heroic battles against the Kikuyu and the Tetu, and only one of his recorded encounters against the Nandi has been confirmed (20). You may say “Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence”, but the fact of the matter is, when it comes to official military records and the omission of the alleged events in other soldiers’ diaries, it does mean that precisely. Every skirmish between soldiers of the empire and various tribes were meticulously recorded for intelligence-gathering purposes.

Third, there was certainly no train wreck that occurred in the mountains of Greece in 1910. No local, national, or international press covered such an incident (despite the fact that Meinertzhagen said the King of Saxony was onboard, which is also false because the King of Saxony was not in Greece at the time) (21). I feel it important also to say here that lies have patterns. Richard has a thing for saving helpless adolescent girls; the first in Port Said, and second the one clinging to the window of this imaginary train that was dangling off a cliff (third time’s a charm in another diary entry, where he claims to save a young Jewish girl from a Russian mob during its pogrom) (22).

Fourth, in regard to his meeting Hitler, Meinertzhagen didn't do that either. Hitler wasn’t in Berlin at the time Richard claimed to meet him there. Instead Hitler was at his mountain retreat at Berchtesgarten on the week in question (23). So there, too, goes the story of Meinertzhagen’s missed opportune moment to pop the führer for the sake of world peace.

But at least the famed soldier of the empire— tall tales aside— made great contributions to ornithology right? Not at all. Of the 20,000 bird specimens previously mentioned that Meinertzhagen gave to the British Natural History Museum, nearly all of them were stolen from other collections and relabeled as his own, and some of these birds weren’t real birds at all— Richard would take parts of one bird’s body, combine it with another bird’s body, and claim to have discovered a new bird in some far corner of the earth. But Meinertzhagen was so trusted by the British bird enthusiasts of his day, that his “work” in ornithology— up until the 1990s— formed a foundation upon which later ornithologists based their research. To such an extent, in fact, that when his contributions were found to be almost entirely fraudulent it created a crisis in the field. Birds once believed to be extinct because Meinertzhagen had lied about the locations he had seen them in, were starting to be found in other parts of the world alive and well (24).

But as I mentioned before, the man was more than a liar and a fraud. He was something else. Something much worse. Richard Meinertzhagen was a raging psychopath. He was evil. Unlike the film heroes who were based on the contemporary perception of Meinertzhagen, the real Meinertzhagen was actually their very antithesis.

Richard brags in his diaries about how, on one occasion, he induced a black mamba to strike an African tribesman so he could record how fast it was (25), and how, on another occasion, he bludgeoned his Indian servant to death with a polo mallet because the boy had abused his horses (26). It is a telling window into Meinertzhagen’s psychology that he thought his readers would relish in these accounts as much as he had. To be a sadist is one thing, but to assume that everyone around you is also as equally sadistic is another.

Yet even without Meinertzhagen’s own testimony in support of his psychopathy, we still have T.E. Lawrence to vouch. Lawrence met Richard when the two became roommates during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (27) and they both would go on to serve as intelligence officers in Palestine (28). I have in my possession the first edition of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Its pages nearly crumbling to dust, its cover faded, and its edges worn (29). But books, no matter what their state or how rare, are no good if they are not read, and as I was reading Seven Pillars some four years ago I discovered just what T.E. Lawrence thought of his colleague: “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…” (emphasis added). Lawrence further remarks that Meinertzhagen had a “hot immoral hatred of the enemy that expressed itself as readily in trickery as in violence” (30).

But perhaps the most disturbing detail about the life of Richard Meinertzhagen is the suspicious death of his second wife Anne Constance in 1928. Richard had married Anne just seven years prior after his return from Palestine, and Anne’s family wealth had certainly been no secret to anyone in English high society. If she were to die, she wrote in her will, her husband— our colonel— would be the recipient of £113, 446 (31). Unbeknownst to Anne, Richard was enjoying an affair at the time preceding her death with his cousin Theresa Clay (who at the time of the affair’s initiation was only 15 while Meinertzhagen was 50). The official account of Anne’s death is that while practicing with a firearm on the estate, she shot herself in the head by accident. While there was no official inquiry into the circumstances of her sudden end, Meinertzhagen’s relatives couldn’t help but believe— and state their belief publicly— that a bullet traveling from a downward angle from Anne's head to her spine would be difficult to self-inflict, but could easily be inflicted from a husband who stood a foot taller (32) (33). Meinertzhagen writes in his diaries of Theresa’s “consolation” in the wake of his wife’s death, and the two blood-relatives/lovers would carry on their covert relationship until Richard’s death in 1967, much to the disapproval of the family (34).

And so here I have briefly articulated, and destroyed to the best of my ability, the legend of the fraud and psychopath Richard Meinertzhagen, who for too long enjoyed the reputation of a gentleman and adventurer-extraordinaire of the British empire. For decades he was lionized, and his persona that he crafted for himself was incorporated into the personalities of Bond, Jones, Kirk, and Solo. But with the discovery of his many deceptions and misdeeds, he was— rightly— abandoned to obscurity.

I regret to say that I have likely not touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the full extent of who this man was (and was not). Even some of my citations about Col. Meinertzhagen’s early life and career— you may have noticed— are from his personal journals. As much as that could possibly be avoided I avoided it of course, but again that is precisely what is so problematic about the life and legend of Richard Meinertzhagen. So much of what is true is intertwined with what is not, that it is a painstaking process determining which is which. Barbarian though he was, one label from his glorified past still remains: man of mystery.

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the unraveling of this Stanley and Livingstone-wannabe is too little too late. Many of Meinertzhagen’s travels, alleged-exploits, and scandals took place while my great grandparents were still small children. So the inevitable question— not only in the case of Richard Meinertzhagen, but with history in general— is Why does this matter? Why does this man’s deeds, misdeeds, achievements and frauds, matter?

Because Ian Fleming was right. We do need heroes. But we need real ones. Every generation in its youth longs for authenticity— as I once did at the start of my life as a soldier— and frequently looks to figures of the past to provide that authenticity seemingly lacking in the current day. And at this, Richard Meinertzhagen as a historical figure so miserably and utterly falls short.

Citations & Footnotes

  1. Bond's Creator, The New Yorker, April 21st 1962, P. 33
  2. Richard Meinertzhagen, “Nineteenth century recollections”, Pg. 46, 1959
  3. Peter Capstick, Warrior: The Life & Legend Of Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, Chapter 1, 1998
  4. Brian Garfield, The Meinertzhagen Mystery, Pg. 46, 2007
  5. Richard Meinertzhagen, Diary of a Black Sheep, Pg. 79, 1964
  6. Richard Meinertzhagen, Army Diary, 1899-1926, Pg. 11-12, 1960
  7. Ibid. 14-15
  8. Richard Meinertzhagen, Kenya Diary, 1902-1906, Pg. 40, 1984
  9. Ibid. 64
  10. Peter Capstick, Warrior: The Life & Legend Of Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, Chapter 6, 1998
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ruffled Feathers, The New Yorker, May 29th 2006
  13. Peter Capstick, Warrior: The Life & Legend Of Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, Chapter 7, 1998
  14. Ibid.
  15. Brian Garfield, The Meinertzhagen Mystery, Pg. 72, 2007
  16. Peter Capstick, Warrior: The Life & Legend Of Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, Introduction, 1998
  17. James Parry, Richard J. Meinertzhagen, Sunday Express, July 19th 2010
  18. John S. Craig, Peculiar Liaisons: In War, Espionage, & Terrorism In The Twentieth Century, Pg. 108, 2005
  19. Today one can find the consul’s 1899 report in London’s Public Records Office.
  20. Brian Garfield, The Meinertzhagen Mystery, Pg. 59, 2007
  21. Richard Meinertzhagen, Army Diary 1899-1926, Pg. 43, 1960
  22. Richard Meinertzhagen, Middle East Diary 1917-1956, Pgs. 2-4, 1959
  23. Brian Garfield, The Meinertzhagen Mystery, Pg. 188, 2007
  24. Ibid. 201
  25. Richard Meinertzhagen, Army Diary 1899-1926, Pg. 381, 1960
  26. Ibid. 69
  27. James Parry, Richard J. Meinertzhagen, Sunday Express, July 19th 2010
  28. Ruffled Feathers, The New Yorker, May 29th 2006
  29. On the inside is the written name of the owner, Reuven Frank, who enjoyed a long career at NBC between 1950 and 1984. It appeared he had received the book as a gift while attending the premier of “Lawrence of Arabia”. Small treasures such as these are why antique shopping is never a waste of a Saturday morning.
  30. T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Chapter 69, 1922
  31. Western Daily Express, Rich Lady’s Bequest To Husband, October 25th 1928, British Newspaper Archive
  32. Brian Garfield, The Meinertzhagen Mystery, Pg. 170-171, 2007
  33. Ibid. 168-169
  34. Ibid. 193-198