Richard J Meinertzhagen: Unravelling of a life built on lies
HE WAS celebrated as both a military hero and ace ornithologist. But new evidence suggests Richard J Meinertzhagen was a master hoaxer and a killer.
By: James ParryPublished: Mon, July 19, 2010 / http://www.express.co.uk/expressyourself/187699/Richard-J-Meinertzhagen-Unravelling-of-a-life-built-on-lies
JULY 1928, on a country estate in the Scottish Highlands. A woman lies dying on the lawn, bleeding profusely from a firearm wound to her head.
The weapon lies smoking nearby and standing over her, looking down, is her husband: Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen. There is no one else at the scene.
These are the only known facts about a strange incident in the life of a man who became a legend in his own time.
Well-built and with an equally imposing personality, Meinertzhagen was lauded as a dashing soldier and as one of the most renowned ornithologists of his generation. An inveterate adventurer, he travelled to remote parts of the world on military duty and in search of wildlife, discovering new species and amassing a huge collection of specimens.
So well regarded was he as a public figure that his observations were taken on trust and entered unquestioningly into the natural history records. His status as a protagonist in some of the most important chapters of 20th-century history remained equally uncontested until well beyond his death in 1967.
Such blind faith proved sadly misplaced. There is now compelling evidence that Meinertzhagen was a killer and a thief and that his versions of certain events range from the grossly exaggerated to the completely fictitious. We may never know exactly what happened that summer’s day in Scotland but it is becoming clear that this once revered figure was at best a deluded fantasist and at worst a scheming and manipulative fraudster.
Born in 1878 to a wealthy and well-connected banking family with homes in
and Hampshire, Meinertzhagen spent his
childhood at Mottisfont Abbey, now in the care of the National Trust. As a boy
Richard sat on Charles Darwin’s lap and was introduced to George Bernard Shaw. London
As a teenager he audaciously invited Henry Morton Stanley to Mottisfont and listened to the great explorer’s accounts of his expeditions to find David Livingstone. After a brief and unsuccessful stint at a City banking fi rm the young Meinertzhagen joined the army and in 1899 set sail with the Royal Fusiliers for
So began a military career that lasted a quarter of century and took him from Bombay India to East Africa and thence to the Middle East.
Here he undertook various intelligence missions, often dressed in local garb. His diaries recount his friendship with figures such as TE Lawrence (“of
well as his central role in many daring Boy’s Ownstyle escapades behind enemy
In one entry he recounts how in Tanganyika in 1916 he crept into a German encampment, killed an officer in his tent and then sat down and tucked into his victim’s Christmas meal, remarking: “Why waste that good dinner?”
Meinertzhagen also writes of his role in a daring rescue carried out in 1918 of a member of the incarcerated Russian royal family, claiming to have bundled one of the Tsar’s daughters on to a plane as it was taking off from a field near Ekaterinburg.
She was “much bruised and brought to
she still is” he wrote, explaining how it was “too dangerous to give details”.
His diaries are also full of his constant efforts to add unusual and exotic
species to his natural history collection. While serving in England he
spotted what he thought was a very rare monk seal swimming offshore. Egypt
After rushing to his tent to get his gun, he was about to fire before realising just in time that the seal was in fact Mrs Waters-Taylor, the wife of his commanding officer, out for a spot of skinny-dipping while her husband sat watching and smoking a large cigar.
After leaving the army in 1925 Meinertzhagen continued what he called “my other work”, undercover on secret missions. His diaries reveal how these included helping the Spanish rid their country of Soviet agents – he claimed to have killed 17 of them – and three meetings in
with Hitler. Berlin
On his first such visit Meinertzhagen writes how, when Hitler greeted him with a Nazi salute and “Heil, Hitler!”, he replied in kind with “Heil, Meinertzhagen!” He claims to have smuggled a revolver into Hitler’s office and that he had the chance to shoot him, later lamenting his failure to do so and thus change the course of history.
The unlikely and almost laughable nature of some of these encounters was not seriously challenged at the time and Meinertzhagen’s curious web only started to unravel in the Nineties when scientists were studying the collection of more than 20,000 bird specimens he had donated to the
Close examination has now revealed that he had stolen these from other collections and then relabelled them as his own, complete with fabricated data on when and where he had shot them. The ultimate scale of Meinertzhagen’s ornithological deceptions is still being uncovered but bird science is being turned on its head as a result.
Birds believed extinct because he had lied about their location have been discovered alive and well. Analysis of the other aspects of his life, especially his military exploits, is revealing equally spectacular deceits. Particularly intriguing is his relationship with Lawrence of Arabia.
The two were room-mates at the
Versailles conference in 1919 but Meinertzhagen’s
was not reciprocated. Lawrence
was suspicious, describing him as “savage” and “willing to harness evil to the
chariot of good”. It seems that after reading this criticism Meinertzhagen
amended his own diary with fictitious stories that reflected badly on Lawrence . Lawrence