Colonel Richard Henry Meinertzhagen CBE DSO (March 3, 1878 - June 17, 1967) was a British soldier, intelligence officer, ornithologist and expert on bird lice. He was influential in life and had a legendary reputation for his exploits around the world. Studies on his work on birds and historic notes after his death however raised serious questions on his integrity and have made him a controversial character.
Meinertzhagen's surname derives from the town Meinerzhagen in Germany, the home of an ancestor. On his mother's side (the Potters) he was of English and perhaps partly Jewish ancestry (see his Diary of a Black Sheep, 1964). He also had a dash of Spanish royal blood, rumored in his lifetime but confirmed since his death.
His passion for birdwatching (and shooting) was encouraged by a family friend, the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who, like another family friend, Charles Darwin, was an ardent empiricist and who took young Richard on walks, urging him to study the natural world: "Observe, record, explain!"
The East African mission was a punitive expedition against specified sections of the Kikuyu and Embu tribes due to frequent murders of friendly natives. Meinertzhagen was called by the Nandi tribes as Kipkororor (Ostrich feathers) for his habit of having two ostrich feathers stuck in his hat. This expedition was commanded by a Captain F. A. Dickinson and had 5 officers, 135 rifles of the 3rd King's African Rifles, 60 police and 300 Maasai levies. More than 11,000 stock were captured at the cost of 3 men killed and 33 wounded. The number of enemy killed was estimated at 797 Kikuyu and 250 Embu. Richard Meinertzhagen wrote in his diaries on 18 March 1904:
As a Major, Meinertzhagen was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1916. During the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of World War I, Meinertzhagen claimed that he let a haversack containing false British battle plans fall into Ottoman military hands, thereby contributing much to the surprise British attack that took Beersheba and all of Gaza. The incident and attack are depicted in the 1987 film The Lighthorsemen. He was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel in 1918.
He attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and was Allenby's Chief Political Officer, involved in the creation of the Palestine Mandate, which eventually led to the creation of the state of Israel. In the film A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia (1990), which depicted the Paris Peace Conference, Meinertzhagen was a major character and was played by Jim Carter. His unpublished diaries hint at a successful rescue attempt of one of the Russian Grand Duchesses, possibly Tatiana, (see 'The Romanov Conspiracies' by Michael Occleshaw)
He attained the rank of Colonel, but resigned from the service in 1925.
Tom Segev considers that Meinertzhagen was "at once a great antisemite and a great Zionist". He justifies this analysis by this excerpt from Meinertzhagen's Middle East Diary : "I am imbued with antisemitic feelings. It was indeed an accursed day that allowed Jews and not Christians to introduce to the world the principles of Zionism and that allowed Jewish brains and Jewish money to carry them out, almost unhelped by Christians save a handful of enthusiasts in England".
He was a prolific diarist and published four books based on his diaries, which make fascinating and often insightful reading. However, his Middle East Diary (1959) contains dozens of entries that are probably fictional, including those on T. E. Lawrence and on Hitler. Meinertzhagen's claimed to have mocked Hitler by giving a Heil Meinertzhagen salute in response to those given by the men around Hitler. He also claimed to have carried a loaded gun in his coat pocket at a meeting with Hitler and von Ribbentrop in July 1939 and was "seriously troubled" about not shooting when he had the chance, adding "If this war breaks out, as I feel sure it will, then I shall feel very much to blame for not killing these two. Lockman in his book shows that Meinertzhagen later falsified his entries on T. E. Lawrence. The original diaries kept in the Rhodes House Library contain differences in the paper used for certain entries as well as in the typewriter ribbon used, and there are oddities in the page numbering.
While in India he killed one of his personal assistants in a fit of rage and had the local police officer cover it up as a death due to plague. (Cocker, see )
Salim Ali notes his special hatred for Mahatma Gandhi and his refusal to believe that Indians could govern themselves.
Gavin Maxwell wrote about how his parents would scare him and other children to behave themselves when Meinertzhagen visited with ...remember...he has killed people with his bare hands....
Meinertzhagen's second wife, the ornithologist Anne Constance Jackson, died in 1928 at age 40 in a remote Scottish village in an incident that was ruled a shooting accident. The official finding was that she accidentally shot herself in the head with a revolver during target practice alone with Richard. There is speculation that the shooting was not an accident and that Meinertzhagen shot her out of fear that she would expose him and his fraudulent activities. After Anne's death his companion was Theresa Clay; they lived at 17 and 18 Kensington Gardens with an internal passage connecting the two houses.
Meinertzhagen himself traced the evil side to his personality to a period during his childhood when he was subjected to severe physical abuse at the hands of a sadistic schoolmaster when he was at Fonthill boarding school in Sussex. He was apparently also traumatized by the indifference of his mother to his plight:
Brian Garfield's 2007 book "The Meinertzhagen Mystery" details the many ways in which Meinertzhagen was a fraud and a charlatan. It debunks many myths and proves that many previously accepted "facts" about his life are untrue, including the famous haversack incident, which Meinertzhagen neither came up with nor carried out.
As the author of numerous taxonomic and other works on birds, and possessing a vast collection of bird and bird lice specimens, Meinertzhagen was long considered one of Britain's greatest ornithologists. Yet his magnum opus, Birds of Arabia (1954), is believed to have been based on the unpublished manuscript of another naturalist, George Bates, who is not sufficiently credited in that book.
In the 1990s an analysis of Meinertzhagen's bird collection at the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum in Tring, UK, revealed large scale fraud involving theft and falsification. Alan Knox, who uncovered the fraud, said in 1993 : Meinertzhagen had stolen the best specimens of other people's collections and then proceeded to fabricate data to go with them. More recent research by Rasmussen and Prys-Jones indicates the fraud was even more extensive than first thought. Many of the specimens that he submitted as his own were found to be missing specimens belonging to the Natural History Museum and collected by others such as Hugh Whistler.
He also edited Nicoll's Birds of Egypt in 1930. Michael J. Nicoll was Assistant Director of the Zoological Gardens at Giza and he attempted to write a comprehensive guide to the ornithology of Egypt. He died before it could be published and the work was finished by Meinertzhagen.
He named a series of birds for Theresa Clay, a cousin and close "confidante" (Salim Ali in his autobiography notes her as Meinertzhagen's niece) 33 years younger than himself. Theresa Clay studied and documented the vast collections of bird lice that he had made.