In January 1921 hundreds of bonfires began burning in the hillsides around the Mongolian capital of Urga. The Bloody Baron had returned.
Baron Roman Feodorovitch von Ungern-Sternberg had first besieged Urga the previous October. Four attempts by his Asiatic Cavalry Division to take the town were beaten back by Chinese troops.
The Division retreated back into the steppes to regroup, recruit fresh troops, and make contact with Mongolian nationalists. Few locals liked the new Chinese overlords who had moved into the power vacuum left by the Russian Civil War. Rumours spread that a clique of lamas in Urga, close to the Living Buddha, were plotting to help the Baron’s men.
The Chinese tightened security; some Russians in the town were imprisoned, others were shot. In the hills, the Baron waited for his fortune tellers to tell him the best time to attack.
My book about the foreign mercenaries, adventurers, and crusaders who fought for Ethiopia against the Italian Fascist invasion is out on Thursday 15 June. Here’s a taste of the introduction … .
When the first bomb exploded, Vienna’s finest trauma surgeon was elbow deep inside a patient’s guts somewhere in northern Ethiopia. Dr Valentin Schuppler kept his scalpel steady as shock waves blew in half the hospital windows. The Red Cross on the roof was being used as a target by Italian airplanes.
Dessie hospital was an unhygienic pile of bricks in a backwater town whose best feature was its juniper trees. Any patient mobile enough had gone running for the hills when the first Fascist planes appeared. Schuppler stayed in the operating theatre and worked on a patient who was going nowhere without a mile of stitches and a dose of morphine.
In 1936 Vladimir Pozner, a young immigrant writer with left-wing views, was trawling the underground of the Russian community in Paris for information on a dead Baron.
The people he talked with had been driven out of their homeland twenty years before by the Bolshevik revolution. Their Paris exile was a world of former colonels driving taxi-cabs; aristocrats in genteel poverty scratching for rent; Russian language newspapers on cheap paper predicting the fall of Communism any day now; and tea rooms in which the clock had stopped in 1917.
Pozner had no sympathy for these shards of old Russia embedded in the French capital. He was researching the biography of a general from the Civil War. The best place to find information was among the Russian exiles still mentally fighting the Bolsheviks.
“The taxi drivers and workers in the automobile factories made their way right across Paris to read the memoirs of their former leaders in the Russian Library,” he wrote. “They surrounded the page with exclamation marks and comments such as ‘Traitor!’ ‘Jew!’ ‘Coward!’ Everything that might be read between the lines of these books was shown up here, pencilled in, rubbed out, and scrawled in again by subordinates bursting with retrospective rage.”
Darul Islam was on the run in late 1949. The jihadist army’s jungle camp was a hive of soldiers in short-sleeved shirts and Dutch army helmets. They slept in bivouacs under the palm trees and leaned their old rifles in tripods. The perimeter was strung with rattling tin cans strung on wire.
Down time was spent crouching around cooking fires watching cassava boil. On a good day the jihadists would get an extra pinch of sugar or salt but sometimes food was so scarce they ate leaves. A pack of Escort cigarettes was the kind of luxury that could make a man feel like a king.
The 15,000 strong Islamic army was trapped in a shrinking triangle of territory down in Pasundan’s south-east, a state in newly independent Indonesia. Some locals supported them. Others waited until the green Darul Islam flag with its crescent moon wrapped tight around a star had passed out sight, then contacted the authorities. If the soldiers of Darul Islam discovered the disloyalty they would return and exterminate the village, leaving houses in ruins and crops polluted by bodies and blood.
My book about the crazy gang of foreign mercenaries who fought for Ethiopia in the 1930s went to the printers last week. It has a shiny new cover in gold and marble grey, and should be in the shops some time this summer.
The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in late 1935 outraged the world. Communists saw it as proof of Fascist barbarism, liberals were shocked by the display of outdated imperialism; even the empire builders in London and Paris were reluctant to welcome Mussolini into their club.
It was a war between far-right modernity and patriarchal traditionalism. The Italians had airplanes, high explosive, and mustard gas. The Ethiopians preferred swords and spears. Emperor Haile Selassie needed expert foreign help. What he got was a bunch of mercenaries who could barely shoot straight and leaned further to the right than Mussolini.
Lost Lions of Judah tells the whole colourful, blood-stained story.
The Almighty Gaylords are a Chicago street gang involved in guns and drugs. I wrote two posts on them: an overview and a look at some recent gunrunning arrests. A member of the Gaylords got in touch to bring me up to date about the gang’s fortunes.
He told me rumours of the gang’s demise are exaggerated. The Gaylords are alive and well and spreading across the US, with new chapters in places like Florida and Indiana.
It’s true that there’s no longer any central leadership, and individual areas in Chicago like Addison and Sayre Park run as separate gangs under the Gaylord banner. This fragmentation fooled outsiders into believing the Gaylords were on the skids. In reality it introduced enough flexibility to keep the gang alive after it was pushed out of its traditional Chicago inner city territory by demographic change. And it gave Gaylords who left the state the freedom to set up fresh chapters in their new homes.
The media paints the GLs as a gang of soft-bellied old racists mourning the loss of white Chicago. The truth is different.
When you hit the Georgian capital Tbilisi in 1992 you stayed at the Metechi Palace Hotel. Everyone did.
You got a taxi from the airport. It cost $5 and the driver spent more time negotiating bribes with the roadblocks manned by young men with AK-47s and leather jackets than he did at the wheel.
The city was a wreck, smoke-black from the recent fighting. Out the taxi window you saw the shops embracing free enterprise, selling Malaysian exercise books, Korean playing cards, fake Camel cigarettes, leather jackets from Turkey. The bookshops that sold only Soviet engineering texts and copies of the twelve century Georgian epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, that everyone in the country already owned. The Stalinist-style parliament building, half destroyed in the fighting, its supporting columns eaten away by RPG rounds. The street vendors selling orthodox icons, nesting dolls, glassware, ornamental daggers, the family silver.