One Man’s Flag

Title:                      One Man’s Flag

Author:                  David Downing

Downing, David (2015). One Man’s Flag. New York: Soho Crime

LCCN:    2015014946

PR6054.O868 O54 2015


  • “Spring 1915. As the Great War burns its way across Europe, Jack McColl, a spy for His Majesty’s Navy, is stationed in India, charged with defending the Empire against Bengali terrorists and their German allies. In England, meanwhile, suffragette journalist Caitlin Hanley begins the business of rebuilding her life after the execution of her brother, an Irish republican sympathizer whose plot Jack McColl—Caitlin’s ex-lover—had foiled. The war is changing everything, and giving fresh impulse to those causes—feminism, socialism and Irish independenc—which she as a journalist has long supported. The threat of a Rising in Dublin alarms McColl’s bosses as much as it dazzles Caitlin. It was one Irish plot which came between Jack and Caitlin in 1914, and it will take another to bring them back together, as both enemies and lovers”—Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      November 3, 2017

Reviewed by Jefferson Flanders[1]

It’s 1915 and British intelligence agent Jack McColl is back, defending the far-flung Empire as the First World War rages in Europe. David Downing introduced McColl in Jack of Spies and he’s a likeable character, an English patriot who also sympathizes with the Indian and Irish nationalists chafing under imperial rule.

Jack has been tasked with disrupting plots against His Majesty’s control of British colonies, and that puts him in tight spots from Darjeeling to Dublin. At the same time, One Man’s Flag follows the travels of the feminist American journalist Caitlin Hanley—McColl’s estranged love interest—who chronicles the brutal war on the Western front.

One Man’s Flag is an engaging read, chock full of adventure and history. The British Empire held together until after the Second World War, when demands for independence and self-determination by its colonies could no longer be denied. Until then, the Foreign Service and intelligence agencies of the Crown fought a holding action, and Downing’s Jack McColl novels should offer an intriguing short course on this somewhat ignored history.

[1] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2015,” accessed at


Title:                      Greenmantle

Author:                 John Buchan

Buchan, John (1915, 2008). Greenmantle. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press

LCCN:    2009290487

PR6003.U13 G68 2008


Date Posted:      November 28, 2016

Reviewed by Kevin Sampson[1]

I suffered from acute asthma as a child. Until I was 11 or so, there was no effective medication for the ailment, so I spent a fair bit of time off school. Adventure stories, read propped up in bed, provided my escape from tedium, and the spoonfuls of sticky malt I had to swallow to “build me up”. I read everthing from The Eagle of the Ninth[2] to The Silver Sword[3] to John Buchan’s The 39 Steps[4]–but it was another Buchan novel, Greenmantle, that sent me on a lifetime’s flight of fantasy.

A ripping yarn by any standards, Greenmantle is set across two action-packed months during the First World War. At the outset, the suave soldier-spy Richard Hannay–a kind of Edwardian James Bond figure —is convalescing after a typically heroic stint on the Western Front. Hannay and his admirable sidekick Sandy Arbuthnot are summoned by the Foreign Office’s senior intelligence commander, Sir Walter Bullivant. Buchan’s nomenclature, incidentally, is peerless; from maverick Boer guerillas (Piet Pienaar) to icily sinister Prussian overlords (General Ulrich von Stumm) and femmes fatales (Hilda von Einem), he names his characters as pertly as he draws them.

Bullivant briefs Hannay that Turkish seditionaries are planning to whip up discontent among Muslim nations across Asia Minor and into North Africa. An Islamic uprising will create a major headache for Britain, and a diversion the Turks’ German allies can exploit. Our dapper hero has only weeks to foil this dastardly plot. What ensues is a wholly absurd and phenomenally enjoyable romp across half the world as Hannay, Sandy and Pienaar split up and use their ingenuity to get behind enemy lines and defy the Young Turks’ rebellion.

Greenmantle is the first book I read with both an atlas and an encyclopedia to hand, as Hannay gives a succession of shady ne’er-do-wells the slip on foot, by sea, on a wild mustang–even by barge. The book gave me a taste for high-energy crime and action thrillers but, in doing so, it brought a secret and seductive world to life, too.

With ripe evocations of Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade as Hannay takes a slow boat down the Danube to Constantinople, Greenmantle remains one of the most exotic novels I’ve ever read. As a convalescing 11-year-old, I could envisage the smells and sights and sounds of those mysterious cities, and I was desperate to visit every one. It’s a special sort of book that can fire your imagination and transport you to worlds you’ve never known, but Greenmantle continues to take me on a trip, every time I read it.

[1] Kevin Sampson, “Book of a Lifetime: Greenmantle, by John Buchan,” Independent (April 5, 2013). Kevin Sampson’s The Killing Pool is published by Jonathan Cape

[2] Sutcliff, Rosemary (1954, 2015). The Eagle of the Ninth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf [LCCN: 2015019780]. The Eagle of the Ninth. Set in Roman Britain this story is of a young Roman officer who sets out to discover the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion, who marched into the mists of Northern Britain and never returned.

[3] Serraillier, Ian (1959). The Silver Sword. New York: Criterion Books [LCCN: 59006556]. In 1942 Warsaw, World War II is raging, and people live in fear from day to day. Ruth, Bronia, and Edek have to fend for themselves when both of their parents are taken by the Nazis. Can they survive? A gripping story based on true accounts.

[4] Buchan, John (1915, 1935). The Thirty-Nine Steps. London: W. Blackwood & Sons. Richard Hannay’s boredom with London society is soon relieved when the resourceful engineer from South Africa is caught up in a web of secret codes, spies, and murder on the eve of WWI. When a neighbor is killed in his flat, Richard, suspected, decodes the journal, runs to the wilds of his native Scotland in disguises and local dialects, evades Germans and officials.

In Flanders Fields

Title:                      In Flanders Fields

Author:                  Leon Wolff

Wolff, Leon (1958). In Flanders fields; The 1917 Campaign. New York, Viking Press

LCCN:    58010607

D541 .W7


Date Posted:      November 21, 2014

In Flanders Fields: The 1917 Campaign is a history of the 3rd Battle of Ypres by Leon Wolff published in 1958 with an introduction by Maj. Gen. J. F. C. Fuller, CB, CBE, DSO. The book is out of print and is quite a rare find, usually only in large public or university libraries. A re-edition of the book was included in the Time-Life Reading Program in 1963, with an additional introduction by B. H. Liddell-Hart.

The first chapter “The Deadlock” is a brief description of the causes and events of World War I leading up to the year 1917. It details the military plans of the year by the French, British and German High Commands with considerable references to the diaries and official histories of the commanders and countries involved, the press, journalists, historians and political figures. There are several maps and photographic plates of the battlefields in the book.

While Third Battle of Ypres is synonymous with mud, death, futility of battles and horrible conditions of warfare, the writings do not play on these experiences of the soldier in the field too much, but instead gives the reader a somewhat unbiased view of what was really occurring at the very top of the commands: the British Prime Minister of the day, Lloyd George, Sir Douglas Haig, Sir William Robertson, Robert Nivelle, Ferdinand Foch and others. There are short quotes from newspapers of the day and soldiers at the front, with brief but vivid sketches of the actual battlefield, while comparing this with the views at Headquarters (none of the commanders of the armies seems to have ever visited the front or even seen it through field glasses and could not relate to the conditions of the battlefield and the struggles of the men through the unrelenting mud, and thus assessed the situations incorrectly, especially Haig).

Sir Douglas Haig is shown to make large assumptions without proper intelligence about the German defenses, enemy resources of men and guns, or the conditions of the battlefield. Leon Wolff does not say these things specifically, but gives the readers the facts as presented in official minutes of meetings with Lloyd George and the War Cabinet and diaries of high officers and leaves the reader to unequivocally reach his own conclusion of the characters involved.

The book also details all the battles of 1917, from Nivelle’s offensive and the French Army Mutinies (1917), Messines Ridge, Poelcapelle, Menin Road, the village of Passchendaele (fought by the Canadian Corps) and Ypres. It ends appropriately with a sequel of the end of the careers, and life after of Sir William Robertson, Sir Douglas Haig and David Lloyd George, quoting a line of Siegfried Sassoon’s “On Passing the New Menin Gate” and ending finally with a passage of Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle which seems to truly explain the cause and reasoning of a war as horrible as World War I, if not all wars:

…there dwell and toil, in the British village of Dumdrudge, usually some five hundred souls. From these…there are successively selected, during the French War, say thirty able-bodied men: Dumdrudge, at her own expense, has suckled and nursed them; she has not without difficulty and sorrow, fed them up to manhood, and trained them to crafts, so that once can weave, another build, another hammer, and the weakest can stand under thirty stone avoirdupois. Nevertheless, amid much weeping and swearing, they are selected; all dressed in red; and shipped away, at the public charges, some two thousand miles, or say only to the south of Spain; and fed there till wanted. And now to that same spot in the south of Spain, are thirty similar French artisans, from a French Dumdrudge, in like manner wending: Till at length, after infinite effort, the two parties come into actual juxtaposition; and Thirty stands fronting Thirty, each with a gun in his hand. Straightway the word “Fire!” is given: and they blow the souls out of one another and in the place of sixty brisk useful craftsmen, the world has sixty dead carcasses, which it must bury, and anew shed tears for. Had these men any quarrel? Busy as the Devil is, not the smallest!… their Governors had fallen out; and, instead of shooting one another, had the cunning to make these poor blockheads shoot. Alas, so it is in Deutschland, and hitherto in all other lands… [p. 233]

This is one of books in The Time Reading Program (TRP) which I read in 1982-83. I found these books to be outstanding. The full list is found at Napoleon’s Russian Campaign.