Written by RSGS Writer-in-Residence, Jo Woolf. Her latest book, The Great Horizon includes a chapter on Frederick Marshman Bailey in addition to 49 other remarkable adventure stories associated with RSGS.
In 1919, Russia was in turmoil. After the Revolution that sparked the assassination of the Tsar and his family, the country had descended into civil war. The Red Army, driven by Vladimir Lenin, was twisting its cruel grip on a country already ravaged by famine and disease.
In Tashkent, a city in Russian-occupied Turkestan, the Cheka or Bolshevik Secret Police stalked the streets. Among the population, fear sparked fanaticism, and into this powder keg was pouring a flammable mix of other nationalities – soldiers, prisoners of war, and refugees from Eastern European countries. Citizens were being executed in their thousands, often for crimes they did not commit. In this hellish environment a British secret agent was living and working quite successfully. His name was Frederick Marshman Bailey.
Bailey had been sent there by British government officials early in 1918, with the outrageously optimistic task of talking frankly with the Bolshevists “to see if they could come to an understanding.” Britain, of course, was nervous about Russia’s intentions towards its prized asset of India, which lay just a seemingly short distance away, over the Himalayas. The last thing Britain wanted was the Bolsheviks seizing control of India.
For 18 months, Bailey had smoothly evaded the ferocious pursuit of the Cheka, who knew he was in Tashkent but couldn’t track him down. At the merest whiff of danger, Bailey would simply walk out of his lodgings, leaving deliberately misleading clues behind, and assume a completely new identity. Formidably intelligent, he spoke many languages fluently and had developed a complex web of friends and associates. He carried out his mission with all the panache of a real-life James Bond, sending regular reports back to British officials via coded messages, often written in invisible ink. But in the autumn of 1919 he received a warning from his colleagues, advising to get out while he could.
Escaping from Turkestan was hideously dangerous. Bailey had many acquaintances who had fled for their lives, only to be captured and killed. Freedom lay over 800 miles away, across the Persian border. It was winter, and the journey across the arid, mountainous desert could take weeks. Before that, Bailey had to get himself out of Tashkent without being noticed. He confided in some of his most trusted friends, and came up with a plan worthy of a Hollywood movie. It was bold and simple. Inventing a brand new disguise, he presented himself to the chief of the Cheka and told him that he wanted to join their ranks.
Barefaced audacity won the day. Bailey had concocted an elaborate back-story as a Serbian soldier on permanent sick leave. Looking into the razor-sharp eyes of Dunkov, the Cheka leader, he explained that he had been wandering around Russia for months in search of work. He added that he had stayed in the United States as a child, and learned English there. He was expecting to be interrogated at length, and was astonished when his proposal was accepted immediately. Dunkov had a particular mission in mind for Bailey, and told him that he must start at once. Bailey could not believe his good fortune.
Details of his mission soon became clear. In Bokhara, a city some 350 miles to the south-west, the Russians knew there was a hive of British counter-espionage activity. Bailey learned that, in total, 15 Russian spies had been sent to Bokhara in order to close it down, but none of them had returned. With pity, he was told that he would be the 16th. Blithely unaware that they could not have tailored the mission more precisely to Bailey’s advantage, the Cheka quickly supplied him with papers, and he departed by train for Bokhara within the week.
Shortly after his arrival in Bokhara, Bailey received a telegram from the Cheka headquarters. His task had suddenly become more specific: he was instructed to track down an elusive British spy named Frederick Marshman Bailey! Never at a loss, Bailey sent an apologetic message back, suggesting that he had already fled to Afghanistan; he then set about organising his own genuine escape, in the direction of Persia.
Although he had allies in Bokhara, he was by no means out of danger. Food and horses would have to be bought, and the mere fact of someone buying horses was enough to spark suspicion. But Bailey was in no hurry. With characteristic calmness, he dispatched a messenger back to Tashkent, instructing his servant to join him, and asking him to bring his dog. Bailey’s Lhasa Apso hound, whom he called Zep, had been an object of extreme interest to the Cheka ever since Bailey’s disappearance; they had even had him followed. Despite the risks, Bailey couldn’t leave him behind.
By the time Bailey was ready to leave Bokhara, he had gathered a party of 17 people who wanted to go with him. Some of these were close friends, including a Serbian-born spy called Manditch and his wife, and they were joined by a handful of Russian officers who were fleeing for their own reasons. Bailey planned their 460-mile journey with obsessive care: the horses would need water, so their route was governed by the location of watering-holes – places that could easily conceal an ambush, but which they couldn’t possibly avoid. Their provisions included sukhari – double-baked bread – along with tea, sugar and salt; in a bazaar Bailey purchased a basket of raisins. They carried tents, and their bedding consisted of embroidered blankets and Kashmir shawls. They had simple medical supplies and a few rifles. They might be able to shoot some game on the journey. It would have to be enough.
Bailey instructed his companions to be ready to leave at an hour’s notice. At dusk on 18th December, clad in thick Turkoman coats, they departed. They rode overnight, amid persistent rain; such was Bailey’s secrecy in the arrangements that it wasn’t until next morning that all the members of the party saw each other in daylight for the first time.
Moving steadily from waterhole to waterhole, they managed to evade notice and survived well enough on their own provisions. At the settlement of Burdalik they received hospitality, and were given guides and fresh horses. They were ferried across the River Oxus on Christmas Day, and continued through the desert, often waking in the morning to find their tents covered with snow. Desperation set in when their guides lost the trail, necessitating a search of many hours with the horses weak from thirst; luckily, towards nightfall, they came across a well with some villagers’ huts nearby, and a flock of sheep. Here they were offered food and water.
“We cooked large shashliks* on the cleaning rods of our rifles… We ate these with delicious hot bread baked for us by the Turkomans.” (‘Mission to Tashkent’)
*skewered meat, similar to a kebab
Early in January the snow-capped mountains of Persia could be seen in the distance, promising freedom; but when they reached the frontier, it seemed that all was lost. The Persian border lay along a river, and as they were descending its steep bank they were spotted by Bolshevik guards who immediately opened fire. Distance made their aim difficult, and as the soldiers of his own party provided covering fire, Bailey decided to risk a full-on charge across the water, on horseback. It was, he remembered, “all very theatrical, with everyone in Turkoman clothes, and reminded me of some scene from a film.”
With most of his companions across, Bailey noticed that Mrs Manditch was missing; her horse had slipped down the steep bank into the river, shedding its rider along with the saddlebags, and leaving her lying on the ground. Dodging the hail of bullets, another member of the group returned quickly to help her, and urged her to mount his own horse. This she flatly refused to do: her saddlebags, she said, contained silks that she had been given in Bokhara, and she wanted to retrieve them. A bullet, smacking into the ground next to her, changed her mind. Leaping briskly onto the officer’s horse, she made it safely across the river.
In Persia, Bailey’s hosts offered him and his beleaguered companions the warmest hospitality, and telegraphed news of their arrival to their friends in London, India and Teheran. The truth soon filtered through to the Cheka: several years later, Bailey was amused to learn that, on hearing of his escape, they had given him a state funeral, perhaps to disguise their own embarrassment.
Bailey later described his adventures in a book entitled ‘Mission to Tashkent’. This is not the most flamboyantly exciting read, as he is the master of languid understatement. He was further hampered by the necessity of adhering to the requirements of the Official Secrets Act, meaning that much of the essential detail is blurred or omitted altogether. But what is so endearing about Bailey is that, no matter how extreme the circumstances, he could always find interest in the natural world: on the train to Bokhara, for example, he carried a cigarette case full of butterfly specimens and seeds that he had collected; and while he was encamped in the desert on his flight to Persia, he made several sorties in search of a particular species of gazelle.
Frederick Marshman Bailey was honoured with the Livingstone Medal of the RSGS in 1921. Quotes from: ‘Mission to Tashkent’ by F M Bailey (1946).