Operations of the British forces in North Persia between 1918 & 1921
To set the scene it might help to give a very brief history of the previous political situation in Persia. Loosely speaking, Persia was traditionally ruled by a Shah and an often weak central government in Tehran (the Majlis or National Assembly). The country is large and divided into districts, each with its own governor or Khan, who are often the local tribal chiefs and amongst whom there were endless shifting loyalties. Because of the lack of strong policing there was much banditry.
Britain and Russia had both been deeply involved in Persia for trade since the 16th century although Russia also had early expansionist policies, and by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Russia was seeking expansion into the Trans-Caspia, Trans-Caucasia and Azerbaijan, annexing lands previously controlled by Persia, and looking towards a port on the Persian Gulf, and also towards India via Persia and Afghanistan. The supposed interest of Russia in British India led to the endlessly Machiavellian shenanigans of ‘The Great Game’.
Britain’s interested was still in trade, latterly in exploring for oil, and for having Persia as a buffer for India. There was considerable piracy in the Persian Gulf and Britain was allowed by the countries bordering this sea to use its navy to suppress the pirates and to police the waters. This required some land forces and led to the Persian Government accepting the establishment of some British troops in military bases in southern Persia.
Persia then was effectively split in two with northern Persia under Russian influence and southern Persia under British influence
As the First World War approached, Germany sent many emissaries into Persia with a view to establishing loyalties towards Germany and also hoping to reach into Afghanistan for the same purposes. Turkey wanted to expand its empire into Mesopotamia and Persia where both allies also wanted a port in the Persian Gulf. The Persian Government wanted to remain neutral but the Shah, the Government, and the various Khans were independently swayed to different loyalties throughout the war.
The Persian Government had a Gendarmerie which was re-organised in 1911 by Swedish officers who later developed anti-Russian, and possibly pro-German sentiments while at the time being paid by H.M.G. In 1914 it consisted of about 36 Swedish officers and 6,000 mounted and dismounted Persians organised in 6 regiments, 3 of which had 2 battalions. Their duty was to maintain internal security and to collect the revenue.
1914 to 1920
In 1914 the Persian regular infantry numbered about 13,000, scattered and in many detachments, were generally unpaid, untrained, badly clothed and required to eke out a living by casual labour. The officers usually bought their appointments and were generally inefficient. The cavalry, numbering about 38,000 was organised entirely on tribal basis and apart from small numbers protecting some roads, were only called upon as required, and were unlikely to serve outside their own districts.
The Persian Cossack Brigade was created by Russians and in 1914 numbered about 3,500 with about 30 Russian officers and N.C.O.s. It consisted of:
- 4 Regiments,
- 4 Infantry Companies,
- 1 Horse and 12 Mountain batteries,
- 1 Machine Gun detachment.
All arms were modern, fairly well disciplined and drilled but with little field training and no transport. They were primarily created by the Russians as a political force, used by the Shah as a personal bodyguard and subordinate to him rather than the Government, but disliked by the Persian politicians for its Russian influence. The influence of these Persian Cossacks was more noticeable in northern Persia.
Initially the Turkish advances into Persia were resisted by Russian forces.
By 1915 the approaches being made by these German infiltrators caused H.M. Government to create an East Persia Cordon (force) based between Meshed and Seistan, initially to prevent the enemy entering Afghanistan which was then loyal to Britain and later to support our forces in Trans-caspia.
1916 - the South Persian Rifles were established with British and Indian, and a few Persian officers and N.C.O.s, and with mostly Indian and Persian troops who later showed a marked leaning towards Germany, with the result that the Persian element were little trusted by the British or the Persian Government as being loyal troops.
During combined Russo/British operations, the Russian Lt. Kolominiski was awarded the British Military Cross
1917 - The Russian Revolution had major repercussions in Persia and H.M. Government quickly realised it would have to replace the Russian forces in north Persia as they withdrew into their own country. This did not happen immediately. However, by the end of the year Britain established a need to secure the route from Mesopotamia to Enzeli, which was the major Persian port on the Caspian Sea, in order to stiffen Georgian and Armenian resistance to the Turks. General Dunsterville set off with initially a small force and by February 1918 his ‘Mission’ was based at Hamadan, about 180 miles to the west of Tehran on the route from Baghdad to Enzeli
1918 - Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and Russian participation in the Great War ends. In June, the Armenian-Bolschevik alliance brought together Armenians and loyalist (White) Russians against the Turkish Caucasus army. By July, British forces in Hamadan were building up, and General Marshall in Baghdad extended his sphere of influence to include the whole of the Caspian littoral including Krasnovodsk and naval control of the Caspian and operations at Baku. He was also made responsible for the whole of N.W. Persia, the Bakhtiari, and Arabistan. General Bicharakoff was on his way to Baku with 1,500 troop and 4 British armoured cars.
July: 2,500 Janglis, with Germans & Austrians (ex PoWs released from captivity in Russia by the Bolsheviks), attacked the small Dunsterforce detachment at Rasht, but were severely beaten and this resulted in a peace treaty with their leader.
2nd August: a Commodore David Norris R.N. arrived unexpectedly at Dunsterville’s head quarters along with an initial 2 officers, 22 men, 1x 4” breach loader, 2x 12-pounder quick fire cannons and some naval launches in pieces. More officers and ratings were to follow and, after ‘acquiring’ some field artillery, Norris set about arming some merchant ships and creating a fleet to support Denekin’s White Russian fleet on the Caspian.
During August, after their defeat, the Jangalis switched allegiance from the Germans to the British and Dunsterville offered to support their idea of independence, later….
16th August: Dunsterville left Enzeli with ‘Dunsterforce’ for Baku to support the Bolshevik Russians and Armenians against the advancing Turkish army. For various reasons, this well documented action was, on the face of it, unsuccessful, with Dunsterforce retreating back to Enzeli by 14th September. But, from a wider point of view, their defence of the town caused two much needed divisions of the Turkish army to be diverted from Palestine.
‘Dunsterforce’ was disbanded but some officers and troops transferred into the larger North Persia force or NORPERFORCE, including 3 of Dunsterville’s famous armoured cars.
16th Sept. Maj. Gen. W.M. Thomson appointed commander of Norperforce, with instructions to stop the Bolsheviks reaching the High Plateau. Gen. Dunsterville was recalled to India.
Constitution of NORPERFORCE 16th Sept 1918
- 14th Hussars; 1 section 15th Machine Gun Squadron;
- 21st Mountain Battery;
- 1 section 72nd Field Company, R.E.;
- 36th Infantry Brigade (1/4th. Hampshire, 1/2nd Gurkhas, with 36th Sikhs and 1/6th Gurkhas under orders from Mesopotamia);
- 39th Infantry Brigade (9th Royal Warwickshire, 7th Gloucestershire, 9th Worcestershire and 7th North Staffordshire);
- 6th Light Armoured Motor Battery (less 1 section) and Dunsterforce Armoured Car Brigade.
By 25th September, the whole Turkish army in Palestine & Syria was in disarray; their army in Mesopotamia was ready to evacuate, Arabia was lost to them - with the fall of Medina imminent - and they were preparing to retreat from the Balkans. The Turkish evacuation of Persia was expected daily.
Commodore Norris had instructions to “take immediate control of the Caspian, by drastic measures if necessary”, and he continued to increase his fleet of armed merchant vessels. The Caspian fleet under General Bicharakoff was at that time available for sale but while inactive was of little interest to Norris.
3rd October: a reconnaissance by NORPERFORCE showed that the Turkish force in Mianeh area had decreased
Distribution of the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force on 19th October 1918 North Persia Force
Headquarters at Kazvin
- 36th Infantry Brigade
- 39th Infantry Brigade
- 13th Brigade, R.F.A. (2nd, 8th, 44th, and C/69th Battery) = 22 guns
- 21st Mountain Battery = 6 guns
- 72nd Field Company, R.E.
- “A”, “B” and “C” Squadrons, Dunsterforce Armoured Car Brigade.
- North Persia Force Signal Company.
- No 20 Combined Field Ambulance.
- No 40 British Field Ambulance.
- Dunsterforce Armoured Car Brigade Medical Unit.
- “L” Company, Supply and Transport
- 1 flight, 30th Squadron, R.A.F.
- 1 ½ flights, 72nd Squadron, R.A.F.
- 1 wagon & 1 pack station, 1st Wireless Signal Squadron.
- 3 packs & 4 lorry stations, 2nd Wireless Signal Squadron.
- 1 station, No 5 Wireless Signal Squadron R.E.
- 6th Light Armoured Motor Battery (less 1 section).
- 15th Light Armoured Motor Battery.
- Detachment, No. 16 Casualty Clearing Station.
- Detachment, No. 33 Motor Ambulance Convoy.
24th October: Constantinople ordered the evacuation of Persia. Norperforce carried out continued reconnaissance and some aeroplane attacks, but did not force the retreat. 30th October: Turkey signs an Armistice with the Allies. However, with the imminent dissolution of its empire, some Turkish forces are instructed to be absorbed into local allied forces with a view to maintaining some semblance of their old empire to the east of Turkey.
By the end of this month, Norperforce and the R.N. have established fitting-out bases for their expanding fleet at Enzeli and Krasnovosdk.
A British force operating initially from Meshed in north east Persia, but with support through Krasnovodsk, was fighting in support of the Trans-Caspian Government against encroachments by the Bolsheviks.
A certain Reza Khan of the Persian Cossacks – then referred to as Brigadier General, was campaigning in the Kashan area against bandits.
1st November 1918: G.O.C. Norperforce: Major General W. M. Thomson. G.O.C. 36th Infantry Brigade Brig-Gen H.F.B Champain
11th November: Germany signs unconditional surrender
17th November: Gen. Thomson re-occupies Baku with Norperforce, supported by Gen. Bicherakov and an armed British flotilla.
November: Royal Navy, with a detachment of 160 Royal marines, set up coastal guns at Petrovsk (Machachkala], 160 miles north of Baku.
December: Royal Navy flotilla prevents the Bolsheviks gaining an ice-free port in the Caspian. The naval flotilla, initially flying the Imperial Russian ensign, consisted of ‘VENTURE’, ‘FOX’, ‘EMILE NOBLE’, ‘ALLA VARDI’, ‘SALVA’ & ‘BIBI-ABAT’, each of which had a R.M.A./R.M.L.I. detachment consisting of 11 marines commanded by sergeants or corporals. Other ships had British gunners: ‘KRUGER’ with R.F.A. guns, and ‘ZORASTER’ & ‘ASIA’ with R.N. seamen gunners. R.N. crews operated the flotilla, which also included the ‘WINDSOR CASTLE’, the improvised seaplane carrier ‘ORLINOCK’, and the ‘SERGEI’ which carried 12 R.N. Coastal Motor Boats.
1918/19 - During this winter, a major influenza pandemic killed 21 million worldwide and severely incapacitated the British and Indian troops, although deaths amongst the Persians was proportionally much higher
By the end of 1918, H.M. Government was spending £30,000,000 per annum in Persia, and there were strong moves to withdraw our troops, not only by our Government, but also by the Government of India which was providing much of the army personnel.
Military operations and policy in Persia were run from Mesopotamia by London where it involved the India Office, the Foreign Office and the War office, and also with major input from the Government of India, all of which led to much disagreement and delay in finalising policies. Proposals for an Anglo-Persian agreement were sought, but it was not until August 1919 that they were agreed and signed.
1919 - January: Southern Persia. The Bushire Force was engaged in clearing up local rebellions and making the Bushire-Shiraz road secure.
Several Bolshevik attacks on the R.M. detachment in Petrovsk were repelled after street fighting.
The Peace Conference opened at Versailles but, as a neutral country, Persia was not invited to attend. Britain agrees to represent their interests.
19th February: The Afghan leader assassinated and replaced by his son who declares a jihad and calls on Indian Muslims to rise against the British, resulting in the 3rd Anglo-Afghan war. But the Afghans had misread the situation in India and were defeated. This resulted in the Treaty of Rawalpindi (8th Aug.) which granted independence to Afghanistan, and the cessation of subsidies from Britain to Afghanistan
March: The Caspian flotilla flies the White Ensign.
31st March: The British ‘Malleson Mission’ to Trans-Caspia withdraws through lack of local support. The Trans-Caspian government collapses
21st May: An engagement between British and Bolshevik ships off Alexandrovsk (Fort Shevchenko), with the support of 40 R.A.F. planes, resulted in 9 enemy ships being sunk and the rest being kept back in Astrakhan on the Volga.
9th August: The Anglo-Persian Agreement was signed by the Persian Cabinet, with the support of the young Shah. Unfortunately, a subsequent collapse of the signatory of the Persian Cabinet resulted in this agreement being put into suspension where it remained until the palace coup in 1921.
19th August: The British flotilla was handed over to the White Russians.
2nd September: Royal Marines evacuated Petrovsk, but British troops continued to support covert operation in southern Russia.
1920 - March: Norperforce occupied Resht and subdues a revolt by the Janglis who had hoped for independence
20th March: Petrovsk falls - General Denekin’s Volunteer Army is defeated by the Bolsheviks. Denekin and his troops sought shelter in Enzeli and handed over his fleet to the British. Denekin, leader of the White Russian forces, handed over command of the south Russian White forces to Gen. Peter Wrantel.
H.M. Government advised that the Persia situation causes ‘much anxiety’ and planned, with Churchill’s agreement, a substantial garrison in Mesopotamia with the ability to support Norperforce if the Bolsheviks march on Persia
28th April: The Bolsheviks captured Baku
18th May: The Bolsheviks land at Enzeli and seize the White Russian fleet. The Persian Cossacks withdrew. Brief skirmishes with Gurkha troops of Norperforce. Then Maj. Gen. H.B.F. Bateman-Champain, having taken over the command of Norperforce, ordered the withdrawal of his local forces with the Persian Cossacks to Kazvin [Qazin]. Gen. Bateman-Champain had asked for but received no guidance in how to deal with this situation, and decided that it was better to withdraw than create a diplomatic incident. Retrospectively, this was considered a major error of judgement.
The Bolsheviks established the ‘Soviet Republic of Gilan’ which remained in power until October 1921.
The Persian National Democrats considered the British their enemy. The Bolsheviks attempted to subvert them but the National Democrats were routed by Norperforce, with the support of the Persian Cossacks.
23rd August: Maj. Gen Sir Edmund Ironside relieved Bateman-Champain of command of Norperforce. Bateman-Champain goes into retirement.
Ironside had orders to prepare for the withdrawal of all British forces from Persia. He had approximately 6,000 British & Indian troops with the main body at Manjil, holding the head of the pass to prevent further advances by the Bolsheviks. There is also a battalion at Zanjin, some troops patrolling the Manjeel-Kazvin road, with the remainder at Kazvin. Ironside found that his communications division was able to tap into the wireless and telephone communications of the Bolsheviks who, unable to trust their own codes, transmitted all messages in the clear, including operational messages.
The Persian Cossacks did battle with the Bolsheviks but were defeated. Ironside helped to re-organise the battalion for future operations and realised the need to remove the Russian officer and N.C.O. element to allow the battalion to be a solely Persian force. October: Persian Cossacks again did battle with the Bolsheviks at Rasht, but were defeated and withdrew. With the agreement of the Shah, the 100 Russian officers and NCOs were tricked by Ironside into being detached from the Persians of the Persian Cossacks during this withdrawal through the Manjeel Pass. Ironside proceeded to re-equip the remaining all-Persian Cossack Brigade, supported payment of their salary, and selected Col. Reza Khan as their commander.
Disposition of Norperforce (Gen Ironside) 26th Sept 1920
- ‘A’ Batt R.H.A. (Chestnut troop)
- The Guides Cavalry
- 2 Battery, Indian Mountain Artillery.
- Armoured Car Company (16 cars)
- 1st Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment
- 2nd Battalion York & Lancs. Regiment
- 2nd Gurkha
- 122nd Rejput Regiment
- 42nd Deoli Regiment
- Flight of RAF
- (plus a specialist unit under an Artillery Lieutenant who intercepted wireless messages, and carried out taps of Bolshevik telephone calls)
Total of 6,000 British & Indian troops.
The main body was at Manjeel, holding the head of the Pass, preventing advance by Bolshevik forces.
A battalion was stationed at Zanjin. Some troops were patrolling the Manjeel-Qazvin Road, The remainder were at Qazvin.
26th October: Norperforce down to 3,600 men
14th November: The White Russians were finally defeated and the Russian counter-revolution was over: the Bolsheviks are unopposed.
December: Ironside ordered to complete withdrawal of Norperforce within 4 months but was severely hampered by extreme winter weather (40ft. snow drifts)
The Bolsheviks were defeated by the Deoli Regiment when they attacked the ‘iron bridge’ on the Siah road. This was as a result of Ironside having had a week’s notice of their intent through telephone intercepts of the Bolshevik’s plans.
1921 to 1925
30th January: The Bolsheviks were defeated at Menjel by Gurkhas and a troop of Guides cavalry
14th February: Ironside handed over command of Norperforce to Maj. Gen. Sir George Cory
20th - 21st February: There was an almost bloodless palace coup by Reza Khan with his Cossacks (possibly supported ‘unofficially’ by Perfidious Albion!)
25th February: The Soviet-Persian Treaty: All Russian troops were to leave Persia; Lenin granted equal access to the Caspian Sea.
16th March: An Anglo-Persian Trade agreement.
21st April Norperforce was completely withdrawn into Mesopotamia, leaving all small-arms, artillery, ammunition and draft animals to the Persian Cossacks.
There is a little further Persian history after Norperforce left the scene, which may also be of interest:
21st October: The Persian Cossacks suppressed a revolt in Gilan and overthrew the Soviet Republic in Gilan. They also re-established control over southern (Persian) Azerbaijan.
1923 - Reza Khan Pahlevi was appointed Prime Minister
1924 - Reza Khan deposed the young Shah Ahmed Mirza and proclaimed himself Shah
1925 - Shah Reza Khan changed his name to Reza Khan Pahlevi
August: Soviet & British troops entered Persia (Iran)
September: Reza Khan Pahlevi abdicated in favour of his pro-British son Mohammed Reza Pahlevi
16th January: Mohammed Reza Pahlevi appointed his Prime Minister as Regent, and departed Iran for Egypt
1st February: Shiite Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini entered Iran as the spiritual leader of the country.
Sources are many and varied, mostly from the internet, however, one book which has been of particular importance is the volume of the British government’s ‘Official History of the War’ directly concerning Persia. This was written by Brig’d. Gen. F. J. Moberly and published in 1929, and is a remarkable report, apparently unbiased, digging deeply into the politics as well as the military aspects of British operations in and from Persia. What is perhaps of great interest is that when it was first published, it was classified ‘Confidential’, many copies were destroyed before they left the printer, and it was not de-classified and made available to the public until 1987 because of the sensitivity of the politics during, after and partly as a result of some of these operations:
Moberly also wrote the 4 volumes of H.M.G.’s ‘Official History of the War’ dealing with Mesopotamia which has a full report on ‘Dunsterforce’ and some references to 'Norperforce’
Mesopotamia Campaign 1914-1918 published over several years up to 1927.
The author Chris Woods may be contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- British Military Involvement in Transcaspia (1918-1919) by Michael Sargent April 2004 Conflict Studies Research Centre html version, download a pdf file. Includes the Malleson Mission
- "The Illicit Adventures Of Rawlinson: British Intelligence in the Final Phase of the Ottoman Empire" by Bülent Gökay The Turkish Yearbook of International Relations Volume 23 1993 (Research Center for International Political and Economic Relations, Faculty of Political Science, Ankara University) link to pdf download, html version
- "The Battle For Baku (May-September 1918): A Peculiar Episode In The History Of The Caucasus" by Bülent Gökay The Turkish Yearbook of International Relations Volume 25 1995 (Research Center for International Political and Economic Relations, Faculty of Political Science, Ankara University) link to pdf download, html version Also published in Middle Eastern Studies 34 (1998), pages 30-50
- "Dunsterville's Adventures: A Reappraisal" by Artin H Arslanian, International Journal of Middle East Studies Volume 12, No 2 (September 1980), 199-216
Historical books online
- The adventures of Dunsterforce by L C Dunsterville 1920 Archive.org
- With the Persian expedition by Martin Henry Donohoe 1919 Archive.org. The author was a Special Service Officer with 'Dunsterforce'
- History Of The Great War: The Campaign In Mesopotamia 1914-1918 Volumes I-IV by F J Moberly 1923-1927 are available to read online on the Digital Library of India website. The Contents pages of Volume IV are computer pages 15-20. Refer Online books-Digital Library of India for more details about this site.
- Further correspondence respecting the affairs of Persia. Presented to both Houses of Parliament April 1914 1914 Archive.org
- The British Intervention in Transcaspia 1918 -1919 by C H Ellis 1963 Archive.org