Category Archives: Caspian Sea

8 DECEMBER, 1918: Britannia’s B Team

From a Western European perspective, orthodox history and current affairs make it very clear that the Mediterranean Sea has always been a hub for international competition.  Some people west of the Rhine are also aware that the Black Sea is, similarly, an arena in which those countries it touches compete for control and resources.  Enclosed seas have that effect, for reasons that are pretty obvious, and the Caspian Sea is no exception – but its geopolitics are a mystery to most modern Westerners, much as they were in 1918.

Given our general ignorance, it would seem hardly surprising that the formative battles being fought in and around the Caspian Sea in the months after the Armistice were largely ignored by the victorious Allies at the time, or that we ignore them now.  Ah, but today is the centenary of a minor battle that left the Royal Navy as undisputed master of the Caspian Sea during the winter of 1918–19, and was the first action of a strange, largely forgotten naval campaign in the region.  I’d best explain, in case no one else does.

The geopolitical melting pot of the Caspian Sea began to boil into chaos after the 1917 revolutions in Russia removed the region from imperial control.  North of Persia, the territories around the west, north and east of the sea could be broadly divided along ethnic lines into Russians, Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, with the latter category including several related peoples to the north and east.  Along political lines they split between restoration Tsarists, various liberal, left-leaning or socialist groups united only by their opposition to Tsarist rule, and Bolsheviks loyal to the Moscow government.

Good maps of the Caspian Sea are (unsurprisingly) hard to steal, but if you can be bothered to look closely at this 1910 map, it does the business.

By mid-1918, the fluctuating, violent miasma of alliances and rebellions between relatively small armed forces representing all these factions and sub-factions had coalesced, superficially and north of Persia, into three independent republics – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia – each with a fragile anti-Bolshevik regime in place.  If that sounds reasonably clear, it wasn’t.

Azerbaijan as a whole was strongly anti-Bolshevik but its capital, Baku, was under the control of Armenian and Russian Bolsheviks. Further east, in what is now Turkmanistan, resident Turkomans and Russians were largely anti-Bolshevik but the only useful port, Krasnovodsk (now Türkmenbaşy in Turkmanistan), was in Bolshevik hands until July 1918, when a non-Bolshevik socialist rebellion took control.  To the north, Bolshevik control of the of the coast was interrupted by a royalist Cossack enclave in the northeast, and to the south the Persian provinces close to the sea were feral badlands beyond central government control, with tribal warlords, ex-Imperial Russian troops and a small British contingent in tenuous charge of various enclaves.  Bolsheviks meanwhile controlled most remaining naval vessels of the Imperial Caspian Sea flotilla from a base at Astrakhan, about 100km from the sea.

The ill-fated advance into the region by ‘Dunsterforce’, a detachment from the British armies in Mesopotamia, was responsible for bringing the Royal Navy into the Caspian Sea (17 February, 1918: Follow That Figment!).  A small naval element arrived with Dunster’s infantry brigade to set up a base at Enzali and, in theory, work with the ‘Centro-Caspian’ flotilla, a few ex-Imperial gunboats supposedly under the command of the Baku government. The Baku regime had invited the British to intervene, but the soviet actually in charge of the flotilla refused to cooperate, so all the British were able to achieve was the hire of a few local merchant ships, which were fitted with 4-inch guns transported overland from the Mesopotamian Front, some 700 kilometres away.

When General Dunster’s expedition was forced to flee Baku in September 1918, the Royal Navy’s commandeered ships and their Russian or Azerbaijani crews remained at Enzali, charged with preventing Ottoman forces in the Caucasus from establishing a presence on the eastern coast.  By the end of October British flotilla commander Commodore Norris had converted five merchant ships and was awaiting overland transport of ammunition for their guns from Mesopotamia.

Unsatisfied with poor repair facilities at Enzali, Norris crossed to Krasnovodsk in the first ship armed, the small freighter (and subsequent flotilla flagship) SS Kruger, and moved his base there after accepting assurances of support from the social revolutionary local government then in place.  The Armistice changed his mind. Allied warships could now supply the Flotilla through the Black Sea, and on 17 November it steamed into Baku, where it was once again expected to cooperate with the Centro-Caspian flotilla and local ‘White’ ground forces.

Royal Navy forces in the Caspian Sea could have simply gone home after the Armistice – and only a few British personnel were anyway involved, for command, gunnery and radio duties – but imperial thinking kept them in place.  Given help and a modicum of collective organisation, anti-Bolshevik forces seemed to have a good chance of winning control over the region – as they did elsewhere in the former Russian Empire at that stage – and getting rid of Lenin’s regime was a high priority for all the world’s surviving major empires.  At the same time the British Empire was still very interested in securing oil supplies through Baku, and still determined to guard against any hostile exploitation of the Caspian ‘back door’ into India.

The principal duty of the combined RN and Centro-Caspian flotillas was to protect Baku from any attack by Bolsheviks to the north, with particular responsibility for the Bolshevik flotilla at Astrakhan, but it was also required to supply Cossack outposts to the northeast through the port of Guriev (now Atyrau in Kazakhstan).  In early December, while one RN ship performed the latter task another four went on patrol to the north, where the waters south of the Volga Delta were dangerously shallow, largely uncharted and frozen in winter.  The Centro-Caspian flotilla’s vessels again turned out to be allies in name only, and refused to take part.

The region’s rich intermingling of ethnic and political factions made any kind of secret difficult to keep, and the British were aware of Bolshevik plans to establish a warm-water naval base at the small port of Staro-Terechnaya, on the mainland near Chechen Island, at the southernmost limit of the winter freeze.  Two converted British ships, the Zoro-Aster and Alla Verdi, were waiting off Chechen Island when three Bolshevik armed merchantmen and three transports approached Staro-Terechnaya on 8 December.  The Bolshevik ships opened fire, and the British responded.  During the skirmish that followed the Zoro-Aster suffered minor damage and one Bolshevik ship caught fire before the rest withdrew, leaving the British short of ammunition but in undisputed control of ice-free Caspian waters for the winter.

The Bolsheviks made no further attempt to move south before northern waters froze in mid-January, when the RN Flotilla returned to Baku for repairs, leaving one ship to make occasional patrols just south of the ice.  While some very war-weary conscripts were finally sent home, additional British crews were transferred to the theatre from the Mediterranean and Home Fleets, and the facilities at Baku were upgraded.

Evidence that the Centro-Caspian flotilla and elements of the White ‘Volunteer Army’ in the city were (like much of the working population) in contact with Bolsheviks brought the pretence of cooperation to an end in March, when an Indian infantry division transferred from Mesopotamia expelled the Volunteer Army from Baku and Norris seized the Centro-Caspian flotilla.  From that point the RN flotilla underwent a significant growth spurt.

HMS Asia was typical of the local freighters requisitioned for the Caspian Flotilla.

Further British crews were transferred to the region, requisitioned ships were renamed ‘HMS’, the Zoro-Aster was designated a reserve vessel and the slow, unreliable Alla Verdi was paid off.  By late June the flotilla mustered eight frontline armed freighters, 12 coastal motor boats, a motor boat carrier, two seaplane carriers and four supporting transport ships, employing a total of about 1,100 RN officers and men along with more than 300 locally recruited personnel.  The RAF had also established a base on Chechen Island by late April, when the annual thaw enabled patrols to resume in the north.

RAF Airco DH4 bombers on the ground at Petrovosk. Royal Naval Air Service machines until the name change in 1918, they were used to bomb Bolshevik naval bases in and around the Volga Delta.

The Royal Navy would remain an important military presence in the Caspian Sea for much of that summer, and would fight what very nearly amounted to a battle against a much bigger Bolshevik force before its eventual withdrawal in early September.  I’ll give that moment of questionable glory its due when the centenary comes around, but for now this has been a nod to one of Britain’s least remembered military adventures and a reminder that, after all the lessons of the ‘war to end wars’, the British Empire was still acting as if Britannia ruled the waves.

17 FEBRUARY, 1918: Follow That Figment!

Thanks to happy accidents of history and geography, I’ve never had to fight in a war or survive as one goes on around me, but I have it on a number of good authorities that both can play tricks on the imagination.  This is obviously true of individuals but can also be the case for groups, particularly in hierarchical systems that grant certain individuals a lot of power to influence groups.

The First World War was a very big, very complicated war, fought between fundamentally hierarchical systems, and arguably fought in an attempt to preserve those systems in a changing socio-political environment.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at how often – even by the standards of comparably enormous conflicts – the command elites of First World War empires let their collective imaginations run out of control.

Imagined threats and imagined glories, not to mention a few imagined maps, generated a lot of wild, crazy and generally pointless action throughout the War.  The French invasion of Germany in 1914, the Dardanelles expedition in 1915, almost everything to do with British extension of the Mesopotamian Front, Italian involvement in the War, Romanian foreign policy, the whole basis of German war strategy after Ludendorff and the Third Supreme Command took power in 1916… the war years were in some ways defined by these and many other strategic responses to gigantic chimeras.

Wild flights of imagination, laced with optimism or desperation, also gave life to some of the War’s smaller but crazy operations – the British Naval Africa Expedition springs inevitably to mind (15 June, 1915: Do So, Mister Allnut) – and today marks the centenary of a staging post in one such folly’s story.  I’m talking about the adventures of what came to be known as ‘Dunsterforce’, a British detachment that reached what was then the town of Enzeli in northwest Persia, and is now the Iranian town of Bandar-e Anzali, on 17 February 1918.

Nicknamed after its commanding officer, Russian-speaking British Indian Army General Lionel Dunsterville, Dunsterforce was a composite detachment of about 1,000 British, ANZAC and Canadian troops hand-picked from the Western and Mesopotamian Fronts.  It was assembled in December 1917 at the western Persian town of Hamadan, halfway between the Mesopotamian frontier and Teheran, and supplied by a fleet of 750 lorries across 500km of rough terrain from Baghdad.

Dunsterville: as dashing as he looks, and the inspiration for Kipling’s Stalky.

All this logistic effort was the product of some fairly wild imaginings on the part of British strategists.  They imagined a plan to invade India through Persia by Ottoman and German forces, and imagined that a thousand men could march across modern Iraq and Iran to prevent it.  They also imagined that the same men could march on into what was then known as Transcaucasia, where they could prop up the newly established, anti-Ottoman Transcaucasian Republic and ideally gain access to the regional oil industry centred on Baku.

The idea of aiding Transcaucasia did at least have a basis in reality. The strip of land between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea had formed the only land frontier between the Russian and Ottoman Empires in 1914, and comprised the Russian provinces of Azerbaijan and Georgia, along with the vaguely defined Armenian homelands either side of the border.  All three formed legislative assemblies with nationalist pretensions in the wake of the February Revolution in Russia, and after a joint meeting at Tbilisi in August 1917 they agreed to merge for mutual protection as the Transcaucasian Republic, which came into formal existence on 17 September.

It didn’t last long.  The dominant partner, Georgia, was interested in promoting its economic development as a client of Germany, while Azerbailjan favoured close relations with a Central Asian assembly based in Tashkent, and after years of genocidal violence Armenians were primarily concerned with reaching some kind of settlement with their Turkish neighbours.  By the time Dunsterforce was assembling, all three partners were behaving as if the Republic didn’t exist, and all three were bracing for attacks by Red Army forces as soon as a peace agreed at Brest-Litovsk left the Bolsheviks free to focus on internal affairs.

While I’m on this detour, I should correct a bad miss on my part some eighteen months back, a failure to mention one of the War’s almost completely forgotten horrors. In July 1916, native peoples of the region known as Central Asia – modern Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (eat your heart out, Borat) – rose up against the Russian Empire, which had expanded to control the region in the late nineteenth century.

Russia had left Central Asia’s tribal and nomadic societies virtually untouched, but had exploited their cotton output and used the land to seed colonists, who made up some forty percent of the population by 1914. War provided an outlet for longstanding tensions between natives and colonists because the Empire needed manpower, and the rebellion exploded into life after a government decree conscripted hitherto exempt native males for military labour service. Thousands of Russian settlers were murdered before the Russian Army moved in to join colonists in executing savage reprisals, and estimates of the number killed before order was restored vary up to about 500,000.

Even in this idealised form the Central Asian rebels of 1916 were easy meat for Russian Army guns.

Perhaps if the revolt had been a crusade for or precursor to some kind of nationalist movement, rather than a spontaneous expression of popular anger of a kind generally known as peasants’ revolt in the West, it would still be commemorated as part of some nation’s creation story. As it is, the slaughter in Central Asia has never been subject to propaganda exposure by anyone. Virtually unknown to contemporaries in Europe, it has been pretty much ignored ever since. It’s a fair guess that Western posterity would be all over any remotely comparable catastrophe if it had happened somewhere less remote from the concerns of history’s winners, and that justifies the swerve so I’ll move on.

Dunsterforce headed north to undertake its improbable twin mission on 27 January 1918, accompanied by an armoured car unit, and had covered the 350km to Enzeli by 17 February. Reality then reared its inconvenient head, because 3,000 revolutionary Russian troops were already there, and Dunsterville was forced to march back to Hamadan.

Tough country… Dunsterforce country.

During the following weeks a German division occupied Tbilisi, an Ottoman force moved to threaten Baku and Red Army forces quit Enzeli to retreat beyond Baku.  Dunsterforce armoured cars, this time accompanied by a British imperial regiment from the Mesopotamian Front and a force of some 3,000 anti-revolutionary Russian troops, duly struggled north again.  They occupied Enzeli in June, but didn’t stay long.  In response to an appeal for help from moderate socialists who had overthrown the Bolsheviks controlling Baku during July, Dunsterforce crossed the western Caspian Sea to join the city’s defence.

About 1,000 Dunsterforce troops had joined a garrison of some 10,000 local volunteers in Baku by late August, but they left again during the night of 14 September as 14,000 Ottoman troops prepared to attack the city.   Baku fell next day, but most of Dunsterville’s troops escaped and returned to Enzeli along with large numbers of Armenian refugees.  When Ottoman forces left Baku in line with the armistice agreement, Dunsterville led his troops back to occupy the port without a fight.  Having finally achieved this small, belated and temporary strategic success, he was ordered back to Britain.

He received rather less of a hero’s welcome than he might have expected for bringing his force through a considerable logistic and command challenge in far-flung and dangerous territory.  With the War effectively over and propaganda losing its hold over public debate, his mission was subject to severe criticism as part of a wider (and permanent) backlash against the perceived strategic failings that had prolonged the conflict. Dunsterforce was generally dismissed as either a reckless and pointless adventure or a strategic coup let down by pitifully inadequate investment of resources.  A century on, it’s hard to argue with that assessment – but equally hard to claim we don’t still fall for wartime tricks on our imagination.