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.

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