There’s no need to saddle this post with a clever title. A simple rendition of the headline does a perfectly good job of grabbing the modern reader’s attention. Back in early November 1915, on the other hand, the arrival of a Russian invasion force on what was then Persian soil caused relatively little international stir, not least because very little information about the place reached the west quickly, if at all. Partly for the same reason, and partly because it doesn’t fit easily into a sepia-tinted commemoration package, you could hardly say modern Iran’s involvement in the First World War is well known now. Well I’m no expert, but I’ve done a little research into the subject in my time, so just in case the modern history of Iran ever becomes relevant to the wider world, here’s a sketch.
Persia in 1915 formed an independent, but economically undeveloped and internally unstable buffer between two empires, Russia and British India. An Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 had arbitrarily divided the country into spheres of influence, giving Britain a free economic hand in the south and Russia the same in the north. While the British maintained prewar control over oil supplies from the southwest of the country through a network of financial and military support for local authorities, the Russians ensured order in the north by stationing thousands of troops in the region, and a central, neutral zone became an arena of intense competition between Russian, British and German agents.
The outbreak of war gave German elements in Persia a chance to undermine Anglo-Russian dominance by gaining the support of the 18 year-old Shah Ahmed Mirza and tribal leaders in the regions. British operations in southwest Persia in support of Mesopotamian Front forces – which included occupation of the port of Bushire in October 1914, and of the inland pumping station at Ahwaz the following spring – provided German ambassador Prince Heinrich of Reus with plenty of ammunition for a propaganda campaign that was backed by lavish spending on arms and pensions. By autumn 1915, British influence in the south was restricted to a few garrison enclaves, and Germany controlled 15 of the 17 Persian banks, and in early November, when the Swedish-officered Persian gendarmerie agreed to operate under German control, Persia seemed on the brink of an alliance with the Central Powers.
Enter the Russians, as always able to spare a few thousand men for a bit of imperial business. An expeditionary force from the Caucasus of 6,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry, all under the command of a General Baratov, sailed across the Caspian Sea in a ramshackle armada of small ships and landed at the northern Persian port of Phalevi (then called Enzeli) on 7 November. According to contemporary Russian sources another 5,000 troops had already arrived, but this has never been confirmed and anyway makes no difference to the fact that no other force in the region could begin to match Baratov’s army as it began a slow westward advance.
The Shah, who had been careful to remain on good personal terms with all sides, promptly cooled relations with the Germans. He declined a German offer of protection, and remained in the capital while the chief German agent, Wassmuss, coordinated small actions by the gendarmerie and other irregulars intended to delay the Russian advance.
General Baratov didn’t need much encouragement to delay. Although he soon pushed Wassmuss and his forces west to the Mesopotamia border, his vastly superior force was held there until the following March, when he crossed the frontier to reach Karind, some 200km from Baghdad. His next advance, in June 1916, was halted by Ottoman forces and driven back into Persia, but by then the British South Persia Rifles had begun restoring order in the south of the country and any danger of an alliance with Germany had evaporated.
The South Persia Rifles was a force of native troops raised by the British with the Shah’s permission and organised along the lines of the British Indian Army. By the end of 1916, SPR commander Sir Percy Sykes could call on almost 4,000 troops in five brigades, including 450 cavalry, and had quelled most opposition in the British sphere. With the Russians in passive control of the north, Persia remained relatively stable until late 1917, when fallout from October Revolution ushered in a fresh period of unrest in the country, of which more another day.
I mention this small part of a small campaign as another reminder of how much of the modern Middle East was shaped by the actions and ambitions of the Great Powers during the First World War. Lest we forget…