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Belligerents and Participants
in World War One:
Persia (Iran)


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In order to curtail the power of Shah Muzaffar ad Din, revolutionaries forced constitutional reforms through in 1906 that install an elected parliament. This change caused a huge backlash by traditionalists who were disdainful of democracy, and disorder erupted across the country. To quell this instability, the Anglo-Russian Agreement was signed the following year which carved out spheres of influence over Persia. The Russians received rights over the northern Caucasus, while the British took control in the south to secure their border with India. The Interior would be a neutral zone in which both could operate. In 1908 the Shah was finally deposed by the military in favor of a constitutional government, but there was constant friction between nationalists, the British and the Russians who began forcefully taking control over the north. Once World War One erupted, Persia declared its neutrality but it would not be respected by any of the belligerents.

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On November 1, 1914, the Russians launched the Bergmann Offensive into the Caucasus. This was met by an Ottoman offensive aimed at Kars, but they were defeated by the Russians at the Battle of Sarikamish. In need of reinforcements, the Russians withdrew their most troops from Persia, leaving only a small force behind. A small Ottoman command under Khalil Bey then set out for Persia, and after engaging the remaining Russians they pushed them back taking Urmia and Tabriz. When the Russians realized they had made a strategic mistake, they sent troops back into Persia who under General Nazarbekov pushed back the Turkish incursion. By March 1915 the Turks launched a larger offensive toward Dilman. While they had some initial success they had to withdraw their army in April to deal with the rebellions among the Armenians and Assyrians.

The Assyrians, a Christian Semitic people, lived semi-autonomously in a region stretching from southern Turkey to northwest Persia. Many served within the Ottoman armies, but they soon became a target of Islamic purges. They rose up against the Turks in April 1915 and kept them at bay into the summer, but they were defeated by superior arms before Russian reinforcements could arrive. The Turks and Kurdish militias then began a huge massacre of the Assyrian people. Most fighters that survived fled to northern Persia where they formed a fighting unit alongside the Russians.

Though Germany did not maintain an army in Persia, their agents such as Wilhelm Wassmuss managed to cause much worry to the Allies, by befriending and arming nationalists and tribesmen who wanted to be rid of their imperialist presence. Under German influence Tangestani tribesmen attacked British held forces at Busehr in July 1915. They also began building a large paramilitary force of Persian gendarmerie. In November the Russians commanded by Nikolai Baratov sent two armies southward, one into Persian Aberbijan enroute for Baghdad, and the other towards Ispahan. The second force made up of Russians and Armenians continued onwards until they captured Tehran and expelled the Germans and their gendarmerie sympathizers who fled westward into Mesopotamia. The British and Russians had already signed a secret treaty back in March that would allow Britain to dominate both southern and central Persia in exchange for Russian control over Constantinople. Now the British formed the South Persian Rifles to police and secure their interests in Persia. In December the Shah was pressured into appointing a new pro-Ally cabinet headed by Prince Firman Firma.

The Russian advance continued in early 1916. After pushing resistance by gendarmes and local tribesmen aside, they captured Hamedan in January, Kermanshah in February, and Kharind in March. Baratov, now on the Ottoman frontier decided to push forward into Mesopotamia in April to take pressure off the British besieged in Kut, but and advanced party soon learned of their surrender. The Turks were then able to shift their forces northward to protect Baghdad and repulsed the still advancing Russians at Khanikin. The Ottomans pushed him back into Persia capturing Kermanshah then Hamadan by August. Baratov continued to retreat northwards into the mountains without pursuit, but he returned to Hamadan in December. Before the Russians could organize a new offensive in 1917 and join up with the British advancing on Baghdad, a revolution swept Russia in February. Though technically still in the War, most Russian troops on this front went home leaving the army ineffectual by April. This left the Assyrians in a precarious situation, but they continued fighting the Ottomans in Persia until they were nearly surrounded in June 1918.

In June 1916 the British began taking a more active role in Persia. A British force under Percy Sykes took Kerman, and then worked to support Russian operations against the Ottomans until they ceased in 1917. As the Russian Army retreated from the Caucasus, the British encouraged the now isolated Armenians to hold the line against the Turks. A new Ottoman army under Yakub Shevki was sent to Persia in December 1917 to disrupt any efforts to help them or the Bolsheviks. A number of back and forth battles were fought between the Armenians and the Turks, but in the end the Ottomans could not stop the British in Baghdad under General Dunsterville from reinforcing this front. This small British unit (Dunsterforce) marched into Persia where they were joined by Baratov’s Cossacks in April. They set sail from the Caspian Sea, landing in Baku by August. The Assyrians in Persia planned follow the Russians into the Caucasus, but they joined British forces in Mesopotamia instead with the promise of independence once the War was over. The Russians had offered a similar promise, but that had faded once Russia left the War. (The Treaty of Versailles would deny Assyrian autonomy.)

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On October 30, 1918, the Ottoman Empire signed the Armistice of Mudros temporarily ending military operations, but they would refuse to sign the Versailles Treaty, which led to continued fighting. In August 1919 the Anglo-Persian Agreement was signed guarantying British access to the oil fields if Persia. An army was then dispatched to the north under General Ironside to consolidate British control over the region and keep the Bolsheviks out. A long period of political and military unrest would follow.




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