1918 – Battle for Baku

A little background:

There are many reasons why the British Army wished to secure Baku during the closing months of World War One, chief of which was to gain the oilfields to supply the war machine. Additionally, the whole of the Caucasus was seen as a gateway through from Europe to the East – namely, the British territories in India (known as “the jewel in the crown” of the British Empire) and further afield. If the Germans or Turks were to claim this area, it could have left the Eastern territories very vulnerable.

However, care must be taken not to see the war in this region as purely down to gaining territory. Battles and wars between all the main antagonists had been fought in the area for centuries; political deals, marriages between royal families, religion, ethnic identities and regional affiliations all played their part. The tensions of the entire area – from Turkey to India, from Russia to Yemen – continue to simmer to this day for arguably much the same reasons as they always have.

Politics

Politically, the British were almost honour-bound to support the Russian Imperial interests, as the incumbent British king and the recently-deposed Russian tsar were cousins. Furthermore, any approval of revolutionary/Bolshevik/communist actions would send a clear (affirmative) message to any revolutionaries in Britain herself, which was clearly out of the question for a country with a monarchy. Therefore, the British were keen to harness the now-unemployed ‘White’ (Imperial) Russian troops to bolster their numbers in this area.

However, tensions had been building between Britain and Russia for most of the previous century, as the former believed the latter were aiming to claim India for their own, via Afghanistan. The familial ties of the respective royal families, contrasted with the shrewd manouevring of the diplomats, became known as The Great Game. It is therefore naively simplistic to follow the accepted lore that because Britain and Russia were allies in World War One, all was cordial between the two nations.

The German king (Kaiser) was also trying to expand his territories, having come rather much later to the empire game than his other European neighbours. The Kaiser was also a cousin to the British king and Russian Tsar, but was considered uncouth and pushy by them and they actively shunned him. This humiliation certainly contributed to his bullish attitude.

The Ottoman Empire was verging on collapse and it was the German hope that they could secure the lands that the Turks controlled – and from there, take over the British interests in the Middle East. Of course, the Turks saw it the other way around; that the German contribution would enable them to expand and to replenish their coffers after a series of wars in the preceding couple of decades. The role of the Turks is often overlooked in simpler British histories of World War One, or at least overshadowed by the battles of the Western Front. The British, for instance, are well acquainted with the defeat at Gallipoli in 1915/16, but I would hazard a guess that few would be able to identify the other antagonist in the battles there – the Ottomans. Fewer British people, still, would have heard of the systematic elimination of the Armenian population across the region, action which resulted in the annihilation of some 1.5 million people – in fact, it was these killings that moved Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer, to coin the term ‘genocide’.

Right into the swirl of empire-builders busily making plans for this region marched the revolutionaries, inspired by the overthrow of the Russian royal family by the Bolsheviks and by the dream of freedom from the yoke of living under aristocrats who had little care for their workers. Many communities were worn down by the loss of so many of their young men to the great war machine abroad. The influence of such novel political developments cannot be underestimated in this region. You can read more about this here.

The Battle for Baku

This map shows the controlling forces of July to October 1918.

Here is an excellent article which has maps of the area around Baku showing troop positions and discussing in some detail the political situation of the time. Do scroll down and read all of it.

Here is another comprehensive article which outlines the British policy towards Azerbaijan and the Caucasus during the year or so up to July 1918. Written by an Azerbaijani/Soviet historian, it gives a very useful overview of Dunsterville’s specific mission, which was, by now, known as Dunsterforce.

This article delves some way into the political characters of the region, in particular Enver Pasha, Mirza Kuchik Khan and Colonel Lazar Bicherakov. Pasha was the Minister of War for the Ottoman Empire during World War One and effectively ended up controlling and ruling the Ottoman Empire. Kuchik Khan was a belligerent warlord heading up a revolutionary Persian movement called the Jangalis. Bicherakov was the leader of a small band of Cossack soldiers who were harnessed by Dunsterville to contribute to the British mission to secure Baku. (Be warned, the article has a large video in the centre which loads random history videos but which is titled in such a way as to initially make you think it’s part of the article.)

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