1918 – August 19

Yesterday and to-day I visited the whole front line, about 10 miles long, South on Sea to North where right flank is open, enabling Turks to get round and make trouble in our rear in East of peninsula. Armenian citizen soldiers very slack, no discipline and no organisation, holding the line with a stiffening of the North Staffords on both flanks. We are gradually putting British Commandants into the Armenian Battalions, and we have our officers also with their Batteries. My car ran along the front for a while within 3000 yards of the Turkish guns, quite in the open, and they never fired a round at us, so I suppose they are pretty short of ammunition. Our line is terribly weak on the right, and that the Turks do not take the town shows they have very poor spirit. Their batteries are only 6000 yards from the town and harbour and they could shell us any minute if they wanted to. The oil-fields are very interesting. Baku is a very fine town with splendid business houses, but the surroundings are hideous and barren, and the tall chimney stacks of the oil-works are dreadful to look at.

I have interviewed the 5 Dictators who rule the town, at an official reception – also the 10 members of the Armenian National Council, also the C-in-C, Gen Dokuchaieu and his staff, and had to have the latter to dinner last night. 

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1918 – August 14

I moved myself and Headquarters on board the S/S President Kruger, where I shall remain, I expect, for some time. It is cooler on board, I will rig up a wireless set, and I can then move at a moment’s notice anywhere up and down the Caspian. My sailor, Commodore Norris, is extemporising a fleet – so far we have not taken any ships, but we possess a 4 in gun, arrived yesterday and 3 more are coming, and we have naval personnel about 160. The Officers on board and the crew seem a very decent lot. We took down the Revolutionary Red flag and hoisted the old Russian flag.  

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.)

1918 – August 11

Very hot. We bathe in the Sea every morning at 6.30 a.m. I interview people all day long. Complications increase frightfully. Delays are terrible, no convoy ever arrives when expected and Baku just hangs on a thread – all the cars break down and everything seems against me. In addition to all the Persian strings, I have Baku, now Krasnovodsk begs for troops, and Lenkoran, and Bicherakov at Derbend, and the Russian colony at Meshed-i-sar and the Jangalis threaten to attack here, and everyone is against us – but God is with us. My temperament is a calm one or I should go mad. Baku and all the others begin to think I am leaving them in the lurch. I am left in the lurch myself by Baghdad and by the motor-cars. And I run all this with one half size Brigade – it’s worse bluff than any game of poker!

1918 – August 7

The Port here is quiet, but although we have arrested and sent to Baghdad the Bolshevik leaders, we cannot yet get real control of the port and the shipping, as I have very few troops and cannot show force. In fact, the Bolsheviks or the Jangalis or both together might attack me at any time and knock me out. One has to take big risks but I must send all I can to Baku and keep only the minimum here. 

I have had bad diarrhoea for some time and on the road down I felt as if I were going to die – I determined to eat nothing, but at the Nagober toll-gate I had to accept hospitality and I was hungry, so I gave in and drank tea and coffee and ate cheese and omelette. After that I nearly died again and gave up worrying, so when we got to the Resht toll-gate and I was again tempted, I ate everything I wanted. Bray suggested a Russian cure, vodka with pepper in it, so I drank three pepper vodkas which were very consoling! and from that moment to this I have been as fit as a fiddle – it was, I suppose, too much for the microbes.

When one arrives in a new town, one is deluged with interviews that tire one to death. Yesterday I had M. Hunin, head of customs. Khachikov and Senizavin, controlling the Caspian fleet, Gendre, the Social Revolutionary, Dr. Araratiantz, head of the Armenian National Council, Mr. Ogamiantz, Soc. Rev. Alkhari – Bicherakov’s man; great schemes are propounded, but each is playing for his own hand. To-day I have already had heaps of time-wasters, mostly Russian and British refugees trying to get a job – (that is, money) out of me. Baku still holds up and I hope Bob will pull through, but my reinforcements are small and time flies. 

[I cannot identify the location of Nagober but I believe it to be somewhere in Iran]