4.30 p.m. we have just fought the first naval battle of the Caspian, and not very nobly. Never got to Derbend at all. Just off Derbend a suspicious looking vessel, probably Bolshevik, signalled to us to come alongside. The Captain asked me for orders – I said is she any sort of ship with authority to make such a demand. He said, No, it is the Usbeg*, long since in Bolshevik hands – whereupon I said “full steam ahead!” On this the steamer opened fire with some small gun, probably a 3 inch, fired some 4 or 5 shots for a period of a quarter of an hour all round us, and close, but no hits and we, being able to steam faster, got away. Changed course and now steam back to Baku to insist on mounting guns on all ships – otherwise we shall get done in some day by one of these pirates.
* I cannot identify this vessel but it is worth noting that Usbeg can mean a ‘member of a Turkic people of Uzbekistan and neighbouring areas’ (definition from here).
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]
Things are very critical in Baku and we may be too late – I had two of the Bolshevik leaders to lunch, Cheliapin and Lazarev – not very interesting people. It was amusing to see how they eat not only their food but their principles. It was quite an entente party.
Looks as if I might still have a chance of saving Baku from Turks and Germans. The Bolshevik power has been thrown out and I am going to try and get across the Caspian at last. I have frequent interviews with the Bolshevik leaders and the Social Revolutionaries. The former came to lunch – the latter are more amenable.
Persian political news confusing and disturbing. Two Russian Aviation officers came to me from Baku with offers of help, but when I cross-questioned them and it came down to bed-rock it was evident they could not help me and very much needed help themselves. They had, as usual, fantastic ideas, among others, that of capturing one of the Caspian Bolshevik gun-boats with one sea-plane – it is all very like Alice in Wonderland. A dull cold day and the white snowy landscape bores me to death. We hear that our mail is at last being brought up.
Revolutionary Committee Meeting, Soldiers and Sailors all very pleasant and “comrady” and well behaved. Each questioned me in turn and tried to get me to reveal secrets and to contradict myself – I hope I got through all right. I insisted that my mission was not political and not anti-Bolshevik, and that they must let me go to Tiflis. They said they would take every possible step to prevent my getting there – the Caucasus being against the Bolsheviks and they could not permit us to pass through – and if we left here we would be caught by the Bolsheviks at Baku. They possess the telegraph and everything. They put sentries on all the ships to prevent my leaving and they have a gun-boat ready to sink us if we try – our house is guarded night and day and the situation is absurd – the mission has ended and there is nothing to do but to get out of it with all speed.
To explain the context – having reached as far as this, on a journey north to Tblisi (Georgia) or Baku (Azerbaijan), Dunsterville is now faced with the prospect of arrest or other detention, attack by the Iranian (Persian) revolutionaries, or retreat. At the same time, he is aware that any retreat will be looked on badly by the War Office. It is worth reading more about the situation here.
To Enzeli. We stayed half an hour at Resht to see the consul there. He says the situation is very bad. After all this horrible snow and hills and no trees, we ran 50 miles through the most lovely country, beech forests, chestnut, cyclamen, primrose, scented violets, snowdrops, and strawberries in quantities – a lovely country. Towards the Caspian it gets flat and boggy, and one passes through rice-fields. Enzeli is a port with a huge fishing industry – very interesting freezing works. The town is entirely Bolshevik and they have a very good and orderly organization – but we were prisoners from the moment of our arrival. The Revolutionary Committee sent me a message desiring my presence at 8 p.m. at their meeting. I was dining at that hour with Mme. Hunin, the wife of the Belgian Customs Officer, so I took no notice of it which was the wrong thing to do. At 9 o’clock the President and one Member bearded the lion in his den and turned up at the house insisting on seeing me. I sat in a room with them and they proceeded to cross-examine me as to the meaning of this armed British party suddenly descending on them, my destination, my aims etc. I answered briefly and agreed to meet the full Committee at 11 to-morrow.
General Baratov returned my call and spoke for 3 hours without taking breath re the Russian evacuation, Russian financial requirements and Russian tactical considerations. I do much listening and the time is not yet for me to talk. The road ahead is reported dangerous and every animate and inanimate thing is out to stop me, but if you face the obstacles they disappear as a rule. Turkish, German and Austrian agents, all over the place, and hostile Bolshevik soldiers several thousand, blocking the road between here and Enzeli – it is lively.