Battle for Baku I

Troops of D Company, North Staffordshire Regiment, at the Mud Volcano.

Bolstered by 10,000 Armenians, Russians, Cossacks and Tartars of wildly inconsistent reliability, the British at Baku found themselves defending a shrinking perimeter against Nuri Pasha’s larger expeditionary force.

Britain’s main interest in the Baku region was the oil fields, such as this complex at Binagadi.

On the plains of Central Asia, the men of ‘Dunsterforce’ fought Germans, Turks, Bolsheviks and Persian warlords with equal verve.

All had been quiet until about 10:30 a. m., when the British defenders spotted a long line of about 1,000 Turkish infantry and cavalry marching slowly at first, then more quickly toward their positions. Suddenly the enemy struck the line with light and heavy artillery. Then all along the ridge British machine guns began sputtering in response. Five times the Turks lunged at the defenders, taking heavy casualties. At last, outflanked on the north side of the volcano and coming under machine gun fire from the reverse slope, the “Staffords” were forced to retreat to a secondary’ position among the oil derricks northeast of Baku. The final battle for the city had begun-or so it seemed. In the confused seesaw situation in Transcaucasia following the collapse of tsarist Russia, nothing could be taken as final.

Although World War l’s principal area of conflict was in Europe, the armies of Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Turkey and Japan also fought in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Among the least known of those scattered battlegrounds was what at that time was called Transcaucasia and Transcaspia, an area occupied by the newly independent nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. There, secret agents from half a dozen powers prowled the streets of such legendary cities as Samarkand, Kabul and Bukhara, seeking allies and stirring up the native populations.

The Allies had suffered a major disaster when revolution overtook Russia’s creaking empire. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne on March 15, 1917. At first the new government was determined to continue the war against Germany, but then, almost in a flash, it was replaced by the more radical Bolshevik faction. With the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk by the Bolsheviks in March 1918, the Allies’ worst nightmare came true. Freed from the Russian threat in the east, Germany was able to transfer the bulk of its divisions to the Western Front.

Even worse, with the situation in revolutionary Russia still unsettled, anarchy reigned throughout much of the country. In the Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia, the Germans held sway, draining those lands of their natural resources for shipment west. Soon they were eyeing the oil fields around the city of Baku on the Caspian Sea.

Shortly before World War I broke out, London had ordered India to station troops in the Persian Gulf to protect its oil fields and the refinery at Abadan at the head of the gulf, in what is now Iran. When hostilities began, the troops went ashore. After a long and arduous campaign, the British finally occupied Baghdad on March 11, 1917. All their gains were placed in jeopardy when the Bolsheviks took Russia out of the conflict, rendering the vast landmass that stretched from the Black Sea to the Indian frontier vulnerable.

British spies throughout Central Asia began sending back disturbing signals. German agents were at work in Afghanistan and Turkestan. Turkey was seeking to take advantage of the civil chaos in the Turkic-speaking lands bordering their empire to invade Transcaspia. Furthermore, London was under the false impression that the Germans were on good terms with the new regime in St. Petersburg, making Bolshevik agitation in Central Asia and the German presence in Georgia and Armenia appear ominously coordinated.

Then in the spring of 1918 Enver Pasha, war minister, commander in chief-and de facto ruler-of Turkey, began planning an offensive to seize Baku and unite the Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia under Ottoman rule. Enver Pasha had cannily bided his time after the revolution until the demoralized Russian army stationed in northeastern Turkey simply melted away, leaving the way to Baku invitingly open. Enver’s scheme did not sit well with his German allies, however. When he ignored their request that he cancel the invasion, the Germans turned to the Russians and offered to stop the Turks in return for guaranteed unlimited access to Baku’s oil.

Some months before the Turkish invasion, the British, fearing a Russian withdrawal from Transcaucasia, decided to send a mission to the Georgian city of Tiflis, to help stiffen local resistance to the Germans. By the time that expeditionary’ force, called “Dunsterforce” after its commander, Maj. Gen. Lionel C. Dunsterville, reached the area, Tiflis and most of Transcaucasia was in German hands. The mission’s parameters were changed to fit the new scenario: Now Dunsterforce would seek an accommodation with local revolutionary elements at Baku in an effort to deny it to the Turks, and do what it could to aid a second mission operating farther west in Transcaspia.

Dunsterville, a boyhood friend of Rudyard Kipling and the inspiration for the character Stalky in Stalky and Co., Kipling’s novel about their schooldays together, was fluent in Russian and had commanded the 1st Infantry Brigade on India’s Northwest Frontier until he received secret orders to report lo Delhi. There, he learned the details of his new assignment. Together with a handful of 200 officers and NCOs and a small train of armored vehicles with supplies, he was to proceed north from Baghdad to the Caspian Sea. From there, his force would go to Tiflis and form the nucleus of a reorganized Russian force meant to restore the Allied line facing the Turks.

Dunsterville arrived in Baghdad on January 6, 1918, to find orders, maps and intelligence reports awaiting him-but no army. Three weeks later only 12 officers, a number of Ford vans and a single armored ear had joined him, but Dunsterville decided to carry out the first part of his orders and clear the road to Enzeli, on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea, hoping the rest of his modest force would follow him in good time.

Although Dunsterville’s orders seemed clear-cut, no one knew much about the military situation in the Transcaucasus. In fact, a Turkish military mission, headed by Enver Pasha’s brother, Nuri Pasha, had arrived al Tabriz, in what is now northern Iran, in May 1917 and was organizing a Caucasus-Islam army, sometimes referred to by Enver as his “Army of Islam,” to bring Azerbaijan under Ottoman rule. Soon afterward, an advance column of 12,000 men, commanded by Mursal Pasha, was making its ponderous way toward Baku. Germans and Turks controlled most of the local railways, and Persian revolutionaries called Jangalis, led by warlord Mirza Kuchik Khan, terrorized the Enzeli road. Meanwhile, in Baku, the revolutionary central committee had reached an impasse, split between factions loyal to the Russian government at Petrograd, those eager to join with the Turks, and Armenians sympathetic to the British.

Not all the news was bad for Dunsterville, however. When the Russian army was ordered back north, Colonel Lazar Bicherakov decided to remain behind with several hundred of his Cossacks. They eventually attached themselves to Dunsterforce, which had spent the three weeks since its departure from Baghdad crossing the jungles of Gilan province and plowing its way through mountain passes filled with 12-foot snowdrifts and stray Jangalis. At last the force arrived in Enzeii, where the local Soviets insisted that Russia was out of the war and did not want anything to do with the British, including helping them to reach Baku.

That initially cool reception soon turned dangerous for Dunsterville. The local Persian population surrounded and threatened to massacre his small force. With only a single armored car to impress 2,000 Bolshevik soldiers and 5,000 rowdy Persians, Dunsterforce slipped away one night and made its way back south to the town of Hamadan, about halfway from Enzeli to Baghdad.

At Hamadan the British established temporary headquarters and a defensive line that consisted mostly of bluff until it was joined by Bicherakov’s Cossacks, who were disappointed to discover just how weak Dunsterforce really was. As winter gave way to spring and summer, however, the rest of Dunsterville’s men began to arrive, including two Martinsyde G. I00 Elephant bombers of No. 72 Squadron, flown by Lieutenants M. C. McKay and R. P. Pope, which went a long way to improve morale and impress Dunsterforces local allies. At last, with the force’s assigned complement of officers and the addition of a mobile force of 1,000 rifles of the 1/4 Hampshire Regiment and the 1/2 Gurkhas with two mountain guns, Dunstewille felt strong enough to move forward to clear the Enzeli road once and for all of Kuchik Khan’s guerrillas, who had seized the Menjil Bridge, a vital position on the way north.

Bicherakov had been agitating to attack the Turkish sympathizers for weeks, but Dunsterville had hesitated, fearing Kuchik Khan might be too much for the intemperate Cossacks. Finally he could put off the impatient Bicherakov no longer, and after talks with Kuchik Khan failed, plans were made to attack his positions at Menjil.

On June 11, Bicherakov left Dunsterville’s forward position at Qazvin, Iran, at the head of his Cossacks and elements of the 14th Hussars. At first light on June 12, the Cossacks started for the bridge expecting a hard fight, but as the Martinsydes flew over the enemy positions, their pilots discovered that the Jangalis had failed to occupy a key ridge commanding their lines. Bicherakov quickly took the ridge and sited his artillery. A German adviser with Kuchik Khan, realizing the importance of that move, called a truce and tried to bluff a victory from certain defeat, but Bicherakov refused his advances and pressed the attack. Almost immediately the Jangalis broke and ran, leaving scores of dead and wounded behind.

With the bridge secured, Bicherakov, supported by mobile units from Dunsterforce, continued northward to the provincial capital at Resht, just south of Enzeli, where on July 20 he routed the remnants of Kuchik Khan’s Jangalis in a final battle. Meanwhile, Dunsterville had established his headquarters at Qazvin, about midway between Enzeli and Hamadan.

More reinforcements reached Qazvin in July, including a group from the Royal Navy under Royal Naw Commodore David Norris, who brought with him several 4-inch guns. That happy event was dulled, however, by news of Bicherakov’s defeat east of Baku by the Turks, who had run off the newly formed Red Army and captured an armored car and its British crew, which had been on loan from Dunsterforce. By the end of the month. Mureal Pasha’s force was outside Baku. Then the Turks suddenly departed. The reason was never made clear, but the alerted German occupation forces may have posed a threat to their flanks-though that threat proved to be nothing more than a rumor. At almost the same time, the Baku Soviet was deposed and the new regime decided to make contact at Qazvin with the British, who in the meantime had received permission from London to occupy Baku.

After stressing to Baku’s new rulers, who somewhat grandiosely called themselves the Central-Caspian Dictatorship, that the British could only provide help on a small scale, Dunsterville sent Colonel C. B. Stokes to Baku with 44 men of the 4th Hampshires. They arrived just in time to help repel a desultory attack by elements of the Turkish army that had been left behind.

Two days later, Colonel R. Keyworth arrived with the 7th North Staffordshires to organize the city’s defense. He found only a few defenses there, all sited improperly. Nobody knew what supplies were available or where they were located. There was little food, fodder or oil. Worst of all, the local soldiery was little better than a disorganized mob.

Receiving this disheartening news back at Enzeli, Dunsterville was moved to commandeer three local ships, President Krüger, Abo and Kursk, and arm them with heavy guns, thus providing the means to evacuate his men from Baku if the need arose. Dunsterville himself landed on August 16, along with a battalion each of the understrength 9th Warwickshire and 9th Worcestershire regiments, which were immediately sent into the thin defensive line around the city. Dunstenville then met with the town’s new rulers to impress upon them the fact that although every effort would be made to prepare their men for battle, they could not depend solely on Dunsterforces 1,000 or so men to defend Baku.

Ten days later, Nuri Pasha, learning that the Germans had no men to spare in trying to stop him-even if they contemplated so extreme a move against their ally-once again ordered advance elements of his 60,000-man army to move on Baku. The British had used every day following their arrival to assemble the city’s stocks of weapons and ammunition and organize an army of 10,000 men. With all they had accomplished in the short time at their disposal, however, the British knew that Baku could not withstand a determined attack. Their 7,000 Armenian conscripts were unreliable, the 3,000 Russian troops would break and run at a moment’s notice and the Tartar population only waited for a Turkish victory to rise up and slaughter the defenders.

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