Battle for Baku II

Troops of the 7th North Staffordshire march from Baladjari to reinforce Binagadi Hill on August 31.

One of the two Martinsyde G. 100 Elephants of No.72 squadron, Royal Air Force attached to “Dunsterforce” stands by for its next mission.

A 6-inch artillery piece manned by Armenian and British gunners engages the Turks as the struggle for Baku reaches its climax. The Turks ultimately won out, though they would not hold their prize for long.

Baku sat on the southern shore of a narrow spit of land that stuck out into the western side of the Caspian Sea. A series of cliffs to the east of the city were dominated by the railroad that crept from the west to service the oil fields to the northwest of the town and then circled eastward to Baku’s seaport. Beyond the cliffs, a succession of ridges formed the high ground of the tiny peninsula, among which gathered a number of salt lakes and marshes. It was on that high ground, from which they could study the enemy’s movements, that Stokes and the other British officers decided they could best defend the city. Thus the Turkish charge that struck the North Staffordshires atop the Mud Volcano on the morning of August 26 was expected.

The Turks attacked with more than 1,000 men, supported by cavalry and artillery. Four times the Staffords threw them back, but with no sign of their expected Armenian reinforcements they were eventually forced to abandon their position atop the volcano after losing all of their officers and 80 men.

Dunsterville rushed reinforcements from Baku aboard a caravan of careening trucks. Sixty Staffords and 70 Warwicks arrived on the scene too late to help and were forced to join the dozen or so survivors as they retreated to new positions among the oil derricks east of the volcano. A company of the 9th Worcesters joined them there in mid-aftemoon.

The position atop the volcano had been the key to Dunsterville’s entire line, and when its defenders were forced to retreat, the whole 19-mile front was obliged to fall back to an inner line of prepared positions. By early afternoon, the volcano was in Turkish hands.

At the same time as they attacked the volcano, the Turks moved out from the village of Novkhany on the north side of the peninsula, where a sunken road allowed them to approach close to the British lines while under cover. They charged a hill east of the village of Binagadi, held by a battalion of Armenian conscripts. When word reached them of the attack on the volcano, a company of North Staffords was told to abandon their positions at Diga and reinforce the Armenians on Binagadi Hill. When they reached the crest, however, the British found it deserted, with 250 Turks coming up the opposite side. The company lost 10 men killed and wounded before it threw back the attack with a hail of lead from its Lewis machine guns and rifles at point-blank range. A second assault was also repelled, and the men breathed easier when they saw the Turks retire toward Novkhany.

Dunsterville found his fallback position was a crooked, unsatisfactory line, inferior to the first. In addition, the Turks now commanded the heights atop the volcano and were bombarding the city with artillery fire. Also disturbing was the news that conscripts had abandoned the Armenian hilltop. It seemed to be the same everywhere-while his men fought off the Turks, the local militia loitered in town and Russian soldiers attended political meetings. Dunsterville faced a difficult dilemma-if his men were all that stood between the Turks and Baku, they were surely doomed to failure, but if he decided to abandon the city, he would be leaving the valuable oil fields in enemy hands.

Talks with the Baku government yielded glib promises from the local commander, a General Dukuchayev, that his forces would fight to the death. The central committee adamantly resisted Dunsterville’s more realistic suggestion-that they prepare to destroy the oil fields-since its members considered them the city’s only claim to importance.

Meanwhile, the Turkish shelling increased. The Hotel d’Europe, Dunsterville’s headquarters, was reduced to rubble, forcing him to relocate to another hotel. That building too came under accurate fire, and the British began to suspect that there was a spy in their midst. After the war, they learned that a Turkish colonel, disguised as a Tartar fodder merchant, had been spotting for the enemy artillery all along.

On August 31, Mursal Pasha struck again at Binagadi Hill. Early that morning, the 7th North Staffords under the command of Lieutenant R. C. Petty brushed off a strong enemy patrol, then reported that at least 500 Turks were forming up to attack. The British quickly shifted a company of Warwicks to the center of the oil derricks near Binagadi Hill to be held in reserve, and sent an armored train filled with Russians to Baladjari village to pin down the enemy at the Mud Volcano. At 6 a. m. Turkish machine guns and artillery opened an enfilading fire on the men on Binagadi Hill, inflicting heavy casualties. With Lieutenant Petty dead, the British survivors retreated to a fallback position called Warwick Castle. A nearby Armenian unit took too long to react, arriving long after the hill had been abandoned. The Armenian reinforcements failed to hold their new position on the right, however, and the retreat of another battalion on the left made Warwick Castle indefensible. The remainder of the Warwicks then made a fighting retreat through a forest of oil derricks to the northeast. A second company of Warwicks, ordered to plug the gap in the new line, found the position amid the derricks too weak. After nightfall, everyone was pulled farther back to Baladjari.

Angry at the sight of hundreds of demoralized Russian troops streaming through the streets of Baku even as his own men were dying in their defense, Dunsterville fired off none-too-polite letters to General Dukuchayev, who tried to soothe the British officer by inviting him to attend a council of war. That meeting devolved into a series of long-winded speeches suggesting unlikely plans for the city’s defense. “Stalky” expressed his disgust with his allies by walking out of the meeting.

All this time Dunsterville had kept his navy, now grown to four ships, close at hand in Baku’s port. On September 1, he notified the central committee that there was nothing more his men could do for the city so long as its local defenders refused to join the British at the front. Over the next few days, a flurry of correspondence produced a provisional promise from Dunsterville to remain in Baku if the Russians showed more spirit.

A few days later, a deserter who identified himself as being from the Turkish 10th Division informed the defenders that the Turks planned a major attack on the 14th. In the meantime, 500 men and 10 machine guns from Bicherakov’s force had arrived and immediately found a place in the city’s new line of defense. Because their informer was unable to tell them just where the Turkish attack would come, the defenders were forced to draw their perimeter tight around Baku, in some places leaving little room for maneuver or retreat. The heights to the immediate south of the city near the Bibi Eibal oil fields were held by 60 men of A Company, North Staffords, while 100 Armenians were held in reserve. Just to the north and hugging light to Baku itself was Wolfs Gap, a narrow space between hills crucial to the city’s defense, manned by Russians with two machine guns, two howitzers and a battery of field guns. B Company of the North Staffords held the thin line from Wolfs Gap to the village of Khoja Hasan, northwest of Baku, which was held by more Armenians and a battery of howitzers. Bicherakov’s Cossacks watched the line from Khoja Hasan to Baladjari, At Baladjari two companies of the 9th Worcesters were settled in the village even as the 9th Royal Warwicks watched the line out to the Damabul Salt Lake and four machine guns and an armored car machine gun squadron guarded its eastern shore. Bad weather had grounded Dunsterville’s liny air force, leaving him guessing as to just where Nuri Pasha intended to strike next along his 14-mile-long front. Then, before dawn on September 14, a Turkish artillery barrage struck everywhere along the line. Eight to 10 battalions of Turkish infantry swarmed across the railroad tracks south of Khoja Hasan, rolled over Bicherakov’s stunned Russians, breached Wolfs Gap and gained the cliffs overlooking Baku. The 39th Brigade rushed to stem the tide but lacked the strength to throw the Turks from the heights. Lieutenants McKay and Pope, finding their Martinsydes unserviceable, burned them and joined the British infantry. Dukuchayev ordered counterattacks, but due to poor leadership his men accomplished little. The Turks poured in reinforcements and consolidated their hold along the cliffs. There, the action halted, but the Turks awaited only the arrival of artillery on the heights before swooping down into the city.

With scattered artillery fire pounding Baku and his last line of defense breached, Dunsterville decided that further resistance was futile. Accordingly, he ordered the Royal Navy to have its ships ready to evacuate Dunsterforce. At 8 p. m., with their positions around the city deteriorating fast in the face of renewed Turkish attacks, the Warwicks and Worcesters, screened on the left flank by the North Staffords, began abandoning their places in the line and streamed toward the docks. The evacuation was complicated by the knowledge that if Baku’s populace learned they were leaving, they would become hostile and an angry central committee might turn the guns of its own ships in the harbor on the British vessels. The sick and wounded were evacuated first aboard the improvised hospital ships Kursk and Abo, which then managed to slip away from the city unnoticed. Next, Dunsterforce loaded its equipment and ammunition on the 200-ton Armenian.

During a propitious lull in the fighting, the last elements of Dunsterforce found their places aboard President Krüger at 10 p. m. Just before the crew cast off, a Russian soldier noticed the activity around the British vessel, and minutes later Dunsterville was confronted by two members of the central committee. They warned him that if he was leaving, they would act to stop him. Dunsterville reminded them of his warning that if greater efforts were not forthcoming from their own men, he would have no choice but to abandon the city. He then ordered the ship to cast off.

With Baku lit by flames and its streets beginning to ring with the din of combat, Krüger began heading out to sea. Its leave-taking was not without a moment of tension, when all its lights suddenly and inexplicably flashed on. Before they were once more extinguished, a Russian guard ship spotted them. The vessel ordered Kruger to halt, then opened lire. Luckily for the British, the .shots fell short, and the ship made good its escape. Armenian, however, still lay somewhere behind Kruger, surrounded by now-alerted Russians. Twelve hour’s later, it entered Enzeli Harbor, having been struck six times by Turkish fire that miraculously had not touched off the ammunition on board.

The mission to Baku had cost Dunsterforce 180 men dead, wounded and missing. Mursal Pasha later stated that the Turks had suffered 2,000 casualties. The Turks’ hard-won victory would prove less than satisfactory, however. With its armies in Palestine and Mesopotamia smashed, the Ottoman Empire signed an armistice on October 30, 1918.

On November 17, a British military mission returned to reoccupy Baku and supervise the removal of Nuri and Mursal Pasha’s forces. In London, however, the failure of Dunsterforce to hold Baku was seen as an embarrassment, and Dunsterville became its scapegoat.

With the war ended, British forces in Transcaucasia found their mission changing, as they became involved with the tangled politics of revolutionary Russia. As the Allied intervention in that country ran its course, limits were placed on British activities in Central Asia, followed by disengagement. By April 1919, it was all over. The British soldiers who had been cast into the farthest comers of the tsar’s empire to keep it out of the hands of Germany and Turkey, then later the Bolsheviks, were reassigned to their accustomed billets in India, the Middle East and England itself. The strange saga of Dunsterforce and its courageous stand receded from the consciousness of the West for the better part of 60 years, until the tumultuous events of the 1980s, 1990s and the early 21st century once again placed Transcaspia at the center of world conflict.

Further reading, A Peace to End All Peace, by David Fronikin; Like Hidden Fire, by Peter Hopkirk; and The Baku Commune, 1917-18, by Ronald G. Suny.

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