02 July 1916 – Imperial Limits

An intentional outcome of Russian and British policy, the much-reduced state of the Persian Empire has invited German intrigue and Turkish invasion since the beginning of 1915. Split into spheres of influence, most of the neutral country’s sovereign governance has long been outsourced to foreign states and their civilian agents, while the Persian Army is hardly even a shell organization. The Persian Cossacks (see above) began the war as practically the only real military force in Persia; led by Russian officers, their ranks have been filled out to 8,000-strong this year, but that is still a small army by current standards — hardly sufficient for pitched battle.

General Nikolai Baratov, commander of the Russian forces which arrived in northern Persia in November to put down the uprising that the Central Powers inspired, has seen no small amount of success, managing to push his limited forces all the way across Iran to Kermanshah. The campaign brought him within striking distance of Baghdad during June, but the British disaster at Kut el-Amarah — where General Townshend was surrounded and forced to surrender in April — relieved much of the pressure on the Ottomans in Mesopotamia, allowing them to regroup against the Russians.

Furthermore, Baratov had reached the end of his tenuous supply-chain. Stretched over hostile territory that has few good roads and no rails, Baratov lacks the troop strength to both defend his rear and face his enemy. Attacking Karind near what is now the Iran-Iraq border a week ago, Baratov was already overextended and flailing. Today, his army must retreat from Kermanshah under heavy pressure by an Ottoman counteroffensive.


A French map of the Ottoman campaigns in Mesopotamia and Persia from 1914-1916

The attacking commander is Ali İhsan Sâbis, one of the most infamous Ottoman officers in the ongoing genocide of Armenians. As commander of the 51st Division in the war’s opening months, he was one of the most enthusiastic in ordering the systematic murder of Armenian soldiers. Leading the Turkish offensive on Lake Urmiah during 1915, Ali İhsan spent much of his time organizing massacres and forcibly clearing Armenian villages, producing a wave of refugees that further destabilized Persia. Bragging about these massacres to his German liaisons, Ali İhsan Bey is quite vocal about his desire to kill every Armenian in reach, even with his bare hands. Imprisoned briefly but never tried after the war ends, he will brag openly of his responsibility for 500,000 civilian deaths.

Ali İhsan now commands the XIII Corps, which consists of 25,000 men in three divisions. His attack today is supremely successful, forcing the Russians out of their forward base and pursuing them as far as Hamadan, an ancient seat of the Persian Empire known as Ecbatana. Baratov’s army is reduced to half the size it was in January. But upon taking Hamadan in August, Ali İhsan Bey ends up very much like his rival Baratov, tied to a fraying logistical lifeline and unable to progress any further. Three old and storied global empires have now reached the absolute limits of their power within a small corner of the Middle East during the space of just ten weeks.


Left: Baratov stands at right, behind his regional allies. Right: Ali İhsan greets visitors as they leave a train

Matters will not improve with time. The Russian Revolution will shatter Russia’s army in Persia along with the rest of them, leaving Britain the sole imperial power in the country. Armenians in the region will watch in horror as their protector disintegrates and Ottoman armies fill the vacuum, once again conducting shameless ethnic cleansing of Persian territory to pursue War Minister Enver Pasha’s dream of a pan-Turkic state. With no army of his own, the Persian Shah is powerless to stop them. None of the three empires which contend for his territory can muster the force to secure it. Whole regions of the country are soon spinning out of his control. Famine stalks the land. For the people of Iran, whose own uprising against foreign occupation has fizzled completely, these years of deep frustration and impotence will have tremendous consequences. A rising generation of Persians, including a young teenager named Ruhollah Khomeini, will spend their entire lives reacting against the abiding humiliations of the Great War.


Persian gendarmes in 1914: not exactly a battlefield-ready force, they were controlled by pro-German Swedish officers

Note to readers: this blog has been suspended in recent weeks due to continued health problems and the need to earn a living. While I long to resume regular posting and fill in backdated entries, I cannot make any promises at this time.