With the Russians in Persia

By E. Simais

[The New York Times/Current History, June 1916]

[L'Illustration, which has from the very beginning of the war been distinguished by the excellence of its first-hand material, not only describing events in France, but also covering the Russian and Serbian fields, and going as far from home as the Cameroons and China, now gives what is the first intelligible account of Russia's startlingly dramatic campaign in Persia, the importance of which in world politics is greatly increased by the collapse of the English campaign in Mesopotamia. Russia's victory in the East, not only over Germany, but over her old rival and present ally, seems to be complete.

Germany's plan, entrusted to her representative in Persia, Prince Henry of Reuss, was to make the Shah's realm a bridge between the Turkish Empire and India over which would sweep the wave of the Holy War against the "infidel" Allies; the proclamation of the Holy War against Christians having been obtained by Kaiser Wilhelm from the Sheik ul Islam, as the Kaiser's published telegram to the Crown Prince shows. Russia's plan was, in part, to break down this bridge, thus helping her ally, England; in part, to provide a strong left flank movement for her advance from the Caucasus into Armenia and down the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. She has brilliantly succeeded in both these objects, and her prestige is now further increased by the surrender of General Townshend's army at Kut-el-Amara.]

The Germans, in their plan to involve Persia in the war, had reckoned on the following elements in their favor: An irresolute sovereign, and Government internally divided between the two tendencies which just now divide the world, a vast country almost devoid of all organized means of communication, the absence of a regular army that might serve as the basis of authority, and, so far, no means of assuring the collection of taxes with any regularity. In these troubled waters Germany fished.

Their first incitement to revolt against Russian influence had at least a partial success in the interior of Persia, notably at Ispahan, where, after the assassination of M. Vonkaver, the Russian Consul, and the attempted assassination of the English Consul, every European who was not a German was forced to flee from the city and take refuge at Teheran. The same thing happened at Kermanshah, Hamadan, Sultanabad, and Shiraz. At this point the Russian Government, in conjunction with England, addressed a note to the Persian Government, demanding that the Persian troops who had entered German service should be disarmed. In his reply the Shah declared his inability to compel this disarming, and in consequence his powerlessness to answer for the lives of Europeans belonging to the allied nations.

Russia, therefore, sent a force of 24,000 men who, at the end of last October, disembarked at Enseli, on the south shore of the Caspian Sea, some seventy or eighty miles from the nearest seaport in the Russian Caucasus, and at the head of the caravan road through Resht to Teheran. From this point the Russian force advanced along the road as far as Kasbin. The effect of this move was soon felt. As soon as it was officially announced that 4,000 Russian soldiers had left Kasbin for Yeng-Iman, a considerable village about fifty miles from Teheran, the Germans became seriously alarmed, and with them their Persian supporters and armed forces. Alarm became panic, when, on Nov. 14, they learned that 1,000 Russians, who had arrived that morning at Herej, twenty-five miles from Teheran, were marching on the capital.

All the furniture and archives of the German Legation were transported during the night to the American Legation, which was forced to hire a large building to store them in. The Austrian Legation turned its effects over to the Spanish Minister. As for Turkey, her representatives loaded all their possessions on carts drawn by an odd assortment of animals, and fled with them to Shah Abdul Azim. The German Minister betook himself to Kum, the second holy city in Persia after Meshed, between eighty and ninety miles south of Teheran; and there he organized a pretended Committee of Defense, as against the influence of Russia. Shortly after this the Russian advance in Central Persia forced the Germans and their committee to evacuate Kum, and to go first to Kashan and then to Ispahan.

Before these later developments Prince Henry of Reuss and his accomplices had established an ascendency over the Shah who, at their instance, and terrified by the picture which they painted for him of the Russian invasion, had decided to transfer the Persian Government from Teheran to Ispahan. The Shah therefore ordered preparations for departure to be made. On Nov. 14, at 11 A. M., every hired vehicle in Teheran, to the number of 300, was requisitioned, as well as all available horses, donkeys, mules, and camels. The Teheran police and the Persian gendarmes, under the orders of their Swedish instructors, left the city to take up posts along the road from Teheran to Kum, which the Shah was to take.

But the Shah had not finally made up his mind. For five days he gave audiences alternately to the Ministers of Austria and Turkey, who were persuading him to depart, and to the representatives of Russia and England, who wished to keep him. The last won. Like a skillful diplomat, the Russian Minister promised the Shah that the Czar's troops would not pass Yeng-Iman if he remained in Teheran; the Shah remained. Then followed what the Germans have not hesitated to call a grand transformation scene, and what was in reality a bit of comedy shameful enough for its pitiable actors; the Swedish officers, Major Fric, Major de Mare, and Major Helstroem, and Captain Hellemare, who was in command of the Second Regiment of Gendarmes, refused to return with the First Regiment and the police, which adhered to the Government, and went over, bag and baggage, to the Germans. The Swedish Government later disclaimed all responsibility for the acts of these Swedish officers.

Relying on the promise of the Russians not to enter the capital, the Germans recommenced, directly or by their agents, their campaign of propaganda in Teheran itself.

To triumph over the influence of Russia, they counted especially on arousing a fever of fanaticism among the Persians, worked up by their priests on the day of the Ashura, (the tenth day of the month of Mohurram, the first month of their year.) On that day certain fanatics, wearing long shirts of white cloth and armed with swords, slashed their shaven heads, crying out "Hassan-Hussein!—Death to the Russians and the English!" In this fashion they passed through the principal districts of the city, sprinkling with red the streets and the passersby, some of whom, infected by their fever, distributed among themselves pieces torn from the blood-stained shirts. Leaders pronounced orations to disturb the populace. Groups discussed the "Russian menace," which was problematical, and the "German promises," which were even more so.

Very fortunately, there was more idle trifling than genuine emotion in all this. The arrival of the Russian troops had the effect of a stone flung into a flock of sparrows. The leaders fled without thought of coming back, and the people of Teheran, coming to their senses, recovered the calm which befits peaceable Orientals, whose only enemy is adventure.

The Russian Government, or rather the Grand Duke Nicholas, Viceroy of the Caucasus, whose spirit of energy and decision are so widely recognized, had not hesitated, in presence of the German bravado, which was tolerated, if not actually encouraged by the weakness of the Persian Government, to push forward an imposing force into the heart of Persia. It should be added at once that this was to render the Shah the greatest service by putting at his disposal, or at least at the disposal of the forces of order, a powerful army. And it was thus that, on Jan. 8, 1916, General Baratoff in person, the Commander in Chief of the Russian Armies in Persia, accompanied by his staff, was in a position to review the "Cossack Brigade" on the Teheran review ground.

The history of this brigade is odd enough. In 1878 the Shah Nasr ed Din, on a visit to St. Petersburg, was so strongly impressed by the martial bearing of the Cossacks of the Imperial Guard that he forthwith arranged with certain officers of the Czar to organize a similar bodyguard for him at Teheran. Since then, the Cossack Brigade of the Shahs has always been supplied with Russian officers. It forms the only military body in Persia which is composed of clean, disciplined, well clothed, well armed, and regularly paid soldiers. Besides these Cossacks the Government forces consisted of police and gendarmes, placed under the order of Swedish officers. We have seen what German money effected among them.

There is also, it is true, a Persian "army." But certain explanations are necessary to make clear the exact meaning which is to be given to that expression. Faithful supporters of his Imperial Majesty the Shah of Persia, these soldiers pay no attention to politics, and consider their bayonettes as handy cleavers to chop wood or to cut up a sheep. The cities are not called on to furnish recruits; the human tribute is drawn from the villages. The number of men whom they must supply to the State is proportional to the amount of taxes that they pay, and is calculated at the rate of 100 tomans per head. In other words, in obedience to the "Bonitche" law, a village paying 500 tomans in taxes must, in addition, furnish five soldiers at least if called upon to do so. And in this case the money will serve to maintain the men in the army, to which the proprietor of the village must send them. As the law lays down no limits of age or strength, the proprietor sends whom he pleases, and unless he himself happens to be a regimental General, is very careful not to deprive himself of men who are really fit for agricultural work. The same thing happens where the village belongs to several small proprietors. We must not forget that, in Persia, we are still in the epoch of feudalism, and that every peasant is the serf of a lord of the manor.

The number of intermediate ranks in the Persian Army is insignificant. The organization consists chiefly of Generals. Of these, there are four ranks—the Sartip, a General commanding theoretically 100 men; the Mirpench, with 500 men; the Amir Toman, with 1,000 men, and, finally, the Sidar, the General over 5,000 men, who is a sort of Field Marshal. Their principal revenue is drawn from the exploitation of the right conferred on them by their commissions to raise a number of men corresponding to their rank. As every soldier must offer a sheep to his officer each year, the latter's only concern is to count his sheep, leaving his men to their own devices, and every one is happy.

In the last forty years the Persian Government has several times tried European instructors, of many nationalities. Their efforts are immediately confronted by an insurmountable difficulty, as the most insignificant European Corporal cannot, for the reasons already indicated, hold a rank inferior to that of General—save for the sheep tribute, be it understood. But where do Generals drill recruits? No prestige could stand it. The only memory the old Persian soldiers have preserved of these attempts is that the officers tried to make them march, and that no one ever succeeded in so doing.

The Shah's Government decided, late in the day, to dismiss the army, and to consecrate the money it cost to the formation of a body of gendarmes under Swedish officers. We have seen that the experiment did not succeed, and that the ole support of the Government, except for the Russian expeditionary corps, was the Cossack brigade. The effective force of the latter, which began with 1,000 men, has just been raised to 10,000.


Two facts, in themselves unimportant enough, made an impression on the Persians. The first was the arrival at Kazer Kadjar, the camp of the Cossack brigade, of the first aeroplane, piloted by a Russian aviator—the machine was a Blériot. The excitement was so great that the Shah himself went to the landing place. The officers strongly insisted that his Majesty should enter the machine and be photographed. Their prayers were in vain. The Shah, overcome by misgivings, was in dread that the machine might suddenly take flight and carry off its precious passenger. He would only consent to mount on a bench, placed behind the pilot, convinced that in this way the illusion would be complete. But, when the proof was printed, the imperial legs were visible below! * * *

But the impression caused by the aeroplane was a small thing compared with the effect produced by the first Russian armor-clad automobile which passed through Teheran on its way to Kum, in pursuit of the rebels. This auto, with the very latest improvements, was armed with two machine guns at the sides and a three-inch quick-firing gun behind, and provided also with a searchlight and a periscope. With its guns, and without the men needed to work it, this war auto weighs 8,400 kilograms, and can do forty-five kilometers an hour, (twenty-eight miles). Two inscriptions in Arabic adorn its sides; one is the word of the Prophet Mohammed: "All that has been created will perish; all that man builds shall fall." The Moslems must, of necessity, feel a profound respect for the men who are masters of such a mechanism as this! The other inscription reads thus: "I give death only to my enemies, while I protect my friends."

But the real discovery was the painting of death's heads at the four corners of the auto. The mere sight of this motor-fort produced a complete right-about in the minds of the local Russophobes; every one became, or declared himself to be, Russophile. Such is Persian character; for four months the Germans had been promising two Prussian army corps, the first battalion of which had not appeared, while the power of Russia had become visible.

As may be seen, the Russians did not neglect any of the refinements of diplomacy. But they knew how to back it up by military force, the only kind that counts. As early as Dec. 21, at Rabat Karim, situated 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the south of Teheran, 300 Cossacks completely defeated 1,400 gendarmes and volunteers, commanded by the celebrated Swedes, killing 218 men. This was only a skirmish.

On Jan. 2, Russian scouts fell in with a Turkish army 14,000 strong, at Sanj-Bulak, in the province of Azerbijan, to the south of Tauris. At Mian-do-Ab they rejoined the Russian advance guard which, in face of the numerical superiority of the enemy, retired on Maraga, where the bulk of the Russian force, numbering 18,000, was. The Turks, by forced marches, rushed into the jaws of the wolf, and after five days' fighting left their artillery and 10,000 prisoners in the hands of the Russians. Never before had the Sultan's troops suffered such a defeat in Persia. The tribes that were hostile to Russia fled instantly to their mountains.

The Grand Duke Nicholas on Jan. 6 visited Julfa, a town on the Russo-Persian frontier, to learn the result of the battle of Maraga. He went back to Tiflis as soon as he knew that victory was won.

The Russian army operating in the province of Azerbijan, on the Turkish frontier, was under General Chernozuloff, who had been for three years Colonel of the Cossack brigade at Teheran. By the end of January the Russian forces occupied the towns of Kum, Kashan, Hamadan, Sultanabad, and Kengaver, in Central Persia. The bands of rebels and the German officers were massed at Sahneh, between Kengaver and Kermanshah, supported by Turkish regulars. The Czar's force, well supplied with artillery, advanced slowly but surely. Its losses were insignificant compared with those of the Persian bands. The latter, recruited from the tribes of Luristan and Kurdistan, levy taxes for their own purposes, oppress the inhabitants, pillage the villages. The role of the Germans, who have ceased to command in the military sense of the word, consists in organizing brigandage to supply the want of money which is already felt; for the attempt to issue paper money guaranteed by the German Government was a fiasco. Not a day passes without the inhabitants of the villages thus maltreated coming to implore the protection of the nearest Russian troops. General Baratoff's energy and strategic ability are rapidly clearing Persia of these German officers who are brigand chiefs, unworthy of the name of soldiers.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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