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World War I: Battle for Baku

6/12/2006 • Military History

At midmorning on August 26, 1918, a small contingent of British soldiers from D Company of the North Staffordshire Regiment lay dug in along a defensive line at the crest of a dubious geological formation known locally as the Mud Volcano. It was the key in a defense plan protecting the vital oil town of Baku on the Caspian Sea — and the target of Ottoman forces seeking to take advantage of the internal chaos created by Russia’s ongoing revolution.

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 I’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 to 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 car 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 at 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 Enzeli, 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.100 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 Dunsterforce’s 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, Dunsterville 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 Navy 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, Mursal 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. Dunsterville 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 Dunsterforce’s 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.

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 midafternoon.

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 Eibat 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 tight to Baku itself was Wolf’s 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 Wolf’s 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 Darnabul Salt Lake and four machine guns and an armored car machine gun squadron guarded its eastern shore.

Bad weather had grounded Dunsterville’s tiny 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 Wolf’s 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 leavetaking 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 Krüger to halt, then opened fire. Luckily for the British, the shots fell short, and the ship made good its escape. Armenian, however, still lay somewhere behind Krüger, surrounded by now-alerted Russians. Twelve hours 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 corners 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.


This article written by Pierre Comtois and was originally published in the July 2005 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

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