Northern Warriors and the Colonialists

  March 30, 2022   Read time 3 min
Northern Warriors and the Colonialists
During the last year of the war the desire for independence by the Iranian government, the northern tribes, and the Jangali guerrillas clashed with London’s concerns about the Central Powers’ threat to the Caucasus and about Russian bolshevism.

Still burdened with other military commitments in the Middle East, the British decided in late 1917 to send small political- military missions into northwestern and northeastern Iran to determine where local resistance forces against the Germans, Turks, and Bolsheviks could be created. Gen. L. C. Dunsterville led a motor caravan from Baghdad into Iran in February 1918 with twelve offi cers in touring cars accompanied by thirty- six Ford vans with their gear, rations, and money. The rest of the mission, referred to as Dunsterforce, consisted of approximately 150 offi cers and 300 NCOs who followed behind Dunsterville’s small procession. To the east, an expedition from India commanded by Gen. Sir Wilfrid Malleson occupied Mashhad in March 1918 and established bases in northern Khorasan Province that later supported anti- Bolshevik White Russians and Turkman tribes against the Soviets.

After Dunsterville passed through Gilan Province and arrived at Anzali, he found that the Jangalis and hostile Russian soldiers and sailors dominated the region. Forced to withdraw back to Hamadan, Dunsterville reported that it was useless for the British to return to the Caspian port “until we either fought or came to an agreement with Kuchik Khan.”32 By April more British forces had arrived in Iran and occupied Kermanshah, Hamadan, and Qazvin. Now headquartered at Qazvin and designated the North Persia Force, or Norperforce, Dunsterville’s mission prepared to return to Gilan with reinforcements that included 4 armored cars, 2 airplanes, and 1,200 Russians under General Bicherakov, who was still a willing British ally.

The Jangalis had become more cautious aft er suff ering their first major defeat in early 1917 in a batt le with seven hundred Russian Cossacks armed with artillery and machine guns. Under increased pressure, Kuchik Khan’s guerrillas had been saved when the czar abdicated and the Kerensky government recalled Russia’s armies from Iran. Kuchik Khan met with Dunsterville during the British officer’s fi rst passage to Anzali, but unimpressed with the small detachment and perhaps encouraged by the German and Austrian advisors still with his movement, the guerrilla leader refused to cooperate. Kuchik Khan ignored British ultimatums for safe passage for Norperforce units moving through Gilan and instead established a defensive trench line manned by 2,500 to 3,000 Jangalis armed with rifl es and a few machine guns at Manjil, seventy miles north of Qazvin in June 1918. In the subsequent batt le, British artillery and airplanes began the att ack by bombarding the Jangali positions.

The British and Russian cavalry struck the rebel right fl ank, the armored cars hit the left , and Russian infantry advanced slowly against the center of the trench. Kuchik Khan had foolishly placed his lines in front of a bridge joining two sides of a deep canyon. Fearful of being cut off , the Jangalis fell back across the span rather than make a determined stand in their trenches. Unable to destroy the bridge, the Jangalis then fl ed into nearby forests to avoid the British pursuit. With the road to Anzali open, British forces quickly occupied the port and the nearby city of Rasht.

Despite growing demoralization among the guerrillas, Kuchik Khan assembled between one thousand and two thousand men for an att ack on the roughly one thousand British troops in Rasht in late July. The Jangalis’ main assault on the British headquarters was driven back with heavy losses while secondary att acks against the British consulate, a British bank, and the telegraph offi ce were partially successful in forcing the British to abandon these facilities. The Jangalis dug trenches and felled trees across the streets to block British counteratt acks led by armored cars, and the fi ghting continued for four days. British air and artillery att acks on Jangali positions eventually caused the guerrillas to retreat with losses of two hundred killed and wounded. Aft er this defeat, Kuchik Khan made peace with the British, although the Jangalis continued to harass the Iranian government and the rich landowners of Gilan.