The British Invasion and the Strangulation of Persia, 1918–1920

  July 26, 2021   Read time 7 min
The British Invasion and the Strangulation of Persia, 1918–1920
In April 1918 the American Consul in Aden, Addison E. Southard, received instruction to proceed to Persia for the specific purpose of reporting on the British conquest of Persia and assess British intentions toward Persia.

In addition, as a clear sign of increased American interest in Persia, the American legation, at about the same time, also began submitting detailed quarterly reports on political and economic conditions. Before invading Iran in April 1918, the British legation sent a note, signed by Sir Charles M. Marling, the British minister in Tehran, to the Persian government informing them that British troops were about to invade, and gave the “justifications” for the act. While announcing the temporary nature of the invasion, the British government undertook not to infringe on Persia’s independence. But as Southard was soon to discover and report, the British, having first encircled and then conquered Persia, intended to take permanent control of the country and its economic resources, a euphemism for its petroleum resources. The justifications for the act of aggression against a weak nation are the usual ones given by an imperialist power. They included the supposed inability of the Persian government to maintain law and order, and the seizure of the British vice consul and the manager of the Imperial Bank of Persia by the Jangalis in Rasht.

In response to the British ultimatum, the Committee of Public Indignation held a public meeting in Tehran on March 19 and a translation of its declaration was sent to all foreign legations in Tehran, except the British. The Persians protested in vain against the act of aggression, and in vain they sought the support of the “civilized” world in deterring aggression. On April 16, 1918, the British consul in Kermanshah, Colonel Kennion, distributed a pamphlet, “For the Understanding and Tranquillity of Mind of the People of Persia,” that informed the people that the British forces were about to invade Persia and sought to reassure them. It also warned that any resistance to the British forces would be crushed by the “all-powerful and victorious British Army.” The pamphlet, enclosed with Southard’s dispatch, was unlikely to provide reassurance to the unfortunate people of Persia. By early summer of 1918, the British military conquest of Persia was complete.

Formal military resistance to British aggression was negligible because Persia had no standing army in the true sense of the word. The resistance by the tribes, however, as the reports show, was formidable. In addition to opposition from the Qashqai tribes and Jangalis, the invading forces met resistance from the Sanjabi Kurdish tribes. Against the Jangalis and Sanjabis the British used armored cars and airplanes with devastating effect. A telegram from Southard states: Confidential. British have well established military line of communication from Bagdad across Persia via Kermanshah, Hamadan, Kasvin [Qazvin] to Enzeli [Bandar-e Anzali, or Bandar-e Pahlavi], headquarters Kasvin. Expedition called Dunsterville forces from the name of Major General Commanding and is supplied from Mesopotamia, but directly controlled by British War Office. Persian military opposition to British occupation is negligible. Occasional sniping at motor convoys has occurred in mountain stretch between Hamadan and Resht [Rasht]. Near Resht small fights have occurred with jungle tribes. Most serious one six days ago; when enemy casualties forty four and British three. Aeroplanes and armored vehicles used with success. . . . Motor convoys of troops and supplies continue uninterrupted. Indications are that British have Persian military situation well controlled.

A follow-up telegram provides additional military information: Strictly confidential. In all parts of Persia south of Bagdad-Caspian line of communication, British have practically control of military and political affairs. From Hamadan small detachments have gone to Sultanabad and Teheran. Sultanabad-Kermanshah road is under British control. British and Indian troops are at all important points in provinces [of] Kermanshah, Luristan, and Arabistan. At Shiraz, Yezd [Yazd], Kerman, and Meshed [Mashhad] there are reported increased detachments [of] Indian cavalry, nominally maintained as consular guards. British consuls or political officers are reported to be in all important points closely in touch with conditions. Inimical political agitators are kept under surveillance and I have ascertained from reasonably reliable sources that many arrests of tribal leaders have been made in Arabistan and that one or two have been executed for pernicious political offenses against Allied interests. Supplementing this organization there are about seven thousand native police known as [South] Persia Rifles with British officers and paid by British government. Some native tribes have attacked Persia Rifles at various places but discounting wilder reports and rumors, it is improbable that the tribes will be able to offer serious resistance to present British control of south Persia. Occurrence [of] important trouble in south Persia is considered improbable.

The main resistance to the British as recorded by the American legation came from the Qashqai tribes in the south and from Mirza Kuchik Khan and the Jangalis in the north. John L. Caldwell, the American minister in Tehran, describes a bloody encounter between the Qashqais and the British army. A detachment of South Persia Rifles under a British officer and noncommissioned officer was sent to the town of Khan-i-Zinian in the province of Fars on May 11, 1918. The Kashgai [Qashqai] tribesmen, who, under the instigation of the German agent Wassmus, have been very hostile to the British, surrounded this force and cut off their running water supply. A column of Indian troops was despatched from Shiraz for their relief, but before their arrival at Khan-i-Zinian the British officer and non-commissioned officer had been murdered by their Persian command, who then gave over their rifles and ammunitions to the Kashgai. An engagement took place on the 25th instant between the British-Indian troops and the Persian tribesmen, resulting in the route of the latter after losing about three hundred and fifty men. The British losses, which are reported to have been moderately heavy, included the loss of a British Major and Captain. After the encounter the British are reported to have fallen back on Shiraz. It is too early as yet to know what future action will be necessary on the part of the British authorities in regard to this matter, but as the Kashgais appear to be excellent fighters and determined in their resistance, further trouble is to be expected.

Francis White, secretary of the American legation, reports on Mirza Kuchik Khan and his cause: Resht and Enzeli are in the hands of the Bolsheviks and the Jungali [Jangali] tribe under their leader Kuchik Khan, who is opposed to the British occupation of Persian territory. Kuchik Khan, from all accounts, is a man of some education, who is very much opposed to what he conscientiously considers the high handed actions of the British in Persia. He is a member of the so-called Democratic party and appears to be honest and patriotic and a man of some force of character, but short sighted and perhaps a bit fanatical.

By late May 1918, the British were preparing a push to the north against the Jangalis. Despite the rumored division among the Jangalis, they attacked the British headquarters on July 20, 1918. This desperate attack by Mirza Kuchik Khan was repulsed with heavy casualties. Twelve hundred jungle tribesmen attacked British headquarters in Resht on July 20, and were repulsed with about two hundred killed and wounded. They then attacked British bank and consulate, looting the latter. Fighting continued for four days and tribesmen were driven from Resht by aeroplanes and armored motors. To do this the British burned hotel, theater and six other buildings surrounding American missionary school, and school building had a large hole torn in the roof by a bomb from aeroplanes. No Americans injured or molested by tribesmen who expressed friendship for American missionaries. Two young Persians from the missionary school have joined the tribesmen. British losses not much and there is no interruption [of] line of communication to Caspian. Successful attacks by tribesmen very improbable as they cannot oppose British aeroplanes, armored motors, and increasing British forces now numbering about a thousand in Resht.

A month after the above report, Caldwell described the collapse of the Turkish forces and their withdrawal from Persia. With the revolution in Russia and the collapse of the Ottoman armies in Persia and Mesopotamia, the British had become the unchallenged military power. As outlined below, they quickly set about transforming their military supremacy into political domination and economic control.

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