The ructions in the capital city of Tiblisi, in early 2004, in what is now the Republic of Georgia - formerly a republic within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) - brings to mind the extraordinary actions of a British military expeditionary force that took place in1917-18.

The rather grandiose objective of this military force was to aid the establishment and maintenance of an independent group of nations - Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan (Transcaucasia). It was hoped that by so doing this would avert the invasion of British India via Persia (now Iran) by a joint German and Turkish Army. Whether this threat to India was real or imagined is debated to this day. Nevertheless, the authorisation to create of a force (39 Brigade) to carry out this mission was given to a Russian speaking British officer, Major-General L.C. Dunsterville; said to be Rudyard Kipling's inspiration for the character 'Stalky'. There is also more than a suspicion that the oilfields of western Persia came into the equation.

In the tradition of the British Army the force was given a nick-name: 'Dunsterforce'.

N.B.:Dunsterforce should not be confused with a similar force raised by General Sir Percy Sykes at Bandar Abbas, Persia in March 1916, in agreement with the Persian Government. This force was called the South Persia Rifles. It was supported by British and Indian Army instructors, plus a small Indian army component of one battalion of infantry, a cavalry squadron and an artillery section. Later on, a unit of 600 Cossacks based at Isfahan, in southern Persia, joined up with the force. It subsequently brought under control the lawless tribes of the Persian countryside and largely neutralised German influence on these tribal populations.

Dunsterforce

This force of around 1,000 men was created in late 1917 by the selection of elite units of British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand troops already deployed on the Western and Mesopotamian Fronts. Most of the troops were well trained and experienced in battle.

The force assembled at Hamadan in Western Persia, mid-distance between Teheran and the border of the Russian Empire. It was provided with a fleet of 750 military transport vehicles to ensure its supply across the 300 miles (500km) of barren terrain in which it was to operate. This area was already in the grip of a serious famine after the depredations of the Russian led army in the previous year: a continuous flow of supplies was essential if Dunsterforce was to remain effective and operational.

Into action

It wasn't until January 1918 that General Dunsterville was ready to move. Dunsterforce moved northwards supported by a detachment of armoured cars. After only 250 miles (400km), at Enzeli - now Bandar-e Anzali, close to the port of Rasht on the south-western coast of the Caspian Sea - the force was met by 3,000 Russian revolutionary troops. Dunsterforce was checked and forced to retreat back to its base at Hamadan.

Meanwhile, German forces had taken advantage of the unsettled situation post the Russian Revolution and had occupied the Georgian capital, Tiblisi, whilst the Turks threatened the important oil port of Baku, Azerbaijan, on the western coast of the Caspian Sea.

No doubt disappointed by their reverse, Dunsterforce regrouped and despatched the armoured car unit, supported with troops from the Mesopotamian Front and three Russian battalions, northwards again. Enzeli was recaptured in June 1918. The following month the Russian component of the force pressed on to Baku which it was feared was again threatened by Turkish forces. General Dunsterville followed with more of his remaining force. About 1,000 British troops reinforced the 10,000 strong Russian and Armenian volunteers who formed the Baku garrison. But, in September 1918, once again, under the threat of an imminent attack by a superior force of 14,000 Turks, Dunsterforce withdrew all the way to Hamadan. Most of the Dunsterforce made it back to the allied lines accompanied by large numbers of Armenian refugees who, in their turn, had earlier escaped the Turkish genocide of their people.

The denouement

After the Armistice in November 1918, Dunsterforce returned to Baku as an occupying force. Here it remained until it was repatriated to the UK and the other parent countries of it members.

Post-war comments about the deployment of Dunsterforce and its objectives, ranged from the disastrous to the incompetent. Along with concern about the inadequacy of the numbers of troops which comprised the force and the faults in the command structure.

However, there are commentators who consider that the creation of the force per se forestalled a revolt engendered by the repercussions of the Russian Revolution. A tribal chief/brigand named Kuchik Khan from north-west Persia, who was materially supported covertly by the Central Powers (Germany, Austria/Hungary and Turkey), was discouraged from launching an attack on Teheran. Conceivably, a successful attack would have coerced the incumbent Persian Government to favour the territorial wishes and military ambitions of the Central Powers. By its mere presence, and the threat it implied, Dunsterforce might have had a far greater strategic effect than its rather lacklustre performance on the ground would suggest, and the modest role that history has accorded it.

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