As the 20th Century developed, the Royal Navy anticipated converting all its ships from coal to oil-fuelled engines and a secure supply of oil was needed. An attractive source of oil was at a location in western Persia (now Iran) named Maidan-i-Naftun (the Plain of the Oil). From the oil field a pipeline ran for nearly 230 kilometres to the Abadan refineries on the Shatt-el-Arab waterway at the head of the Persian Gulf. The British government had been persuaded by the Navy to buy a controlling share in these oil installations which were named the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The British, with Persian governmental approval, made agreements with local tribes to protect the oil installations from source to refinery. About half-way along the pipeline was the settlement of Ahwaz, where a European community of oil workers lived.
Persia was a vast country and was not strongly governed. German intelligence agents were operating successfully in Persia and gaining influence, whilst Turkey, a potential German ally, ruled over Mesopotamia, which lay just to the west of the oil installations. Britain decided to protect its interests in the region and Expeditionary Force 'D' was dispatched from India in mid-October 1914. By the first week of November, Britain and Turkey had made declarations of war against each other.
Expeditionary Force 'D' began landing troops in the Shatt-al-Arab on 6 November 1914 and quickly commenced operations against the Turks. In the meantime, the Turks had targeted and breached the Maidan-i-Naftun oil pipeline and as a consequence British plans to protect this vital asset were implemented.
The situation at Ahwaz in March 1915
In early March 1915 the British garrison at Ahwaz consisted of:
- two troops of the 33rd Queen Victoria's Own Light Cavalry (Indian Army) reinforced by small detachments from the 22nd (Sam Browne's) Cavalry (Frontier Force) and the 34th Prince Albert Victor's Own Poona Horse;
- one officer and 20 rifles of the 2nd Battalion The Dorsetshire Regiment;
- three double-companies of the 4th Prince Albert Victor's Own Rajputs (Indian Army);
- three double-companies of the 7th Duke of Connaught's Own Rajputs (Indian Army);
- one section (2 x 18-pounder horse-drawn guns) of the 82nd Battery, Royal Field Artillery;
- one section (2 x 10-pounder mule-packed mountain guns) of the 23rd (Peshawar) Mountain Battery (Indian Army);
- one section (2 x 18-pounder deck-mounted guns) of the 76th Field Battery, Royal Field Artillery (without horses and deployed on the Karun River on the requisitioned shallow-draught river steamer Blosse Lynch); and
- one section of the 22nd Company, Bombay Sappers & Miners (Indian Army).
The senior British officer in effective command at Ahwaz was Brigadier-General C T Robinson, concurrently Commander Royal Artillery of the 6th (Poona) Division. His staff consisted of his Artillery Brigade Major and his Orderly Officer. These gunner officers were soon to learn how quickly and fiercely Mesopotamian irregular tribesmen could deploy and attack on the battlefield.
Image: British sepoys equipped for combat in Mesopotamia
Meanwhile the Turks were deploying irregular units across the Persian border towards Ahwaz and, on 2 March 1915, a large enemy group was camped at Ghadir, 10 miles north-west of the British position. Brigadier Robinson, hearing that another two groups of enemy Arabs from the Bani Lam and Bani Turuf tribes were heading towards Ghadir, decided to advance and attack the Ghadir camp, despite his knowing that the British troops were out-numbered. The Brigadier, according to the Official History, appeared very confident that his artillery could disperse the enemy. When the commanding officer of the 7th Rajputs requested a withdrawal plan, the Brigadier curtly replied that the infantry units were there as escorts for the artillery and would not be engaged and so such a plan was not really required.
Image: Captured Turkish troops in Mesopotamia
The action at Ahwaz on the 3 March 1915
Robinson made a night advance, guided by the cavalry, along both sides of a low feature containing a central depression; a bright moon was out and surprise was impossible. At first light he was positioned 5,500 metres from the enemy camp where cooking fires could be seen. The 18-pounder guns opened fire but the bombardment resulted in an eruption of thousands of enemy infantry from the camp who quickly moved to outflank the British on both sides. Groups of swift-moving Arab irregular cavalry rode to get behind the British position. The 1,000 British soldiers were now facing around 12,000 enemy troops, about 2,000 of them Turks.
The Right Flank Guard was composed of two companies of the 7th Rajputs commanded by Captain A C Ogg but it became so heavily involved with the enemy that it was reinforced by the third 7th Rajput company and the mountain guns. Around 0715 hours the Brigadier, realizing that his force was in trouble and could be surrounded, ordered a withdrawal but now the lack of pre-planning for this tactic caused serious problems. Lieutenant Colonel H O Parr, commanding the 7th Rajputs, ordered a retirement starting with his left-flank troops and this was executed steadily. Then an order to retire from an unknown source reached his right-flank troops and they also fell back. This isolated Parr's centre and the Colonel was severely wounded in an arm but he fought on with his revolver until he was wounded again in the stomach and hip.
Several of the Brigade's supply and ammunition carts had been loaned by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and, when ponies pulling the carts began to be hit, most of the civilian drivers abandoned their carts, creating confusion on the battlefield. The enemy quickly over-ran and looted the carts.
The 4th Rajputs were the Left Flank Guard and poor staff work initiated by the Brigadier caused them to withdraw prematurely and so fail to hold vital ground. The 7th Rajputs rapidly took casualties as the enemy swarmed in and around the hastily withdrawing troops. Four officers of the 7th Rajputs, Captain W A Gover and Lieutenants Douglas Burgoyne-Wallace and Wickham Leathes Harvey, and Subadar Mahesh Singh were all killed.
Mahesh Singh had stayed behind with Captain Gover and Lieutenant Harvey to rescue the wounded Lieutenant Burgoyne-Wallace but all four men were shot or hacked down. Lieutenant Harvey was the battalion Machine Gun Officer and he had ordered covering fire from one of his guns that was 250 metres away, but the Rajputs and the enemy were so inter-mixed that it was impossible to fire the gun effectively without hitting sepoys. Captain Gover and Lieutenant Harvey were later recommended for the award of posthumous Victoria Crosses but the recommendations were not approved.
Manesh Singh received the Indian Order of Merit posthumously, as did No 1419 Sepoy Ramsabad Singh of the 7th Rajputs; he too had rescued a wounded comrade but had been mortally wounded himself. Two other sepoys of the regiment who survived the battle, No 1586 Dwarka Singh and No 1311 Gokaran Singh, also received Indian Order of Merit for rescuing wounded men. Gokaran Singh had fought off attackers to get Colonel Parr to safety. Four other men of the 7th Rajputs, No 1192 Havildar Gurdatt Singh, No 1547 Naik Sukhlal Singh, No 1567 Naik Ramadar Singh and No 2165 Sepoy Mattan Singh received the Indian Distinguished Service Medal. Most of the 7th Rajputs fought in a professional and disciplined manner during their forced withdrawal. Lieutenant Alister Ralph Thomson, 7th Rajputs and the Brigade Signalling Officer, was awarded a Military Cross for rallying men and leading three bayonet charges.
Compared to the fiercely fought withdrawal action of the 7th Rajputs, the 4th Rajputs appear to have broken, as little was reported of their activities during the battle. Major Reginald Edward Bond of that regiment was killed and Subadar Faqira Singh, also of the 4th Rajputs, won an Indian Distinguished Service Medal. The two guns of the 23rd Mountain Battery were temporarily over-run as they fought alongside the 7th Rajputs; all the mules of one gun were shot down and the chase and breech of that gun were lost. 22 Havildar Habib Khan of the battery was awarded an Indian Order of Merit for:
"continuing to work his gun with great coolness and ability after one of his fingers had been badly shattered (subsequently amputated)".
Gunners 200 Chet Singh, 40 Ghanaiya Singh and 46 Kishen Singh received Indian Distinguished Service Medals.
The Section Commander of the mountain gunners, Captain William Morgan Hunt (Royal Garrison Artillery) held off the enemy with a sepoy's rifle while his men and the remaining gun withdrew; he shot several of the enemy before he was severely wounded in the shoulder. He was awarded a Military Cross after the battle. Two years later, the other captain in the section, Reginald Michael Norman Forbes (Royal Artillery), who had gone forward to recover Captain Hunt, was also decorated with the Military Cross.
The two troops of the 33rd Cavalry played a decisive role in rescuing many British soldiers, but especially the mountain gunners and their surviving mules, off the battlefield by constantly charging into the enemy ranks. The cavalry commander, Lieutenant Richard Hassell Sheepshanks (12th Cavalry attached to 33rd Cavalry) was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for the manner in which he conducted his pivotal role during the battle.
The action now became a steady withdrawal by tactical bounds, with half of the rearguard withdrawing at a time whilst the other half engaged the advancing enemy. The gunners withdrew in this fashion also, and their shrapnel kept the Turks and Arabs from closing with the rearguard. The 20 men of the Dorsets maintained the unity of the withdrawal, giving effective fire control orders to any leaderless groups of sepoys that could be rallied to fight. A survivor commented that the enemy failed to completely over-run the British troops because of shooting high and because the Arab irregulars would break off an attack to go and loot downed British troops and horses. Plus the steady, aimed firing of the British rearguard kept emptying the saddles of enemy horsemen who came within range. By now the rearguard consisted mainly of the Dorsets and surviving British officers from the Rajputs.
Image: Officers of 7th DCO Rajputs in 1911
During the fighting retreat the two 18-pounder guns became vulnerable as the Brigade staff, despite strong advice from the cavalry to the contrary, ordered that the guns be withdrawn along a different route than the approach route. The enemy began to shoot down the artillery horses and eight horses were killed and six were wounded. The Section Commander, Captain R E Peebles (Royal Artillery) held off attackers with his pistol until he was wounded; Gunners Mahoney and Sturman then dragged Peebles to safety, fighting off attackers as they did so. One gun was lost when it fell over a sheer drop two and a half metres high but the other was saved due to the actions of 29632 Sergeant G Ayres, 82nd Battery, Royal Field Artillery. Sergeant Ayres was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal:
"For conspicuous ability and gallantry near Ahwaz (Turkey in Asia) on 3rd March, 1915. When his sub-section was suffering casualties in men and horses, he succeeded in extricating them under very difficult circumstances".
Image: Sgt Ayres DCM saving his gun
Across broken ground many Arab riflemen could run faster than a British cavalryman could ride and, on this occasion, groups of enemy riflemen got behind the British withdrawal. About half-way back to camp Brigadier Robinson found that Arab horsemen and riflemen were holding a ridge that had to be crossed. Whilst the sowars of the 33rd Cavalry galloped around the rear of the ridge, a frontal bayonet attack was made, led by Captain Ogg and the men of the Dorsets. The Arabs gave way and rapidly dispersed. Captain Ogg, who had held the 7th Rajputs together after Colonel Parr was evacuated, was recommended for an award but approval was not granted; however, he received a Distinguished Service Order eighteen months later.
At this point in the battle the Turks opened fire with three artillery guns for the first time, causing British casualties. One of those killed by this enemy artillery fire was Captain Frederick Obre MacKenzie, the Adjutant of the 7th Rajputs. One of these enemy guns was the lost British 18-pounder: a British cavalry party had come across it with the firing pin intact, but the sowars did not know how to remove the pin.
However, the turning point in the action had arrived and Brigadier Robinson called for reserves to move forward from the base and for the 18-pounder guns mounted on the Blosse Lynch to fire in support. The enemy attacks decreased and the surviving British troops limped wearily back into their base, losing 62 men killed and 127 wounded. The enemy later admitted to a casualty count of between 200 and 300 men killed and around 600 wounded; enemy leaders had suffered heavily. The British casualties had not been lost in vain, as there were no further serious enemy attacks on the pipeline. Eventually the Turks withdrew their men towards Amara.
Major John Joseph O'Keefe and Captain Albert Thomas James McCreery (both of the Royal Army Medical Corps) and Captain David Arthur (Indian Medical Service attached to the 7th Rajputs) had been out on the battlefield throughout the fight, tending wounds and organising casualty evacuation. All three Medical Officers later received the Military Cross for their bravery whilst under fire.
Image: Turkish and British cavalry, c 1915
Gallantry awards to the Dorsets
Lieutenant H J Baillie and his Regular Army infantrymen from Number 10 Platoon of the 2nd Battalion the Dorsetshire Regiment had been the solid defensive rock upon which so many enemy attacks had foundered. Despite their prominence in action, the Dorsets had suffered only one casualty who was wounded. The regimental history records that Humphrey John Baillie was recommended for a Victoria Cross but that he was awarded a Military Cross.
Eight Dorset soldiers were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal:
6514 Sergeant A C Fendley and 8199 Lance Corporal G Zebedee (similar citations):
"For conspicuous gallantry, ability, and coolness near Ahwaz (Turkey in Asia) on 3 March, 1915, when he repeatedly rallied parties of Indian Infantry who were being hard pressed by overwhelming numbers of the enemy. His fine example was largely instrumental in preventing a disaster."
8823 Private H Barrett (attached to No 2 Field Ambulance) and 6812 Lance Corporal E A Finch (similar citations):
"For conspicuous gallantry near Ahwaz (Turkey in Asia) on 3 March, 1915, in attending on the wounded in the open, under heavy shell and rifle fire, and for protecting them with his own rifle fire from the assaults of the enemy. He rendered excellent service during a temporary retirement."
7854 Private H Little, 8607 Private W G Palmer, 9429 Private F Sherwood, 8187 Private G Tett (similar citations):
"For conspicuous gallantry near Ahwaz (Turkey in Asia) on 3 March, 1915, when he rendered valuable service at a critical stage by rallying parties of Indian Infantry who were being hard pressed by superior numbers of the enemy. He assisted in rescuing the wounded on several occasions during the action."
9166 Lance Corporal R Parks, 1st Battalion The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, was also fighting at Ahwaz; he was probably on attached duty with either the force headquarters or the Dorsets. He also was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal:
"For conspicuous gallantry near Ahwaz (Turkey in Asia) on 3 March, 1915, where he displayed great devotion to duty in attending on the wounded in the open, under heavy shell and rifle fire, and for protecting them with his own rifle fire from the assaults of the enemy."
The battle at Ahwaz was fought in Persia, which is a country not normally associated with the Great War. However the British were to continue fighting in Persia against tribes influenced by Germany and Turkey for the remainder of the conflict. Persia was a "Sideshow within a Sideshow" but nevertheless it was a strategically vital theatre of war because of its oilfields.
The fighting at Ahwaz demonstrated the professionalism of the pre-Great War British Regular Army infantry battalions. The tactical appreciations of senior artillery officers may have been suspect but the infantry platoons knew how to fight effectively, even when greatly out-numbered by enemy irregular troops. Awards made to individuals in the 7th Rajputs show that sepoys could fight back against desperate odds, even when most of their commanders were down. Respect must also be given to the artillerymen, both British and Indian, who struggled to try and protect their guns.
But it was the Indian cavalry that saved Brigadier Robinson's day and perhaps his life as well; the two troops of cavalry consistently charged into the enemy horsemen and riflemen and the award to the cavalry commander of the only Distinguished Service Order granted shows how important this arm was on this battlefield.
The British dead were later buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Basra War Cemetery or commemorated on the Basra or Tehran Memorials. The majority of the dead sepoys are named on the Basra Memorial. A date search of 3 March 1915 on the CWGC pages for the memorials and the cemetery produces lists of names and units that can then be linked to the Ahwaz action.
Article and images submitted by Harry Fecitt MBE TD.
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