Persia and German Influence
When the Great War started Persia was a weakly-governed country because effective power lay in the hands of regional administrators and their war-lord allies. The Persian Army provided colour on ceremonial occasions but did not fare well when fighting the many bandits and war-lords within the country. The Persian Gendarmerie, the equivalent of an armed national police force that also collected revenue, was controlled by Swedish officers on contract appointments and many of these Swedes supported Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm's ambitions. Dotted around Persia in strategic locations were German political and intelligence agents who generally operated under the guise of businessmen. Once hostilities between the Great Powers commenced, these German agents used gold, weapons and ammunition to create alliances with Persian tribes who were prepared to attack British interests.
By agreement with the Persian government in Tehran, Britain maintained a string of posts along the telegraph line that followed the Persian Gulf northern coastline; these posts were garrisoned by detachments from units of the Indian Army. British ambitions were to preserve the integrity of Persia as an independent but compliant state whilst using it as a buffer to protect India. German long-term ambitions were to use Persia as a neutral route to Aghanistan from where, they hoped, India could be de-stabilised by Ghadarite Indian revolutionaries. Once Turkey became a German ally Jihad, or Holy War, was declared from Constantinople and the Germans used Turkish religious and social influence to inflame susceptible Persians against the British presence in their Muslim country. The hope was that Persia would ally itself with the Central Powers.
Map: of Persia and Spheres of Influence
But there was one other powerful nation in the region who wished Persia to remain neutral and also to be compliant: Britain's ally, Imperial Russia, who was Persia's northern neighbour. In 1907 Britain had signed an agreement with Russia termed the Anglo-Russian Convention. This agreement partitioned Persia into two spheres of influence and a neutral sphere. The British sphere of influence lay in the south-east (see map of Persia above), the Russian sphere was the northern half of Persia, and the neutral sphere stretched across the country. Whilst both Britain and Russia argued that their Convention was designed to strengthen the integrity and independence of Persia, the Persians saw Russia's move as being a prelude to partition. Britain's apparent aim was to secure India from Russian territorial advances, as had occurred in Central Asia, but whatever the real British reason, the Convention was deeply unpopular amongst Persians who thenceforth regarded Britain with suspicion or enmity.
Once the Great War started, Persian territory in the Russian sphere of influence was invaded by the Turks and then fought over by Russian and Turkish armies. In July 1915, after considerable political activity, Britain and Russia intervened militarily in eastern Persia including in the neutral sphere, by creating the East Persia Cordon. Indian Army troops entered south-eastern Persia whilst Russian troops entered from across their border east of the Caspian Sea. The two allied forces linked up and attempted to prevent infiltration by the Central Powers through Persia into Afghanistan.
Bushire in mid-1915
Map: of Bushire
Bushire was a Persian island on the north Gulf coast but, unless there were abnormally high tides, it could always be accessed by an expanse of sand called the Mashileh which acted as a causeway to the mainland. As Bushire was the principal Persian port, a British political Residency and a telegraph station were located there, along with a garrison consisting of a double-company from an Indian infantry regiment. The tribal area of Tangistan was located south-east of Bushire and the Tangistanis were a ferocious and predatory people. Inflaming these tribesmen against the British was Doctor Listermann, the German consul in Bushire who had received instructions from his Legation in Tehran to cut the British telegraph cable. Listermann incited Rais Ali, the tribal Chief of Dilwar, 40 kilometres south of Bushire (and also on the coast), to attack the British Residency. Rais Ali had an axe to grind, as the Royal Navy had destroyed many of Dilwar's fishing and cargo vessels in 1913 during a dispute over piracy.
Image: Mainland scenery near Bushire
Image: British Residency, Bushire
Image: British Consulate, Bushire
Image: Persian Governor's Residence, Bushire
The British, being aware of Listerman's activities because of information supplied by friendly Khans or tribal chiefs, sent warships to Bushire and Dilwar and prepared to land troops bound for Basra in Mesopotamia at Bushire. Parallel political activity persuaded the local Persian Governor that the German Consul's activities were un-neutral and the Tehran government was informed that Britain would arrest any other European who provoked anti-British activities. These measures led to a lessening of tension. However, in May 1915, the Persian Governor of Bushire, aware of a village chieftain's plot to attack the British residency and needing support because his own gendarmes were defecting, asked for British help. In the resulting action on 7 May about 200 rifles of the 96th Berar Infantry, under Major C E H Wintle, engaged and defeated the insurgents in their village, killing, wounding or capturing 28 of them at a cost of three sepoy casualties. The Bushire garrison was then increased to half-battalion size.
Image: Wilhelm Wassmuss
Then a German equivalent of Lawrence of Arabia appeared, Wilhelm Wassmuss, a former Bushire Consul who had spent three months during 1913 in Shiraz, the important city north-east of Bushire. Wassmuss' activities in Persia were to occupy many British troops for the remainder of the Great War. Wassmuss had been tasked by Berlin with crossing Persia and entering Afghanistan, along with two German companions, Niedermayer and Hentig. The latter two reached Kabul in September 1915 but Wassmuss was apprehended by tribes on the British pay-roll. He escaped and made his way down to Shiraz where he spread the word that Kaiser Wilhelm had converted to Islam and had visited Mecca. Many in Shiraz, especially the Gendarmerie and its Swedish officers there, warmed to Wassmuss' inflammatory speeches against the British presence in Bushire.
The action at Bushire 12 – 13 July 1915
Image: Old mud-brick fort Bushire
In 1915, Ramadhan, the Muslim month of day-time fasting, was expected to commence on 15 July. Wassmuss urged the Dilwar Tangistanis to attack Bushire and kill all the British there before Ramadhan started, and some of them obliged him. A two-pronged insurgent attack was planned from the south and from the east. On 12 July a report reached Major H E Oliphant, 96th Berar Infantry and commander of the British outposts, that enemy tribesmen had been observed in nullas (dry water-courses) three kilometres south of the outpost line.
Oliphant was not inclined to believe the report but he rode out on reconnaissance with the Assistant Political Officer, Captain G J L Ranking, Indian Political Department; accompanying the two officers were five mounted sowars of the Residency escort and 27 rifles of the 96th Berar Infantry. Unfortunately Oliphant's mounted party rode too far ahead of its supporting riflemen and was surprised by the insurgents; Oliphant and Ranking were killed and three sowars were killed or wounded. Oliphant died in a gallant attempt to save Ranking. As dusk fell that evening the insurgents attacked the outposts but were repulsed. Another attack early next day was also defeated and the Tangistanis then disappeared. The enemy plan had miscarried because the southern group had been observed before the eastern group had concentrated to attack. Major Edward Havelock Oliphant was later posthumously Mentioned in Despatches.
The British attack on Dilwar, 13–15 August 1915
Dilwar sketch map
Britain complained to Persia about the attack on Bushire and demanded reparations; until these were paid Britain determined to occupy Bushire and to attack Dilbar to punish the insurgents. Naval craft, one squadron from the 16th Cavalry and the entire 11th Rajputs were sent to Bushire, along with two captured Turkish guns, only one of which was later found to be serviceable. Meanwhile the Germans in Bushire were believed to have slipped away to Shiraz; soon afterwards the Khans astride the Shiraz road blocked it and cut the telegraph wires running inland.
On 10 August 1915 a British expedition left Bushire to carry out punitive measures against Dilwar. The ships involved were:
- HMS Juno (Captain D St A Wake) – 11 x 6-inch, 8 x 12-pounder and 1 x 3-pounder guns.
- HMS Pyramus – 8 x 4-inch and 8 x 3-pounder guns.
- HMIMS Lawrence – 4 x 4-inch and 4 x 6-pounder guns.
- HMIMS Dalhousie – 6 x 6-pounder guns.
The designated landing party, under Commander Viscount Kelburn, Royal Navy (HMS Pyramus), consisted of:
- Captain G Carpenter, Royal Marine Light Infantry (RMLI), with 50 NCOs and marines and from HMS Juno.
- 9 marines from HMS Pyramus.
- 11 Petty Officers and seamen from HMS Juno manning machine guns.
- A demolition party of 1 Warrant Officer and 20 men from HMS Juno.
- 4 signallers from HMS Juno.
- 1 Medical Officer and 10 stretcher bearers from HMS Juno.
- 24 Seedie Boys (locally enlisted stokers) acting as ammunition and machine gun carriers.
- Major C E H Wintle with one officer and 280 sepoys of the 96th Berar Infantry.
- 5 machine guns.
Because of unfavourable weather, landings could not commence until 11 August and then conditions were still difficult. An inshore current took the boats 1,600 metres away from the planned landing site and the steamboats had to slip the tow-ropes 350 metres from the beach. Whilst the boats were being hauled ashore the Tangistanis fired their rifles from trenches, Juno's pinnace losing four men killed and seven wounded. HMS Juno bombarded the foreshore at a range of about 7,250 metres with her 6-inch guns but the fire had little effect on the enemy.
However, once marines landed, the tribesmen hastily withdrew about two kilometres inland. A base was established and entrenched near the beach, reconnaissance patrols went out, and stores and the balance of the landing party were brought ashore. Major Wintle took command. This was an extremely difficult time of the year for infantry operations because of the severely hot climatic conditions.
The village to be destroyed was New Dilwar and its large fort but it was not marked on the British maps. Major Wintle decided to advance 2,000 metres to a palm grove known to be occupied by the Tangistanis that lay in front of the village of Old Dilwar; from the grove he hoped to be able to sight New Dilwar. The British silent advance began at 0330 hours on 14 August, led by the marines and a company of sepoys without any machine guns. The palm grove was rushed quietly without use of covering fire and its inhabitants sprinted away into the darkness. As day broke New Dilwar could be observed 1,300 metres away to the north-east across a plain; the fort had walls 10 metres high with a large tower above the gateway and a strong garrison was present. The enemy strength was estimated at up to 400 riflemen, and they opened fire on the British and moved forward into Old Dilwar.
Major Wintle did not wish to make a potentially costly day-time assault so he kept his men occupied in the palm grove by entrenching a position and in cutting down the palm trees as part of the punitive measures. Also he requested HMS Juno to shell Old Dilwar. Due to an error a salvo of lyddite shells landed in the palm grove, wounding some men and confusing and demoralising others. As he could not halt the shelling quickly, Wintle ordered an immediate withdrawal to the base camp. The Tangistanis saw an opportunity and attacked the retreating British, causing a number of casualties before base camp was reached. During the rapid and energetic withdrawal several of Wintle's men became heat-stroke casualties, some of them failing to recover. The remainder of that day was spent on reconnaissance and on effective direction of naval fire against Old and New Dilwar.
Having re-grouped and issued orders for a plan of attack Wintle led his men back towards New Dilwar at 0330 hours on 15 August. Marching on a compass bearing, Old Dilwar was reached without opposition and a company of sepoys stayed there to secure the further advance of the assault group. As the attackers moved through the half-light of dawn towards the fort, a British revolver was fired by accident. Wintle ordered the demolition party to run forward and breach the wall, which it successfully did, allowing the fort to be immediately rushed and occupied. Most of the fort garrison was in the partly-demolished palm grove to the south as the Tangistanis had expected the British to occupy that location again. Hearing the explosion from the fort, the tribesmen advanced on New Dilwar but many of them were cut down in the open ground where the machine gunners could see them. It was obvious that the enemy had received reinforcements from other villages, as around 200 more tribesmen were present.
Once in the fort the British destroyed it and New Dilwar. Wintle then commanded a fighting withdrawal back through the sepoy company at Old Dilwar and then all the way back to the beach. Naval guns and the machine guns covered this withdrawal which was completed with the loss of only six men wounded. Re-embarkation back on to the ships was completed that night and the expedition returned to Bushire. The landing party and their boat crews had taken 55 casualties from fighting, most of these occurring during and after the erroneous shelling of the palm grove and 11 casualties from heatstroke. The Tangistanis were believed to have lost a considerable number of men.
Gallantry awards for the Dilwar Expedition were:
Distinguished Service Order
- Commander Patrick James Boyle, Viscount Kelburn, Royal Navy.
- Captain Shirley East Apthorp, 96th Berar Infantry, Indian Army. For conspicuous gallantry. During a retirement, when it was found that two wounded men had been left behind, he immediately volunteered with a private to return some 300 yards to their rescue in face of a heavy fire from the advancing enemy. A serjeant and private were guarding the wounded men, and between them all they brought them back into safety.
Distinguished Service Cross
- Captain George Carpenter, Royal Marine Light Infantry; Lieutenant Edward Albert Singeisen, Royal Naval Reserve; Acting Boatswain Thomas Tierney, Royal Navy. The citation for these three men read: "For services during landing operations in the Persian Gulf in August, 1915."
Distinguished Service Medal
- Royal Marine Light Infantry Privates Frederick William Rayner (Plymouth 11072); Arthur Ramsey (Chatham 19271); and G Yates (Plymouth) received the Distinguished Service Medal for their services in the operations in the Gulf, and it is likely that these awards were earned at Dilwar.
Indian Order of Merit (2nd Class)
- Citations are not available but they doubtless relate to Captain Apthorp's DSO incident above.
Subadar Dharam Singh (posthumous as he died of wounds) and Sepoy 1356 Surjan, both of the 96th Berar Infantry; and Dooly Bearer 6694 Hussain Khan, No 6 Army Bearer Corps.
Mention in Despatches
- Captain S.E. Apthorn DSO, Major C.E.H. Wintle, Subadar Dharam Singh and No 1336 Sepoy Surjan, all of the 96th Berar Infantry; No 6694 Dooly Bearer Hussain Khan, No 6 Army Bearer Corps.
The Tangistani attack on Bushire on 9 September 1915
Image: Bushire dhow port
During July and August tribesmen regularly infiltrated through the British outposts around Bushire and mounted four serious raids, causing eleven casualties. The Tangistanis killed or captured around 40 horses and mules and only suffered minor casualties themselves. The British troops had become passive and defensively-minded. On 20 August an attempt by 300 sepoys to close with an enemy force of up to 100 raiders failed, due to inadequate tactical direction, and 13 sepoys became casualties. However, the squadron of 16th Cavalry had more success in closing with the Tangistanis and inflicting casualties on them.
The Indian Distinguished Service Medal was awarded for gallantry displayed on 20 August 1915 to:
No 1724 Acting Lance Daffadar Kirpa Singh and No 2003 Sowar Atma Singh, both of the 16th Cavalry.
On that day Brigadier General H T Brooking CB arrived at Bushire from Mesopotamia, having been sent by the theatre commander General Sir J E Nixon. Brooking took over command in Bushire and brought with him his 33 Brigade staff officers, 50 men of the 2/7th Gurkhas to specialise in ambushing enemy raiding parties, two more Turkish guns and two field searchlights. He also had authority to call on the warships for a landing party if required.
General Brooking reorganised the defence, having searchlights sweep the approaches by night where the Gurkhas laid ambushes; also an outpost reserve of two rifle companies with four guns and four machine guns was established at Imamzadeh. Machine gun parties from HMS Juno and Pyramus stood by to assist, and Juno's guns were practised onto laying onto any part of Bushire Island. The navy patrolled the creeks and shallow water east of Bushire town.
Image: Old Bushire
On 3 September Tangistanis attacked the Bushire outposts but were driven back; amongst the enemy dead was Rais Ali, the hostile Khan of Dilwar. Five days later Captain Carpenter RMLI was ashore at Bushire with a party for machine gun training; he had with him 35 officers and men from HMS Pyramus plus the Royal Marine detachment from that ship: one sergeant, one corporal and seven privates. Carpenter's party had three machine guns with it, and their presence was fortuitous.
The 9 September was an extremely hot day at Bushire. General Brooking was out and about at 0630 hours – the most pleasant part of the day – when a patrol near Imamzadeh reported observing about 20 of the enemy in the low broken ground that lay on the edge of the Mashileh, south of Zangina. There were several palm groves and water holes here and a sizeable enemy force had gathered to attack Bushire; the firing had already started as the south-eastern British outposts, manned by the Rajputs, engaged the Tangistanis. Brooking immediately issued orders to deploy troops to defensive tasks including fire missions for the guns, and he also prepared a counter-attack. The Gurkhas, who had been out all night on ambush duties, were initially held in reserve.
Carpenter's naval party was ordered to move to Zangina to occupy a position where the machine guns could fire down the cliffs onto tribesmen attacking across the Mashileh. On reaching the position it could be seen that the situation was serious and the Rajputs were hard-pressed to hold their outposts. Carpenter deployed his three machine guns under heavy fire coming from tribesmen only 300 metres distant but his right hand gun had no hard cover from which to fire. Lieutenant Commander T S L Dorman and Yeoman of Signals F S Wood volunteered to man the exposed gun but Wood was soon mortally wounded and Dorman was ordered to fall back; the gun was left in position as its approaches were covered by one of the other guns that was mounted in a tower. For the next two hours the two functioning naval machine guns held a gap in the defences that the enemy tried to infiltrate through. On the left, a small detachment under Sergeant J Wall engaged attackers at 200 metres range and prevented enemy movement on that flank. Sergeant John Wall, RMLI (Plymouth) later received a Distinguished Service Medal; Lieutenant Commander Thomas Stephen Lewis Dorman, Royal Navy, later received a Distinguished Service Order with the citation:
For his gallant conduct at Reshire on the 9th September, 1915, when he volunteered and endeavoured to bring a machine-gun into action, exposed to a heavy fire from the enemy, at about 300 yards range. A Yeoman of Signals who accompanied Lieutenant Commander Dorman was mortally wounded.
Meanwhile the four machine guns of the 11th Rajputs were also heavily engaged, two of them also at Zangina and the other two south of Outpost 4 (Point B on the Bushire map) where the enemy were attacking from the palm groves on the Mashileh. Lieutenant Edmund Cyril Staples, 11th Rajputs, was later awarded a Military Cross:
He was in command of Brigade machine guns, and, although wounded himself and with only one wounded man to help him, he continued to work one of the guns at close range and under heavy fire for about an hour until the action closed. At the end he was working the gun alone as the man helping him was a second time wounded.
1829 Sepoy Ram Kishor Singh, 11th Rajputs, received the Indian Order of Merit (2nd class):
For very conspicuous gallantry and coolness at Bushire on the 9th September 1915, when although wounded and the only man left, he nobly assisted Lieutenant Staples in working one of the machine guns under heavy fire. He was twice wounded.
The British counter-attack
Image: 96th Berar Infantry badge
General Brooking ordered a counter-attack to commence at around 1030 hours. Lieutenant Colonel H P Lane steadily attacked with his 96th Berar Infantry from Point B causing the enemy to break and run back across the Mashileh; about 600 tribesmen could be counted. For gallantry displayed in this fighting 2331 Sepoy Mehar Singh, 96th Berar Infantry, received the Indian Order of Merit (2nd class):
For very conspicuous gallantry and coolness at Bushire on the 9th September 1915, in continuing to fight after being twice wounded. He afterwards received three more wounds and only then did he fall out.
Then Major William Herbert Pennington, 12th Cavalry, commanding the squadron of 16th Cavalry and positioned on the Mashileh east of Point B, was ordered to close in on the enemy. The squadron advanced on foot through a mirage-like heat haze until the enemy was suddenly seen at close range and fire was opened. Immediately the order to mount and charge was given and the squadron charged straight into the mass of the withdrawing enemy. Very savage fighting followed in which the squadron lost a third of its strength, Major Pennington, 2nd Lieutenant Leslie Irvine Lumsden Thornton, Indian Army Reserve of Officers, two Indian officers and 11 rank and file being killed or dying of wounds whilst 10 rank and file were wounded.
The two Indian officers fatalities both received a posthumous Indian Order of Merit (2nd class), the citation for Jemadar Gopal Singh, 16th Cavalry, read:
For very conspicuous gallantry and coolness in action at Bushire on the 9th September 1915, in courageously supporting the lead of his superior officers into the midst of the enemy where he was killed. This charge thoroughly disorganised the enemy.
The citation for Risaldar Prem Singh, 16th Cavalry, read:
For very conspicuous gallantry and coolness in action at Bushire on the 9th September 1915, in courageously leading his troop into the middle of some 400 of the enemy where he was killed. He also set a gallant example under heavy fire at Barjisiyah, (Mesopotamia) on the 14th April 1915.
Two of the rank and file of the squadron, both being men of the 27th Light Cavalry attached to the 16th Cavalry, later received the Indian Distinguished Conduct Medal for gallantry displayed during this action: No 1016 Acting Lance Daffadar Ram Lal and No 1612 Sowar Khazan Singh.
Three men of the 39th Mule Corps, No 799 Driver Johdia, No 589 Naik (Acting Kot Dafadur) Din Muhammad and No 498 Kot Dafadar Ahmad Khan, received the Indian Meritorious Service Medal for the manner in which they performed their duties during the Bushire fighting on 9th September 1915. Their work doubtless involved bringing mule-loads of ammunition and water forward into outposts subject to heavy fire from nearby enemy groups. Lance Naik 4293 Rati Ram, 96th Berar Infantry, also received this medal.
After the charge by the cavalry into the ranks of the enemy the squadron needed time to reorganise its troops and evacuate casualties. This gave the Tangistanis a breathing space to break contact with the pursuing infantry although the British guns continued to inflict casualties. Soon the fleet-footed tribesmen were across the Mashileh and hidden in the broken ground on the mainland; they had left 43 dead, 14 wounded and 4 unwounded prisoners behind on the sand, but they were believed to have taken many wounded men with them. Besides the 25 British cavalry casualties there were 5 in the naval detachment, 34 in the 11th Rajputs and 22 in the 96th Berar Infantry, 2nd Lieutenant R W Robinson of the latter regiment dying of wounds. However the Tangistanis had been defeated without having captured one British outpost and, brave men though they were, they did not mount further attacks on Bushire. On 13 September General Brooking, his task of defending Bushire successfully completed, left for Mesopotamia and handed over to Colonel S M Edwardes DSO, Indian Army.
Mentions in Despatches for the defence of Bushire on 9 September 1915.
- 16th Cavalry: Major W H Pennington, 12th Cavalry attached 16th Cavalry; 2nd Lieutenant L I L Thornton, Indian Army Reserve of Officers attached to 16th Cavalry; Rissaldar Prem Singh and Jemadar Gopal Singh.
- 23rd Mountain Battery: Major R S Rothwell, Royal Artillery.
- 11th Rajputs: Lieutenant E C Staples; No 1829 Sepoy Ram Kishor Singh.
- 96th Berar Infantry: Lieutenant Colonel H P Lane; Captain L D Rollo; No 2331 Sepoy Mehar Singh; No 2762 Sepoy Nadir; No 2766 Sepoy Maula Baksh.
- Staff, etc: Temporary Major General H T Brooking CB; Captain G H Plinston, 11th Rajputs; Lieutenant H P Radley, 72nd Punjabis attached 33rd (Divisional Signal) Company; Captain W E Wilson-Johnston, 36th Sikhs; No 8119 Rifleman H Ball, 3rd Bn The King's Royal Rifle Corps.
The British dead are buried in the Tehran War Cemetery or named on the Tehran Memorial, Iran or on the Basra Memorial, Iraq.
(Grateful acknowledgement is expressed to Cliff Parrett, a leading researcher of Indian Army gallantry awards and the editor of "Durbar", the Journal of the Indian Military Historical Society for the research he provided for this article, as three awards previously overlooked by the major compilers can now be recognised, and others can be assigned to the correct theatre.)
SOURCES (the most easily accessible are listed):
- Brigadier General F J Moberly, Official History. Operations in Persia 1914-1919, Imperial War Museum 1987.
- General Sir John Nixon KCB, Despatch dated 15th January 1916, London Gazette No 29685, page 7456, 27 July 1916.
- General Sir H E Blumberg KCB, Britain's Sea Soldiers. A record of the Royal Marines during the War, Naval & Military Press.
- Lieutenant Colonel J de L Conry, compiler: Regimental History of the 2/19th Hyderabad Regiment (Berar), Gale & Polden 1927.
- Conrad Cato, The Navy Everywhere, Chapter XIII, http://archive.org/details/navyeverywhere00cato
- Rana Chhina, The Indian Distinguished Service Medal, InvictaIndia 2001.
- Peter Duckers, Reward of Valour. The Indian Order of Merit, 1914-1918, Jade Publishing, Oldham 1999.
- M S Leigh OBE ICS, The Punjab and the War, Sang-E-Meel, Lahore 1997.
- Honours and Awards, Indian Army 1914-1921, J.B. Hayward & Son (reprint of Roll of Honour, Indian Army 1914-1921, 1931).
- Antony Wynn, Persia in the Great Game, John Murray paperback 2004.
- Sean McMeekin, The Berlin-Baghdad Express, Penguin Paperback 2011.
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission records and British National Archives Medal Index Cards.
Article and images contributed by Harry Fecitt MBE TD.
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