Paper read to Archam Society
Towards the end of 1917 a War Office message was sent out to all theatres of war asking for volunteers for special service. Little information was given as to the nature of the service, but it was made clear that it might be expected to involve danger and discomfort, and that it would demand the exercise of unusual enterprise and initiative. As to the destination of the selected volunteers, not a hint was given. Both officers and other ranks were required, but the proportion of officers and non-commissioned officers was so large as to indicate that no normal military organisation was being prepared.
The prospect of relief from the monotony of trench warfare in Flanders mud, from stagnation and malaria in Salonika, and from the heat of Mesopotamia attracted plenty of officers, especially from the [?] forces, so that ultimately a small body was chosen, consisting of men well experienced in fighting service, full of energy, and ready to undertake any curious jobs that might fall to their lot. And if it was change and variety that they sought, they were not disappointed.
Some hint of what was required of them could be gathered when they found themselves being transported to Baghdad, and encouraged to acquire the rudiments of the Russian language during the voyage, while they later found themselves joined by a number of Russian officers, refugees from the first revolution which had broken out in March of1917.
The appropriate choice of commander of this out of the way enterprise was General Dunsterville, the original, in his youth, of Kipling’s Stalky, and the task allotted to him was of a kind to appeal to one possessing Stalky’s instinct for adventure.
His command was officially labelled by the non-committal name of Dunsterforce, though in consequence of the exaggerated secrecy which shrouded its activities it was generally know to the troops in Mesopotamia as the “Hush-hush” army.
It is perhaps advisable to point out at once that Dunsterforce never achieved, or came near to achieving the objects with which it started out. But as months passed it found plenty of occupation in rather different directions, which had important military and political results.
And as it happened that I became personally involved in a minor capacity in the later stages of the operations of Dunsterforce, I propose to attempt an outline of some items of its short history, which does not much resemble that of any normal military expedition.
The capture of Baghdad in March 1917 had the effect of destroying an immediate prospect of German penetration eastward along the line to the Persian Gulf. But with the destruction of these hopes there arose fresh ones, for the Russian collapse caused the gradual withdrawal of the forces which had occupied north-west Persia with rather variable success, against the Turkish army, and nothing now stood in the way of a German-Turkish advance eastward across the Caspian area into Turkestan and Afghanistan, with all the consequent threat to India.
It appeared not impossible however that an effective barrier might be raised against such a Turkish advance in the South Caucasus. Georgia and Armenia were full of disorganised soldiers, and less infected than most Russian territory with the revolutionary spirit. Both of these states had good reason to hate the Turks, and it seemed reasonable to suppose that with a little encouragement and organisation they might be brought to make an effective resistance, and prevent Turkey from invading their homes and obtaining control of the Batoum-Tiflis-Baku railway and the Baku oil-fields, the minerals of the Caucasus, and the grain and cotton of the Caspian shores. This was the original task allotted to Dunsterforce. They were to make their way across north-west Persia and the Caspian and install themselves as quickly as possible in Tiflis, and there organise resistance to the threatened Turkish advance.
The main difficulty arose from the distances. From Baghdad to the south shore of the Caspian Sea was 450 miles as the crow flies. The only available road, through Kermanshah and Hamadan, was 600 miles long, more than half of it entirely unmetalled, and it had to cross several high passes, the highest rising to 7,600 feet, and normally snow-bound in winter. The force could not plan to do anything therefore except cut itself off from all communication with Baghdad. Time was urgent, for Armenian morale was not likely to improve, and winter was going to make travelling more difficult.
General Dunsterville, arriving in Baghdad on January 18th found himself the [?] representative of his force. It was impossible to wait to assemble even a good proportion of the personnel. Three officers started, with one armoured car protection, three days ahead, to secure petrol supplies, and Dunsterforce itself left Baghdad on January 27th, consisting of General Dunsterville, 11 other officers and two clerks, in four touring cars and 36 Ford vans, with a repair van; the fighting strength being 41 rifles (from among the drivers) and a Lewis gun. The remainder of the personnel was to follow on later.
The aim of this party was to make its way rapidly to the Caspian, and across to Baku, and there to get to work. Actually difficulties began after two days, when 150 miles travelling brought them to the Pai-Taq Pass, where was stationed the last outpost of the Mesopotamian army, and the road climbs from the foothills up to the high tableland of which nearly all Persia consists. Over 1000 feet of this climb is up a tremendous hill, eating both cars and drivers to the utmost until some road engineers were later set to work upon it. Even then all passengers had to get out and walk, and were luckily if they had not to push behind. This pass rises to well over 5000 feet, and scarcely drops on the Persian side. Before its highest point had been reached, snow-storms set in, and snow-drifts held up the party. But after some days, the convoy was got on the move with much digging and pushing and finding better conditions reached Kermanshah in two days’ travelling. Here some civilized accommodation was available, a British Consul being still in residence, and the English manager of the Imperial Bank of Persia carrying on business under difficulties. And here General Dunsterville first encountered the only ally who was ever of any real assistance to him, General Bickerakof, a North Caucasian Cossack officer, an experienced and vigorous soldier, having under him a mixed force of trained men bound to him by personal loyalty.
Only 20 miles beyond Kermanshah the road passes right beneath the Rock of Bintun on which is carved the famous cuneiform inscription of Darius. This was a feature of interest to every member of the force who then or later went along this road, but of surpassing interest to Colonel Rawlinson (brother of Lord Rawlinson) who joined Dunsterforce some months later. His father had spent 12 years in deciphering the alphabet, grammar and dictionary of this lost language by means of the key which this inscription provided, and Colonel Rawlinson’s very entertaining book of his adventures gives a short account of the means he adopted to solve this formidable puzzle.
This famous inscription is worthily sited at the base of a precipitous cliff rising almost sheer for 4000 feet from a broad level plain. From 20 miles away, in the clear atmosphere one entirely misjudged the height of this mountain which is taken to be something of more normal height two or three miles away. On the face of this cliff, high enough up to be protected from injury, but low enough to be easily seen, and close to a glorious, cold, clear spring of water which invites evry traveler to halt where he will not miss seeing it, Darius caused this elaborate picture and record to be carved, commemorating his fame to 100 generations of men.
Without delay the party pushed on from Kermanshah past the Bintun rock, making good progress in a very long day’s journey to reach Aradabad, the village at the foot of the most formidable pass of all. A sudden change of weather blocked the pass with snow, and a week was spent before the town of Hamadan on the other side was reached. Here the officers of the advanced party were caught up, and another hospitable manager of the Imperial Bank was in residence.
Some of the most pleasant recollections carried away by many of us who served in north-west Persia was of the unavailing kindness of the few British residents still left there. For my own part it was, when I reached Hamadan, over two years since I had had a meal served in civilized conditions. It was almost a shock to find oneself suddenly the guest of a hospitable host and hostess in the surroundings of a well-appointed English home.
A halt was made in Hamadan to overhaul cars, and clear snowdrifts ahead. Then for the rest of the way a good metalled road existed, so that Kassim was soon reached, a city of considerable size, where the Teheran road joins.
Here the first signs of hostility were met, and the difficulties of completing the hitherto successful journey began to appear.
North of Kassim the road to the Caspian Sea, after cutting through the Elbury Mountains, runs through 50 miles of warm low-lying country all covered with jungle, the province of Gilan with its capital at Resht. In control of Gilan was Kuchik Khan, a sort of Local Sinn Feiner, whose policy of Persia for the Persians, or perhaps Gilan for the Gilani was upheld by him with something of fanatic enthusiasm. His principles would lead him to dislike Russians or British equally, but at this time the Russians were ready enough to depart, and the road through Gilan was swarming with disorganised groups of soldiers making their way to the Caspian port of Enzeli.
Kuchik Khan was only too pleased to let them pass unmolested and buy their rifles at a very low price. But when he saw the forerunners of a new invading foreign army coming to take their place, his hostility was soon aroused. Moreover at Enzeli a Bolshevik Committee was in control, and Kuchik Khan, himself something of a socialist in his ideals, was soon in league with the Bolshevik Committee in a joint hostility to the British, a hostility that would not be diminished by the fact that Kuchik Khan was availing himself of the services of a German officer to command his private army of some 5000 rifles.
Although Kuchik Khan was full of threats, Dunsterville decided to pursue his journey in the well-founded hope that the back of a Persian fanatic would be worse than his bite; and two days’ motoring took his little party through mountain defiles impassable against a few hundred well-organized soldiers, and on through the dense forest and rice fields around Resht, all perfectly designed [?] ambush, without any opposition whatever. And thus the Caspian was reached on February 17th, only [?] days from Baghdad.
There remained the one problem of finding a means to embark and cross to Baku in the face of the opposition of “Military Revolutionary Committee of the East Persian Circle of the Caucasus Front” as it was pleased to call itself. The Committee took the line that Russia was no longer an ally, having concluded peace, and mistrusted Great Britain as a symbol of Imperialism, and the Tiflis people as being anti-Bolshevik. As the shipping, telegraph and petrol supply was in the Committee’s hands, and they were being well backed up by German agents and were unlikely to be persuaded, even by the subtle tongue of Stalky himself, to a change of attitude, the problem quickly proved insoluble.
In fact it soon took a fresh form, for it seemed that to go back might be as impossible to go on. Both Persians and Russians would have liked the whole party asserted, but each wanted the other to take the first step. The President of the Committee invited Dunsterville, as a way out of the difficulty, to turn Bolshevik. This he declined very politely and, with the aid of some flattering comments upon Comrade Chelispin’s?] efficiency and eloquence, persuaded him to supply an order for petrol with which to return.
Next day before dawn, depressed by failure, and in some anxiety as to opposition, the little party left Enzeli. Again the journey passed without resistance, there being a fortunate absence of breakdowns of the cars (which later became frequent), until Kuchik Khan’s area had been left behind. It transpired that plans for taking them in ambush had been laid, but abandoned owing to fears of Kuchik Khan that the Russian soldiers who were proceeding in endless procession down the road might interfere and upset them. And so without a casualty they were all back again in Hamadan, ten days after setting out from that town.
If there had been serious doubts as to the next action to be taken they would have been settled by the fact that communication with Mesopotamia was now cut off by snow in the Aradabad Pass. But in any case there was useful work to be accomplished at Hamadan.
The whole political situation in north-west Persia was very delicate. Kuchik Khan appeared likely to capture Kassim, and success there would have made advance to Teheran easy, for he had sympathizers in the capital who needed only some success to arouse them. With Turks and Tartars in league with him, and German influence behind him, he might soon have been leading the van of a pan-Islamic move in the direction of India. It was urgent to bring every possible influence to bear against such a move in its early stages.
And so Dunsterforce settled down at Hamadan and employed themselves in a multitude of tasks, terribly handicapped by lack of personnel until the arrival some six weeks later of the second detachment of officers and NCOs from Baghdad. An intelligence system was organized, and soon General Dunsterville was well informed as to the activities of local officials, and he was tapping the whole of the telegraphic communications between a Turkish Consul some hundred miles away and the Turkish Legation in Teheran.
Another important activity was famine relief, which was necessary partly to cultivate good will among the local people, and partly to ease the problem of present and future supply for Dunsterforce itself. It was soon discovered that supplies of food existed, but well being held up by unscrupulous profiteers, regardless of the appalling conditions that prevailed. The people had no money to buy corn at the inflated prices that were asked, and a third of the population were starving. Deaths were occurring in great numbers daily, and women were actually stoned to death for killing and eating children. Relief was effected by employing the poorest on road work, and by using every means to get supplies put into the market and before long conditions were much improved.
But although this was necessary and useful work, the essential need at the moment was an armed force to check Kuchik Khan at Kassim, and Dunsterville still had no men except his 40 drivers. He succeeded however in coming to an agreement with General Bickerakov who controlled the only disciplined Russians left in Persia, and who was now in Hamadan. In return for money enough to pay his men, he agreed to co-operate with Dunsterforce, and in the first instance to attack Kuchik Khan. General Dunsterville, though short of men, seems to have been given a pretty free hand in the matter of expenditure, and in the event Bickerakov advanced to Kassim and occupied it in the nick of time. Dunsterville himself, in a letter written a few weeks later, wrote: “Bickerakov reached Kassim on March 28th about the date on which Kuchik was to have taken over the town unopposed. Had Kuchik succeeded in that, Teheran would have raised the Jangali banner on the following day and North Persia would have gone. In the East, a small success spreads like a flame, and Jangali sympathizers in Teheran include a portion of the Cabinet. Success would bring in all the waverers and Persia would have started another revolution.”
It was at this time that Dunsterville received his first reinforcements, a squadron of the 4th Hussars and a handful of infantry to be exact, 30 rifles of the 1/4 Hampshire Regiment. This was entirely used up in providing guards, but rumour magnified it rapidly to a whole battalion so that its moral influence was out of all proportion to its size. It was in fact the advance guard of the whole battalion, which arrived gradually in small parties.
The sending of troops into Persia was strongly opposed by Sir William Marshall who had become Commander-in-Chief in Mesopotamia after the death of Maude. The original plan had involved nothing of the kind, but after Dunsterville had been turned back at the shores of the Caspian, he had not ceased to press for troops, and he had the strong backing of the British Minister in Teheran. The outcome was an order from home to supply troops for the Persian Expedition. Marshall records that on receipt of these he at once sat down and wrote a letter asking to be allowed to resign his command. But his senior staff officers induced him to reconsider his decision, and the letter was never cabled.
Two divisions seem to have been proposed, but in fact nothing like so large a force ever was sent, nor could it have been supplied. Besides the Hampshires, who arrived in June, the rest of the 14th Hussars, a battalion of Gurkhas, a battery of Field artillery, eight armoured cars, four aeroplanes and a considerable supply of motor transport joined Dunsterforce about the same time.
It had now become impossible to carry out the original project of getting through to Tiflis, for the Turks were in occupation there, and working towards Baku. But Dunsterville had not given up hope of retaining control of the Caspian Sea. To accomplish this he would have to deal with Kuchik Khan in the first place, and next contrive to cross to Baku, and there join up with the Armenian element of the population which was prepared to welcome him with any troops he could bring. For there had been serious fighting between the Tartars and Armenians who together form the largest part of the very mixed population of that town. And the latter were justifiably alarmed at the prospect of the Moslem Tartars having things all their own way, as they would do if the Turks captured the town. The political situation was very unstable there, and events later proved that Dunsterville was justified in preparing to seize promptly any opportunity of a move to Baku with whatever men he could take there.
His first step was to move forward 150 miles from Hamadan to Kassim, which he did on June 1st. Bickerakof was still there with his tolerably well disciplined force of Russians, and ready to fight Jangalis, or any other convenient enemy, if he were given money to pay his men, and on June 5th this force of a few thousand men, with the one squadron of 14th Hussars and two armoured cars advanced against Kuchik Khan. He held a position 70 miles along the road to the Caspian at a little place called Menjil.
Menjil is one of the least pleasant places where I have ever had to spend a night. To the eye it is beautiful enough, like so much of Persia. But the mountains contrive to concentrate there all the winds belonging to a hundred miles, so that there is a full gale raging almost perpetually. The air is full of grit which stings against your face. It is difficult not to be blown over. Bivouac in the open is scarcely to be thought of. Tents blow down, or away altogether, and one is driven to billet for shelter in the few houses available, and these bare throughout north-west Persian an unenviable reputation for the number and offensive activity of their population of fleas.
But tactically Menjil is a natural fortress of the most formidable type, so it was unlikely that much progress would be made unless – as was confidently hoped – Kuchik Khan’s troops were no better than most Persian irregular soldiers.
Actually the battle was almost a musical comedy affair. The opening incident is thus described: “Bickerakof at the head of his army came round the corner of the spur where he encountered a small body of the enemy’s troops, who had the appearance of intending to resist his advance. Having been badly wounded in the legs early in the war, Bickerakof is obliged to walk with a stick, which he now carried as his only weapon, and with which he walked boldly up to the leader and asked him what he was doing there and why his men assumed so threatening an attitude. To this the picquet commander replies, “We are here to hold this post with the last drop of our blood.” “Get out of it, at once!” shouted Bickerakof, waving his crooked stick at them, and his fierce and threatening gestures so alarmed the Jangalis that they turned and fled as one man down the road, leaving the spur in the hands of the Cossacks. This completed this phase of the battle.”
The attack was made and panic soon spread among the Jangalis, who allowed Bickerakof to capture the bridge which crosses a considerable river at a narrow defile, where one machine gun, among the many sited on the hillsides, could have made it untenable if it had been kept in action. Further advance was now delayed chiefly by difficulty of finding troops to protect the line of communications, but before the end of June Bickerakof and his Russians were at Enzeli on the Caspian Sea, and British troops spun out rather precariously along the road.
For contemptible as the Jangali army had proved itself in a straight fight, it could not fail to be a source of constant irritation on the road north from Menjil bridge to Enzeli. For 20 miles it runs between steep bare mountain slopes and then with a sudden contrast it dives into forest with thick undergrowth, broken only, when the level plain is reached, by watery rice fields. The whole 70 odd miles is ideal for sniping and ambush. In spite of such natural advantages for the enemy, the control of the road was never lost except for a few days towards the end of July when the Jangalis launched a fairly determined attack on the small garrison of Resht, a considerable town which lies buried amidst the forest and rice fields some 20 miles from the sea. But the attack of 2500 Jangalis was beaten off by our garrison of 450, with so much loss that Kuchik Khan was soon induced to abandon hostile attitude and come to terms.
Bickerakof had reached Enzeli, but found that his only hope of returning with his troops to Russia was to turn at least nominally, Bolsehvik. This he did, and as Commander in Chief of the Red Armies of the Caucasus he landed at Alyat 50 miles south of Baku, whence he could intercept the Turkish advance along the railway from Tiflis.
The Turks had some 12,000 men, half of them good regular troops, and half local levies. They were hampered by the deplorable state of the railway and rolling stock. The Baku Red Army could probably muster 10,000, were well supplied, and had strong defensive positions available. But their discipline had gone, and Bickerakof soon found that he could put no reliance upon any but his own men. He had to fall back towards Baku. On July 26th the Bolshevik regime in Baku was displaced by another party, and a new body calling itself the Central Caspian Dictatorship took charge. This change, long anticipated by Dunsterville, brought an immediate invitation to him to send British troops to help in the defence of Baku, and at best the Caspian Sea no longer set a limit to the progress of the force. Not many troops were available. But early in July, under direct orders from the War Office, and in the face of steady disapproval from the Mesopotamian Command, the 39th Brigade of the 13th Division (part of Kitchener’s original first 100,000) were detailed to join Dunsterforce, and thus at this late stage my own battalion, the 9th Worcestershires, became involved in this campaign.
A fleet of 50 3-ton lorries worked at full pressure to transport the men in relays to Hamadan. Battalion transport and a Battery of RFA set out upon a 600-mile march to the Caspian. The road to Hamadan, smoothed, widened, and was in places even metalled, by hundreds of Persian labourers was now fairly good going, and a lorry convoy packed to its fullest limit with men and a minimum of kit, completed the journey to Hamadan in 5 days. The petrol supply was most difficult at this point, which lay mid-way between the two possible sources, each 300 miles distant. Convoys of pack animals, donkey, ponies or camels, laden with petrol were to be met constantly on the road, announcing their approach from a long distance by their jangling bells. But their progress was slow and arrival irregular, and petrol in Hamadan was very precious indeed. And so the 150 mile stage to Kassim was done by marching, a ten days’ journey, though occasionally a few spare Ford vans would turn up unexpectedly to give a lift to a few platoons. And so by degrees, in little broken parties, three battalions of the 7th North Staffs, 9th Royal Warwicks and 9th Worcestershires, in that order, were hurried with all possible speed through Persia, across the sea to Baku; for the 7th Gloucesters, latest to start, never completed the whole journey. Orders to move had reached the brigade in the middle of the leave season, when about one third of their already reduced strength was on leave to India. The three battalions which finally reached Baku did not average above 600 each at starting, and the line of communications took its inevitable toll. A company of the Worcestershires was first detained at Hamadan to control the passage of 50,000 refugees, Assyrian, Jelu and Nestorian Christians who just then swarmed down the road from the Lake Urmia district to the north-west.
The food situation, now much improved, was not yet well enough in hand for these people to be fed in Persia for any length of time. And so in batches of 3000 they were sent on down the road to form the great camp at Baqubak, 50 miles from Baghdad, where for years they presented the political authorities with a difficult problem. The same company of ours, released from this duty, proceeded north, only to be deflected again when a sudden menace arose from some 2000 Turks moving down from Jabziz against our left flank at Kassim. Here, while we were busy in Baku, they were occupied in rearguard actions which ultimately held up this unpleasant threat to our line of communications.
The first British troops to reach Baku consisted of some staff officers and a platoon of the Hampshire, sent there as a token of our intended co-operation. They arrived on August 4th on the eve of an attack by a small force of Turks, and their presence inspired the inhabitants to make an effort that they could unfortunately never be induced to repeat later. The attack was effectively driven off, and hopes were raised which were doomed to disappointment.
Dunsterville transferred his headquarters to the best of the ships he had taken over, the President Kruger. There was a difficulty about a flag. He had substituted the Russian flag for the Red flag of Revolution, but faced with a protest, in order to maintain his attitude of political neutrality, he had to reach a compromise, which was to turn it upside down. This he agreed to do, because he realized, as the Russians did not, that it thus became the Serbian flag. Thus arose the situation which he summarizes in these words: “A British General on the only sea unploughed before by British keels, on board a ship named after a South African Dutch president and erstwhile enemy, sailing from a Persian port, under the Serbian flag, to relieve from the Turks a body of Armenians in a revolutionary Persian town.”
For a month the gradual reinforcement of our little garrison in Baku continued, the three companies of the Worcestershires being the latest to arrive about the end of August or early in September.
Baku was a Tartar town before it became an oil producing centre. The old walled town still stands in the middle of the modern city, and its Mohammedan inhabitants were in sympathy with the Turks, only awaiting the capture of the city to give them their chance of revenge upon the Armenian population for a massacre that the latter had inflicted on them in the previous year. Of the Russian inhabitants, the more ardent Bolsheviks resented the presence of the British, and it was only a narrow majority largely of Armenians which had invited us there and welcomed our help. These however were so enthusiastic over our presence, that they were far too ready to leave all the defence of the place to our handful of troops. The general absence of discipline made havoc of all plans of action, for individuals, or whole regiments, whenever so disposed, would vanish without notice, generally under the pretext of having had a political meeting to attend.
The town was well situated for defence, and there was a good supply of military equipment. But every effort of the British staff to get things done was delayed by endless talk and frustrated by indecision. Such Russian and Armenian officers as had any energy and ability were without real authority, and in the hands of futile committees. There was not even the force of Bickerakof to rely upon. He had been quite unable to agree with the Baku Army, and had given up the attempt to co-operate with them, and had drawn off his force northwards just before we arrived. Had his decision been delayed a few days the event might have turned out differently.
Baku stretches for miles along the southern shore of the Apsheron peninsula. Its defence required the maintenance of a line, running north and south across the neck of the peninsula, its left occupying commanding high ground, its right shortened by a considerable salt lake. About 16 miles of well sited front needed to be occupied and held. But the chance of fortifying it had been lost before we came, and we had not the numbers, nor had the local defenders the spirit to attack the Turks while yet they were weak, and drive them out. And so they were occupying commanding heights when they observed our movements, and were close upon the outskirts of the town on the left, and gradually closing round upon it from the north upon our other flank, as they penetrated further into the oil fields of the barren peninsula. Here and there critical points of our line were held by a company or two of the 39th Brigade. In the intervals were local troops – when they had not gone off for a meeting or a party. Every inducement was given to them to do a little trench making and wiring, with but a minimum of success. However, some progress was made. Meanwhile care of all ordnance had fallen into the most capable hands of Colonel Rawlinson, who records that there were on his arrival only 10 or 12 guns mounted for the defence, but by searching he found another 120 or so scattered about the town; and before we left 86 had been put into action. He discovered well over 100,000 shells and millions of small arms ammunition.
There was no excuse for failure on account of any lack of men or material. Food was a greater problem, and water supply poor. But the one insuperable difficulty was the amazing indifference of the population. The Armenians, who were the controlling party, knew that the capture of the town by Turks would mean a massacre – as in fact it did, on no small scale. Yet they seemed but mildly interested in our efforts, and less in their own. To the end, the town remained gay, the streets crowded in the evenings with young men walking out with their girls when they should have been fighting for their lives in the trenches.
A determined attack on the right of our line made by some thousand Turks on a single company of North Staffords ultimately wiped out the defenders, whose resistance was so gallant that it called forth from the Turkish General, Murcel Pasha, after the armistice a special word of praise. Ground was lost but the situation was saved. A few days later a similar effort forced another withdrawal, and our line was now bent at a sharp angle. And then for a period the enemy was quiet, apparently awaiting further reinforcement.
Meanwhile Dunsterville by protest, persuasion, threats of withdrawal, was doing his utmost to stir the Baku troops to some effective action. He induced Bickerakof to send some of his troops by sea from Petrovsk. The numbers of British had risen to some 1300. The situation was bad, but not quite hopeless. But as a precaution three good ships were held in readiness for evacuation.
On September 12th a deserter, an officer of Arab nationality, gave information that an attack was to be made on the 14th. He was not definite as to the point selected for attack. His information turned out correct. Before dawn we, who were in the line facing north, not far from the right angle bend in our line heard violent shooting and bombing away behind us on our left. The attack soon broke through the resistance of local troops, but the North Staffords held the Turkish advance all day on the outskirts of the town.
Dawn revealed the attack developing upon our front also. But we had a better field of fire, and some of the better local troops who did not at once run away. So we were not hardly pressed from that direction. But about midday news came of hand to hand fighting almost directly behind us, and a rearguard action ensued, our retirement having to be made up the bare slopes of a very steep hill. This was accomplished with no great loss, and in the afternoon the Turks were held up again. But our line was close outside the town, and the position was clearly hopeless. Orders were secretly issued to assemble every man at dusk, and after dark in two columns, one from the north of the town, and one from the west, the British force marched to the harbour, fully expecting at any moment to be attacked in fury by the populace. Perhaps they did not grasp our position, or perhaps we still looked, even after a stiff day’s fighting rather a tough nut to crack. Anyhow we passed through without trouble, and were all on board by 11 o’clock. And now the Baku Government was alarmed, and sent envoys threatening to order their fleet to fire and sink the ships. But the wireless station was not working and Dunsterville calculated on getting out and passing the guardships before instructions could reach them. In any case their guns were not large, and we had borrowed all their searchlights. He was justified in his reckoning. The last ships to get out were in fact fired upon, but without effect, and all got away in safety, even Colonel Rawlinson in a little ship loaded with all the guns and explosive he could crowd on it in a day, a ship manned by a captain and crew determined not to sail. This remarkable achievement he carried out by barricading himself with the captain on the bridge with boxes of dynamite, in each of which he placed a fulminate detonator. He compelled the captain, who was moved by respect for Rawlinson’s very evident revolver, to explain to the crew that a stray bullet fired at the bridge would blow the ship to eternity.
By such peaceful persuasion he induced him to navigate the ship out between the sandbanks without grounding it, and though the ship was hit by seven small shells from the guardship, they did not blow up.
And thus with our safe return to Persia the Dunsterforce episode was concluded, and I with a good many more successfully completed a third and final evacuation in face of the Turks.