11/16/2014 11:47 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

This Week in World War I, November 15-21, 1914


Turkish Troops in Persia 1914

The War in Persia

In 1914 Persia was an independent kingdom under the Qajar dynasty. Control of Persia had been a subject of intense competition between Russia and Great Britain when they had waged their "Great Game" for power and influence in central Asia. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 had divided Persia into two spheres of influence. Russia held sway in the north and Great Britain in the south. The discovery of oil by the Anglo-Persian oil company a year later in Khuzestan, underscored its importance to the British Empire.

Officially, Persia was neutral during World War I. Its location at the juncture of the Ottoman, Russian and British-Indian Empires, however, made it the subject of intense competition between the Allies and the Central Powers for influence there. The German and Ottoman Empires' strategy was to cut Russia off from the oil resources around the Caspian Sea.

More importantly, Enver Pasha, the Ottoman War Minister, believed that if Russia could be forced out of northern Persia, it would open the door to Ottoman influence among the Turkic people of central Asia. Moreover, with German assistance he hoped to ignite an uprising against British interests in Persia and eventually an invasion of British India by a locally organized Muslim army.

Most of the Persian military forces consisted of tribal based militias under the control of their local chiefs. These militias had little allegiance to the Central government and would often switch sides between the Allies and the Central Powers.

British forces were relatively light and consisted of a number of Indian Army units stationed in the south. In addition, the British in 1916 organized the South Persia Rifles, a Persian military force of approximately 11,000 men under the command of British officers, to deal with local tribal insurrections being created by German agents. Russia had a Persian Cossack Brigade and a small contingent of the Russian Caucasus Army stationed in northern Persia.

Russian Persian Cossack Brigade

In 1914 when war broke out, Enver Pasha instructed the 1st and 5th Turkish Expeditionary Force to invade Persia and proceed through Tabriz to Dagestan in the north and ignite a general rebellion against Russian control leading to the expulsion of Russian forces from the shores of the Caspian Sea. The original incursion was aborted when Ottoman troops were rerouted to the Russian Third Army in the Caucasus. Additional incursions by Ottoman Forces were repulsed by a combination of Russian troops and associated Armenian volunteers serving in association with the Russian Army.

Northern Persia soon became an ancillary theater to the broader conflict in the Caucasus and Russian forces began to move south towards Tehran. They were opposed by a combination of local tribal militias allied with Turkish troops that had intervened into Persia.

In response to the Turkish and Russian incursions into Persia, Great Britain began moving its forces northward, ostensibly to support the Russian advance and meet the Turkish incursion, but also to insure that its interests in Persia were protected.

The collapse of Russian forces following the Russian revolution resulted in Turkish forces gaining control over northern Persia. Armenian battalions, supplied by the British, opposed the Turkish forces. In the meantime, British forces occupied the rest of Persia.

Following the cessation of hostilities with the Ottomans, British Forces occupied northern Persia as well and organized, financed and armed additional Armenian units in order to ostensibly contain Bolshevik influence.

Immediately following the war, Great Britain attempted to create a protectorate over Persia and expand its control over the Persian Oil fields. In 1921, it assisted in a coup that brought Reza Kahn, an officer in the Persian Cossack Brigade, as Shah of the new Pahlavi dynasty. That dynasty would dominate Persia and then Iran's politics for the next half century.