Map of Persia
Map of Persia

As a constitutional monarchy, Persia maintained neutrality throughout the war. Yet, situated strategically between Asia and Europe, and possessing abundant petroleum reserves, it became a focal point in the rivalry between the belligerents. The Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907 carved the nation into northern and southern spheres of influence, with Russia actively supporting the Persian monarch. From 1910 onwards, Russian Cossacks were dispatched to aid the Shah, engaging rebellious tribes and bandits in the monarch's name. This assistance seemingly aligned with Russia's political objectives in the region.

The Central Powers, harboring their own aspirations for Persia, pursued a policy aimed at unsettling Britain and Russia. Their strategy sought to foment disturbances in Persia, thereby liberating the nation from Entente influence. The German plan unfolded with straightforward precision. Agents, generously funded and armed, would mobilize local levies and sow anarchy across the land. At the forefront of this operation stood consular officers in Persia: Wilhelm Wassmuss, known as the "German Lawrence," and Count Kaunitz.

Turkish troops in Persia

Enver Pasha, in contemplation of his own stratagems, saw an opportunity in the defeat of the Russians within the pivotal cities of Persia. This conquest, he believed, would pave the path to Azerbaijan, Central Asia, and ultimately, India. Thus, the invasion of Persia emerged as the inaugural manoeuvre in Enver's expansive pan-Turanian vision.

Subsequent to the Ottoman Empire's entry into the conflict and the commencement of hostilities, Enver Pasha, stationed at Köprüköy on the Caucasian front, transmitted a cable from his headquarters. The recipients were Lieutenant Colonel Kazım Bey, overseeing the 1st Expeditionary Force (established on 11 December 1914), and Lieutenant Colonel Halil Bey, in command of the 5th Expeditionary Force (established on 25 December). The succinct message conveyed a clear directive: "Move with your division towards Persia. Progress through Tabriz to Dagestan, where you shall incite a widespread rebellion and drive the Russians from the Caspian Sea shores."

Persia during the war: Palace of Xerxes at Persepolis • "South Persia and the Great War", P. Sykes, 1921

Enver, through Kazım Bey and Halil Bey, conveyed a message to the local populace. Their purpose in the region was not one of invasion but rather a mission to liberate Persia from the clutches of Russian dominance. Concurrently, the tides of war in Europe were turning against the Russians, a fact that was not lost on the Turkish emissaries.

As the Battle of Sarıkamış reached its zenith, Russian General Alexander Myshlayevsky issued a decisive order for withdrawal from Persia. Leaving behind only a solitary brigade under the command of the Armenian General Tovmas Nazarbekov, the Russians created a strategic void that beckoned the Turks forward. The opportune moment had arrived.

While preparations were underway within the ranks of Halil Bey’s forces, Turkish troops, swift and resolute, had already breached the Persian frontier. Having successfully thwarted a Russian offensive, the Van Gendarmerie Division, a nimble paramilitary unit, pursued the retreating foe into Persia. On 14 December, they crossed the border, seizing the town of Kotur before advancing towards Hoy. Simultaneously, Kazım Bey and Halil Bey were tasked with progressing towards Tabriz from their established bridgehead at Kotur.

However, the aftermath of the Battle of Sarıkamış cast a shadow over the Turkish advance. Morale within the ranks plummeted, and the available forces for deployment into Persia were woefully insufficient. The demands of the Expeditionary Forces were imperative elsewhere. Consequently, the 5th Expeditionary Force, initially en route to Persia, saw a change of course, rerouted northward to reinforce the Third Army on 10 January 1915. Soon thereafter, the 1st Expeditionary Force followed suit, leaving the ambitions in Persia deferred amidst the shifting sands of military necessity.

Turkish forces in Persia • "Birinci Dünya Savaşı'nda Türk Askeri Kıyafetleri", T. Örses & N. Özçelik, 2010

The grand plan lay shattered, albeit temporarily; yet, pockets of Turkish forces secured notable victories. On 4 January 1915, a volunteer detachment under Ömer Naci Bey, dispatched by Talat Pasha on a special mission to Persia, seized the city of Urmia. A mere week later, Ömer Fevzi Bey's Mosul Group marched into Tabriz, encountering minimal resistance.

Realizing their mistake, the Russians swiftly marshalled their forces to reclaim the territories lost to the Turks in northern Persia. Launching an offensive, they aimed to reverse their setbacks. Tabriz, held by the Turks, succumbed to the Russians under General Chernozoubov on 30 January. The disbandment of the Mosul Group following Tabriz's fall significantly aided Russian advances. A mere three days after the city's capture, the Mosul Group was reconstituted.

Entrance of a Turkish command post Atlas Tarih, March 2014

The Van Gendarmerie Division maintained its presence in Persian territory. On 14 January, it seized Dilman city and subsequently engaged the Russians in Hoy on two occasions, 22 and 28 January, without achieving success. However, on 3 February, during a counter-offensive led by General Nazarbekov, the Van Gendarmerie Division managed to hold its lines.

In early March, Nazarbekov launched another assault with a more formidable force, totaling seven battalions. On 7 March, the Van Gendarmerie Division evacuated Dilman and commenced a strategic withdrawal, reaching Kotur three days later, where it entrenched itself.

By April 1915, the 1st Expeditionary Force, under the command of Halil Bey, advanced into northern Persia amidst the tumult of the Armenian rebellion in the Van region. The primary objective of the Turkish offensive was the city of Dilman. Halil Bey aspired to rid the region of Nazarbekov’s forces, securing a crucial tactical advantage for the Turks in the Caucasian front. His forces encountered not only regular Russian troops but also faced Armenian volunteers led by General Andranik Ozanian.

Turkish troops being inspected en route to Persia • "I. Dünya Savaşı'nda Osmanlı Cepheleri", Istanbul Military Museum, 2016

On 14 April, the forces under Halil Bey launched an assault, successfully forcing the Russian and Armenian enemy to retreat to the northern reaches of Dilman. However, the triumph of that day was short-lived. The subsequent night witnessed a poorly executed raid, resulting in approximately 2,000 casualties for Halil Bey's forces.

Simultaneously, a surge in rebellion unfolded in Van, compelling the Turks to abandon Persian territory and hasten to the aid of the embattled city. By the conclusion of April, no Turkish troops remained within the borders of Persia. Halil Bey, upon receiving a cable from Enver Pasha, was instructed to depart from this theatre of war: "Van has been subdued. The roads to Bitlis and Iraq face imminent peril. To avert greater threats, effect a swift withdrawal and rendezvous with the Third Army, which shall assume command of these vital gateways."

Prayer for victory in Kermanshah • Harp Mecmuası

During the rest of the year 1915, the Persian theatre lay dormant, devoid of armed hostilities. However, espionage activities surged, casting shadows over the tranquility. The Germans fortified their ties with the Persian political elite, and the German ambassador to Persia secured allegiance from the 7,000-strong Persian gendarmerie, under the tutelage of Swedish officers. Simultaneously, Wassmuss and his agent diligently garnered support among diverse Persian tribes.

This state of affairs did not sit well with the Allies. The Russians, backed by the 8,000-strong Persian Cossacks, swept across the northern expanse, including the capital Tehran. This compelled pro-German politicians to flee, seeking refuge initially in the sacred town of Qom and later in Kermanshah, nestled near the Ottoman border. In Kermanshah, the Germans orchestrated the establishment of a puppet Persian government.

Meanwhile, in the southern regions, Wassmuss kindled a tribal uprising, met with formidable resistance from the South Persia Rifles, a local force commanded by British officers. The delicate equilibrium of espionage and political maneuvers unfolded against the backdrop of a nation on the brink, caught between conflicting allegiances and the encroaching tides of war.

A Turkish unit in Persia • Harp Mecmuası

Around the same time, a Turkish force under the leadership of Rauf Bey advanced towards Kermanshah. Yet, in early June 1915, Persian insurgents, stirred by German discomfort with Turkish military presence on Persian soil, confronted this Turkish contingent near Kharind, compelling it to withdraw. Rauf Bey, compelled by mounting German pressure, spent the summer in Persia, only to receive orders from the Ottoman High Command in September to return to Khanaqin.

While the Russians solidified their hold on Tehran, anticipation for the occupation of additional strategic locations in Persia and the eradication of German influence grew. The 1st Caucasian Cavalry Corps, led by General Nikolai Baratov, materialized for this purpose. On 12 November 1915, the corps landed in Enzeli, situated along the southwestern coast of the Caspian Sea. Concurrently, as Baratov commenced operations in Persia, the British found themselves entangled in Mesopotamia against the formidable forces led by Halil Bey. They sought an expansion of operations in Persia to divert Turkish forces, thus easing their situation in Mesopotamia.

With swift determination, Baratov's forces advanced towards Tehran, swiftly reinstalling the ousted Shah, victim of a recent coup. Pressing forward to Hamadan, they confronted and defeated pro-German tribes and small Turkish units. The Russian capture of Hamadan on 15 December 1915 proceeded seamlessly, encountering minimal resistance.

Baratov's subsequent tasks unfolded with relative ease. Kermanshah fell into Russian hands on 26 February 1916, followed by Kharind on 12 March. The absence of significant opposition facilitated the steady progression of Baratov's forces.

Turkish troops marching over the hill • Harp Mecmuası

The focus then shifted to Khanaqin as Baratov aimed to extend Russian control. On 7 May 1916, Russian forces initiated an assault, but faced formidable resistance from Turkish units led by Şevket Bey. Compelled to withdraw, the Russians inadvertently provided the Turks with an invaluable window to fortify their defenses. Reinforcements, in the form of the 6th Division, bolstered the Turkish presence in northern Persia, marking a turning point.

The tide continued to shift with the Turkish victory in Kut, boosting morale and freeing up troops for deployment to Persia. Enver Pasha seized the opportunity, tasking Colonel Ali İhsan Bey and the XIII Corps to lead a counter-offensive. The advance began in late May, coinciding with Baratov's ambition to capture Khanaqin and potentially progress towards Baghdad, exploiting the ongoing conflicts between the Turks and the British.

On 3 June, Baratov attempted to reclaim Khanaqin, but this time the tables had turned. The Turkish XIII Corps, under the leadership of Ali İhsan Bey, not only successfully repelled Baratov's forces but also initiated a counter-offensive. Kermanshah fell to Turkish forces on 2 July, with Hamadan following suit on 10 August. Suffering significant losses, Baratov was compelled to retreat northwards, ultimately reaching the Sultan Bulak range.

In the heart of Persia, Ali İhsan's forces stood resolute, firmly entrenched within the ancient land. Meanwhile, Baratov, a seasoned commander, guided his troops in a strategic retreat, seeking a rendezvous with the British forces in Mesopotamia. However, the winds of change swept through Russia, casting a shadow on Baratov's plans. The revolution birthed discord, and soon, his forces grappled with an escalating tide of desertions. By November, as Bolsheviks initiated peace talks with the Central Powers, Baratov found himself commanding a mere shadow of his former regiment.

March of 1918 marked the cessation of Russia's involvement in the war. Yet, as the ink dried on the armistice, a new chapter unfolded along the border shared by Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Turks and Germans engaged in a contentious discourse over the rightful ownership of border provinces. Enver Pasha, harboring grievances, perceived a disregard for Turkish interests in the armistice negotiations with Russia. In response, he pivoted, challenging German stakes in the Caucasus, dispatching armed forces to assert Turkish influence in the region. The dynamics of power and shifting alliances played out against the backdrop of a war-weary landscape.

A Turkish column crossing Persian mountains • Harp Mecmuası

Persia was a part of this plan. The Army of Islam marched into Azerbaijan, while a newly formed Ninth Army, comprising the I Caucasian Corps and IV Corps, ventured into Persia, led by Yakup Şevki Pasha. The mission: staunch the British advance, thwart assistance to the Bolsheviks, guard the region from Lake Urmia to the Caspian Sea, and potentially unite with the Sixth Army for the Baghdad operation.

On 8 June 1918, the IV Corps seized Tabriz. Facing them was a formidable Armenian volunteer force of 4,000, intent on breaking the Şahtahtı-Tabriz line and linking up with Ozanian’s troops, aligning with the British in Azerbaijan. A decisive moment arrived on 15 June, as the 12th Division of the IV Corps triumphed over the Armenian unit north of Dilman. By June 18, Dilman was under their control.

One week later, Ozanian managed to defeat a Turkish unit and to lay siege on the city of Hoy. The 12th Division swiftly came to the city's rescue, repelling Ozanian’s forces. Simultaneously, the 5th Division of the IV Corps, en route to Urmia, faced a setback against a 1,500-strong Armenian force. Nevertheless, Urmia succumbed to the IV Corps on 31 July.

Despite Turkish victories against Armenian forces in Persia, the burgeoning British presence halted the Ninth Army's advance. By September 1918, the Turks had solidified control over northern Persia, spanning from Tabriz to the southern Caspian Sea shores. This dominion endured until the armistice in 1918.