Persia: The Road And The Famine
( Originally Published 1923 )
Railhead camp at Ruz The Foot-hills Entry to the mountains The Tek-i-Gehri Pass, Ascent of Dinner on edge of precipice The upland country --Brigand-infested country round Kermanshah Camp at Kermanshah The convoy Modern lorries and ancient bridges Bivouac in the open The Asadabad Pass Hamadan Famine horrors Relief work Persian gun-fire Biblical scenes The site of the Book of Esther Ancient Ecbatana of Herodotus, Alexander the Great, Ruth, and Boaz to-day Road to Kasvin G.H.Q. Hush-Hush Army Billet Ordered to relieve Armenians surrounded 300 miles west Build armoured car Jungalis Battle of Menjil Ordered to command convoy to force the passes to Caspian Sea
IN the small hours of the morning of June 26th, fifty-seven days out from London, the little baby Decauville train arrived at the railhead camp of Ruz, sixty miles north-west of Baghdad, which then formed the base for the Hush-Hush Army, as well as for the rail-construction department.
This was just a canvas camp pitched in very orderly fashion, each tent being sunk about 4 feet into the earth in an endeavour to obtain extra shelter from the sun. Quite a good breakfast was forthcoming, and two Ford vans were produced, with which I was to endeavour to catch up the convoy of which I should have taken command ten days before, and which was to be found somewhere ahead of me in the mountains. Having loaded up, we got away about 9.30 on our long and, as it turned out, eventful journey.
Immediately on leaving Ruz the first foot-hills begin, and they were getting ever higher and the road ever rougher, whilst the country, although at one time it had obviously been thickly inhabited, now showed nothing but ruined villages and had become an uninhabited wilderness. All day, in the distance ahead, we could see the bold outlines of the higher mountains of Persia which bound the upland plains which were our goal; but darkness was creeping on ere we could distinguish the particular gorge which was to give us access to the pass, and this we first distinguished in the otherwise apparently impassable cliffs, from a distance of four or five miles, where we spent some time in mending our seventh puncture of the first day.
Passing through a V-shaped gorge, we found ourselves in a narrow valley with a swift-running stream, and after ascending this for nearly ten miles the valley abruptly ended in an apparently impassable cliff of 2,000 feet of sheer perpendicular rock, and we were face to face with the famous pilgrim pass, the Tek-i-Gehri, which gives access to Persia proper, and is the only pass negotiable by wheeled vehicles for some hundreds of miles on either side.
At the foot of the cliffs is the small old native village of Pai Tuk and there was posted a party of British troops to control the ascent of the pass, which latter, however, was at first sight nowhere to be distinguished, although some hundreds of feet overhead, in a horseshoe cleft in the rocks, we saw a kind of ledge which slopingly ascends, and from below appeared to hold out some small hope of a footing on the otherwise sheer face of the cliff. On further examination it was seen that in the slope of rubble and dιbris at the cliff foot on the left side of the road zigzags had been cut, and here lay our 'road' !
Before starting our ascent, however, it was necessary to telephone to the summit to ascertain if anything was coming down, as in the upper portion of the pass the track is far too narrow to permit of vehicles passing each other, and, in fact, there is only the barest room for one vehicle, with nothing to spare on either side, on the left being the sheer perpendicular cliff rising upwards, and on the right the awe-inspiring emptiness of the equally sheer abyss. On receiving the assurance from the post at the summit that nothing was coming down, nor would anything be allowed to start until we had reached the top, we started the ascent, which presented no difficulties whilst ascending the zigzags, but only became interesting when we embarked on the ancient track following an insignificant ledge in the sheer wall of rock, and so rising as it makes the circuit of the horseshoe recess of cliff forming the actual 'head' and end of the valley.
Here the track consists of the live rock itself, worn smooth by the feet of the countless thousands of pilgrims who have passed up and down this same narrow pass for many centuries; for every pilgrim from Persia and all the lands of Central Asia must pass and repass this same narrow track if he desires to earn the crown of Moslem sanctity, which is the reward of those who have carried out the pilgrimage to the Holy Shrine of the great Prophet Mahomet at Mecca.
In addition to the difficulties of the extremely narrow track, we became aware as we went of the much more serious one presented by the fierceness of the slope. The immortal Henry Ford, when designing the only less immortal vehicle with which he has endowed mankind, took account in his design of almost every slope he knew of, and made it master of all; but though he knew much, yet his knowledge was, it appears, even then in-complete, as he was unacquainted with the Tek-i-Gehri and its slope. The pilgrim climbs this with more or less ease, according to his age and figure, but its gradient effectually brought both my Fords to an uncompromising halt at the most critical part of the ascent, and thereby augmented the already sufficiently excited state of nervous tension with which we were then all struggling manfully.
The first step and most necessary precaution was to insure against any involuntary retrograde movement on the part of the vehicles; this was quickly and most effectually secured by rocks of quite uncalled-for weight and solidity which we hastily placed behind each car. The next step was to concentrate the entire man-power of the party to assist the horse-power of each vehicle in turn, and so, by fits and starts, to effect the ascent of one vehicle at a time. A minor difficulty was experienced owing to the impossibility of squeezing past the cars from back to front between the wheels and the cliff, for there was no room to do so; and as the drivers' nerves were not equal to passing on the outside (hanging over space), they both elected to crawl underneath. This method, though extremely effective, appealed so irresistibly to our sense of humour that the old rocks rang and echoed again and again with the hearty laughter of the whole party.
In the very heart of the cleft and the middle of the ascent is a hollow, in which stands the venerable shrine of an unknown saint, and there we found room to halt and drink from a true mountain spring which proved refreshing both to our own parched throats and to the hissing radiators of our mechanical comrades. With this relief, the summit was eventually reached as night was upon us. A first day's trip of 100 miles, with a rise of 4,000 feet, in just over twelve hours very good going, under the conditions.
That night our table was set out on a natural platform of rock on the very edge of the horseshoe precipice we had just climbed, and whilst all round us were trees and scrub, in front of us was just empty air, with the tinkle of falling water coming up from the depths far below. Over all shone a bright full moon, causing all the higher hills around us to stand out as clear as day; but in front of us, over the burning plains below, there was only a quivering haze of heat, somewhere below which, we knew, lay and sweated and suffered those of our comrades less fortunate than ourselves.
Afoot next morning well before daylight, we were on the road again as soon as there was light enough to see our way and after twelve miles or more constant climbing we at last reached the ridge which forms the boundary of the upland plateau.
Over this country we were able to travel at a much better average speed than we had hitherto been able to achieve, for the road, although only a dirt one and innocent of 'metalling', yet had a hard and dusty but fairly level surface, and punctures became rarer.
The country in these parts, in normal times, is fairly well cultivated and populated in the plains, but the mountains have always borne an unsavoury reputation amongst travellers as the resort of the dreaded Bactiari tribes, the brigands par excellence of the Persian mountains.
Although the march of my isolated party of two cars was against all the standing military regulations, yet my two faithful machine-guns gave us every confidence, and they were ready and loaded all the way, so that, if the truth is to be told, it was with a sad feeling of disappointment that we topped the last ridge, at over 6,500 feet, as night was falling, without having had any opportunity of trying conclusions with the famous Bactiari brand of brigand, and from there we could see the town and camp of Kirmanshah lying in the valley far below.
At this moment, on the very last ridge, where the road was at its very worst and steepest, we had the misfortune to break a wheel; and as we had no spare one, there was nothing for it but to continue with one car and to leave the other till we could send back a wheel for it. I well remember impressing on the two men I left the beauty of the view to be obtained from the unpleasantly prominent spot where they would have to wait, and from whence they could not fail to be seen by every robber in the surrounding country. Having given them plenty of ammunition for the one machine-gun which I left with them, and having also abstracted from their car all the portions of my kit which I considered most valuable, we hoisted a British flag on the hood and hurried on, followed by the most plaintive glances from the somewhat pale and startled heroes, who had watched our proceedings with deeply interested curiosity, and who appeared much more interested in keeping their eyes on the forbidding-looking rocks in their immediate vicinity than in admiring the panoramic view of the country farther off, to the beauty of which I had been at such pains to draw their attention!
At Kirmanshah we found a good-sized camp and transport depot, and at once dispatched a wheel and relief car to bring in the other car. I then learned that, although my original convoy had broken up, or rather down, on the road, through a. variety of mechanical casualties, yet I should be able to continue my journey with some twenty-five American lorries at daylight next morning.
On mustering our convoy at daylight next morning, we found we had only eighteen lorries in condition to take the road. The greater part of these were of American construction, and in a state of mechanical efficiency which reflected the greatest credit on their designers and manufacturers, in view of the difficulties of the country over which they were daily called upon to travel.
The road at first was very good, though it was unmetalled, the surface being much superior to the rocky tracks over which we had travelled the previous day, and the first twenty miles, over a flat plain, with a view of snow-capped mountains in all directions around us, was quite pleasant driving, the society of a Mechanical Transport officer, now with me, being also much appreciated.
As on crossing each range we had found the plain beyond higher than the one behind us, we had by degrees reached an elevation of about 5,000 feet on the plain of Kirmanshah, and the air was infinitely cooler, though the sun promptly burned the skin off any part left exposed to its rays.
At once on leaving the camp we could see the famous Rock of Bisidun, close under which our road would pass. The base of the rock is actually twenty miles from Kirmanshah, but such is the height to which it rises, a sheer 4,000 feet above the plain, that it appears quite close at hand when viewed from the town itself, and at ten miles' distance appears to be only half a mile away.
The summit even in late June had still some snow, but when we finally reached the base, the rock itself, where exposed to the sun, was too hot to bear one's hand on. Here we found the most delightful spring of ice-cold water running from an ancient stone fountain dating back to the days of Darius, nearly 3,000 years ago.
Close to the foot of the rock runs a river of fair size, over which is an ancient bridge of good design built, to my surprise, of bricks of a quality at that time new to me. No doubt the engineers of those far-off days never contemplated their work being called upon to carry a convoy of 5-ton American motor-lorries loaded to their utmost capacity, for the 'crown' of the bridge offered such an excessively steep ascent that it was necessary for each individual lorry to charge it in turn at full speed in order to 'get over.' This very modern and violent form of attack proved altogether too much for the venerable construction, which had for so many centuries withstood every kind of strain with which its designers were familiar, and in the middle of the attack it was suddenly discovered that the crown of the arch was no longer there! We were therefore forced to complete the passage of our convoy by the still more ancient custom of fording the stream, a both difficult and tedious undertaking, which occupied the greater part of the day, so that darkness eventually overtook us many miles short of our destination, in the open country, twenty miles from the great Asadabad Pass, itself twenty miles from the old city of Hamadan we had been hoping to reach that night. Having started at 6 a.m., and halted only half an hour, we had done fifteen hours' continuous driving, during which we covered eighty-five miles, an average of under six miles per hour, from which the difficulties presented by the road may be imagined.
Bivouacking with a car convoy is a very simple proceeding, and consists in halting at any convenient spot where water can be obtained, the cars being drawn up one behind the other and close together; sentries are then posted, and each man proceeds to look after himself; a matter of no difficulty, as all carry a primus stove and a ration of some kind, according to the supplies obtain-able. Tea being then made on the step or footboard of each lorry, a meal of sorts is soon eaten, and each man seeks whatever corner of his heavily loaded lorry offers the least uncomfortable prospect for the night. At the first sign of dawn primus stoves are going again, and after the invariable tea and a wash in whatever water can be found, engines are started, and the convoy moves off again.
Our actual start on this occasion took place at 5.30 a.m., and we reached the foot of the great Asadabad Pass, twenty miles away, in-two and a half hours. Here, knowing the climb that was in front of us, we halted and filled every vessel in our possession which was capable of holding water, as there is little or none to be obtained in the pass, and hot engines were a certainty during the severe climb.
The Asadabad Pass is the highest in this part of the country, being nearer 9,000 than 8,000 feet above the sea. The road over it has been well and only lately made by Russian engineers, the old road from Kirmanshah to Hamadan being thereby shortened by a good seventy miles. The rise in the main pass is 2,000 feet in three and a half miles, a practicable but severe gradient all the way, and of course the road turns and twists incessantly as it follows the 'trace', being everywhere cut out in the terribly steep hillside.
The descent was easy and the road pretty good, and we arrived at Hamadan at 2.30 p.m., with all our cars, almost as much relieved at doing so ourselves, as were those waiting for the supplies we carried to see us arrive safely.
Hamadan, the ancient Ecbatana, the great treasure-city of the Achaemenian Kings, lies some 200 miles north of the 'Shushan' of the Bible, and is full of interest. The population, largely Armenian, was, before the famine resulting from the war, probably more than 50,000, but at the time we are dealing with can hardly have reached x0,000, the majority of whom were in the last stages of starvation. The old town lies at an elevation of 6,500 feet above sea-level, and the Headquarters of our force was on the eastern side, at least 500 feet higher up the slopes of the great mountain a pleasant enough position in summer, but one which must indeed be arctic in winter.
Here, in a pleasant and almost European house standing in its own grounds, was quartered the Brigadier-General commanding the line of communication of our famous Hush-Hush Army; and, having reported to him, I received a cordial invitation to pitch my tent in his garden and to mess with him, both of which suggestions I was very glad to fall in with. At dinner that night I learned the news with respect to local conditions and as to our chance of being able to keep Persia from the Turks, which was the real object of the existence of our 'phantom' army.
The first and most pressing need was to alleviate the famine from which hundreds were then dying daily throughout all the upland country, and to this work my host had been devoting his energies, with a success so considerable that the general feeling towards the British, which on our arrival had been most antagonistic, was already showing signs of veering round in our favour.
At this time literally thousands of starving people were daily fed by our force, and the great stores of grain accumulated and kept off the market by the Persian dealers, with the object of selling it at high prices as the famine became more general and acute, were freely requisitioned and distributed by us, with the result that many thousands of lives were saved and much abject misery and suffering averted.
The whole position was typical of the Persian character, and could hardly have existed in any other country, for the Persian's indifference to suffering in others is a national characteristic mercifully unique. Without having seen such things personally, it is almost impossible to realize that a wealthy Persian will enter his house without giving a moment's thought to the dead and dying who may have congregated at his door in the hope of relief, and of whose dying misery it does not occur to him to take the least notice.
Nor, even when they are dead, does he trouble to remove or bury their corpses, which at this time were constantly to be seen lying unnoticed in the streets of the native city, and in even greater numbers on the roads leading to that haven of mercy where the British fed the starving, but which hundreds of the poor country people were without the strength to reach, and so fell and died by the roadside, where were none to bury them.
My note written at the time says that 'in the villages of the plain there are never as many as twenty inhabitants where two to three hundred formerly throve, and thousands die of starvation every week, whilst the dead lie in the streets and the living are spectres which it is terrible to behold'.
It was here, at this time, that I came across the only case, of any individual being 'stoned to death' in public, of which I have ever heard outside the Bible. But, that at least one such case occurred at Hamadan, either during or immediately prior to our occupation, I am in a position to know as a fact. The crime which called forth this punishment is so unnatural that I am not prepared to allow that, under the circumstances and in that country, it was not an effectual, and possibly the only effectual, method of putting a stop to such crimes, which, if unchecked, are apt to spread.
My refined European readers, used to the customs and laws of civilization, may wonder at this, and conclude that I must be myself a barbarian to hold any such opinion. But pause, please, before coming to any such hasty conclusion, and reflect; for the punishment was ordered by the mullahs (priests) and the crime was that of a mother eating her child an almost inconceivable crime, I think it will generally be agreed, even after making every allowance for the extremities of suffering and starvation!
Under these circumstances it is not to be wondered at that murder, robbery, and many crimes of violence, were of daily occurrence, and all British officers went armed, both day and night, by order. Every night and at all hours of the night rifle-fire was to be heard, which is somewhat disconcerting to the Western mind, but to which, however, one soon becomes accustomed, as the Persian, like many of his Eastern neighbours, has a weakness for letting off his rifle at odd times, for no particular purpose except to let all and sundry know he has one.
I could find no buildings of interest, though no doubt such must exist; but I saw the huge mound which is all that remains of the great city and palace which the first, and greatest, of all historians, Herodotus, describes as having 'seven encircling walls, each within and commanding the next, and all of different colours, the first five being white, black, scarlet, blue, and orange, and the sixth coated with silver, whilst the palace in, the centre was similarly covered with gold'.
This was the palace where Alexander the Great held his great drunken feasts when he halted there in his all-conquering campaign, during one of which orgies he, to his own subsequent regret and everlasting shame, murdered his greatest friend and foremost General.
At Shushan lived King Ahasuerus, who married Esther the Jewess, whilst her uncle Mordecai sat at the gate as a beggar; and here also, by Esther's influence, the great captain Haman was hanged by the King's order on the high gallows he had erected for Mordecai. The massacre of all the Jews in the country, which had been ordered by the King, was thus averted by Esther, as may be read in the Book of Esther, in the Old Testament of our Bible.
The most striking part of this old country is the absence of any change or progress during the lapse of the 3,000 years with respect to which we have reliable information as to the habits and customs of its inhabitants. All the old characters of the Bible are here met in everyday life, exactly the same in every respect as their prototypes of ancient times. Here we find the same vineyards, gardens, and cornfields, the same old one-pronged wooden plough drawn by oxen, and the ubiquitous ox also treads the corn (instead of threshing), exactly as was the case in Biblical days. Also the young girl gleaners can be seen following the reapers in the field, and the modern Ruth varies not at all from her ancestress. Infallibly today, as of old, will also be found a modern, elderly Boaz, following the young girls at their gleaning, wearing precisely the same expression which must have distinguished his Biblical prototype as described in the Book of Ruth. It requires, however, a considerable stretch of imagination to anticipate that the production of another King David will result to-day, as was formerly the case, from this very ordinary pastoral incident.
A very few days at Hamadan, where it was necessary to wait for transport, convinced me that the question. of the possibility of any effective action by our 'skeleton army', or even its ability to exist at all, was entirely dependent upon the efficiency of our motors, and I therefore took every means of informing myself with regard to their mechanical condition and the means of repair available. The results of my inquiries were not inspiriting, as I found that, although our mechanics were more than fair in their skill and experience, and the Mechanical Transport officers most efficient, yet spare parts were hard to come by, and, above all, our supply of petrol was extremely precarious. All petrol had to be brought at that time from Baghdad by road; the amount, therefore, was limited by the transport available, which was already inadequate for the supply of the other requirements of the troops. This unfortunate state of affairs could not be remedied until a direct and regular supply could be established over the Caspian Sea from the wells at Baku. This, however, did not appear at all imminent in the face of the conditions then existing in the Jungali country between the uplands of Persia and the Caspian coast.
At this time a good deal of trouble and delay was caused to the Hush-Hush Army by the difficulty in obtaining stores, and assistance generally, from Headquarters at Baghdad, which was easy to understand, as many of the demands made were of a quite unexpected nature, and in consequence they were often met in rather a 'querulous' spirit by the General Staff. One case occurs to me especially, as illustrative to this state of affairs. When steps were first being taken to alleviate the famine at Hamadan we were called upon to produce bread and to provide meat in entirely unforeseen quantities, and in face of this urgent demand a telegram was sent to Baghdad asking that a 'butcher' and a 'baker' might be sent up at the first opportunity. It must be remembered that this telegram had to be sent over Too miles to Teheran, and then via Ispahan and Sihraz to Bushire on the coast of the Persian Gulf, and then across to Bussrah and up the river, well over 2,000 miles in all. So that when, after waiting a week or ten days, the reply eventually arrived our state of mind may be conceived when we read the following message: 'It is not understood for what purpose the services of a "butcher" and "baker" are required' !
As I had been rather defending the attitude of Baghdad Headquarters in the face of the many demands made on them, this was handed to me to read on its arrival, and my opinion as to a reply was asked. There appeared to be only one possible answer that could meet the case, and I wrote it out and handed it in, but I much fear it was never sent; it was : 'A Butcher is required to Bake Bread, and a Baker to cut up the Meat!' Perhaps it was a pity if it was never sent, as it would quite probably have produced the men at once, and relieved the somewhat strained relations.
A few days more at Hamadan and on July 7th two Ford vans became available for the 140 mile journey to Kasvin. The road was a good one, and as we got farther north the misery, and the evidences of it by the roadside, became fewer. We had one pass to cross, the Sultan Bulak Gedik, just over fifty miles north of Hamadan, and in spite of its somewhat evil reputation for brigand 'hold-ups', I and my small party crossed it without incident, and although our guns were ready we had no occasion to use them. This was most probably because they were, and were known to be, constantly ready for use, as well as skilfully handled -- under which circumstances good machine-guns will always command considerable respect in all countries. We arrived at Kasvin the same evening, at 5.30 p.m., and on reporting at our G.H.Q. I got a billet with the British officer commanding the town and arranged to mess with him during my stay.
Kasvin is a large town, about the same size as Hamadan, but more pretentious, with some streets of considerable breadth and a certain sprinkling of shop windows of more or less European appearance. The famine was less apparent here, though the familiar corpse and dying beggar were both occasionally to be observed in the side streets.
The city, one of the many old capitals of Persia, lies ten miles south of the foot of the great Elburz Range, and eighty miles west of the Shah's capital of Teheran. The main western road divides west of the city, the northern branch leading to the port of Enzeli on the Caspian Sea, and the southern to Tabriz by the ancient caravan route from Persia and the East generally, through Anatolia to the Black Sea, or through Tiflis and Georgia to Southern Russia. The town is at an elevation of only 4,000 feet above sea-level, and is therefore considerably hotter in summer than Hamadan, which is a good 1,500 feet higher. The houses, though mostly of the universal mud, are typically Persian, being built for the most part round a sunk court and garden, in which is usually found a fountain or running water of some kind. These courts provide a cool retreat in the heat of summer, as well as efficient shelter from the icy blasts of the severe gales which are the curse of these uplands in winter.
On the morning after my arrival I made the acquaintance of General Dunsterville, the original of Kipling's Stalky, who now Commanded the Hush-Hush Army. Never in the course of a very varied career have I met any personality so instantly claiming or so permanently retaining my respect and sympathy. Possessed of an exceptional sense of humour, no difficulties were ever so great, nor situations so hopeless, that he could not, and did not, see and appreciate the brighter side of every event, however tragic. Himself possessed of the great and inestimable gift of courage in the face of adversity, he knew how to communicate to others, less gifted than himself, that confidence in themselves to which is due the measure of success achieved by the force under his command in the face of the apparently impossible task with which they found themselves confronted.
I learned from him the whole difficult and complicated position of affairs, and he also told me he should require me to take charge of a column proceeding at once to the west, to relieve a force of Armenians and Assyrians who were in a pretty bad way some 300 miles west of us, on the western shore of the great fresh-water lake of Urumia. It appeared that there were collected there about 8o,000 Christians, who had put up a good fight during the four previous months against the Turkish divisions surrounding them, but were now sadly in want of ammunition and in imminent danger of massacre. The intention was to force a passage through the Turks and renew the Christians' ammunition; and on this being effected, I was to send back the relieving column and to remain myself to organize the further defence, and to occupy the attention of as many Turkish troops as possible, and thereby divert them from their scheme of again over-running Persia.
I thanked the Chief very heartily for the very honourable task he had allotted me, but next day, when I heard he had been called to Baghdad, and that the expedition was postponed, I heaved a deep sigh of relief, feeling sure that events in other parts would now move too quickly for it to be worth while to lock me up in such an infernal spot, where I could have effected little or nothing, and about which there appeared to be only one outstanding certainty, and that was that my return would be more than doubtful!
In the meantime, on my suggestion, he agreed that I should at once undertake the construction of an armoured car, of quite novel design, the chief characteristic of which would be the absence of armour; so that, whilst to all appearances it would be the real article, and as such strike terror into all and sundry, yet, as the armour would consist of paint only, applied to very thin planking, the car, upon which my own machine-guns would be mounted, would be so light as to be capable of travelling at high speed, and over country which would be quite impassable to the genuinely armoured vehicle.
My time, therefore, day and night during the next fortnight was concentrated on the production of such a vehicle, having at my disposal none of the material, skilled labour, or mechanical equipment which such a construction would, under ordinary conditions, require.
It was, however, completed within a fortnight, and in such a solid form that it carried me many thousand miles in the next ten weeks, over every conceivable and inconceivable obstacle and was still running efficiently when I at last handed it over at Baghdad in October.
The design itself was an affair of hours only, and the next step, which was to obtain a fairly serviceable Ford chassis and to dismantle it, was comparatively easy. From that point the construction presented many difficulties, chiefly with regard to material. I had, however, observed on entering the town a vast heap of remains of Russian vehicles of every description, abandoned by the Russian troops in their retreat, and this became my gold-mine, from which I drew, if not all my requirements, at any rate substitutes for them, so that on the Chief's . return I was able to present for his inspection a most efficient-looking vehicle, of which he immediately appreciated the value.
During this period, the latter part of July, the tribe of the Jungalis, who occupy the wooded northern slopes of the great range through which passes the road from Kasvin to the Caspian, had been giving considerable trouble, led by their chief, Kuchi Khan, supported by the Bolsheviks, and encouraged, armed, and, as far as they could be, trained by German officers. On June 12th, under their German commander, Von Passchen, they had put up a formal resistance to the Russians under General Bicherakov, who were on their way home to Russia, and were accompanied by what British and native troops could be spared to hold the road to the sea. The site of the battle which ensued was Menjil, at the commencement of the lower part of the pass leading from Kasvin to the shores of the Caspian Sea. The result was the complete discomfiture of the Jungali force, which forthwith retreated into the thick forests of their native hills, leaving the road in the possession of our pickets. A force of about 400 British and Gurkha troops then passed down the pass, and subsequently held the town of Resht, in the marshy country between the mountains and the sea, whilst a further detachment held the port of Kazian on the seashore, about thirty miles farther north.
This position was not at all to the liking of the German officers, whose plans for the penetration of Persia, by means of the Jungalis, were entirely defeated by the interposition of this small force, which threatened to insure access to the Caspian Sea for any number of British troops which might presently become available. Taking, therefore, their courage in both hands, which after-events showed cannot have constituted a very severe burden, and urged on by the German officers and Turks, who were together exploiting and arming them, the Jungalis, on July 20th, launched an attack in force on our troops in Resht and on our posts on the road. This attack met with a certain measure of success, in that certain posts on the road were driven in, the troops in Resht itself were reduced to defending themselves in their quarters, and the control of the road temporarily passed into the enemy's hands. The only surprise was that the insignificant British force was not entirely wiped out.
Such was the position at the end of July, when General Dunsterville returned from Baghdad. It was at once decided to force the pass and open the road to the sea; and to my great delight I was notified that I was to command the convoy, and that my newly constructed dummy armoured car was thus to have a chance of demonstrating its utility. On receipt of this most welcome news, I promptly sallied forth with my car into the open country, and commenced a fusillade at any kind of prominent object which offered itself as a target in the surrounding country, with the double object of testing all my gear and at the same time creating an impression upon the many spies who I knew would be on the look out, and who could not fail to report the existence of this new and awe-inspiring vehicle, which crossed the fields with ease and jumped the ditches like a horse, vomiting bullets all the while unceasingly!
This was, in fact, what happened, and by the time the news of its existence reached the enemy Headquarters, my dummy car appears to have been magnified into a brigade of tanks at the very least, as the sequel will show. Anyway, having passed quite an enjoyable evening, I had the still more pleasant sensation of some good work done, and was all ready to start next morning.
Adventures In The Near East:
Eastward Bound To The Tigris
Mesopotamia, The Land Of The Rivers
Persia: The Road And The Famine
The Caspian Sea - Advance To, Relief Of, And Siege Of Baku
Evacuation - The Steamer Armenian
Homeward Bound The Armistice
Intelligence In Transcaucasia (february To August, 1919.)
East Again - Salonika, Constant, And Batoum
The Caucasus - After The Armistice
Eastern Anatolia - Trebizond And Erzeroum
Read More Articles About: Adventures In The Near East