Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade

Appendix V. The Dunsterforce Expedition

page 536

Appendix V. The Dunsterforce Expedition.

It is well known that in making her bid for world-domination Germany expected Asia Minor would fall easily into her hands and form a convenient halfway house on the road to India. With the driving of the Turks from southern Mesopotamia and the capture of Baghdad by the British in March, 1917, the route by the Berlin-Baghdad Railway was blocked; but the Russian military collapse, followed by the Bolshevik triumph and the signing of the shameful treaty of Brest-Litovsk, opened the alternative route through the Caucasus to Baku, across the Caspian Sea to Krasnovodsk, and so on by the railway extending through Russian Turkestan to within easy reach of the Afghan border. In order to bar this way also, the War Office proposed to despatch a small secret force of some 100 officers and 200 non-commissioned officers to the Caucasus, where they were to organize the Georgians, Armenians, and those remnants of Russian Corps still loyal to the old regime, and with these hold that cold mountainous region for the Allies and link up with the exposed right flank of the Mesopotamian Force. This adventurous mission, it should be explained, was organized quite apart from the latter force, for these already had their hands sufficiently full, and Baku is 800 miles from Baghdad.

The officers and non-commissioned officers for the mission were, with few exceptions, selected from Canadian, South African, Australian and New Zealand regiments then operating on the Western Front. They were chosen for special ability in the field, and it was made clear to them, while their destination was still withheld, that their new duties would be of such a hazardous nature that few could hope to come through the experience alive. The unknown risks were cheerfully accepted. The little band of stalwarts, of whom their commanding officer afterwards wrote, "It is certain that a finer body of men have never been brought together," included 11 officers and 23 non-commissioned officers from the New Zealand Division, and numbered amongst them the following from the New Zealand Rifle Brigade: Lieut. S. G. Scoular and Sergeants T. B. Smith and R. B. Clarke, 3rd Battalion; and Lieut. G. E. F. page 537Kingscote and Sergeants W. O'Connor and A. N. Wilkins, 4th Battalion.

Leaving France on 12th January, 1918, while the Division was in the Ypres Salient, the detachment spent a fortnight billeted at the Tower of London, outfitting in fur-lined coats, caps, gloves, and so forth, and laying in stocks of medical stores and equipment necessary for extremes of climate. The veil of secrecy which had hitherto shrouded the expedition was partially lifted when General Sir William Robertson came down from the War Office and in an intimate talk with the personnel traversed the political situation in the Middle East. He here named the expedition the "Dunsterforce," after the brilliant soldier selected to command it. Major-General L. C. Dunsterville,* of the Indian Army. When, soon afterwards, twelve Russian officers of the Tzarist Army joined up with the detachment, speculation as to its ultimate destination gave place to approximate certainty.

This portion of the "Hush Hush Brigade." to give it its more familiar name, now numbering 68 officers and 110 sergeants, left Waterloo Station on January 29th, and was despatched with all speed via France, Italy and the Suez Canal to Basra, on the Persian Gulf, and passed on at once up the River Tigris to Baghdad, where small detachments from Salonika, Palestine and Mesopotamia were already assembled. Here, owing to some hitch in the negotiations between the War Office and General Headquarters of the Mesopotamian Force, there ensued a long wait, and it was not until April 19th that the first party, comprising half the whole detachment and most of the New Zealanders, left Baghdad, crossed the Persian border, and commenced their long winding trek on foot through a famine-stricken land via Kermanshah to Hamadan, some 350 miles to the north-east, where they were welcomed by General Dunsterville and a small party of officers who had preceded them.

The spread of Bolshevism, the covert hostility of the Persians, and the quarrels between the peoples that it was desired to assist, had already practically sealed the fate of Dunsterville's scheme of organization. A semi-independent and hostile tribe of Persians, officered largely by Germans and Austrians, held the road to Enzeli, on the southern shores of the Caspian, and so for the time being rendered impossible a dash to Baku; and the Bolsheviks holding the latter city, while denying to the Turko-German forces a passage by the Trans-Caspian route to Afghanistan, resolutely declined all assistance from the British.

page 538

The Turks now changed their line of advance and commenced to move south-east by way of Tabriz. General Dunsterville thereupon shifted his headquarters forward to Kasvin, and rushed off two parties with instructions to occupy strategic positions on the two main routes, and to organize bodies of irregulars and train levies to aid in holding up the advancing Turks. The first party, numbering 15 officers and 35 non-commissioned officers, under Major Wagstaffe (South Persian Rifles) proceeded to Zinjan, 100 miles north-west of Kasvin; while Major Starnes, of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion, and with him 17 officers and 66 other ranks, including most of the New Zealanders, went to Bijar, which is on the more southern route and some 100 miles north-west of Hamadan.

With the assistance of a considerable body of loyal Russian troops still in Western Persia, General Dunsterville broke through to Enzeli. Shortly after this the Bolshevik leaders in Baku were deposed, and their successors invited Dunsterville to come to their aid. This was the opportunity for which he had been waiting, and on August 5th he embarked a mixed force consisting, in addition to a part of Dunsterforce, of a battalion of North Staffords, a detachment of the Hants Regiment, some field artillery, and two armoured cars, these reinforcements having been sent up from Mesopotamia. He did not remain long in occupation. The organization of the more or less friendly Russians and the 5,000 Armenian auxiliaries was from the first a hopeless task, for all idea of discipline had long since gone by the board; and, when the expected Turkish attack came on August 26th, the British troops amongst whom they had been sandwiched in the defensive lines were left in the lurch to fight a rearguard action until the very outskirts of Baku were reached. The enemy attack was renewed on September 14th, and the same treacherous weakness being displayed by the auxiliaries, General Dunsterville, realizing at last the impossibility of saving the city, gave orders for immediate embarkation. This was successfully accomplished, and, notwithstanding the presence in the harbour of the Caspian Fleet, once more under the control of the Bolsheviks, the transports got safely off to Enzeli. Next day the Turks entered Baku.

Some success had also attended the activities of that portion of the Turkish force moving south-east by the inland route Major Wagstaffe and his detachment had pushed on towards Tabriz, and, making contact, drove in the enemy's advanced posts. The Turks had evidently been deceived as to the strength of the British here, for their threatened attack did not eventuate until early September, three months later. At the first shot the levies deserted, and the tiny British force page 539had to fall back, but, contesting every yard of the way, they finally brought the enemy to a standstill near Zinjan.

Adventures of a different nature had fallen to the lot of Major Starnes and his party on the parallel route farther south. This way runs from Lake Van, skirts Lake Urumiah, and passes through Bijar to Hamadan. Having arrived at Bijar on June 18th, the detachment promptly set about training Persian levies, reconnoitring the country westwards, and establishing friendly relations with the Kurdish tribes in the neighbourhood. Owing to a bad season the district was in the throes of a famine, and, in order to mitigate the prevailing distress, relief works, notably the construction of an aerodrome and a motor road to Hamadan, were inaugurated, men, women and children being employed, and payment being made for the most part in the form of tickets for the soup-kitchen. Hemmed in along the western shores of Lake Urumiah were some 80,000 survivors of the Nestorians, or Christian Assyrians, a thriving people that at the beginning of the war had occupied the fertile lands between the two lakes. Though reduced by repeated massacres they had succeeded in holding their own here against the Turks; but now their ammunition was running short, and utter annihilation stared them in the face. On learning of their predicament the British authorities made arrangements to send up supplies under cover of a sortie by the Assyrians, and, on July 19th, six officers and fifteen non-commissioned officers of Major Starnes's detachment set off from Bijar with the ammunition, an escort of Hussars from Hamadan accompanying them. They were to be met half-way by a small column of mounted Assyrians, but after waiting at the rendezvous for some days without news of any movement they were unexpectedly joined by the bulk of the Assyrian army, numbering some 10,000, who had inflicted a somewhat severe blow upon the Turks. The engagement, however, had taken longer than was anticipated, and, in the absence of the fighting men, the remainder of the Nestorians became panic-stricken and began to rush southwards along the road on the heels of the army. Now the latter in their turn became infected, and there ensued a frightful and disastrous rout. Presently wounded women and children began to straggle in. This sight was too much for the Dunsters, and three officers and three sergeants, taking Lewis guns and a liberal supply of ammunition packed on baggage-mules, moved back along the human stream until they encountered the Turko-Kurdish brigands at their foul work of slaughter. Fighting, withdrawing, and fighting again, in a series of rearguard actions lasting all through a day and a night, these six brave fellows kept at bay a force of over 200 strong, until the arrival of a detachment page 540of Hussars finally relieved the pressure. In this gallant action Captain K. G. Nicol, M.C., of the Wellington Regiment, lost his life.

About the middle of September, "Dunsterforce" ceased to exist. It had not accomplished all it had set out to do, but there is ample evidence that the influence of the dauntless little band was widely felt throughout the Middle East. The Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, having at last driven the Turks from the south, now took over the work that had grown beyond the powers of Dunsterville and his handful of men. The enemy, though beaten in Mesopotamia, still had strong forces at Baku and Tabriz, and they now prepared to attack Bijar with the aid of Kurdish tribes, thus threatening the main line of communications to Hamadan. Then came General Allenby's smashing drive through Palestine and the final discomfiture of the Turks. The detachments at Bijar and Zinjan were recalled, the 14th Division then in north Persia embarked at Enzeli for Baku, and the remaining Dunsters as released moved out by various routes to their home lands.

It is impossible to give in this brief sketch an adequate account of the varied duties performed by the representatives of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade while attached to Dunsterforce. The general nature of their task has been indicated, and this, as we have seen, was strangely different from that to which they had become accustomed in the trenches of Flanders. Two of our sergeants were with Major Starnes's detachment where, in common with others, they were frequently detailed for post-duty, involving the establishment, at any distance up to sixty or even a hundred miles from the main position of a lonely post garrisoned by the one New Zealander and five of six unreliable native levies. Lieut. Scoular became chief Field Engineer for Hamadan Province, and he and Lieut. Rutherford, of 1st Canterbury, appointed to a similar position in Kasvin Province, carried out the greater part of the Royal Engineering work of Northern Persia. The former also has to his credit the construction of a British General Hospital consisting of eighteen buildings and fitted to accommodate 520 patients, the staff of 1,500 native workmen having been controlled by himself, Lieut. Wells of the Otago Mounteds, four non-commissioned officers, and two privates. Lieut. Kingscote distinguished himself as right-hand man to Major Saunders, of the 8th Sikhs, General Dunsterville's chief Intelligence Officer, and under these two the secret service was very highly developed. Through their hands by devious ways passed all correspondence to and from the Turkish and German delegations in Teheran, the headquarters of the rebel tribes, and Constantinople; they knew every enemy move and every enemy page 541agent, native or European; and their skill was fully recognized by our opponents, one of whom wrote, in a letter itself intercepted, "The English hear even our whispers."

How fully General Dunsterville appreciated the work of those associated with him in this, one of the strangest and most romantic of missions, may he judged from the following passage taken from his farewell order of the day:—

"I am prouder of having had in my command these gallant officers and non-commissioned officers than of any other command I have held. Brought together from every corner of the Empire, all have vied with one another to show the absolute unity of our national aspirations. Their work varied from valuable administrative tasks to daring achievements on the battlefield, and all have striven to do their utmost, even in circumstances for which they were never prepared, and which they never would have chosen for themselves. They have had the privilege of showing the varied races in the lands through which they passed the pattern of the finest army of present times."

* The original of "Stalky" in Kipling's "Stalky and Co."