Constitutional Movement and New Military Challenges

  October 12, 2021   Read time 4 min
Constitutional Movement and New Military Challenges
The urban revolutionary groups were unready for sustained armed resistance, and Qajar military forces soon occupied most of the major cities where fi ghting had broken out.

Only the mujahedin in Tabriz checked the local Qajar armed forces and scratched out a toehold for the constitutionalists. There, during the previous winter, military drill and shooting practice were conducted in the city’s neighborhoods, and defense squads were formed and provided home-made uniforms. Training was initially held only on Fridays, but by the spring, “every evening the sound of drum and bugle and the chanting of cadence rose from every burough.” All understood that the nationalist defense of Tabriz was critically important to the constitutional cause because it gave hope and time to anjumans in Rasht, Esfahan, and elsewhere to reorganize and raise the banners of revolution. Fortunately for the proconstitution forces, the Tabriz mujahedin were capably led by Satt ar Khan, a former brigand with a reputation as an Iranian Robin Hood.

Fighting in Tabriz began on the same day as the coup in Tehran when reactionary clerics incited royalist forces to att ack the democratic revolutionaries. Aft er a few weeks the mujahedin had thwarted att empts by Qajar army units and Kurdish and Shahsavan tribal forces to quash the rebellion. The nationalists gradually expanded the areas under their control and held some of the key roads leading into Tabriz. Unaccustomed to street fi ghting, the royalist forces withdrew and placed the city under siege. The defenders, at least in the early stages, were prepared to sustain the fi ght and had good morale. Satt ar Khan was a popular commander who consulted with others and had close relations with the rank and fi le of his army. Satt ar organized the aff airs of the revolutionaries, using theological students as staff clerks, and ensured that the mujahedin were given uniforms, arms, ammunition, and pay. He created a reserve force to guard less dangerous areas of the city and set up an effective system of patrolling and manning to maintain alert defenses against government probing attacks. Even though some mujahedin had more modern rifl es than the Qajar troops, Satt ar’s force relied on a mix of small arms with limited supplies. In one of his most significant accomplishments for the lengthy defense of Tabriz, Sattar Khan had his troops maintain scrupulous fire control to avoid wasting ammunition. Also, aft er making the mujahedin swear on the Koran not to steal, he enforced strict discipline, which helped to maintain popular support for the fighters.

Satt ar Khan claimed to have four thousand men under arms and the ability to raise as many as ten thousand mujahedin. Some of the volunteers fl ocking to the revolution were from Transcaucasia. These men were well armed, had previous fi ghting experience, and were politically committ ed, bolstering the nationalist resistance in greater proportion than their numbers might indicate. Russian, Georgian, and Armenian social democrats sent five hundred to eight hundred fi ghters, most of whom had fought against the czar’s army, to Azerbaijan and Gilan. Among these volunteers were Georgians with experience in sett ing up explosive laboratories to create bombs. Another non- Iranian volunteer was a young American, Howard C. Baskerville, a twenty- four- year- old Nebraska native and Princeton graduate who was working as a teacher for a Presbyterian mission in Tabriz when the fi ghting broke out. Baskerville, who had served in the American military, used his experience to recruit and train a group of his students and fought courageously for months before being killed during one of the fi nal battles. Mujahedin ranks were bolstered in early July when eight hundred Azeri infantrymen from the Qajar army crossed the barricades and joined them.

The Qajar army was commanded by Muhammad Vali Khan Nasr al- Saltanah, a major landowner in northern Iran. It may have numbered thirty thousand fi ghters with the addition of levies of Bakhtiari, Kurdish, and other tribesmen. Part of the Qajar troops, however, were villagers who were “caught, dressed, and armed for the occasion” with litt le interest in batt le. Colonel Liakhov disparaged the Qajar forces as “wanting alike in order, discipline, and obedience” and “a worthless lot . . . [that] can only be employed for looting.” In mid- October the shah sent four hundred Iranian soldiers of the Cossack Brigade under a Russian captain with four fi eld guns to Tabriz. The Cossacks had orders to crush the constitutionalists and were told that all the wealth within Tabriz would be theirs. The shah also threatened to disband the Cossacks if they failed. In addition, Muhammad Ali released from prison a notorious brigand, Rahim Khan, with orders to punish Tabriz. Aft er assembling about five hundred horsemen, Rahim Khan started a campaign of rape and robbery in the already suff ering region. Vali Khan launched a series of att acks during the course of the summer, but each att empt to storm the city’s defenses was repulsed. By October these batt lefi eld failures and quarrels with the Qajar governor of Azerbaijan caused Vali Khan to resign, leading to a lull in the fi ghting during November and December.