Mohammad Ali Shah's Collapsing Reign

  December 19, 2021   Read time 4 min
Mohammad Ali Shah's Collapsing Reign
In mid- July 1911, Muhammad Ali crossed the Caspian in a Russian boat carrying ample ammunition for the army he planned to gather. The former shah landed at Gumish Tepe (modern Gomishan on the southeastern shore of the Caspian) and soon assembled a few thousand tribesmen for his march on Tehran.

Taking advantage of these tribes’ hostility toward the Bakhtiaris, the ex- shah recruited veterans of the Qajar army from the Shahsavan and Turkman tribes of the north while his brother, Salar al- Dawleh, gathered Kurdish and Lur tribes from the Kermanshah region along the Iranian- Ott oman frontier in the west. In early August, Arshad al- Dawleh, the ex- shah’s principal general and companion in Russia, put his newly formed royalist army on the road to the capital. In his fi rst encounter with government troops at Damghan, Arshad’s forces won the batt le, captured two cannons, munitions, and other supplies and were augmented by defecting government soldiers. Meanwhile, Salar al- Dawleh and his eight hundred horsemen occupied Hamadan near Iran’s western border without opposition.

As the ex- shah’s forces began their march on the capital from the north and west, the government had litt le more than 2,500 troops to defend Tehran. These consisted of 1,200 police and 600 gendarmes in Tehran, 500 gendarmes at Qazvin, and 200 Armenian “professional fi ghting men.” They were augmented by a few hundred students and other volunteers raised by Shuster and democratic politicians and an undetermined number of Bakhtiari tribal contingents between Esfahan and Tehran who rejoined the nationalist cause. The government was denied the service of the Cossack Brigade as the Russian offi cers made excuses to refuse orders from the Iranian minister of war to confront Muhammad Ali’s army.

At this time the Armenian fighter Yephrem Khan was the chief of police and gendarmes in Tehran and was given the task of gathering more forces to oppose the ex- shah. The most numerous contingent, the 1,800 police and gendarmes, was needed to maintain order in the capital. Gathering the approximately six hundred Bakhtiari fighters who served as the guards and escorts of the Bakhtiari chiefs in Tehran, Yephrem Khan formed the nucleus around which the rest of the nationalist fighters assembled. The Armenian commander kept his main forces near the city to await the approach of the ex- shah’s army and better identify the enemy’s plans. He was not completely passive, however, and in mid- August, Yephrem Khan sent small forces of picked men to guard the mountain passes leading to Tehran from the north while others prepared to fall on Muhammad Ali’s rear and cut his supply lines.

In late August, Turkman fighters under Arshad al- Dawleh set the stage for the climatic battle by defeating a smaller number of nationalist troops at Aiwan- e Kaif (Eyvanekey), roughly fifty- six miles outside the capital. A Bakhtiari contingent rode out to impede the Turkmans and kept them from advancing more than a few miles each day over the next week. Yephrem Khan, 350 picked men, and a German artillery instructor with a Maxim gun and three 75- mm quick- fi ring Schneider- Creuzot cannons followed close behind the Bakhtiaris. These were soon joined by other nationalist forces to form a batt le line against Arshad about forty miles south of Tehran near the town of Varamin. On September 5, 1911, Yephrem Khan’s force of Bakhtiaris, Armenian volunteers, and Iranian gendarmes was arrayed against about 1,400 Turkman horsemen and 600 Turkman infantry under the ex- shah’s banner.

Shortly before the batt le began, Yephrem Khan was joined by the Bakhtiari delaying force, adding another 400 fi ghters and a few gendarmes to his army to bring its total strength to slightly fewer than 1,200 men. Muhammad Ali’s tribal warriors started the batt le when Arshad sent 300 fi ghters into Varamin to create a diversion. The Maxim and Schneiders, which occupied a commanding position over the town, opened on the att ackers and threw them into confusion. The Bakhtiari cavalry then charged the disorganized Turkmans, who broke and fl ed into the lines of the ex- shah’s army, carrying the rest of these tribal forces in retreat from the batt lefi eld. Although the Bakhtiari cavalry failed to pursue the retreating army, the now fearful Turkman tribesmen dispersed back into their homelands. Arshad was wounded and captured and, unrepentant, was executed the next day.

Muhammad Ali was still safe in the north trying to rally more Iranians to his cause during the Battle of Varamin. Less than a week later, however, the ex- shah and an accompanying tribal contingent ran into a government force and were routed. Muhammad Ali and his remaining followers fl ed back to Gumish Tepe where they hid beneath Russian guns. Salar al- Dawleh, meanwhile, started his march toward Tehran from Hamadan in mid- September with up to six thousand Kurdish fi ghters and visions of installing himself as shah. Yephrem Khan and several Bakhtiari chiefs assembled about two thousand men and the Maxim guns and cannons near Qom to stop Salar.

The two forces met in batt le on September 27, and while details are sparse, the nationalists won another decisive victory. At a claimed cost of only two killed and six wounded, the nationalists killed or wounded fi ve hundred of Salar’s Kurdish and Lur troops and captured another two hundred along with six cannon and a large quantity of ammunition. The ex- prince and his remaining forces fl ed into Ott oman territory, eff ectively putt ing an end to Muhammad Ali’s att empt to regain his throne.

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