Resisting British Domination

  March 30, 2022   Read time 3 min
Resisting British Domination
The Iranian nationalists still in Iran had their hopes for independence revived by the two Russian revolutions in March and October 1917, and even members of the shah’s government saw opportunities to shift their sympathies away from the Allied Powers.

When the new Bolshevik government started to withdraw from the war, Russian armies throughout the region disintegrated. Although a few of the Russian formations under Baratov resisted the general breakdown, many troops headed for home, abandoning or selling their weapons on the way to the benefit of Iranian tribes and the Jangalis. A nervous Great Britain sent more forces to southwest Asia to close the gaps left by the Russians in northwestern Iran and in the East Persia Cordon. In Tehran, the cabinet that had given its offi cial recognition to the South Persia Rifles fell in June. Despite the government’s desperate need for British fi nancial support, the new prime minister and his cabinet refused to confi rm the agreement and even encouraged opposition to Sykes’ force.

Hostility to the South Persia Rifles, including from its Iranian members, was so intense in late 1917 that the British approached the United States to take over the unit and substitute American offi cers for British ones to mollify the Iranians. Lacking offi cers with the language skills and area knowledge to take on the task, Washington declined the request. In January 1918, the new Soviet government renounced czarist policies on Iran, ordered the remaining Russian forces out of the country, and revoked all of the agreements and concessions that limited Iranian sovereignty. The removal of these elements of Russian influence and the subsequent decline in the threat from the Central Powers made Great Britain, at least temporarily, the dominant power in Iran and the focus of Iran’s nationalistic anger.

As word of the great 1918 German off ensives in France spread, desertions from the South Persia Rifl es grew and tribal resistance to the British forces in the south increased, roused by the government and a still active Wassmuss. Sykes noted that tribesmen were armed with German Mauser rifles and fought bravely, using their remarkable mobility and invisibility in the hills to good advantage. The U.S. legation also reported that the Qashqais were excellent fi ghters and determined in their resistance. A large force of as many as 8,000 Qashqai, Kazerunis, and other tribes were especially aggressive in att acking Rifl es’ outposts, convoys, and British- dominated towns.

In mid- May the Qashqai surrounded a Rifles detachment and cut off its water supply, prompting the unit’s Iranian soldiers to kill their British commander and surrender their weapons to the tribesmen. British forces at the time consisted of perhaps 2,200 regulars at Shiraz, 2,000 men under Qavam ol- Molk, and between 7,000 and 8,000 South Persia Rifl es troops.

Fodder for horses was a critical handicap for the Rifl es and inhibited their activities. Meanwhile, the troops had enough food amid a general famine in the region to support themselves, but this only increased Iranian resentment. Through midsummer Iranians demonstrated against the British presence, and Shia mullahs began issuing writt en orders authorizing the killing of anyone dealing with the British. An uprising in Shiraz and mutinies at a few Rifl es’ garrisons were suppressed, and as the British began to feed more regular regiments into the fi ght, the tide began to turn decisively against the tribes. In October 1918 Wassmuss was captured, and the British infl icted a fi nal defeat that broke the back of the Qashqais’ resistance.

The British opened the Shiraz- Bushehr road in January 1919 by sending a force of 20,000 men through snow- fi lled mountain passes to occupy Kazerun and disperse the tribal forces threatening the highway. Although a semblance of order was restored in the south, the tribes and provincial leaders continued to resist British and later Iranian government att empts to assert central authority.