For millennia at the crossroads of empires, kingdoms, battles, and epochs, what we now know as Iran but has long been known as Persia, has seen its fair share of war. There are so many remains of war in Iran, it is not possible in a single article to cover them all. But with my Australian heritage, one reminder of a war fought long ago in Persia stands out; in the middle of north Tehran there is a Commonwealth War Grave. And Australian soldiers lay there.
Seeing there was a Commonwealth War Cemetery in Tehran led to asking the obvious question about who might possibly be lying there. So this blog posting is about my search to find out who was buried in Tehran, and how they came to be there. This opened up into a somewhat longer journey through military exploits in Persia – and the fascinating geo-strategic position of Persia – during the First World War. And on this journey (as is presumably the case when combing through old war graves anywhere) fascinating stories, and tales of derring-do and larger-than-life characters emerge.
To provide some backdrop, over recent centuries, what we now know as Iran but was called Persia at the start of the 20th century, was at the heart of British imperial competition with, for example, Russia, and trade battles over access to strategic resources, including oil and cotton. Remember that oil and cotton were the stuff of armies, and essential to empires. And with the onset of First World War (WW1) in Europe, Germany and the Ottomans became the enemies of Britain, France, and Russia. German and Ottoman influence and intentions in the Caucasus and Persia came to be somewhat alarming for Britain and its allies. Persia was something to be protected along with Caucasian mates such as Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, and to be used as a strategic bulwark by the allied forces against the massive Ottoman forces.
So let’s take a bit of a journey, inspired by finding an isolated Commonwealth War Cemetery in north Tehran, through some interesting (hopefully!) facts and snippets that emerge from asking the question of how Australian soldiers came to be buried in Tehran.
The Tehran War Cemetery is attached to the northern Tehran British compound at a place called Golhak (also transliterated as Qolhak). The Tehran War Cemetery is situated at the southern end of the British Embassy residential compound at Golhak (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gholhak_Garden), which is approximately 13 kilometres from central Tehran. It is located at No. 34 Dolat Street Shari’ati Avenue, Tehran.
This cemetery was built in 1962, and contains 412 Commonwealth burials of WW1, 13 of which are unidentified, commemorated in this site. There are 152 Commonwealth burials of WW2 commemorated here. In addition there are also 14 non-world war burials and 25 Foreign National burials.
Since November 2011, when the British diplomatic compounds in Iran were overrun by protestors, the compounds including the war cemetery, have remained locked up. All official sites listing the cemetery indicate visitors are welcome and can book their visit through the British Embassy but, of course, this is not possible anymore. And so, the poor diggers of several wars remain, for the moment, unvisited, and largely unremembered.
The following nationalities are represented amongst those interred here:
3 x Australians (all WW1)
2 x New Zealand (both WW1)
1 x Canadian (WW2)
83 x Indian (from both WW1 and WW2, as well as between
The Tehran War Cemetery was the result of a number of war cemeteries in the region being concentrated. All 1914-1918 burials in Tehran War Cemetery have been concentrated from the following cemeteries:
• AKHBARABAD PROTESTANT CEMETERY (later known as Tehran Military Cemetery)
• CHASHMEH-i-ZULIAK ANGLO PERSIAN OILFIELDS CEMETERY (later known as Masjid-I-sulaiman Cemetery)
• HAMADAN MILITARY CEMETERY,
• KAZVIN BRITISH WAR CEMETERY,
• NAIBUND BRITISH CEMETERY,
• RESHIRE BRITISH CEMETERY,
• RESHT ARMENIAN CEMETERY,
• SHIRAZ BRITISH CEMETERY, and
• TEHRAN MILITARY CEMETERY.
One of these previous war graves is of particular note for this posting; Hamadan. Also written Hamedan (and some of you might have even heard it called Ecbatana from your ancient history class!), it is one of the 31 provinces of Iran and one of the oldest cities in the world. Lying about 360km southwest of Tehran, it contains roughly half a million people, and the city was the scene of heavy fighting in WW1, between Russian and Turko-German forces. It was occupied by both armies, and finally by the British, before it was returned to control of the Iranian government at the end of the war in 1918. It is this period of control of Hamadan by the British that concerns the war cemetery in Tehran in particular.
Of all the stories that might emerge from a war cemetery, few are as remarkable as those stories that come from the gravestones of Tehran. In particular, WW1, Persia, Russia, Rudyard Kipling, Germans (and don’t forget the Austrians!), genuine war heroes, Ottomans, and beleaguered allied forces combine to make an unbeatable story that ends in Tehran’s war graves. Despite almost nobody knowing that Australians, and allied forces, fought widely across what was then called Mesopotamia, some fascinating military operations of WW1 by often small, but battle-hardened, forces took place in northern Persia and the Caucasus.
The reasons these battles took place are many. But after the collapse of the Russian Army in the Caucasus (mainly because of the troops being withdrawn to fight in the revolution), the entire Caucasus and Central Asia was ripe to be picked by the Ottomans, and on top of that German influence was growing quickly.
The British hatched a plan to protect their oil and cotton interests in Persia, halt the turning of Persia from neutral to enemy, to protect the then-loyal Afghanistan from also turning into an enemy, and protect the northern corridor to India. As an aside, one source reveals that India was even more worth protecting for Britain at that time, as it was their training ground for a massive 67 (!!) new infantry battalions to serve in Europe. So, with the importance of securing Persia clearly on the strategic agenda, but with no massive numbers of troops to spare, the plan that emerged was a cordon around Mesopotamia, which included north Persia and the Caucasus. And the cordon would by necessity have to be only managed by the allied forces, but rather comprise local forces, homegrown resistance, and local leadership, all whipped into shape by a small but lethal number of allied troops. The key to this operation was the formation of a special group called ‘Dunsterforce’.
Dunsterforce was an allied force mission set up by the Russian-speaking British Major-General Dunsterville in 1918. The purpose of his force was to organise the forces of the Transcaucasian Federal Republic (comprising Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia) to enable them to withstand a Turkish attack. Since the war in Europe at this time was going very poorly for the allies, and Germany started to look ascendant, no massive forces could be spared from Europe. So the plan for a small but lethal force demanded a surgical selection of veterans from Europe. The members of this new force were hand-picked; the British War Office ordering regiments fighting in France, Belgium, and the Middle East to each pick four of their most decorated and seasoned soldiers to be sent on a secret mission. None of them knew anything of the destination – they were camped near the Tower of London and mostly kept in the dark during the unit’s formation – although one source recalls them being called the ‘Baghdad Party’. If any regiment chose not to lose the best of their best, and sent volunteer’s profiles up to the War Office which were not seriously good soldiers, they were rejected outright. This top-secret recruitment resulted in the first such example of elite soldiers being pulled together to create a new unit.
According to several sources, and as an aside, Dunsterville was the original of “Stalky” in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Stalky & Co’. He had pursued a patriotic and adventurous career in the East (India and China in particular). He was widely traveled, and a fine linguist with a keen friendship for the Russians. The call to create Dunsterforce had come to him when serving on the north-west frontier of India.
Dunsterville’s resources were a big bucket of cash, an armoured car brigade, about 750 military transport vehicles, a small group of staff officers, another small group of Russian officers (remnants of the by-then-defunct Russian Caucasus Army), and around 200 officers and 200 non-commissioned officers hand-selected chiefly from Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South African units. This focus on the ‘new world’ soldiers is not a complete surprise when one considers the secret recruitment drive to create Dunsterforce was spearheaded by a highly-regarded veteran of the Boer war, one Colonel Byron. One presumes in that theatre of war he witnessed something which influenced his choices.
Totaling around 1000 men, Dunsterforce was intended to be especially effective in operations because of this unprecedented focus on the quality of its members; veterans decorated for great gallantry in the field in operations across Europe and in other parts of Mesopotamia. It also had a strong focus on technical skills, wireless operators for example from Australia and New Zealand, which served it perfectly in such a vast area of operations. For all intents and purposes, this was the world’s first Special Forces unit, tasked with a strategic mission, long before Special Forces were invented.
Now, for a little further background, remember the geopolitics of the time such that Germany and the Ottomans were allied, and both wanted the Caucasus, in particular the key ports of Baku and Enkeli (now called Bandar-e Anzali, an Iranian port on the Caspian Sea). It should be noted that even allies can be competitors when it comes to access to strategic resources. Several sources opine that competition between Germany and the Ottomans was the reason they both advanced so slowly towards Persia, a result of strategic uncertainty about each other’s motives. While these axis powers moved slowly east, Britain needed to protect its oil and cotton sources in Persia, as well as its allies in Afghanistan and India. Cotton and oil at the time were two of the most important strategic resources for both munitions and transportation. Germany was also actively increasing its influence in otherwise neutral Persia and arming – and fomenting – anti-British rebels in Afghanistan.
As you will also recall, about this time, as if the regional situation was not yet complex enough, the Russian Revolution had just happened and, as the major allied force in Persia, this became a major strategic concern for the British. Britain quickly realised it would have to replace the Russian forces in north Persia as they withdrew to fight at home. The important Caspian Sea ports for both oil and cotton supply lines were in great jeopardy. By the end of 1917, Britain established in their collective military minds the need to secure the route from Mesopotamia to Enzeli. They would do this not by deploying entire armies into the region, but rather by seeking to stiffen transcaucasian resistance to the Turks and Germans.
The plan was to send this small force to Tbilisi, through Baku, from Baghdad via Persia. And so Dunsterville set off with initially a small force and, just as the German forces marched into Tbilisi, Dunsterforce was in camp in Hamadan, a strategic high ground (a heady 1850m above sea level!) on the route from Baghdad to Enzeli.
So the initial plans for Dunsterforce were made redundant when German forces took Tbilisi. With Baku clearly under threat of Ottoman attack, Dunsterforce marched north to Enzeli where, reinforced by about 1000 more British Infantry, it occupied Baku to prevent the port and oil-fields from falling under Turkish control.
The Turks took Baku, with massively superior numbers (often said to be the single greatest strategic impact of Dunsterforce, some 14,000 Ottoman troops were diverted from Palestine to take Baku, significantly relieving pressure in the Middle Eastern theatre for the allies), Dunsterforce was forced to evacuate Baku and return to Hamadan. This was as good as the end of their war. It was here that the force took major blows from disease, suffering losses from cholera, malaria, and dysentery. What was left of Dunsterforce later went to Baku as an occupying force after the cessation of hostilities.
I could go on. A very, very interesting time, and a little known set of stories.
For those of you not asleep, and wanting to read more, for fabulous accounts of the exploits of the quite remarkable Dunsterforce, start here: http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-on-land/other-war-theatres/3305-dunsterforce-part-1.html
And for an also solid coverage of Australians serving right across ‘Mesopotamia’ in WW1, see http://australiarussia.com/mesopotamiaENFIN.htm
About the Aussies who lie there
The Memorial in the Tehran War Cemetery is in the form of six free standing memorial walls and commemorates casualties of the Indian, United Kingdom, Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand Forces who lost their lives during the campaigns in Persia.
From the CWGC records, the following three Australian diggers lie in Tehran:
- ALLEN, CECIL FREDERICK, Sergeant, Service Number 7675, Died 05/08/1918, Age 25, Australian Engineers, Australian IV. D. 13.
- DAVIS, W, Sergeant, Service Number 1180, Died 07/07/1918, Australian Infantry, A.I.F. Australian IV. D. 10.
- OLSON, CHARLES, Sergeant, Service Number 1427, Died 06/09/1918, Australian Infantry, A.I.F. Australian IV. E. 4.
Sergeant Allen served in the 1st Australian and New Zealand Wireless Signal Squadron. As mentioned earlier, the wireless operators from Australia and New Zealand were the communications backbone of the Dunsterforce operations. Sgt Allen was the son of Frederick Thomas and Millie Annette Allen, of “Chatham,” Bardwell Rd., Mosman, New South Wales. Born at Sydney.
At the time of his death, Sergeant Charles Olson was serving in the 29th Battalion of the AIF, and was the son of John and Hannah Olson, of 26 Donald St., Footscray, Victoria, Australia. A member of Dunsterforce, he died of malaria at Hamadan Military Hospital, was initially interred in Hamadan War Cemetery, later transferred to Tehran.
Sadly, the CWGC records have no family information for Sergeant Davis. His service records indicate that he was – like most of those hand-picked to serve in Dunsterforce – quite the hero. At the time of his death he was serving in the 7th Battalion, AIF, and in his service he was awarded both the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and the Military Medal (MM). For those who don’t know, the DCM is a particularly high award for bravery, and the MM similarly just one rung down the bravery ladder. Checking into his military records a bit further, one finds the citation (the reason) for his being awarded the DCM:
“For conspicuous gallantry during operations,. Both by day and by night, he went out fearlessly over the parapet, searching for and bringing in the wounded under heavy fire.”
According to sources, he was awarded the DCM for heroic actions saving wounded in battle at Pozieres (the Battle of Pozières was a particularly bloody two-week struggle for the French village of Pozières and the ridge on which it stands, during the middle stages of the 1916 Battle of the Somme), the MM for similarly heroic actions at Passchaendale (another especially bloody battle in the ridges around Ypres, in modern-day Belgium, where Australian forces are honoured for digging tunnels under the German lines and setting off such a massive explosion the rift in the ground became a permanent feature of the land). Our war hero, however, died of cholera in Hamadan. Also a member of Dunsterforce, he was initially buried at the Hamadan Military Cemetery, and then to a final resting place in Tehran.
For a more or less complete list of the Australians who served in Dunsterforce, including mention of two of our three soldiers buried in Tehran, see here: http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=200434
And the journey ends there for now. I hope you found it interesting to see what on earth could have happened for Aussies to be lying in war graves in modern Tehran.
UPDATE 1: About the Kiwis Who Lie There
For my New Zealand readership, please note the details of the two Kiwis who lie in Tehran War Cemetery, and some family information if any of you know them. I cannot say for sure there were Dunsterforce, but given the dates of death, and that one of them was a Military Cross recipient in keeping with the elite recruitment for Dunsterforce , it seems quite likely.
BLYTH, ANDREW JACKSON
Rank: Sergeant. Service No: 12/303
Date of Death: 04/10/1918
Regiment/Service: Auckland Regiment, N.Z.E.F. 2nd Bn.
Grave Reference: IV. B. 15.
Cemetery:TEHRAN WAR CEMETERY
Additional Information: Son of Mr. and Mrs. D. Blyth, of 369, Wilsons Rd., Opawa, Christchurch, New Zealand.
- RUTHERFORD, THOMAS WYVILLE LEONARD
- Rank: Captain
- Service No: 6/718
- Date of Death: 19/10/1918
- Age: 28
- Regiment/Service:Canterbury Regiment, N.Z.E.F.1st Bn.
- Awards: M C
- Grave Reference: III. E. 8.
- Cemetery: TEHRAN WAR CEMETERY
- Additional Information: Son of John and Josephine Rutherford, of Wartle, Hamilton East, New Zealand. Born at Masterton, Wairarapa, New Zealand. A mining engineer.