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The EK1

Sowars, Sepoys and Guides fight the Bolsheviks

(This article should be read as the continuation to the Article: ‘The East Persia Cordon and the Sarhad Operations 1915-1917’.)

The Central Powers in the Caucasus in 1918

Prior to 1918 Germany and Turkey had despatched missions to Afghanistan from Baghdad that travelled through Persia.  To counter these attempts by the Central Powers to influence Afghanistan to join the Jihad or Holy War against the Allies, Britain and Imperial Russia had established the East Persia Cordon.  This cordon ran from Baluchistan in the south up to the Russian border in the north, and was mostly on Persian soil, just west of the Persia-Afghanistan border.  The Cordon worked reasonably effectively as a barrier until the Russian Revolution in 1917 led to the dispersal of the Russian cavalry who secured the northern stretch of the Cordon; these Cossacks decided to go home.  Britain then used units of the Indian Army to secure the whole length of the Cordon.
In March 1917 British forces in Mesopotamia seized Baghdad, forcing the Turks further northwards, and denying them their previous entry route into Persia.  However the Turks still had an Anatolian border with Persia but far more importantly the collapse of Imperial Russian rule in the Caucasus led to a new route being opened for the Central Powers to use.  Starting at Batum on the eastern shore of the Black Sea a railway led to Baku, an important oil-producing city and port in Azerbaijan on the western shore of the Caspian Sea.  Across the Caspian Sea was Krasnovodsk, a very important export port for Turkestan cotton; from Krasnovodsk the Central Asian Railway led to Tashkent and then joined the Siberian and Trans-Aral Railway lines. 

Above: Map of Transcaspia

Germany took advantage of its Bresk-Livotsk treaty with revolutionary Russia to infiltrate purchasing agents as far as Orenburg, north of the Caspian and Aral Seas, whilst in the Caucasus German troops moved from Batum to Tiflis ostensibly to support the breakaway state of Georgia that did not wish to remain in revolutionary Russia.  The German mission in Orenburg travelled down to Baku and made arrangements to purchase Azerbaijani oil and Turkestani cotton; both commodities were desperately needed by Germany and now they could be transported westwards through the Caucasus or the Ural mountains by pipeline or rail.  The cotton could be shipped from Krasnovodsk to Baku or to Astrakhan at the north-west of the Caspian where Bolshevik revolutionaries ruled.  The cotton was a vital component for the German factories that produced ammunition and explosives.

Meanwhile the Turks had political ambitions of their own.  Knowing that it had probably lost its Arab possessions for ever, Turkey attempted to expand its influence eastwards into the Turkic regions of Central Asia, and the apparent disintegration of the former Russian Empire provided an opportunity for action.  For a time Turks and Germans worked against each other but in the end Turkey infiltrated troops across the eastern end of its Caucasian border and into Azerbaijan where they advanced on Baku.  In Azerbaijan Bolshevik revolutionaries at first prevailed but the Azerbaijanis as a whole wanted to be independent and they resisted the Turkish advance.

Neue TabelleSpalte 2
Zeile 2

The threat to British interests and DUNSTERFORCE  

Britain saw that both Germany and Turkey could now move through the Caucasus, cross the Caspian Sea, and enter Afghanistan through its northern border; a railway branch-line ran from Merv on the Central Asian Railway to Kushka on the Afghan border where a massive arsenal of former Imperial Russian weapons and ammunition was located.  Afghanistan could be pushed into a confrontation with British India that might inflame anti-colonial and religious passion in the sub-continent.  The validity of this threat was demonstrated in 1919 when Afghanistan, under a new ruler, did attack India.  But the important British aim in early 1918 was to stop the Central Powers from using the Russian railway system to send oil and cotton to Europe.  

Britain deployed a small mission into Georgia that was expanded in January 1918 into a training mission of 200 officers and 200 senior ranks, mostly selected from Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South African units.  This unit was named DUNSTERFORCE after its commander Major General Lionel Charles Dunsterville CB, Indian Army.   There were no British brigades or divisions available for use in the Caucasus, and it was hoped that Dunsterville’s men could recruit and train Caucasian units that would keep German and Turkish hands off the Baku oil and Transcaspian cotton.  DUNSTERFORCE entered Persia from Baghdad and was very successful at stopping Turkish advances through northern Persia.  Dunsterville and a small force got to Baku and defended it from Turkish attack.  However the British theatre commander in Mesopotamia, Lieutenant General W.R. Marshall KCB, denied Dunsterville reinforcements and Baku had to be evacuated by the British in mid-September 1918 (1).  The Turks seized the port and the adjacent oilfields. 

Right: Major General Wilfrid Malleson

The response from India – the Malleson Mission

A second British Mission was sent into the region from India.  Major General Wilfrid Malleson, Indian Army, moved from Quetta up the East Persia Cordon and arrived in Meshed in north-eastern Persia in July 1918.  At that time the only troops available for the General’s use were those serving on the Cordon, and the most effective of those were the 28th Light Cavalry and the 1st Battalion 19th Punjabis (1/19th Punjabis).  General Malleson, like Dunsterville, was a linguist and he had others attached to his staff.  The tasks of the Malleson Mission, known as MALMISS, were to closely observe events in Transcaspia, to rebuff enemy agents attempting to enter Afghanistan or Baluchistan from the west, to report on Afghan political developments in Herat, and to deny the Turks use of the Central Asian Railway should they seize Baku.  This last task became more significant when the Turks did seize Baku in mid-September 1918.    

MALMISS was resupplied by a new rail line pushed through northern Baluchistan from Quetta that was to terminate just inside the Persian border.  From there a good but long motorable road was being constructed northwards to Meshed.  Basically MALMISS was ‘out on a limb’ and would have to solve its own problems as there could be no quick response from India to requests for support.  General Malleson was not a sound field commander, having been sent home by General Smuts from the East Africa campaign as a failed brigade commander, but he was an experienced intelligence staff officer and at the time of his appointment Army Headquarters in Delhi had not forseen that combat operations would occur in Transcaspia.  

General Malleson quickly deployed intelligence agents across both the Afghan and Transcaspian borders and used their information to build up an accurate picture of what was happening in both regions.  The Bolsheviks held a firm base in Tashkent, but in Transcaspia the Russian railway workers and the local Turcoman tribesmen had rejected the high-handed actions of the Bolsheviks and had formed their own provisional government based on the socialist ideals of Menshevism.  Thus there was in Transcaspia a Menshevik government fighting against Bolshevik attacks down the railway line from Tashkent.  The Menshevik government was based in Ashkhabad and it controlled the Central Asian Railway from Krasnovodsk to Bairam Ali, east of Merv, where the spearhead of the Bolshevik forces was operating.  

The fighting was done along the railway line and both sides used improvised armoured trains; operations in the Kara Kum desert on either side of the line were not feasible because of the lack of water.  The Menshevik soldiers were Russian ex-officers manning the armoured trains, field guns and a cavalry squadron, some Armenian and Turcoman infantry, and 500 local Turcoman cavalrymen.  Colonel Oraz Sirdar, a Turcoman officer of the former Tsarist army, was the Menshevik commander.  Sadly he could not discipline his Turcoman cavalry who were unreliable and motivated by self-interest and loot.    

The Bolshevik army in Tashkent contained many German and Austro-Hungarian former prisoners of war (2) who had been kept in camps in Central Asia until the Russian Revolution, when they were told that they could go home if they first fought their way through the Mensheviks, as an Austro-Hungarian Mission was waiting in Tiflis to repatriate them.  These Germans and Austro-Hungarians provided the professional element that the Bolshevik forces needed.  Other men drafted into the Bolshevik army were former Imperial Russian soldiers, railway men and Russians living locally.  The Bolsheviks were not short of weapons as they had seized the arsenal at Kushka.  As the fighting developed both sides could generally get one military aircraft into the air each day for reconnaissance duties; the Mensheviks flew a Henri-Farman biplane until it crashed whilst the Bolsheviks flew a Morane-Saulnier monoplane plus a Henri-Farman.  

Malleson’s agents reported that the Mensheviks in Ashkhabad wanted assistance from MALMISS and Captain Reginald Teague-Jones (3), Indian Army Reserve of Officers, was despatched to be a MALMISS liaison officer in Ashkabad.  Sub-units of the 28th Light Cavalry and the 1/19th Punjabis were moved up to the Persian-Transcaspian border area, and on 8th August 1918 Delhi authorised Malleson to provide limited military and financial assistance to the Transcaspian government.  As MALMISS only had the finance to cover its own needs there could be no immediate cash contributions to the Menshevik government treasury, but two days later a rifle company and a machine gun section from the Punjabis crossed into Transcaspia and occupied Artik, a station on the Central Asian Railway.  From there the machine gun section under Lieutenant W.F. Gipps was sent forward to Bairam Ali accompanied by Major W.H. Bingham (4), 1/69th Punjabis, as a liaison officer.

Above: Baku & Transcaspia map

British hostilities with the Bolsheviks commence  

On 15th August the Bolsheviks attacked Bairam Ali, advancing on both flanks.  The Menshevik Armenian infantry dispersed and leaped on trains to ride back 100 kilometres to Dushak.  But the Menshevik No. 1 Armoured Train, manned by Russians and supported by the Punjabi machine gunners under Havildars Imam Din and Nand Singh, stood its ground until nightfall when it withdrew to Tejend.  The Bolsheviks were held at Tejend the next day by a combination of firepower and track demolition, then No. 1 Train steamed back to Dushak.  Havildar Nand Singh and one sepoy had been wounded and the whole machine gun section was exhausted and affected by fever, so it was withdrawn to the Persian border.    

The actions at Kaakha  

The Menshevik high command decided to withdraw and make a stand at Kaakha, so the armoured trains moved back.  The arrangement made between MALMISS and the Transcaspian government permitted British troops to come under Menshevik tactical command, but the senior British officer present could request discussion of any order that was judged to be inappropriate in the prevailing circumstances.  As it was now apparent that British support had to be in greater strength to be of any use at all, No. 2 Company 1/19th Punjabis, under Captain G.E.F. Shute, also moved to Kaakha.  The remainder of the Punjabis concentrated at Artik.   
The first Bolshevik attack on Kaakha on 26th August petered out without Captain Shute’s company having to move out of its reserve position.  However the situation was serious as the Bolsheviks had come forward with several trains full of troops, and Lieutenant Colonel D.E. Knollys, the Punjabi commanding officer, advanced the remainder of his battalion to Kaakha.  Colonel Knollys was not impressed with the Menshevik appreciation of and use of ground and he did not allow his battalion to be distributed in penny packets around the battlefield.  The Menshevik Russian gunners and crew of No. 1 Train fought well as usual, and with Punjabi fire support held back the Bolsheviks.  This train crew included a Russian lady, the widow of a Tsarist officer who had been killed by the Bolsheviks.  However the Turcoman cavalry did not attempt to interfere with the main enemy attack that entered Kaakha Village.  Meanwhile the Punjabis were using their Lewis light machine guns for the first time in action, and Sepoy Natha Singh had an excellent shoot from the roof of a hut before he was wounded by enemy machine gun fire (5).

As the enemy advanced through the village the Punjabi Quartermaster, Lieutenant F.W. Stewart, organised a detail of administrative sepoys and followers and blocked the enemy advance.  This defensive action allowed Colonel Knollys to launch his No. 1 Company in a flank attack on the enemy advance; the Pathans and Punjabi Mussulmans of No. 1 Company wielded their bayonets with vigour and drove the Bolsheviks back into the village where a two-hour long fight succeeded in ejecting the enemy out of Kaakha and capturing four of their machine guns.  During the fighting the Turcoman cavalry were totally ineffective.  Lieutenant Francis William Stewart, 1/19th Punjabis, was awarded a Military Cross:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when the enemy got round the flank and rear of camp. He collected all available odd men, and by prompt dispositions and gallant leading held off the enemy until reinforcements arrived, thereby averting complete disaster. Although wounded he continued fighting, and throughout showed great pluck and tenacity.

Above: White Russian reinforcements arrive at Ashkabad

The Punjabis had won the day for the Mensheviks but at a cost, as 4 sepoys were dead and 15 wounded.  Captain Teague-Jones and Lieutenant Stewart were wounded, and a liaison officer, Captain K.H.W. Ward, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, later died of wounds.  Medical support was provided by a section of a Combined Field Ambulance under Captain J.A. Sinton VC (6) assisted by Lieutenant M. Nawaz, both of the Indian Medical Service.  The Bolsheviks appeared to have taken up to 40 casualties, most of them wounded.  Several sepoys had been shot from behind as during the fighting in the village it was extremely difficult to recognize which Russian troops were Bolsheviks and which were Mensheviks as the uniforms were similar, and the Bolsheviks had taken advantage of this to operate in the Punjabi rear.

On the following day a company of the 1/4th Hampshire Regiment (120 rifles) arrived at Kaakha having been sent across the Caspian Sea from Enzeli in northern Persia to Krasnovodsk, and then onwards by rail into Transcaspia.  On 5th September a section (two guns) of 18-pounder field guns from 44th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, also arrived from Enzeli via Krasnovodsk.  MALMISS had been authorized to raise a local levy from the Hazara Shiite population around Meshed, and 50 of these levies were sent to Kaakha.  The Menshevik military situation was considerably improved.  This was largely due to DUNSTERFORCE having seized much of the shipping on the Caspian Sea to place it under the command of Commodore D.T. Norris CB (7), Royal Navy, who mounted guns on most of his new fleet.  With the Royal Navy controlling the southern Caspian waters the sea route from Enzeli to Krasnovodsk was secure.   

Left: Menshevik Turcoman troops

The Bolsheviks attacked again at Kaakha on 11th September and used ten field guns to support their infantry, however the British 18-pounders broke up the attack so accurately that the enemy withdrew.  Once again the Turcoman cavalry declined to ride down the withdrawing enemy.  Seven days later the final Bolshevik attack on Kaakha was launched, this time supported by 15 guns, but again shrapnel fired by the British and Menshevik gunners deterred the enemy infantry from assaulting the British and Transcaspian defensive positions, and the Bolsheviks withdrew. On this occasion an enemy cavalry unit got behind the Kaakha position and ripped up railway track, tore down signal cables and burned a wooden bridge before withdrawing.  Yet again the Turcoman cavalry declined to participate.  But a sound cavalry force was on the way as on 21st September ‘C’ and ‘D’ squadrons of the 28th Light Cavalry from Meshed, under Major J.A.C. Kreyer, joined Colonel Knollys at Kaakha.  

Left: Wrecked Bolshevik armoured train at Dushak

The Battle of Dushak  

The Menshevik Headquarters ordered an advance against the Bolsheviks and plans were made for an attack on Dushak.  Reconnaissance patrols from the 28th Light Cavalry went out and two in particular, commanded by Lance Duffadars Ganga Singh and Tek Chand (8), had contacts with the enemy and came back with useful information.  The Menshevik advance was in two columns that left Kaakha on 9th October 1918.  The left column consisted of the Punjabi Nos. 2 and 3 Companies and both sections of machine guns, the British field guns escorted by the 50 Hazara levies, four Russian-manned guns and around 800 Turcoman and Armenian infantry.  The right column was composed of the two Indian cavalry squadrons; the Turcoman cavalry was tasked independently with getting behind the enemy position and cutting the railway line to prevent the withdrawal of the Bolshevik trains.  The Punjabi No. 1 Company and the Hampshires remained in reserve at Kaakha and at the British railhead of Arman Sagad.  

After four days of marching and waiting that was confused by various orders and counter-orders from the Menshevik Headquarters, the left column approached Dushak just before first light on 14th October, but two Punjabi patrols fired at each other in the darkness and the enemy was alerted.  Unfortunately in the ensuing disorder several machine and Lewis gun mules broke away from their handlers and their loads were not recovered until later.  Nevertheless the left column attacked Dushak Station at dawn, trying to capitalise on what advantage of surprise still remained.  The start line was 1.5 kilometres distant from the Station and the ground to be covered was very open, being a flat plain with vegetation growing to a height of 60 centimetres.  One or two nullahs crossed the plain and these soon attracted many of the Turcoman and Armenian infantrymen.

The British and Menshevik guns came into action efficiently in the open but the Bolshevik guns were also well manned and fired over open sights at the advancing sepoys, using percussion shrapnel and grape shot; the Punjabi casualty figure quickly rose.  By now the Menshevik infantry had gone to ground and the Punjabis were fighting forward alone in short rushes, using their machine gun sections and Lewis gunners to cover the flanks.  As soon as a charge could be made the Punjabis concentrated fire on the enemy machine guns and went in with the bayonet, quickly over-running 6 enemy field guns and 16 machine guns.  

No. 440 Havildar Imam Din, 1/19th Punjabis, was awarded an Indian Order of Merit (2nd Class): When in charge of a machine gun, brought into action under very heavy gun and rifle fire, he successfully silenced one of the enemy’s guns.  When finally severely wounded and unable to move, he refused all assistance and ordered his gun back into safety.  He had previously done exceedingly well on with his gun on 11th August (9) on which occasion he commanded the section in the absence of his officer.

Above: 19th Punjabis

Having reached the Station the Punjabi advance continued into the railway yards beyond.  At this time the officer commanding No. 1 Company, Lieutenant James Eliot Stephen, and Subadar Mehdi Khan, both of the 1/19th Punjabis, were killed in action.  Officer casualties quickly mounted, Lieutenant Gipps being hit in the leg and Captain G.E.F. Shute in the shoulder; both were in No. 2 Company.  Undaunted Subadar Bal Singh took over as company commander and was awarded an Indian Order of Merit (2nd Class):  In an attack on the enemy he led his platoon with great dash and bravery under very heavy machine gun fire.  He took command of the company when the British Officer had been wounded and by his coolness and power of command, ensured the retirement being conducted in an orderly manner. 

During the fighting in the station yard and village that lay beyond Captain G. Pigot, commanding No. 3 Company, was wounded in the throat and evacuated; Subadar Major Isa Singh took over command of the two Punjabi companies, and he was later admitted to The Order of British India (OBI).  Captains George Eric FitzGerald Shute and Geoffrey Pigot, both 19th Punjabis, and Lieutenant Mohamed Nawaz, Indian Medical Service, were all awarded Military Crosses.   

Indian Orders of Merit (2nd Class) were awarded to No. 2532 Sepoy Dalel Singh: He carried messages throughout the day for his company commander regardless of personal safety and finally delivered an important message after being severely wounded.  And to No. 1352 Lance Naik Muhammad Akbar, 19th Punjabis: He showed great bravery and initiative when in command of a Lewis gun on the 14th October 1918.  He climbed onto the roof of a house with his gun, 40 yards in advance of all other troops and in spite of heavy fire and his exposed position, kept up a concentrated fire on the enemy.  Later, from the same position, he fired on one of the enemy’s trains and forced it to retire.  

When the two 28th Light Infantry squadrons in the right column heard the heavy firing at Dushak a decision was made to proceed there mounted to support the Punjabis.  An enemy armoured train opened fire on the sowars but fortunately most shells were High Explosive and not shrapnel.  The squadrons were ordered into ‘half squadron column’ at 100 metres interval and they galloped to the station; on the way they met scattered groups of hostile Bolsheviks and killed around 60 of them, mostly with the lance.  Unfortunately during one of these skirmishes Jemadar Basanta Ram was killed in action.

One of the last shells fired in the battle by the British 18-pounder guns detonated three enemy railway ammunition trucks in a siding; the ensuing explosion flattened the surrounding area and killed many Bolsheviks.  Sadly an enemy waggon load of horses was burned to death in the fire that followed the explosion.  However the Bolsheviks were reluctant to withdraw as some of their armoured trains were trapped on the railway line west of Dushak station.  Bolshevik reinforcements arrived by train from Tejend and Merv, proving that the Turcoman cavalry had not cut the line to the east, and the Menshevik commander ordered a withdrawal.  At this time the two 28th Light Cavalry squadrons were east of the station with the British guns and Hazara Levies, and the Punjabis were re-grouping west of the station with the Menshevik guns and the remaining 40 Russian and Armenian infantry who had not by now  disappeared from the battlefield.  The Turcoman cavalrymen were out of sight on their way home, laden with loot from Dushak station and village, and from damaged or wrecked Bolshevik trains.

  The dismounted cavalry covered the Menshevik withdrawal; the Bolsheviks quickly got machine guns into action and hit around 30 of the cavalry mounts that were being led to the rear.  By now the Bolshevik artillerymen were shaken and although they engaged the withdrawing sowars they did not inflict casualties.  After withdrawing to the Menshevik railhead at Arman Sagad the infantry and gunners were railed back to Kaakha whilst the cavalry marched, arriving there at dawn on 15th October.

During the fighting at Dushak the 28th Light Cavalry lost 1 Indian officer and 7 sowars killed, 12 sowars wounded and 60 horses killed and wounded.  The 1/19th Punjabis lost 1 British and 1 Indian officer and 45 sepoys killed, 3 British officers, 1 Indian officer and 135 sepoys wounded.  The Hazara Levies lost 5 sepoys missing believed killed.  The withdrawal from Dushak in the face of an enemy counter-attack was initially a disappointment to those who fought there, however the Bolsheviks had been so shaken by their experiences and the loss of over 500 men that soon they withdrew eastwards all the way to Merv.  The Mensheviks, thanks to the courage and audacity of their Russian crew on No. 1 Armoured Train, quickly advanced and established a new railhead east of Tejend.  This move was followed by a joint force of 28th Light Cavalry and Turcoman cavalry demonstrating their ability to appear to the east of Merv, causing the Bolsheviks to withdraw even further to the east of Bairam Ali. 

Right: The personnel of No. 1 Armoured Train

The Punjabis were re-grouping and training up key personnel to replace casualties; the only British officers left were Colonel Knollys and the Adjutant, Captain R.F.G. Adams (10); Indian officers commanded the companies.   The Hampshire company garrisoned Merv and the 28th Light Cavalry accompanied the Menshevik armoured trains now located east of Bairam Ali.  The occupation of Tejend and Merv was critical for the Menshevik government, as the agricultural land around those two oases provided the food that was needed in Ashkhabad.

A winter lull
The Bolshevik withdrawal from Dushak allowed the sepoys and sowars on 18th October to recover and bury or cremate the bodies of their comrades who had fallen on the battlefield.  At the end of that month Turkey signed an armistice and ceased fighting, followed by Austria-Hungary and Germany.  This soon made the politicians in London and Delhi question the future of MALMISS, and whilst this subject was debated General Malleson was ordered not to take any further offensive action against the Tashkent Bolsheviks without receiving prior authority, but his force could fight defensively.  In late 1918 the various White Russian armies that were fighting against Bolshevism appeared to be reasonably competent, and it was hoped that the White Russians would contain and destroy the Reds. 

From Mesopotamia General Marshall, who had previously overseen the fall of Baku to the Turks by refusing reinforcements to the DUNSTERFORCE units fighting around that city, had to send British troops back to Baku to enforce the armistice terms on the Turks there, to maintain law and order, and to secure the oilfields.  The British control of Baku port allowed the White Russians to send units of Caucasian Daghestan Cossack cavalry across the Caspian to reinforce the Ashkhabad Mensheviks.  As the Ashkhabad government was perpetually facing dissent from within the Transcaspian population these Cossacks were retained in Ashkhabad for a time as an internal security force, but as the Daghestanis’ favourite pastimes were to gallop madly around town and loot the bazaars they were soon sent to the Bairam Ali front.  Rifle companies from the 9th Battalion The Royal Warwickshire Regiment moved into barracks in Krasnovodsk and Ashkhabad for security duties.  

Above: Sketch of the Central Asian Railway

The British Army of the Black Sea, under General Sir G.F. Milne KCB, KCMG, DSO, the former British commander in Salonika, extended its garrisoning of the Caucasus and took control of the railway that ran from Batum to Baku.  This led to the handing over of MALMISS from Delhi to London, resulting in the Line of Communication for MALMISS being through the Caucasus and over the Caspian.  As this route used ships and railways this was in fact a more efficient arrangement than the previous overland camel-convoy and motor route up the East Persia Cordon, or the alternative Persian route from Krasnovodsk to Enzeli and then overland to Baghdad.  

Winter in Transcaspia brought heavy snowfalls and freezing temperatures and initially both sides concentrated more on survival than on fighting.  MALMISS propaganda aimed at the German and Austro-Hungarian former prisoners of war fighting for the Bolsheviks offered repatriation to them if they crossed over to the Menshevik lines.  This worked well for a time with up to 20 men per night crossing over until the Menshevik Turcoman cavalry realised what was happening; the Turcomans then intercepted the ex-prisoners of war in the desert and murdered them for their clothing.  This stopped the flow of enemy troops seeking repatriation to Europe.

Above: 28th Light Cavalry on parade, Transcaspia

General Malleson had asked Delhi for a Brigadier General to be sent to command the British troops in action in Transcaspia, as Colonel Knollys who had been doing that job as well as commanding his battalion was over-tasked.  Lieutenant Colonel (Temporary Brigadier General) G.A.H. Beatty DSO & Bar (11), 9th Hodson’s Horse, was selected and he travelled up the East Persia Cordon to arrive at Meshed on 9th November.  He was accompanied by a small brigade headquarters and his principal staff officer was Major J.P. Thompson (12), 35th Scinde Horse.  For a few weeks Malleson retained Beatty in Meshed whilst various conferences and debates took place, but in early January 1919 General Beatty crossed the border and took up his command appointment at Bairam Ali.    

The appearance of the Guides’ patrol 

In January Captain L.V.S. Blacker and 16 men of the Queen’s Own Corps of Guides (Lumsden’s) appeared at the Menshevik railhead at Bairam Ali.  On 7th February 1918 this mounted patrol had moved from Kashmir through Gilgit, Hunza and then Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan; from there permission was eventually granted to visit Tashkent in Russian Turkestan. The patrol was escorting Sir George Macartney who was on a diplomatic mission to learn what he could of the political situation in Bolshevik-governed Tashkent.  Then, moving on a reconnaissance mission, Blacker and his men went back through the Kunlun mountains and the Muztagh Pass to Yarkand and on to Merv.   The patrol contained specialist linguists, topographic scouts, weapons specialists, a signaller and a carrier pigeon expert, a first-aid man and veterinarian.  Three Hazara men of this patrol actually owned land at Merv, obtained by their families in Tsarist times

Whilst at Bairam Ali the Guides trained the soldiers of the Menshevik army in basic military skills, familiarising them with the Lee-Metford rifles that MALMISS was supplying to the Ashkabad government.  Following up a suggestion from the Menshevik military commander Oraz Sirdar, MALMISS decided to send a 100-camel convoy of weapons and ammunition to the Emir of Bokhara who wished to remain independent of Bolshevik, Menshevik or any other kind of rule.  Two Guides’ non-commissioned officers, Awal Nur and Karbali Muhammad, took the convoy around the Bolshevik lines to Bokhara, where the Emir decorated them with the Star of Bokhara and gave them temporary officer appointments in his army whilst they trained the Bokharan soldiers on the new weapons.  The journey had been dangerous and on one occasion a Bolshevik patrol was dispersed with rifle fire.  In recognition of their achievements No. 156 Company Quartermaster Havildar Awal Nur was later awarded an Indian Order of Merit (2nd Class) and Temporary Lance Dafadar Karbali Muhammad received an Indian Distinguished Service Medal.    

Above: 28th Light Cavalry at Annenkovo

The battle of Annenkovo  

In January 1919 the front was on the Central Asia Railway north-east of Merv near Annenkovo which lay 50 kilometres forward from Bairam Ali.  The Mensheviks were dispirited with the British decision not to advance as it was thought that the Bolshevik forces would easily fold and that a Menshevik bridgehead could be captured at Charjui on the east bank of the Oxus River.  Such a move would improve the Menshevik position in Transcaspia considerably.  To strengthen Menshevik resolve a half-squadron of the 28th Light Cavalry and a company (150 rifles) of the 1/19th Punjabis were stationed at the front at Annenkovo.  These British troops were relieved every eight days or so from Bairam Ali where there were a squadron of 28th Light Cavalry, the Battalion Headquarters and two companies of the 1/19th Punjabis and the two British 18-pounder guns.  

On 16th January the Bolsheviks achieved total surprise by attacking with 4,000 infantry, 8 guns and several squadrons of cavalry.  Thick fog covered the ground at daybreak and the Menshevik cavalry patrols reported nothing unusual.  The first intimation of trouble came at 0850 hours when the sepoys and sowars at the front heard the railway line being blown to the south-west, signalling that the enemy was behind them.  Menshevik cavalry patrols then reported that the railway and telegraph lines were cut and that four squadrons of Bolshevik cavalry had been observed about five kilometres to the north-west.  A prisoner was taken who stated that the enemy intended to attack from the north.

The sowars not out on patrol positioned themselves to fight with the armoured trains against enemy advancing from the east whilst Captain G. Pigot MC, 19th Punjabis, now recovered from his throat wound and in command of No. 3 Company, deployed his men to face the attack from the north.  A decisive factor that was going to save the day for the Indian troops was that the enemy did not prevent the Menshevik train repair crew from repairing the blown track, and the Punjabis’ No. 1 Company under Major J.G.P. Drummond was equipped and standing by to routinely relieve No. 3 Company at the front.  

Above: Officers of 28th Light Cavalry at Annenkovo

The Menshevik Turcoman and Armenian infantry advanced north to find the enemy who soon outflanked them, causing a rapid retreat.  Thick mist still hugged the ground making it difficult to recognise  friend from foe.  Captain Pigot sent two platoons under Lieutenant L.S. Ingle, Indian Army Reserve of Officers attached to 1/19th Punjabis, to extend the left flank of the Menshevik infantry.  This was achieved and the Mensheviks briefly halted until enemy machine gunners infiltrated in the mist causing the Mensheviks to withdraw again.  Pigot sent another platoon forward and Louis Sobaux Ingle used it effectively, being awarded a Military Cross:  For conspicuous gallantry on Bahram Ali Front on 16th January, 1919. He showed marked ability in handling three platoons with which he was opposing the enemy's attack. He continually led his platoon forward under heavy fire, though the enemy were enveloping his flank, to restore order on the right. His cool courage inspired his men during a critical period, and he kept his company commander informed of the situation.  

Two Indian officers of the 19th Punjabis were later awarded the Indian Order of Merit (2nd Class), one being a posthumous award.  Subadar Aziz Ullah’s citation was: This Indian officer showed conspicuous gallantry and ability in the leading of his platoon when out of touch with his company commander on the 16th January 1919. He also behaved with conspicuous bravery on two former occasions.  The citation for Subadar Hukam Singh read: This Indian officer led his platoon into action on 19th January 1919 (13) with the greatest gallantry and inspired all his men by his fearlessness.  He was killed while encouraging and leading his men.  

The fighting continued throughout the day but at 1500 hours the situation changed when the train carrying No. 1 Company chugged into the fight.  Sepoys de-trained at high speed, and after a quick briefing from Pigot, Drummond led three platoons of Pathans forward northwards to halt the Bolshevik advance.  The enemy outflanked them so Drummond sent Lieutenant Cuvelier with No. 4 Platoon out wide, and a well-sited Lewis gun prevented the enemy from reaching the railway line.   Captain (Acting Major) James Geoffrey Powys Drummond, 1/19th Punjabis, later received a Military Cross: For conspicuous gallantry on Bahram Ali Front on 16th January, 1919. When sent to reinforce our troops, who were being heavily shelled, he detrained his company under heavy fire, and promptly led them forward, though neither our own troops nor the enemy could be located owing to a thick mist. His prompt action and bold initiative and leading resulted in the enemy being driven off with heavy losses.  
Captain Pigot had to deal with an attack from the east.  The sowars, using a Hotchkiss gun, had supported the armoured trains in stopping the enemy moving down the railway line towards them, but at 1730 hours a strong enemy attack was put in using new troops.  Pigot ran down the line with his company headquarters and remaining platoon just as the Bolsheviks were reaching the Menshevik armoured trains.  A group of seven Russians from a train counter-attacked the enemy with the bayonet closely followed by Pigot’s Punjabi Mussulmans who drove the enemy out of the railway cutting and into the desert.  Geoffrey Pigot received a Bar to his Military Cross: For gallantry in action on Bahram Ali front on 16th January, 1919. By his prompt action and able disposition of the advanced British troops, of which he was in command, he enabled an attack by the enemy in overwhelming numbers to be held off till reinforcements arrived. His coolness and decision throughout the action inspired confidence in all ranks.  

 Throughout the battle Nos. 1 and 3 Companies had not been able to see each other due to the mist, but by advancing towards the sound of the guns and reacting rapidly to enemy sightings the company officers had been able to decisively blunt the enemy attacks.  The Bolsheviks, who held the advantages of surprise and superior numbers throughout the action, could have stayed and probably won the fight, and if they had captured the Menshevik armoured trains the Transcaspian forces would have been emasculated.  But perhaps becoming disillusioned by both the thick mist that hampered visibility and battlefield control, and by the arrival of Drummond’s company, the Bolsheviks broke contact and withdrew at 1800 hours.  Bolshevik casualties were estimated at 600 from the fighting and 500 from frostbite due to the bitterly cold night approach and withdrawal marches.  After the action nearly 200 enemy bodies were found around the battlefield, including those of two females; all the corpses had been stripped of clothing by the Turcomans.   

Above: Sketch of the Central Asian Railway

The Mensheviks had suffered around 70 casualties and the 1/19th Punjabis lost Subadar Hukam Singh and 7 sepoys killed, 2 sepoys died of wounds and 36 were wounded.  One other posthumous Indian Order of Merit (2nd Class) was awarded to No. 989 Havildar Farid Khan, 1/19th Punjabis: For conspicuous gallantry on the 16th January 1919 in pressing forward at the head of his section under very heavy fire.  His total disregard of danger on this and former occasions was of the greatest assistance to his platoon commander and an example to his men.  This non-commissioned officer was killed in action.  Subedar Nihal Singh and several sepoys received the Indian Distinguished Service Medal.

Cavalry Actions

After the Annenkovo battle General Beatty introduced a new defence plan of wired-in mutually supporting picquet positions manned by sepoys.  The sowars were heavily tasked with cavalry patrols, having to count the number of Bolshevik trains at the front each night as well as observing possible enemy approach routes.  The enemy was not going to be allowed to launch another surprise attack.

Although the sepoys did not know it, 1/19th Punjabis had fought its last action in Transcaspia; but this was not the case for the 28th Light Cavalry.  Whilst leading a nine-man patrol in January 1919 No. 1621 Lance Duffadar Bhola Ram of ‘D’ Squadron, 28th Light Cavalry, found himself cut off by about 25 Bolsheviks.  Bhola Ram ordered a charge, and spearing two enemy his patrol broke through the Bolshevik ranks.  Bhola Ram later received an Indian Distinguished Service Medal and a Russian Cross of St. George (2nd Class) (14).

A more serious engagement took place later in early March when No. 2249 Lance Duffadar Manawar Khan of ‘A’ Squadron, 28th Light Cavalry, found his 13-man patrol surrounded by around 150 enemy cavalry who appeared from behind large sand hills.  Manawar Khan ordered his Punjabi Mussulmans to close ranks and charge through the enemy, which they did cutting down 22 Bolsheviks in the process.  Manowar Khan received the only Indian Order of Merit (2nd Class) awarded to his regiment during the Great War: For conspicuous gallantry and dash on the 2nd March 1919; when in command of a patrol of 13 men he was surrounded by about 150 of the enemy’s cavalry, he without hesitation led his patrol to the charge and broke through the enemy’s ranks, spearing all opposed to them.  Later when pursued by the enemy he himself halted, took up a position and opened rapid fire on the enemy, shooting 3 of them and checking the pursuit, thereby saving the lives of the remainder of the patrol with him. 

No. 2311 Trumpeter Murad Ali killed two enemy with his sword and a third with his revolver as he galloped away; he later received an Indian Distinguished Service Medal as did another member of the patrol, No. 2452 Acting Lance Duffadar Fazal Khan.  All members of the patrol were awarded the Russian Cross of St. George in a variety of classes; the regimental history states that the medal ribbons were received but that the medals were not.

The patrol was scattered and trickled back to the Menshevik railhead over the following 24 hours, except for three sowars who were missing.  These three lost their mounts in the fighting and were taken prisoner by the Bolsheviks, who deserve credit for this act considering the losses that they had themselves suffered.  The three sowars were incarcerated in a camp at Vyerni, about 800 kilometres north-east of Tashkent.  Two men, No.  2391 Acting Lance Dafadar Lall Khan and No. 2663 Sowar (Shoeing Smith) Muhammad Yar Khan, escaped separately.  Both men used their initiative in getting themselves back to their regiment, Lal Khan travelled on train and foot through Tashkent, Bokhara and Ashkabad to Meshed whilst Muhammad Yar Khan walked from Vyerni to Kashgar in China, where the British Consul-General forwarded him through Gilgit to Srinagar.  Both men also received the Indian Distinguished Service Medal.  The third man, No. 2479 Sowar Gulfaraz Khan, was known to be alive when the other two escaped, but he was never seen again.  

British intervention in Transcaspia ends 

In late January 1919 General Milne, Commander of the Army of the Black Sea, travelled to Transcaspia and after discussions with General Malleson he visited Annenkovo to see the front and congratulate the Punjabis, 28th Light Cavalry and British gunners on their prowess on the battlefield.  However General Milne was not happy to have part of his command extended so far eastwards into Central Asia with what were by now redundant objectives.  On his return to Constantinople he advised London that British and Indian troops should be withdrawn from Transcaspia, and this was agreed.  The Transcaspian government was understandably not happy with this news, and even unhappier were the Turcomans who expected to get a rough deal from whatever Russian administration came to power.  The White Russian General Denikin sent troops, guns and aircraft across the Caspian Sea and these units took over the front from the Punjabis, Light Cavalry and British gunners.  A considerable quantity of military supplies was left by MALMISS for the use of the Transcaspian government.

  By 1st April 1919 the British units in Transcaspia had been evacuated to or through Krasnovodsk whilst the Indian Army units, including Captain Blacker’s Guides patrol, crossed the Persian border to Meshed where they were employed on security duties along the East Persia Cordon necessitated by the 3rd Afghan War.  As the White Russian armies in Russia faltered and lost ground the Tashkent Bolsheviks were able to receive ‘Red Army’ Russian military reinforcements and in May they captured Annenkovo and Merv, in June they took Tejend, in July Kaakha and Ashkabad fell to them, and following the British evacuation of Krasnovodsk that port was in Bolshevik hands in January 1920.  The Turkic and other local inhabitants of Central Asia were subjected to a re-colonisation from Russia, but one with ruthless socialist ideals rather than Imperial objectives; seventy years were to pass before Transcaspia re-emerged as an independent nation titled Turkmenistan, with its capital city being Ashgabat.

      Gallantry awards made to Indian Army units for the Transcaspia operations

  Distinguished Service Order

Major William George Broughton Ischia Hawley, 28th Light Cavalry.

Major (Acting Lieutenant Colonel) Denis Erskine Knollys, 1/19th Punjabis.

Major John Arthur Claude Kreyer, 28th Light Cavalry.

  Bar to the Military Cross

Lieutenant (Acting Captain) Geoffrey Pigot, 1/19th Punjabis.

  Military Cross

Captain (Acting Major) James Geoffrey Powys Drummond, 1/19th Punjabis.

Lieutenant Louis Sobaux Ingle, Indian Army Reserve of Officers attached to 1/19th Punjabis.

Lieutenant Mohamad Nawaz, Indian Medical Service.

Lieutenant (Acting Captain) Geoffrey Pigot, 1/19th Punjabis.

Captain George Eric FitzGerald Shute, 1/19th Punjabis.

Lieutenant Francis William Stewart, Indian Army Reserve of Officers attached to 1/19th Punjabis.

  Order of British India (2nd Class)

Subadar Major and Honorary Lieutenant Isar Singh (Bahadur), 1/19th Punjabis.

  Indian Order of Merit (2nd Class)

28th Light Cavalry: 2249 Lance Dafadar Manawar Khan.

19th Punjabis: Subadar Bal Singh; 2352 Sepoy Dalel Singh; 440 Havildar Imam Din; 1352 Lance Naik Muhammed Akbar; Subadar Aziz Ullah; Subadar Hukam Singh; Havildar Farid Khan.

2nd Battalion Queen Victoria’s Own Corps of Guides (Frontier Force) (Lumsden’s Infantry): 156 Company Quartermaster Havildar Awal Nur.

  Indian Distinguished Service Medal

28th Light Cavalry: Risaldar Sawant Singh; Ressaidar Sher Singh;

2180 Dafadar Rajoo Singh; 2264 Lance Dafadar Munshi; 1550 Acting Lance Dafadar Dhanpat; 1997 Acting Lance Dafadar Jaman Singh; 2527 Acting Lance Dafadar Kishore Singh; 2502 Sowar Harnath Singh;

1621 Dafadar Bola Ram; 2452 Acting Lance Dafadar Fazal Khan; 2311 Trumpeter Murad Ali; 2391 Acting Lance Dafadar Lall Khan;  No. 2663 Sowar (Shoeing smith) Muhammad Yar Khan

19th Punjabis: Jemadar Nihal Singh; 623 Havildar Mustamir; 92 Havildar Asa Singh; 528 Havildar Tora Khan; 533 Naik Jowala Singh; 1156 Naik Karam Singh; 348 Naik Sher Singh; 954 Lance Naik Gurdit Singh; 939 Lance Naik Sohan Singh; 767 Lance Naik Gian Singh; 1440 Lance Naik Gulab Khan; 1397 Lance Naik Shah Sowar; 465 Lance Naik Asa Singh; 2933 Sepoy Surjan Singh; 1372 Sepoy Udham Singh; 2495 Sepoy Charag Din; 1725 Sepoy Karim Shah.

Queen Victoria’s Own Corps of Guides (Frontier Force) Cavalry: Temporary Lance Dafadar Karbali Muhammad.

  Russian Cross of St. George (2nd Class)

28th Light Cavalry: 2249 Lance Duffadar Manowar Khan; 1621 Duffadar Bhola Ram.

  Russian Cross of St. George (3rd Class)

28th Light Cavalry: 2311 Trooper Murad Ali.

  Russian Cross of St. George (4th Class)

28th Light Cavalry: Sowars 2447 Nadir Khan; 2479 Gulfaraz Khan; 2494 Shaikh Abdulla; 2623 Mohammed Yar Khan; 2722 Taib Khan; 2764 Fateh Khan; 2809 Shabaz Khan; 2823 Mehar Khan; 2826 Ghulam Muhammad Khan; 2813 Fazal Ilahi Khan.

  Bokharan Decorations

The regimental history of the 28th Light Cavalry lists Captain J.A.C. Kreyer as receiving the Star of Bokhara (1st Class).

The same history lists the following recipients of the Bokharan Star: 1911 Duffadar Quader Khan; 1874 Farrier Abdul Karim; 1894 Sowar Shaikh Fayaz; 1984 Duffadar Raot Singh; 1640 Sowar Nar Singh; 2642 Sowar Kishore Singh; 2228 Duffadar Batna; 3336 Sowar Dalipa; 2420 Sowar Basanta.

Blacker’s On Secret Patrol in High Asia names 156 Company Quartermaster Havildar Awal Nur and Temporary Lance Dafadar Karbali Muhammad, both of the Guides, as receiving the Star of Bokhara.

  Battle Honour

The 28th Light Cavalry and the 1/19th Punjabis were awarded the unique Battle Honour “MERV”.  

SOURCES: (most economical shown)

Operations in Persia 1914 – 1919 Official History compiled by Brigadier General F.J. Moberley CB CSI DSO psc (Imperial War Museum 1987).
The Transcaspian Episode by C.H. Ellis (Hutchinson & Co Ltd 1963 and available on Internet Archive).
The 28th Light Cavalry in Persia and Russian Turkestan 1915 – 1920 by Major J.A.C. Kreyer DSO and Captain G. Uloth (Slatter & Rose Ltd 1926).
History of the 1st Battalion 14th Punjab Regiment, Sherdil-Ki-Paltan (Late XIX Punjabis) by an anonymous compiler. (Naval & Military Press reprint).
History of the Guides 1846-1922 by an anonymous compiler (Naval & Military Press reprint).
Faraway Campaign by F. James (Leonaur paperback 2007).
On Secret Patrol In High Asia by Captain L.V.S. Blacker (John Murray London 1922 and available free on Internet Archive).
Mission to Tashkent by Lieutenant Colonel F.M. Bailey (The Travel Book Club, London 1946).
History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. The Forgotten Fronts and the Home Base, 1914-18 by General Sir Martin Farndale KCB. (The Royal Artillery Institution 1988).
The Times History of The War Volume XX (The Times, London 1919)
Like Hidden Fire (first published as On Secret Service East of Constantinople) by Peter Hopkirk (J. Murray 1994).
The Spy Who Disappeared by Reginald Teague Jones alias Ronald Sinclair (Victor Gollancz Ltd 1990).
Honours and Awards Indian Army August 1914-August 1921 (J.B. Hayward & Sons London).  Originally published in 1931 as Roll of Honour Indian Army 1914-1921.
Reward of Valor. The Indian Order of Merit, 1914-1918 by Peter Duckers (Jade Publishing Ltd Oldham 1999).
The Indian Distinguished Service Medal by Rana Chinna (InvictaIndia 2001).
The London Gazette.

(1) A fuller story of DUNSTERFORCE and its achievements in Persia can be seen at:

 (2) A Swedish Red Cross report stated that there were 29,000 Germans and 26,000 Austro-Hungarian former prisoners still living in camps in Central Asia.

 (3) Captain Reginald Teague-Jones became a notorious figure as far as the Bolsheviks were concerned as they believed that he was implicated in the murder of 26 Bolshevik Commissars from Baku who were shot by the Mensheviks east of Krasnovodsk; he was later appointed to be a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).

 (4)Major William Henry Bingham was later appointed to be an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).

 (5) No.1367 Sepoy Natha Singh, 19th Punjabis, was later Mentioned in Despatches.

(6) John Alexander Sinton was awarded the Victoria Cross with the citation: 21 January 1916.  At Orah Ruins, Mesopotamia, he remained on duty and tended to the wounded under very heavy fire.  Even after he was shot through both arms and through the side, he refused to go to hospital.  In three previous actions, he had displayed the utmost bravery.

(7) Commodore David Thomas Norris, Royal Navy, was later appointed a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (CMG).

(8) Both Lance Duffadars were Mentioned in Despatches.

(9) This must refer to the first action at Kaakha on 15th August 1918. 

(10) Captain R.F.G. Adams was later Mentioned in Despatches.

(11) Temporary Brigadier General Guy Archibald Hastings Beatty was later appointed a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (CMG).

(12) Major John Pickering Thompson was later appointed to be an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).

(13) The action was on the 16th January 1919.

(14) These two medals were auctioned by Dix, Noonan and Webb on 19th September 2003.  The Russian medal was officially numbered 35 313.

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