Sunday, 20 December 2009

War with Persia, 1856 and 1857. Introduction.

EGH Town of Bushire, 1856-57.

A wind tower can be seen in the centre of the photograph. These clever devices use the daily occurring on and offshore winds to draw cool air through the house below. To the right of the photo can be seen the Flag Pole over the British Legation. From this it is possible to establish that the photo was taken from the south of the city, looking due north towards the anchorage.

Please click on image for larger version. Photo courtesy of Mr & Mrs A. Barton.

With scarcely a day going by when Iran and its nuclear programme does not feature in our newspapers and media, it is perhaps worth reflecting that this situation is nothing new.

What follows is an account of an earlier political struggle with Iran that turned into a fierce little war. As is the case today, Persia in the 19th Century was a proud and ancient nation, situated at a strategic cross roads in a very volatile part of the World. It found itself under pressure from the military Super Power of the day.

My interest in this campaign stems from the discovery of a photograph album that belonged to my Great Great Grandfather Charles James Barton, an officer in the Bombay Artillery containing a number of pictures taken during this campaign.

With the recent advent of Google Books and the re-publication of several accounts from the period it is now possible to put together a narrative to describe the campaign, using these photos to illustrate these events.

A map showing the political and military situation in 1856.

Please click on the image for a larger version. [1]

With the ending of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain and Russia had been left with experienced armies, and with no real rivals to keep them in check as they both developed their Empires in the East. Russia had expanded its territories to the south east towards the Caspian Seas and towards Bokara and Samarkand.

The East India Company was at the same time steadily absorbing the Punjab and much of what is now Pakistan. This forward expansion by the European's into Asia had been a bloody experience for all concerned, as small professional armies came up against strong local forces made up of tribal warriors with centuries of experience in fighting guerilla warfare.

Some of these Asian and Caucasian nations like the Afghans, Sikhs and Georgians where able to inflict serious defeats on the European's.

However by 1855, the remaining independent states of Afghanistan and Persia found themselves under pressure from both Russia and Britain, to come within their respective spheres of influence. The Crimean War was being fought out between the Russian's and the British, French and Turks around the Black Sea and in the eastern parts of the Ottoman Empire which added to the tensions in the region.

Both Britain and Russia were engaged in what has since become known as the Great Game.

Embassies and military missions, in towns like Kars, Tabriz, Teheran, Herat, Meshad and Kabul were increasingly occupied by competing diplomats, soldiers and adventurers from Britain and Russian, bent on increasing their respective countries dominance over these strategic centres.

The existing rulers of Persia, led by the Shah, and Afghanistan by Dost Mahomed Khan tried their best to play off the two European Super Powers, to gain time and support in their own internal power struggles, and in those with their neighbours.

Nether ruler entirely controlled their respective territories, so that Dost Mahomed Khan's nephew Syed Mahomed Khan was able to rest much of Kandahar and the west of modern Afghanistan away from his uncles control, and Herat had become a kind of no man's land between Persia and Afghanistan, ruled by Syed Mahomed Khan.

Throughout the early 1850's the British representative in Teheran Colonel Sheil, appears to have maintained a difficult balance between representing his national interests in Persia, whilst at the same time maintaining dialogue with the Shah and his representatives.

Reading the British correspondence, which seem through modern eyes, very overbearing and which must have been highly offensive to the Persian's, it is perhaps surprising that relations had not broken down earlier.[2]

As in many wars, the final breakdown in relations between the countries came over a side issue, rather than because of the major grievances that had been building up over the previous decade.

On the 15th of June 1854 Meeza Hashem Khan was appointed as Persian Secretary to the British mission at Teheran. He was a thirty year old member of the Nooree tribe, and he was married to a member of the Shah's family. This appointment caused great offence to the Shah and his advisers, possibly because Meeza Hashem Khan was in far too a good a position to advise the British about the internal workings of the court. Perhaps he was seen as threat to the Shah. The appointment became a diplomatic incident involving the British Government in London, and nether side wanted to back down.

A compromise was suggested by the British whereby Meeza Hashem Khan would be appointed as British Agent at Shiraz. However on the 6th of November 1855, the Persian Government told Mr. Murray the new British representative in Teheran, that if Meeza Hashem Khan set out for Shiraz he would be detained. Shortly afterwards Meerza Hashem Khan's wife was seized and detained. Mr. Murray at once demanded this ladies release, threatening to take down the Missions flag and to break off friendly relations.

Sadr Azim the Persian prime minister then stated that the reason Murray and Thomson were trying to get Meeza Hashem Khan's wife released was because they had been having an affair with her. He claimed that when the mission had gone into summer camp in the mountains above Tehran, with the Shah and his government, they had camped in the same village, and had been seen together.

The Persian's then commenced a campaign to whip up local public indignation. Sadr Azim drew up a petition against Murray and the Khan family which was sent around the Mullah's to receive their seals. However the Chief priest Imaum o' Joomah refused to sign as he said he had no knowledge of the truth of its contents.

Relationships broke down completely, and the mission was withdrawn. In November 1855 Kars fell to Russia, and sensing that the British who were still fighting Russia in the Crimea would be unable to prevent their taking Herat, the Persian army set off for the city, which they took.

As far back as January 1853 Colonel Shiel had advised that in the event of Persia attacking Herat, the best practical option for Britain was to capture Bushire on the Persia Gulf, and to hold it as a bargaining counter, until such time as Persia could be pressured into giving up Herat.

The British had several motives for this approach. The first was that they feared that if a Russian dominated Persia took Herat it would open up the route to the Bolan and Khyber Pass to the Russian's.

It was feared that Russia could bring an army to the Punjab or Sindh.

Britain however also wanted control of Bushire because it offered a better port than Basra, which was Britain's main base at the head of the Gulf. Kharg Island had particularly good fresh water, and was easily defensible with a small force against attacks, unlike Basra which was easily approached by land.

Throughout the summer of 1856 Persian missions to London, and to Constantinople attempted to negotiate a resolution to the impasse.

In Constantinople the British team was led by Lord Stratford de Redcliffe. He presented Ferokh Khan an ultimatum on the 17th of October demanding that Herat be evacuated, which Ferokh Khan signed consenting to the Persian's evacuating Herat.

Herat had finally fallen to the Persian force on the 25th of October 1856. On the 25th of November Mr. Murray struck his flag at Teheran by the 5th of December 1856 he had travelled out of Persia and onto Baghdad.

Ferokh Khan, known today as Faruk Khan Nadar.[3]

The British seemed determined to push further and they demanded the dismissal of Sadr Azim the Persian Prime Minister. A proclamation of war was issued by the Governor General of India on the 1st of November 1856.

[1] Thomson Map of 1814. Courtesy of Wikimedia.
[2] Capt. G.H. Hunt, Outram & Havelock's Persian Campaign. Published 1857, re-published by The Naval & Military Press Ltd. 2009, pages 140 to 186.
[3] From