The Battle for Baku, 1918


August/September 2018 marks the centenary of the Battle for Baku, one of the more obscure events of the Great War of 1914 that nonetheless was something of lasting historical importance – even after its result was seemingly nullified a few months after by the British Great War victory. It is a also a fascinating story of geopolitics, double-dealing and betrayal.

In September 1918 a combined army of Ottomans and Azerbaijanis captured the strategically important city of Baku on the Caspian Sea from a motley alliance of Russian Soviets, Cossacks, British Imperialists and Armenian Dashnaks. Even the Ottoman’s allies, the Germans, opposed the advance.

The Government of the Azerbaijani Republic, the first democratic government in the Moslem world, took control of its capital, and began the process of state formation.

A few months later at the end of 1918, with the defeat of the Ottomans and their forced evacuation under the terms of the Mudros Armistice, the city of Baku came into the possession of Britain, the victorious power of the Great War. However, the fact that the Azerbaijanis had repossessed the city and established it as the capital of a declared republic, on top of British War declarations of “rights of self-determination” and geopolitical objectives in relation to Bolshevik Russia, meant that the Paris Peace Conference had to recognise the substance of the result of the Battle for Baku.

So how did the Battle of Baku come about and what was it all about?

First of all it was about British relations with Russia. Russia has for centuries been Britain’s main geopolitical concern in the world. Only in two periods since 1815, when Britain’s Balance of Power policy has determined making war on Germany with Russia as a temporary ally, has Russia not been a primary global enemy and object of policy. That was what the 19th Century Great Game was all about and the mantra that “By Jingo… the Russians shall not have Constantinople.”

In 1907 the Liberal Imperialist agreement with Russia settling outstanding affairs and partitioning Persia, signalled the procurement of the Tsar as a temporary ally in the Great War of Germania Delenda Est. The Tsar would give lend of his army – the Russian Steamroller – so that Germany could be properly encircled, and ground into dust by the attritional force of the Royal Navy, England’s primary weapon of war, with Russian and French military forces doing the squeezing on land.

However, the German State, organised in an effective manner for defence, proved a tougher nut to crack than anticipated and it was the Great War anti-German alliance that fractured first. The Tsarist State began to collapse from early 1917. However, the Caucasus front only crumbled after Lenin, delivered by the Germans in his sealed train, gave the signal for disengagement by the Russian peasants though his Decree on Land. Then, Britain’s Eastern War front began to dissolve.

Major-General Lionel Charles Dunsterville (school friend of Rudyard Kipling and the model for “Stalky” in Stalky and Co.) who led the British defence of Baku, recalled in his 1920 memoir of events what the thinking was behind his mission, which originally was intended for Tiflis but which was diverted to Baku as the Ottomans advanced:

“The object of the mission I was ordered to proceed to the Caucasus at the end of 1917, as well as the enemy plans that led to the dispatch of the mission, can best be set forth briefly under this letter of the alphabet.

One of the big items in the deep-laid pre-war schemes of Germany for world-domination was the absorption of Asia Minor and the penetration into further Asia by means of the Berlin-Baghdad railway. When Baghdad was taken by the British in March 1917, and the prospect of its recapture by the Turks appeared very remote, the scheme for German penetration into Asia had to be shifted further north and took the obvious line Berlin-Baku-Bokhara.

In this latter scheme it was evident that the Southern Caucasus, Baku and the Caspian Sea would play a large part; and the object of my mission was to prevent German and Turkish penetration in this area.

Fate ordained that, just at the time that the British thwarted the more southern German scheme by the capture of Baghdad, the Russian breakdown opened the northern route to the unopposed enterprise of the Germans. Until the summer of 1917 the Russian troops held firm, though it was obvious that the process of dis-integration could not long be delayed. Their line extended from South Russia, through the Caucasus, across the Caspian, through North-West Persia until its left joined up with the British right on the frontier of Persia and Mesopotamia, east of Baghdad. By the autumn of 1917 this line was melting away, troops deserted en masse and the entire army announced its intention of with-drawing from the struggle and proceeding home.

Thus in the neighbourhood of Erzerum the Turkish Army, acting unconsciously as the Advanced Guard of German aims, found nothing between it and the long-coveted possession of the Southern Caucasus, with the exception of a few Armenian troops, disorganized, without cohesion and equally impregnated with the spirit of the revolution. But, as the line of the Turkish advance lay through their homes, they were compelled to offer resistance. Tiflis, the capital of the Southern Caucasus, was likely to fall without serious resistance into the hands of the enemy, and the capture of this town would give the Turko-German armies control of the railway line between Batoum on the Black Sea and Baku on the Caspian, the enormously valuable oilfields of Baku, the indispensable minerals of the Caucasus Mountains, and the vast supplies of grain and cotton from the shores of the Caspian Sea.

The scene of conflict being too far removed from any of the main areas of the war — Baghdad to Baku is 800 miles — it was quite impossible to send sufficient troops to meet the situation.

The only possible plan, and it was a very sound one, was to send a British mission to Tiflis. This mission, on reaching its destination, would set to work to re-organize the broken units of Russian, Georgian and Armenian soldiery, and restore the battle-line against the Turkish invasion. The prospects were considerable, and success would be out of all proportion to the numbers employed or the cost involved. It was attractive and practical.

The honour of command fell to my lot, and I set forth from Baghdad with the leading party in January 1918.” (The Adventures of Dunsterforce, pp. 2-8)

In late 1917, with the collapse of the Russian lines, an enormous vacuum began to appear in the Southern Caucasus. The Russian occupied areas of the Ottoman Empire and their Caucasian hinterlands, which had been under Tsarist administration for a century, were suddenly up for grabs. And the primary British concern became that the Germans and/or the Ottomans were going to push eastward.

The War plans and geopolitical anticipations of London were shattered with the disintegration of its Russian ally. The War that had been waged by Britain to curtail German commercial success and growth, and its rejuvenation of the Ottoman State, now threatened to lead to further German growth and Ottoman expansion eastwards. The victory of the great Moslem Ottoman State over the British Empire would have dire consequences for the “prestige” of England and its projection of racial superiority over the “Orientals”.

Britain was forced to improvise, as best it could, by this unanticipated chain of events. The major object of Britain in these circumstances was a reconstruction of a Caucasian front to replace that manned formerly by the Tsar’s forces to prevent an Ottoman advance. Anybody would do to man the new front. The important thing was to form it out of everybody and anybody, and worry about it later.

The best available material for such a front were the Armenian Dashnaks. They had rejected substantial Young Turk overtures on the outbreak of the Great War to instead go into insurrection against the Ottoman State, staking the future of their community on the gamble of being able to construct Magna Armenia, a great Armenian state stretching from the Caucasus into half of Turkey from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

The Armenians were the most militarised people left in the region. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians joined the Tsarist forces, including many Ottoman Armenians, whilst Dashnak bands operated behind Ottoman lines in harassing the Ottoman war effort and attacking Moslem settlements to prepare for the incorporation of land into a future Armenian state.

Whilst the Armenian Insurrection was initially successful and had even succeeded in capturing Van and Erzurum, the future capital of an Armenian state, in conjunction with the Tsarist armies, the Russian internal collapse left the Armenians holding the line alone against the Ottomans.

The Armenians remained the primary material for a reconstructed front for Britain. They had numbers, were militarily trained, armed and had a will to fight the Ottomans, now lacking in the Russian peasants. They were the first objects for financial and material support by Britain in late 1917. The British knew that the Armenians would not be enough by themselves to form a new front in Eastern Anatolia/the Caucasus. They were found to be unreliable in many instances, and without Russian control more concerned with deserting the front and going off to devastate Moslem settlements in the hinterland to prepare the ground for Magna Armenia.

It is important to understand that in the circumstances of late 1917/early 1918 Britain would support any Russian administration – even Bolshevik – that would continue to wage the Great War against Germany and the Ottomans. Kerensky was welcomed on the understanding that he could reinvigorate a fading Russian effort against Germany, through popular, democratic catch cries. However, as Basil Lockhart, the senior British Agent in Russia, noted, it was Kerensky’s continued support for waging the War that finally did for him against the Bolsheviks.

So the Bolsheviks were supported, even after the conclusion of Brest-Litovsk  and the ending of hostilities with the Germans on the understanding that they would continue to resist the Ottomans in the Caucasus because of Russian geopolitical concerns, particularly in retaining the oil of Baku for the Russian state.

Lenin, having dissolved the Caucasus front with his Decree on Land, found he had to reconstruct it to keep the Baku oil fields for the Russian State the Bolsheviks aimed to command. Both British Imperialists and Bolsheviks sought out the only substantial military force in the region for their respective interests – the Armenian Dashnaks – to man the line against Ottoman advance.

In January 1918 Lenin issued his degree ‘On Armenia’ declaring official Bolshevik support for an Armenian state and nominated Stepan Shaumyan, who led the Baku Commune, as Prime minister in waiting, of it. The Bolsheviks then began to  repatriate and assemble the more than 100,000 Armenian veterans of the Tsarist army to the region. This represented a Bolshevik trumping of British War propaganda. The British War Cabinet, although it had urged in private the foundation of an Armenian state in the Caucasus in December 1917 as a barrier to Ottoman advance, had been careful not to formerly declare such a War aim.

Baku’s oil was undoubtedly indispensable to the Bolsheviks. Trotsky remarked to the Central Committee that Baku was more strategically important than Moscow. Over 80% of Russia’s supply came from these fields. Lenin was steadfast in his belief that the Bolshevik state would not survive without this oil. To survive outside the world market the Soviets had to industrialise and oil was essential to industrialisation. (If there had been no Soviet industrialisation Hitler would have won the Second World War. During the Second World War three-quarters of Soviet oil still came from Baku. Hitler would have won the war without the Soviet tanks driven by Baku’s oil. Newsreel footage from 1942 shows Hitler, alongside other Nazis enjoying a cake made in the form of a map of the Caspian region, with the letters “B A K U” decorating it, under the swastika. Hitler comments: “Unless we get Baku oil, all is lost.” Stalin’s army included more than 650,000 Azerbaijanis in its ranks who defended against Nazi expansion eastwards. And Hitler sacrificed a great army at Stalingrad to get hold of Baku’s oil, in the turning point of the War.)

The oil of Baku was also coveted by Britain. It was recognised by Lord Milner that it was the best field in the world. However, to control Baku the Caspian needed to be controlled and it was an inland sea not greatly accessible by the Royal Navy without military forces to secure the ports. The prohibitive expense and logistical difficulties of a sustained and large military commitment was beyond Britain by late 1917 because the Germans/Ottomans had proved so costly to defeat.

Baku became more strategically important for Britain in late 1917 with the collapse of the Tsarist State. The territory that formed Azerbaijan was a land bridge between Europe and Asia, South of the Caucasus mountains, and the only route around the large Caspian Sea. To the South lay Persia (Southern Azerbaijan) which Britain had signed over to the Tsar’s sphere of influence in 1907 but which it now wished to take itself. Further South was the main part of Persia/Iran, with its British zone of influence guarding the Gulf and the Indian Empire. To the South West was British occupied Mesopotamia/Iraq.

In December 1917 Lord Milner signed an agreement on behalf of the British War Cabinet with the French Prime Minister, Clemenceau, dividing the territory in Southern Russia of one party to the Triple Entente up between the other two allies. France would take Ukraine and Crimea whereas England would get Georgia and Azerbaijan as spheres of influence after the anticipated Russian disintegration and the winning of the Great War.

Lord Milner insisted on an Eastern Committee being established and attached to the War Cabinet in March 1918 to give priority to strategic thinking about the region that had been lacking due to the understanding that it was a Russian sphere of influence for a century. The Times now described the Caspian as a vital British interest, on 29 September 1918. The general Southern Caucasus could operate as a buffer between the Turks and Russians after the War if Britain was able to construct states there. The famous geopolitics professor, Halford Mackinder, theorised this as part of his famous Heartland theory. But first, Britain needed to defeat the Germans and Ottomans before such a policy could be attempted.

In 1917 Britain saw this area as potentially the new German Drang nach Osten, replacing the feared Berlin-Baghdad Railway that British forces had prevented by conquering Mesopotamia. Berlin-Baku-Bukhara took the place of the pre-War bogey Berlin-Baghdad as the outlet for German commercial expansion to the east, and India, in the nightmares of British statesmen and geopoliticians. Ottoman military advance would facilitate this – despite the fact that Berlin was actually against an Ottoman Caucasus expedition, preferring the Turks to fight in Syria against the British.

While Bolshevism was the ideological opponent of English Liberalism the British continued to support the Bolsheviks if it meant the strengthening of a front against the Ottomans and Germans in a temporary alliance. For one thing the Bolsheviks were not thought to be likely to last in power, given the mountain of problems that confronted them and the White Russian forces that could be expected to weaken them, with British assistance.

Whilst supporting the Soviets in holding the line in the Caucasus, at the same time Britain sent in its agents to undermine the Bolsheviks. General Dunsterville made an alliance with the Cossack Colonel Lazar Bicherakov and incorporated his forces into his own. Bicherakov, although opposed to the Bolsheviks and Baku Soviet, was persuaded to support the expedition to Baku to defend Russian interests there. Bicherakov, a White Russian, took command of the Soviet army.

In July 1918 the Bolshevik-controlled Baku Soviet was split when a request was made of it to allow British forces to join the defence of Baku. The Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, who wanted to continue the Great War generally, proposed a motion to accept the British offer. The Bolshevik leader, Stephan Shaumyan, asked Stalin’s advice and he was told to reject the embrace of British Imperialism, which was seen as a more dangerous enemy in the long term than the Turks. There is some evidence that Stalin starved the Baku Soviet of men and supplies to prevent the Armenian, Shaumyan from conducting a more aggressive policy against the local population.

The Armenian Dashnaks sided with the SRs and Mensheviks against the Bolsheviks and the motion was carried. Armenians contacted Dunsterville to bring him into the city. Shaumyan and the 26 Bolshevik Commissars left Baku to wait on a future Red Army. However, they were murdered on the shores of the Caspian, either by SRs/Mensheviks, White Russians or British agents. Shaumyan and the Bolsheviks had earlier attempted to leave the city but had been returned by a Soviet warship from the Caspian. It all became a shambles with so many conflicting interests involved.

The Baku Soviet was dissolved and replaced by the Central-Caspian Dictatorship made up of Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and Armenian Dashnaks. The first of the British forces arrived in Baku on 4 August. By 17 August General Dunsterville and his thousand strong force sailed into the city. This brought the number of defenders including Armenians, White Russians, Soviets and British to around 10,000 men.

Lloyd George resisted the sending of a larger British force for a number of reasons. One suggestion seems to have been that he had a preference for a Turkish occupation of Baku rather than a Bolshevik one. It is always hard to assess Lloyd George’s motivation in things given his tricky nature. Strategic and logistical issues were probably much more important. Britain was maintaining large armies on a wide range of important fronts due to the expansion of conquered territory. Also supply was difficult from British occupied Baghdad when no railway existed to Baku.

The Central-Caspian Dictatorship had a weak social base in the city, however. The majority of its forces were Armenian, who had attacked the Azerbaijani majority in the city and conducted a massacre of 12,000 Moslems in Baku at the end of March, when Shaumyan controlled the Soviet. The March events had burnt Soviet bridges to local Moslems, who from that time onwards put their faith in a Turkish deliveration.

The Bolshevik and British courting, arming and training of the Armenians and their determination to use them as a military force in the Caucasus had big implications for the Azerbaijani people.

The problem for the Azerbaijani Turks (or Tatars, as the Russians and Armenians called them) was that to survive as a people they had to cohere into a nation under the shock of events during 1917-18. This meant developing a military expression to defend themselves against the Armenians, who were intent in taking as much of the territory they lived on as possible, despite the fact that everywhere outside of Erivan (where the Armenians had a 60/40 majority) there was an Azerbaijani majority.

The March massacres had been sparked off by the arrival of a small group of armed Azerbaijanis from the Native Division of the Tsar’s army on a ship in Baku. The sight of armed Azerbaijanis was taken as a provocation by the small minority that ran the Baku Soviet and their Armenian allies. It signalled what might be to come so they decided to prevent the future through massacre of the majority.

There is evidence, from a conversation he later had with M.A. Rasulzade, President of the Azerbaijani Republic, that Stalin regretted the appointment of Shaumyan to head the Baku Soviet and held him responsible, as an Armenian nationalist, for the March events. Shaumyan would have probably conceded to the British Imperialists if it wasn’t for Stalin’s opposition. He had earlier agreed to the transit of British forces through Baku in February and had been working, along with Trotsky, with the British in Tiflis.

The surviving Azerbaijani population and those who had retreated for safety to the outer parts and outside the city in Abseron, awaited a reckoning with those who had attacked them in March. They numbered around 80,000 according to General Dunsterville. Their presence in the vicinity would make it difficult for a minority force to hold the city when the bit came to the bit.

Under the Batum Treaty of June 1918 the Ottomans had promised the Azerbaijanis military assistance to uphold the domestic security and stability of the territory declared to be the Azerbaijan Republic on May 28. At that time Dashnak irregular forces under Andranik etc. were acting outside the provisions that the Armenian Erivan Republic had signed with the Ottomans at Batum, were attacking Moslem settlements in pursuit of a Greater Armenia.

As the Ottoman forces advanced into the Ottoman territory that the Tsarist forces had held since 1916 and which the Armenians had controlled from late 1917 they found wells filled with the bodies of Moslem civilians, mass graves and terrible scenes of massacre. To advance and save the largely unarmed non-Armenian population behind the Armenian lines became an absolute imperative.

The Ottomans constructed a small force called the Caucasus Army of Islam whose purpose was to train up the largely unmilitarised Azerbaijanis into forming a functional fighting force under Ottoman staff. Only the Azerbaijani elite had played any part in the Tsar’s armies as officers and the mass of society had remained apart from the Great War until it came to them. However, the events of 1917 and the Armenian military activities against the Moslem populace necessitated the growth of informal militias which now joined the first national military expression in gaining a capital.

Despite being called the Army of Islam, four-fifths of its officer staff were initially Christian and former Tsarists. It had a strong secular character and actively excluded Moslem clerics from its ranks.

It seems to have been the project of Enver, Talat and Cemal and was not widely welcomed by Istanbul. The Army of Islam that besieged Baku was an Ottoman force made up of around 14,000 men, about two-thirds Azerbaijani, and commanded by Enver Pasha’s brother, Nuri, a young and inexperienced officer. It had shown its capability when the 20,000 strong Baku Soviet forces, including the Dashnaks, had attacked it and the Azerbaijani government-in-waiting in Ganje, but had been repulsed and driven back to Baku in July.

This offensive was important in cementing the Ottoman/Azerbaijani relationship. The Ottomans had, at first, not recognised Azerbaijani independent statehood and Nuri and his brother Enver seem to have desired a more hegemonic relationship with the Azerbaijanis. The more secular Azerbaijanis were also viewed with some suspicion by Istanbul. However, the successful repulse of the Baku Soviet forces by the Ottoman/Azerbaijani army at the end of June established a more equitable relationship and brought on the common purpose of liberating Baku from the Soviets/Dashnaks.

Major-General Dunsterville describes the complex military/political situation at this time in early July when the Baku Soviet army failed to hold an important sole bridge at the Kura River, which had the potential to block the Turkish advance on Baku:

“The strength of the Red Field Army was calculated at about 10,000 men, and if they really had been soldiers and had had any fight in them the plan evolved by Bicherakov should have been successful. But as usual, revolutionary troops are only troops on paper, and in the field, where each man is out only to avoid being killed, they count for nothing.

The situation in the South- East Caucasus at this time was as follows: The Turkish Caucasus-Islam Army, about 12,000 strong, composed of about one-half regular Turkish troops and one-half levies from the local Mahomedan races in the South Caucasus, was advancing from the Tiflis direction along the railway line with a view of capturing Baku. They were much hampered by the bad state of the railway and rolling-stock and shortage of fuel for the engines. The Germans in Tiflis also were doing their best to prevent the Turks getting to Baku at all, as they had a private arrangement with Lenin, and through him with the Baku Government, that the town should be peacefully handed over to them. To see the Turks in Baku would be almost as bad as to see the British there.

This peculiar situation resulted in a most extraordinary state of affairs. In their anxiety to prevent the Germans obtaining possession of Baku, and also in their eagerness to take any chance of fighting the Bolsheviks, many Russian officers joined this Turkish force, and when we were later fighting against them in Baku we had Russian officers on our side, while the enemy had as many on his.” (The Adventures of Dunsterforce, pp. 167-8)

The Germans had made a secret deal with the Bolsheviks to prevent the Ottomans/Azerbaijanis from capturing the Baku oil fields for a 25 per cent. cut of Baku’s oil. The Germans attempted to pressurise Istanbul to stop supporting the thrust into the Caucasus on the basis that it violated Brest-Litovsk. But to no avail. Istanbul continued to operate an independent policy in support of the Azerbaijanis.

The Germans actually assembled an army of 40,000 in Georgia to join in the capture of Baku and take over the administration of the city. But the Turks sensibly sabotaged the roads and railways to prevent the German ambitions. The Ottomans were willing to fight their German allies if they stood in the way of Baku’s liberation.

Shaumyan made a big mistake in sending the Baku Soviet army onto the offence into Ganje. He should have conserved his forces for the defence of Baku. It was most probably the ambitions of the Armenians to capture this land that led to this error. The expectation would have been that the new Azerbaijani army could be easily routed. But this proved a fatal miscalculation and represented a real turning point in events.

The failure of the Baku Soviet force to hold the bridge at the Kura River left the road open to Baku for the Ottoman/Azerbaijani forces. In retreat the mainly Armenian Baku Soviet army conducted a scorched earth policy against local villages and their populations.

Dunsterville’s force was the worst of all worlds for the defenders of Baku, particularly the Armenians. It was too small to effectively defend the city but was enough to encourage the belief in the defenders that it was worth resisting the Ottoman/Azerbaijani army.

Dunsterville, as well as having little respect for the fighting capabilities of the Baku Soviet forces also had not much time for the Armenians in the city, considering them to be incapable of organisation and not reliable fighters. He later called them “worthless cowards” in his memoir. He recognised that the more fearsome Dashnaks operated in the countryside, roaming around and attacking Moslem villages and sometimes engaging Ottoman forces in battle.

On their part the Armenians felt let down by the British force which was too little and too late. When Bicherakov, antagonised by the Central-Caspian Dictatorship’s leadership, decided the game was up and withdrew his Cossacks from the city to Dagestan, any skilful defence of the city was removed. On 13 September Turkish troops broke through the Wolf’s Gap and trapped the British forces with their backs to the Caspian.

By this time Major-General Dunsterville had concluded that the defence of Baku was hopeless and after obtaining the required permission from London his forces had decided to escape by ship to Persia. His Armenian allies were not so fortunate after the city fell on September 15. Probably 6,000 or more died in fighting and general acts of vengeance before order was restored by Nuri Pasha after the capture of Baku. Fearing retribution, 30,000 Armenians, half the resident population, left the city on boats.

The British War Office blamed the Armenians for the fall of Baku. It immediately fed this narrative into the English Press. The Times headline of 20.9.18 was “British Leave Baku: Defection of the Armenians”. On the same day The Daily Mail headlined: “Baku Evacuated: Armenian Treachery to British”. This prompted Arnold Toynbee to protest from the Propaganda Ministry about the danger of making public such views before the public.

The reaction in England to the fall of Baku is probably the reason why accounts such as that of Pasdermadjian began to appear in the Anglosphere, emphasising the military contribution of the Armenians to the defeat of the Ottomans and the winning of the Great War. However, the negative impression the fall of Baku produced, along with the witnessing of the reality of Armenian nation-building by British military men, would have tended to weaken the moral case of their Liberal enthusiasts against the pre-War traditional pro-Turk orientation that now began to resurface after the War propaganda had outlived its usefulness.

The Armenians had made for very useful propaganda material for the British War effort, particularly in the U.S, during the Great War. There was, after all, a long-standing Nonconformist Liberal fondness for the Christian Armenians and their suffering from the “cruel and merciless Turk”. This was a handy point of confluence with Puritan America and its powerful Protestant missions in the Near East that influenced the President and Congress.

However, the experience of dealing with the Armenian Dashnaks on the ground gained by ordinary British soldiers resulted in a different attitude being taken to Armenian claims at the conclusion of the War. The Dashnak tendency to pursue Magna Armenia through wiping out local non-Armenian populations was distasteful at the least for the British, who, after all, had a large Moslem Empire to consider.

The British betrayed their Armenian allies when it suited them to do so. The Armenians had provided cannon-fodder for their Tsarist ally from 1914. After the 1917 Revolution and the dissolving of the Russian lines the Armenians had held the front against the Ottomans. However, in the post-War settlement they became surplus to Imperial requirements.

But what is new or unexpected about that?

The project of Magna Armenia was clearly both insane and unsustainable and the Dashnaks would not let it go. Only Liberal simpletons (including President Wilson) still clung to it by 1919. While Liberal idealists provided the moral narrative for Britain’s Great War they did not dictate Britain’s policy in the world. They were a froth on the substance of the British State, which was hard-headed and did not get where it was in the world from believing its own propaganda.

Nuri Pasha took the city of Baku in the name of the Republic of Azerbaijan and it became the de facto capital of the new state. At this point the Ottomans occupied all of Northern and Southern Azerbaijan (across the Aras river in present day Iran) and beat off a British push toward Tabriz in Persia. Georgia and Armenia had been rendered quiescent. And then the War was lost in the West and the Mudros Armistice required the evacuation of Ottoman forces from Azerbaijan.

After the Great War and the defeat of the Ottomans Nuri Pasha was arrested by the British and was awaiting trial on charges connected with the massacres in Baku. Turkish nationalists sprung him from custody and the British Government subsequently offered a reward of a million Roubles for his recapture. Whilst on the run in Daghestan, where he was assisting the Mountaineers against the Russians, Nuri Pasha was interviewed by the British correspondent Robert Scotland Liddell. In a piece published in The Graphic on 17 April 1920 under the heading ‘A Turk on his Defence: An Interview with Nouri Pasha’, the commander of the Caucasian Army explained what happened in Baku:

“The day we attacked Baku, September 14, we had very few Turkish troops – only about 5000. In Baku the enemy had over 30,000 armed forces and nine armoured cars. Towards evening our troops had occupied the dominating heights of the town. In the evening the British left. Contrary to my expectations, the enemy did not surrender next day, and the Armenians took up the defence outside Baku, and the fighting was renewed and continued up till about two o’clock in the day. Towards the end of the fighting, which took place outside the town, the local Mussulman population started to massacre those who were already fleeing from Baku before our regular troops entered the town. On the part of the local Mussulmans such proceedings were quite natural, as on March 18, 1918, the Armenians had massacred more than 10,000 defenceless Mussulmans and fired a very large number of Mussulman houses, mosques and hospitals.”

The Turkish commander assured Scotland Liddell that he had done everything in his power to prevent a massacre and said: “A tiny spark can set a prairie on fire; but scores of acres will be laid waste before the consuming flames are checked.”

Although the new Azerbaijani state only remained independent until the arrival of British occupation forces in mid-November a start had been made to state formation which the British facilitated over the following year in the interests of forming a series of buffer states against the Bolsheviks to the north after Denekin’s defeat by the Red Army in the Russian Civil War.

Although Britain backed the White Russians with finance, material and military advisors, Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, always opposed sending British troops to Russia. He, along with the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, remained lukewarm towards the Whites during the Russian Civil War. The Whites, if victorious, would restore a strong and united Russia, and Lloyd George regarded a weak Russia, ruled ineffectively by the Bolsheviks, as a better outcome for British interests. Whilst the anti-Bolshevik, Winston Churchill, desired as much British support as possible for Denekin, Curzon maintained the old geo-political anti-Russian position of British Foreign Policy.

The only thing that was consistent about British policy was the objective of weakening Russia, whatever the final government. The British Government failed to support the 3 Caucasus states they had assisted establishing and they fell to the Bolsheviks after Denekin was defeated.

In the space of two years Baku went from Soviet/Dashnak to Ottoman to British to Azerbaijani and finally to Bolshevik hands.

Although the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic was crushed by the Red Army in 1920, its 23 months of existence and experience of establishing an administration at Baku, after fighting for its capital, was a formative event in the national consciousness that could never be erased from the memory. As Mammed Rasulzade said: “Bir kərə yüksələn bayraq, bir daha enməz!” (The flag once raised will never fall!)





  1. Interesting narrative. I was looking for information on the Battle of Baku, my Grandad fought there with the 9th Royal Warwicks at Baku and was one of the few of his company to survive the battle and subsequent brutal imprisonment. You certainly provided a lot of context and background. Thanks.


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