Battle for the Caucasus: Britain versus Russia 1918-20 (Part Two)

British procession through the streets of Baku

The struggle for the Caucasus began after the collapse of the Tsarist state in 1917 and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire the following year, opening up a large vacuum for someone to fill. Britain found itself in an unanticipated situation of gaining a large region it had not thought possible of taking. It was, of course, unthinkable for Britain to let the region be, as it was always thought that any region left to its own devices was an open invitation for a rival to step in.

Not only that. With Germany and the Ottomans defeated the Balance of Power policy – the great constant of British Foreign Policy – demanded that England return to its main rivalry with France and Russia, the two allies that it had procured for its Great War on Germany. The War on Germany, although Great, was a transient affair to see off a young upstart Power. Normal business should resume with the traditional enemy! The Caucasus should not be easily surrendered in the resumption of the Great Game with Russia, when it inevitably recovered from its temporary disablement. An opportunity presented itself and Britain did not get where it was in the World – on top of it – by not taking its opportunities.

In November 1918 General Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, outlined three possible lines of policy Britain could adopt to Russia (and the Caucasus), in a Memorandum presented to the War Cabinet.

The first option Wilson outlined was to withdraw all Allied forces from Russia, leaving the country surrounded by a belt of buffer states in a “cordon sanitaire”. This, however, would surrender the military initiative to the Bolsheviks and leave the buffer states under threat and probably unable to counter the Bolsheviks without considerable assistance from Allied forces. The British Army, about to be demobilised by Prime Minister Lloyd George, would not have the soldiers available for such an eventuality, and General Wilson did not believe that the other Allies could help.

The second option Wilson presented was the option of defeating the Bolsheviks through large-scale military intervention. This would cut off the Bolshevik threat at source. However, the lack of available forces and the financial constraints on Britain meant that Wilson felt this option to be unrealistic.

General Wilson suggested, therefore, the War Cabinet follow a third line of policy in which Britain would continue to support anti-Bolshevik forces with military material so that Allied forces could be withdrawn from Russia, when local anti-Bolshevik forces were in a position to take over. Wilson finished his Memorandum by arguing that it should be a Russian task, rather than an Allied one, to overthrow the Bolsheviks (Memorandum on Our Present and Future Military Policy in Russia, CAB 24/70, 13.11.1918).

Sir Henry Wilson’s 3 options were very similar to the ones suggested by Britain’s agent among the Bolsheviks, Bruce Lockhart, who had returned to London in the same month. He gave a presentation to Balfour in the Foreign Office entitled Memorandum on the Internal Situation in Russia.

The difference between the 2 presentations was that Lockhart favoured massive Allied military intervention as the only means of seeing off the Bolsheviks. He believed that the middle course, favoured by Wilson, would only end in defeat and disaster for Britain. Any states established in a cordon sanitaire, to ring the Bolshevik state would probably eventually be absorbed by the Bolsheviks, according to Lockhart (Richard H. Ullman, Intervention and the War, Anglo-Soviet Relations 1917-1921, Vol. I, pp. 296-300). That would be a disaster for the prestige of the British Empire and the new order it was seeking to establish in the World in which it now predominated.

The British Cabinet meetings of 13 and 14 November 1918 decided on a policy of establishing contact with General A.I. Denikin who commanded the anti-Bolshevik  forces in Southern Russia and the Don country and to provide him with all possible military assistance.

Britain – Master of Transcaucasia

Britain re-occupied Baku after the Ottomans were forced out by Articles 11 and 15 of the Mudros Armistice (October 30 1918).

Two full divisions were ordered to Transcaucasia immediately after the Armistice. On 17 November 1918 a British force from Persia accompanied by a remnant of the Russian army occupied Baku. The Dunsterforce (of Major General Dunsterville), which had been driven out of Baku by the Turks and Azerbaijani national forces in mid-1918, had regrouped near Teheran in the old Russian zone of Persia and was reinforced from British-occupied Baghdad, to form the North Persia Force.

Major-General Thompson’s force occupied the Baku oilfields on 17 November 1918 and control over oil production was instituted. General Forestier-Walker’s forces from the Salonika Army, landed at the Black Sea port of Batum, setting up their HQ in Tiflis, and occupied strategic points along the Transcaucasian Railway. Military Governorships were established in troublesome areas. Two Divisions of 40,000 men, the largest of all British Army contingents in Russia, placed both Azerbaijan and Georgia firmly under British control.

This large British show of force and occupation had the immediate impact of undermining the morale of Bolshevik soldiers in the North Caucasus. which had the effect of disintegrating the 11th and 12th Red Armies.

The British intervention in South Russia was conducted in accordance with the Anglo-French Convention on the spheres of influence that had been drawn up the previous year. The military mission to General Denikin’s Army in late November and started to investigate the general situation.

Thompson took control of the Russian Caspian fleet, moving it south from Baku to Enzeli in Persia. This gave Britain, for the first time control of the Caspian and its shipping, along with the Black Sea, which it could enter at will from occupied Istanbul.

To the South, England also controlled Persia in its entirety as well as holding all the approaches from North, South, East and West. Sir Percy Cox, the Chief Political Officer of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, was dispatched to Teheran to impose a new treaty on the Iranians. Persia had been devastated by a British induced famine, brought about by the removal of the food supply to feed British and Armenian forces in the area, and its population had been decimated (see Mohammad Gholi Majd, The Great Famine and Genocide in Persia, 1917-19)

A 2 million pound loan was provided to the desperate Persian government and British advisers were appointed to the key Ministries in the government. The Treaty was drawn up in secret, approved by Lord Curzon, now Foreign Secretary, and signed by the Persians in August 1919. The young and inexperienced Shah was then sent to Europe on holiday to await its ratification by the Persian parliament. Persia, which had been a country increasingly under Russian influence and military occupation only a few years earlier, was now in England’s pocket as a virtual protectorate. Or so it seemed in 1919.

A British force had sailed out from Istanbul across the Black Sea to occupy the Eastern end of the Caucasus. General Milne controlled the strategically important port of Batum on the coast of the Black Sea and the railway connecting it to Baku. This meant that Britain held all the land between the Black Sea to the Caspian in a single front to General Denikin’s rear. This entire area which fell into Britain’s lap had been entirely held by Russia only a year before.

Plans began to be made for the development of extensive railway projects to bolster this newly gained territory and link it to British Arabia, Persia, Transcaucasia and eastwards across central Asia to Afghanistan and the Indian Empire. The glacis of India had been moved north to Bokhara, which now came within the expanded British orbit. The Russian Transcaucasian and Transcaspian Railways had been neutralised as threats to British India and the Moscow-Tashkent Railway blocked off at Samarkand and its spurs to Termez and Kushklinsky on the northern frontier of Afghanistan rendered obsolete.

The decision to occupy the Caucasus was taken by the Eastern Committee of the War Cabinet, under the Chairmanship of Lord Curzon. Curzon was prominent in the small War Cabinet that was directing the War. He was just about to be given the job of running the Foreign Office by Prime Minister Lloyd George, as Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, was due to go to Paris for the Peace Conference. Curzon was to replace Balfour later in 1919 as Foreign Secretary. Balfour, when Foreign Secretary, was opposed to British intervention and was not consulted about the decision to occupy the Caucasus.

The meetings held by the Eastern Committee of the War Cabinet in December 1918 show that the British decision to occupy the Caucasus was primarily motivated by the defence of India argument i.e. The Great Game and Curzon’s “Glacis of India” position. Added to this was the desire to keep Bolshevism out of the region.

After the Ottoman/Azerbaijani captured Baku in September 1918 The Times noted the importance of possession of the city and the Caspian Sea, presuming that the Ottoman presence would only be temporary and noting that Britain’s interest had been reawakened:

“The Caspian is a hub traversed by all significant trade routes, and if we are now just beginning to heed attention to this inland basin, it does not mean that we were previously absolutely unaware of its political and commercial value. We have been aware of this for a long time. The Caspian is one of the old British interests.” (29/9/1918)

Another reason concerned the opportunity for commercially exploiting the area, including the great oil fields of Baku, which Britain proceeded to extract great quantities of oil from over the following 9 months. Occupying the Caucasus also meant controlling the Baku-Batum pipeline and Railway. The British proceeded to defraud the Azerbaijanis of the income from the oil by taking it for lower than market prices and selling it on the international market for a higher price. It also taxed the export of the oil at Batum to pay for its occupation of the city. The British Treasury then obstructed the payments for the oil by various devices, ensuring that the Azerbaijanis never got the payments.

It gave the chance to the Royal Navy of controlling the Caspian Sea for the first time and supporting General Malleson to the East, who was propping up a Transcaspian government against Russia.

A Caucasus Wall was established by Britain in late 1918, which checked Bolshevik Russia and sealed it off from its main energy supplies. The British Indian Empire looked forward with great expectation from its new position of strength in the renewal of the Great Game.

British support for Anti-Bolshevik Forces

The major question that faced the British occupiers of Transcaucasia was: which Russia would re-emerge to face the British Empire when the internal conflict between Whites and Reds, it was facilitating, reached a conclusion. This was a problem because the Allied Statesmen, in order to come to terms with Russia, in the Peace Conference, needed a government to come to terms with, to settle affairs in the East. But at the same time the Allied Governments were actively fuelling the instability that led to the situation in which there was no government with which to treat, or at least one which they were willing with which to treat.

British forces had originally intervened in Russia to bolster the pro-Entente forces rather than fight the Bolsheviks. As late as September 1918 it was believed in Britain that the Great War would last for 2 more years. So it was a high priority to reconstitute the Eastern Front to divert German forces from the West. The Entente sent forces to Murmansk, Archangel and Vladivostok, placed the Czech Legion under Allied command and authorised Japanese landings in the Far East. But with no Allied troops to spare the main hope of reforming an Eastern front lay with raising a new Russian army, under Entente control from Siberia. To do this the Allies pressurised the 13 or so various governments that had sprung up East of the Volga into uniting and merging their armies. 3 conferences of anti-Bolsheviks – Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Cossacks and Tsarists – were held in the Summer of 1918 with this objective in mind.

Out of these came an All-Russian Provisional Government under a Directory at Omsk, whose programme was a restoration of Russia’s territorial integrity, war against Germany and the overthrow of the defeatist Bolsheviks.

The unexpected collapse of Germany and the sudden victory in the Great War changed the fundamental basis of policy toward Russia.

Most importantly it was decided that British and other Entente armies should remain on Russian territory as the Great War ended and join with local pro-Entente forces to take on the Bolsheviks afterwards. Britain’s intervention undoubtedly had a significant effect on the course of the Civil War in Russia. Without it the White side would have been overwhelmed by the Bolsheviks, who enjoyed superiority in popular support, numbers and weaponry.

The continuation of foreign intervention meant that, despite official denials, a specifically anti-Bolshevik policy was emerging on Britain’s part. It was not a left-over from the Great War. The connection it had with the War was that Russia was paying the price for failing to see the Great War through to the bitter end, as Britain required. Its territory, despite its service in blood to the Allied cause, was therefore up for grabs to those who had lasted the course.

In December 1917, a Convention between France and England on the subject of activity in Southern Russia was signed. This agreement reaffirmed a War Convention of 23 December 1917 which, after the Bolshevik putsch, had divided the southern part of their former ally Russia’s territory into zones of British and French influence. Bessarabia, the Ukraine and the Crimea were assigned to France. The British zone was agreed to be the Cossack Territories and Transcaucasia.

The region that Britain now assumed responsibility for, the Russia counter-revolutionary Vendee – between the Don and the Volga – had never been an area occupied by Germany or the Ottomans. It was an area controlled by the anti-Bolshevik forces of General Denikin (who had taken over from the charismatic General Kornilov, who was killed by a Bolshevik shell in Ekaterinidar in April 1918) and General P.N. Krasnov, leader of the Cossacks (who had taken over from General Kaledin, who committed suicide in February 1918).

Denikin had resisted calls in the Spring of 1918 to attempt an offensive on Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad/Volgograd) which would have resulted in a single anti-Bolshevik front from the Urals to the Black Sea being formed. This, if successful, would have also cut off Baku and its oil from the Bolsheviks and disrupted their communications along the Volga River. But Denikin hesitated and then the Cossacks, who comprised the bulk of his army, did a side-deal with Germany, which frightened Denikin and motivated him to turn South to secure his rear. The Cossacks, under Krasnov, besieged Tsaritsyn for 2 months on their own at the time of the Armistice before retreating.

The British Government sent a military mission to the White General Denikin immediately after the Armistice as the route from the Dardanelles to the Black Sea opened up with the Ottoman defeat. General Poole headed the British Military Mission to General Denikin’s 50,000 strong Volunteer army, which reached Southern Russia in late November. Whilst the British Government began to generously supply Denikin’s forces with war material it refused Poole’s request for British forces.

The presence of British troops in North Russia – and Siberia – and the support offered to various White groups in other parts of the country could no longer be explained away to the Bolsheviks as a mere adjunct of the War on Germany. The unofficial diplomatic relations Britain had maintained with Lenin’s government had broken down after the ‘Lockhart plot’ (when British agents were suspected of planning to assassinate Lenin). It was clear to the Bolsheviks that the British were in a de facto state of war with Russia.

The Russian Civil War was fought on 3 main fronts – Southern, Eastern and Northwestern. It went through 3 main phases. The first lasted from the Bolshevik coup up to the Great War Armistice in November 1918. It was mainly concerned with foreign intervention to keep the Russians fighting in the Great War against Germany and led to the formation of the Red Army in the fall of 1918. The second phase, extending over most of 1919, was fought between the Anti-Bolshevik forces of Admiral Kolchak in the East, General Denikin in the South and General Yudenich in the Northwest against the Red Army from the Russian Heartland. It involved limited foreign intervention to sustain the White forces in the struggle. The final phase was fought from November 1919-November 1920. It involved the retreat of the White force and their abandonment by the foreign forces, resulting in Bolshevik victory.

Which British Policy?

The Eastern Committee of the War Cabinet had been established in March 1918 under the Chairmanship of Lord Curzon with responsibility for “the multifarious problems that arose between the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and the frontiers of India” (The War Cabinet: Report for the Year 1917, Cmd 325. p.3)

It was a War Cabinet committee that lasted until January 1919 when it was absorbed into the Foreign Office. On 2 December 1918 Lord Curzon – future Foreign Secretary – in the absence of the sitting Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, made the case for British control of Transcaucasia to the Eastern Committee of the War Cabinet. He pointed out the importance of the port of Batum and the oil of Baku for the British interest.

Curzon said: “The idea that the Tatars, the Armenians, or the Bolsheviks, or any other party could permanently hold Baku and control the vast resources there… is one that cannot be entertained for a moment.” (CAB 27/24, EC 2.12.18)

Curzon had visited the Caucasus in 1888 and 1889 and had written several books about Persia. He believed himself to be much more knowledgeable than anyone else in British ruling circles about the region and to know best what to do with it.

At the following meeting, however, the actual Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, insisted that Britain should not take over the Caucasus, but exercise through the League of Nations a controlling influence. Curzon asked Balfour how he would prevent the Russians crushing the Caucasus states in the absence of a British military force. The Foreign Secretary revealingly replied that “If Russia is in a position to crush them, why not? We should not go there to protect them from the Russians. It would be folly from a purely military point of view, for us to keep a military force there.”

Balfour advised temporising if Britain was called upon to assist the Caucasian Republics and playing for time. He chastised Curzon with the following remark, aimed at the glacis of India thesis:

“I find there is a new sphere which we have got to guard, which is supposed to protect the gateways of India. Those gateways are getting further and further from India… Remember before the War there was a great military power in occupation of these places… which we could not hit, which we of all people were helpless against. They had it and we did not tremble.” (CAB 27/24, EC 9/12/1918)

Balfour asked why it was that Curzon thought the Caucasian Republics should be given “a chance to stand on their own feet”? Curzon replied with irony that the only alternative was “to let them cut each other’s throats”. To which the Foreign Secretary replied: “I am all in favour of that… if they want to cut their own throats why do we not let them do it?… I shall say that we are not going to spend all our money and men civilising a few people who do not want to be civilised.” (CAB 27/24, EC 9/12/1918)

Balfour at a subsequent Eastern Committee meeting accused some of his colleagues of wanting to gather “as many colonies as they could get” and “huge protectorates all over the place” but “where were they going to find the men or monies for these things?”  These were “the governing considerations” of British policy according to Balfour. (CAB 27/24, EC 16/12/1918)

The reticence of Arthur Balfour was all very different from the Britain that existed before the Great War. Continual expansion had become part of the national habit of England. Britain’s island character had made it uneasy with the idea of land frontiers, especially those shared with formidable Powers. The practice of projecting “Protectorates” beyond British administrative frontiers had developed to overcome the fear of coming up against the territory of other Powers. Britain projected itself across these “Protectorates” to warn off rivals without an official presence. But the “Protectorates” had the habit of becoming formal parts of the Empire given time – annexations.

Why not a British Protectorate in 1919 over the Caucasus that would gradually develop into more than that?

There was a strange reluctance within the British ruling elite to pursue the habits of the recent past. It seems that the fighting of the Great War had knocked the stuffing out of those who had previously presided over an unstoppable force of nature. Demoralisation had come to exist within triumph.

The argument between Balfour and Curzon could be seen as the gulf between post-Great War British dissipation of will and the pre-Great War Imperial confidence.

Churchill wrote in The Sunday Herald of  30th May 1920:

“The British nation is now in the very forefront of mankind. Never was its power so great, its name so honoured, its rivals so few.”

After the Great War of 1914 was won Great Britain was the World’s sole super-power. However, appearances were deceptive. Britain’s will to power and its consequent actual loss of power in 1918-20 was disguised by the massive extension of its Empire as a result of the Great War. It was the very effort that Britain had to make to win its War for World primacy and expand its Empire that seems to have subverted its ability to act purposefully after the event.

At the Imperial War Cabinet meeting of 12 December the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, upheld the Foreign Secretary’s point that the Caucasus would not be defended by Britain from a future Russian attack. He further stated that, in his opinion, Bolshevik Russia was not “by any means such a danger as the old Russian Empire was, with all its aggressive officials and millions of troops.” (CAB 23/42, 12.12.1918)

This was an early sign that the British Prime Minister under-estimated the Bolsheviks and the future resurgence of Russia under Soviet management.

Lloyd George’s estimation of the lack of a Russian threat was based on the fact that the Tsarist state had collapsed. The Provisional Government had done little or nothing to replace the Tsarist state with an alternative, bourgeois democratic, state structure. The Bolsheviks had taken power and had began to apply themselves purposefully to the construction of an alternative state. However, in late 1918 there was no national economy to support a state and Russia was beset by a Civil War that Britain was fuelling. It was this Civil War, and the interventions by Britain and France, which drew the purposeful and vigorous social elements in Russia to the Bolsheviks which brought about the revival Lloyd George failed to anticipate.

So, it was understandable that the British Prime Minister should underestimate the prospects of a Russian resurgence under the Bolsheviks at this point.

Sir Eyre Crowe at the Foreign Office suggested that Britain recognise the Caucasian Republics in a form that would suit all eventualities – that would satisfy the Republics but would not lead the Russians to believe that her temporary disadvantage had been taken advantage of, if Russia were able to return and reintegrate them into a Russian state. Curzon agreed but was inclined to only accept this position if applied to a White Russia and not a Red one.

Lord Curzon also agreed with the analysis of Sir Halford Mackinder, famous Professor at the London School of Economics and father of Geopolitics, that a series of buffer states in the Heartland was required to deny any Power or combination of Powers control of it. This included the Russians, French or a resurgent Turkey. It was generally agreed that it was necessary to foster nationhood in the peoples of the Caucasus to make them “resolved to bar to the utmost the advance of Bolshevism.” (CAB 27/38, EC 43, 5/12/1918 and FO 371/7729/E8378)

The Eastern Committee finally formulated a position of desiring to see strong independent states in the area – but without prejudice to their future relationship to Russia, which was a matter for themselves! (CAB 27/24, EC 43, 16/12/1918)

This position was a fudge and it never answered the question whether Britain was prepared to develop and support independent states in the Caucasus or was simply taking care of them for Russia in the interim. The answer would only be revealed later, in practice.

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