A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

1914 Pre-War Maneuvering in the Gulf, Part II: Contesting the Shatt and the Dispatch of Force "D"

In part I of this post yesterday, I set the general strategic and political stage on which the British and Ottoman Empires played out an increasing confrontation in the Gulf in the weeks leading up to Turkey's formal entry into the Great War a century ago. In this post, I hope to detail those events. (I'm drawing on multiple sources, official and secondary.)

HMS Odin
On the day before the Ottomans (or rather the local German commander), closed the Dardanelles on September 26, the Government of India had already proposed that, with tensions rising with Turkey, a Brigade of Indian Army troops should be deployed to the Gulf to protect the Iranian oilfields and the Abadan refinery. On September 27, the local Turkish authorities declared the Shatt al-‘Arab in its entirety to be Turkish waters. HMS Odin at the time was positioned off Abadan Island, in what Britain insisted was international waters and in which a 1913 Anglo-Turkish agreement had permitted non-belligerent passage to the Persian side.

HMS Espiegle
Britain was not about to abandon access to Abadan or its right of innocent passage in peacetime, and on September 29 Odin was joined by another Navy sloop, HMS Espiegle, and an aging troopship, HMS Dalhousie. These did not constitute much firepower, but the Turks had few ships in the area, and they were a tripwire of sorts. They stayed on the Abadan side of the Shatt or in Muhammara (Khorramshahr), but also had orders to patrol that side of the Shatt to prevent any Turkish impediment to navigation.

HMS Dalhousie
From then until the end of October, the British and Turks exchanged demands and threats but each stayed clear of provoking hostilities. I'm going to tell the story of the maneuvering in the Gulf first, and then shift to what was happening with the Indian Army troops deploying for the Gulf. What needs to be kept in mind in what follows is that the British knew, and the Turks did not, that an Indian Army Brigade would arrive in the Gulf before the end of October. More on that momentarily.

In early October the Turks declared that the Shatt was inland waters and that "Guns at Fao will fire on any man-of-war disregarding prohibition"; a notice to this effect was delivered to Espiegle October 7 and the British ships were given 24 hours to leave the Shatt. The Royal Navy of a global Empire rather disdainfully replied that so long as the "Turkish Government does not intern the German War Vessels 'GOEBEN' and 'BRESLAU', His Majesty's Government will maintain a Naval Force in the Shatt-al-Arab." To this, the Turks responded with a threat to mine the Shatt. And the British fired back saying that would constitute a hostile act, and that the British would consider it as such.They alerted their three small vessels to report any Turkish activity that might be construed as minelaying.

That was on October 23. It is probably no coincidence that on that same day an old British battleship and four troopships arrived at Bahrain with the aforementioned Indian Brigade. Which brings us to the other part of this drama.

Meanwhile, Back at the Raj . . .

(Sorry, sometimes I can't resist.)

While the Government in London was treading cautiously to avoid pushing the Turks into war, the Government of India was advocating a more forward strategy. They had already endured jitters because the German light cruiser SMS Emden was loose in the Indian Ocean (soon to be sunk, but not yet), and fears that a belligerent Turkey might influence Indian Muslims. As I've noted, already in September they had proposed sending a Brigade to protect the oilfields, and this was authorized on October 2.

While Turkey's entry into the war was expected, it was not yet in the war, but Britain had the advantage of its colonies and protectorates in the Gulf region, including its informal protectorate at Muhammara, discussed yesterday. Still, the movement of ground forces to the Gulf was kept secret. to avoid a provocation.

Gen. Sir Arthur Barrett
It was decided to send one Brigade from the 6th (Poona) Division of the Indian Army. Its orders, kept rather vague, were to occupy Abadan and protect the oilfields, unless Turkey entered the war, in which case it was to move on Basra and was promised reinforcement by the remaining brigades of the Poona Division. The Division was commanded by General Sir Arthur Barrett, who would follow with the rest of the Division. The Brigade chosen for the mission was the 16th Infantry Brigade, along with associated units, under the command of Brigadier Walter S. Delamain. An Indian Army officer who had served in border wars and the Boxer Rebellion in China, Delamain was to command a force designated Indian Expeditionary Force "D". He received his orders on October 10 and the force was to sail from Bombay on October 16.

There were multiple Indian Expeditionary Forces given letter names: Force "A" was to serve on the Western Front in Europe, 'B" in East Africa where British Kenya, Uganda, and Zanxibar adjoined German East Africa (Tanganyika, with Zanzibar today's Tanzania), Force "F" for the Suez Canal.

Walter S. Delamain
Delamain's destination was secret and he was to open his orders at sea. For security reasons Force "D" was dispersed on troopships carrying Force "A" to Europe and Force "B" to East Africa, and sailed from Bombay on October 16. After three days at sea, he opened his orders. The fleet then rendezvoused with an old, pre-Dreadnought era battleship, HMS Ocean and Force "D", now concentrated in four troopships, headed to the Persian Gulf. On October 23, they arrived at Bahrain.

HMS Ocean
Still cautious about provoking Turkey and uncertain as well about the attitude of Qajar Iran, Delamain's force did not immediately proceed to Abadan. But as noted earlier, British statements on free navigation in the Shatt grew tougher.

On the very eve of Turkey's entry into the war, Britain had positioned several ships, including the aging battleship HMS Ocean, later sunk at Gallipoli, and several thousand Indian Army troops in the northern Gulf. Once they learned of the Turkish attacks on the Russian ports (October 29 : they seem to have heard on the 30th) they moved north and took position off the bar at the entrance to the Shatt on November 3. When Britain declared war on Turkey on November 5, they were ready: they landed at Fao (Faw) on November 6 and took Basra in late November.

We'll be looking at many of those events in more detail in the coming days and weeks. This map of the early days of the campaign may illuminate the geography:

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