A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, July 13, 2015

Wassmuss, Ra'is ‘Ali Delvari, and the Tangistanis: The Attack on Bushire (Bushehr), July 12, 1915

Yesterday, July 12, marked another centenary of a little-remembered sideshow of the Great War in the Middle East, one involving German espionage, international intrigue, and one which would provoke a British intervention and military occupation of the Iranian port city of Bushehr (then normally spelled Bushire in Western languages).
Anglo-Russian Spheres of Influence
Iran (then still known as Persia in most Western languages) under the later Qajar Shahs had a weak central government. Following an Anglo-Russian Entente agreement in 1907, the Russian and British Empires carved up Iran and Afghanistan into "spheres of influence," with Russia free to seek concessions and influence in northwestern Iran and Britain in the southeast, separated by a neutral area. Iran remained nominally independent.

But Britain also had separate agreements with various local rulers on both sides of the Gulf, We already discussed its relations wih the Sheikh of Muhammara (now Khorramshahr) in context of discussing the British occupation of the Abadan oilfields late in 1914, and subsequent occupation of Basra. In addition, it had agreed with Tehran that Britain could keep small detachments of troops along the telegraph line running down the Iranian side of the Gulf, in order to maintain communications Though Iran was technically neutral in World War I, both Russia and Britain (and the Ottomans as well) felt they had a free hand to protect their interests.  Russia and the Ottomans both sent troops into Iranian territory in the northwest, and the events that began on April 12 would provoke a British landing and occupation of Bushire and the hinterland.

The Ottomans of course were busy defending their own Empire against the British advance in Mesopotamia and the Russian in the Caucasus. But there was another power that sought to manipulate the situation in Iran in order to undercut both Russia and Britain: Germany.

Wassmuss in Persian Garb
Wilhelm Wassmuss was a German diplomat, first sent to the consulate in Bushire in 1909 and again in 1913. He was fascinated by Iran and persuaded his superiors that Iranian tribes were ripe for revolt and resented Russian and British intrusions on Iran's sovereignty. Kaiser Wilhelm II personally endorsed the project, and Wassmuss was provided with gold to raise allies.

(Though sometimes called "the German Lawrence," in July of 1915 T.E. Lawrence was still an unknown second lieutenant drawing maps in the British Military Intelligence Section in Cairo, but Wassmuss was ready to strike his first blow. The diplomat and explorer had transformed himself into a master spy.

By the summer of 1915, Wassmuss was operating out of the German Legation in Tehran, and his agent in Bushire was the new Consul, Dr. Helmuth Listermann. The German network had identified potential allies in the Tangistan tribal region of Delvar (most British documents use the Arabic spelling Dilwar), some distance southeast of Bushire. (It is shown a "Dilbar" on the map below.)

Ra'is ‘Ali Delvari
The Tangistani tribesmen of Dilbar or Delvar were led by a charismatic tribal leader, known as Ra'is ‘Ali Delvari, who though viewed by the British as a rebel and brigand, would come to be seen by Iranians as a nationalist fighter against foreign domination. Born in 1882, he had been cultivated by the German spy network but was presumably against foreign imperial presence for nationalist reasons.

It was a force of these tribesmen led by Delvari which, on July 12, 1915, attacked he British consulate and residency at Bushire.

The British had a small garrison at Bushire under the agreement allowing them to protect the telegraph line. Already in May of 1915 the local Persian governor in Bushire had asked for British help in finding off a tribal attack, and Britain had reinforced its small garrison,  The vessel HMS Lawrence was sent to Bushire. The garrison was primarily composed of Indian Army troops of the 96th Berar Infantry.

British Consulate,  Early 20th Century
Delvari with Tangistani fighters
Informed of the likelihood of the Tangistani attack, the local British commander, Major Edward Havelock Oliphant, rode out to reconnoiter. With him were the Assistant Political Officer, Captain G.J.L. Ranking, five sowars (Indian cavalry) and 27 sepoy riflemen. In a clash with the Tangistanis, Oliphant, Ranking, and one of the sepoys were killed, and two sepoys wounded.

The next day, July 13, the Tangistanis attacked again, but were thrown back.

Meanwhile, the German consular officials in Bushire are said to have removed themselves to Shiraz.

This being the height of British naval power and Imperial reach, not to mention gunboat diplomacy, the death of two British officers prompted the immediate dispatch of naval vessels to Bushire. The troopship HMS Dalhousie arrived three days after the battle. By July 16 the British had decided to demand reparations from the Persian government, and in their absence, to occupy the port of Bushire indefinitely and to attack Dilwar and punish the Tangistanis.

The operation would begin August 8, and at that time I'll return to this story and cite sources and more detail.


David Mack said...

Tangistanis? Are they Arabs, Persians, Baluch or some other ethnicity? Looking forward to your post on August 8, partly because it seems like a great footnote to WW I and partly because I have visited Bushehr.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Sometimes called Tangsiris. Lorimer's Gazeteer says they were made up of several small tribes. Apparently all were Persian speakers; Lorimer says the tribe from which their Khans came is said to have originated in Arabia but was fully Persianized by his day in the early 1900s.