Saturday, 26 May 2012

The Lion in Persia Pt.3 - Highlanders at Ahwaz

The Anglo-Persian war has tended to be forgotten by history, sandwiched as it is chronologically and geographically between the much larger Crimean War and Indian Mutiny. But it has it´s own characteristics, and unlike these two conflicts it has some echos in the present day.

In March 1857 a British expeditionary force has taken the Persian city of Bushire, and is conducting operations inland, in an attempt to force the Persians to vacate the Afghan city of Herat, which they have annexed. The British have won a significant victory against Persian forces at Khoosh-Ab, and them send a task force up the Shatt Al Arabb waterway and stormed the city of Mohumra (modern Khorranshahr) and the British commander Lt. General Outram is now considering following up against the main Persian army, which has retired from Mohumra up the Karoon river to Ahwaz, as he later reported in the London Gazette.

"IN my Despatch, dated the 27th ultimo, I announced to your Excellency my intention of immediately, dispatching up the Karoon River to Ahwaz, an armed flotilla, being the only means I had of effecting a distant reconnaissance, owing to the total want of baggage-cattle ; but, as the steamers had to be coaled, and seven days' provisions for the troops put on board, whilst all were busily engaged disembarking tents and stores from the transports, some little delay occurred ; and it was not until the afternoon of the 29th that the party could be dispatched.

The flotilla I placed under the immediate command of Captain Rennie, Indian Navy, aided by Captain Kemball, Political Agent in Turkish Arabia, who zealously undertook the political conduct of the expedition : Captain Hunt, 78th Highlanders, commanded the military detachment: and Captain Wray, Deputy Quartermaster- General, and Captain AT. Green, my Military Secretary, accompanied the expedition, for the purpose of reporting upon the country in vicinity of Ahwaz.

My instructions to Captain Rennie were " to steam up to Ahwaz, and act with discretion according to circumstances. Should the Persian army have arrived, and apparently be prepared to make a determined stand, the party was to return, after effecting the reconnaissance ; but, in the event of the enemy having proceeded beyond Ahwaz, or if they continued their flight on seeing our steamers (as I fully expected they would, under the impression that the flotilla was the advance guard of the British army), it was my desire that the party should land, and destroy the magazines and stores which the Persians had collected."

The British flotilla passing Ismaini on the Karoon river (from "Outram and Havelock's Persian campaign" by Capt. G. Hunt 1858).

The flotilla, including the steamers Comet, Planet and Assyria  each towing a gunboat with two 24pdr howitzers, proceeded up the Karoon and on May31st moored at the small arab village of Kost Oomarra. At 3am the next day they broke camp, and came within site of Ahwaz at daybreak. Captain J. Wray gives a description of the city...

"Ahwaz is situated on the left bank of the Karoor River, at about 100 miles from its mouth. The town is in ruins, and not more than one-third o the houses appear to be occupied. There is no fort, or defences of any kind, beyond an old ruinous stone wall round part of it. The inhabitants number about 1,200, chiefly Arabs of the Chab tribes. Close to the town are two old broken-down bunds across the river, through which the water rushes with great rapidity ; one of these is just opposite to the town, the other considerably below it. These bunds are impassable for boats drawing more than a few feet water, and the strength of the current renders the passage of any boats a matter of great difficulty, indeed, we did not ascertain satisfactorily that boats could pass at all. The river here is from 100 to 140 yards wide, and there are several low stands in the middle covered with low tamarisk jungle. The banks of the river are generally high, and the water so deep that our small steamers could lie close alongside.considerably below it.

The country on the town side of the river is a bare plain, with very slight patches of cultivation here and there, and on the south-east side of the town is a range of sandstone hills, perfectly bare. The country on the opposite side of the river is much the same, a barren plain without a tree, and the most desolate looking place imaginable.

There had been a good deal of rain when we were there, and the surface of the ground was very heavy. At present the climate is very pleasant—the mornings delightful, and the days, though warm, quite bearable
 Ahwaz (from "Outram and Havelock's Persian campaign" by Capt. G. Hunt 1858)

As the small fleet approached they saw Ahwaz on the left bank ahead of them, and the Persian army on the right bank, estimated at "6,000 infantry, 5 guns, and a cloud of Bukhtiaree horsemen" (Capt. Rennie). The cavalry, "appeared well mounted, and were dressed in long blue frocks, with trousers of lighter colour, white belts, and the high black lambskin cap perculiar to the Persians. A sabre and long matchlock slung across their backs appeared to be their only arms as (unusually for Asiatics) no lances were visible amongst them" (George Henry Hunt).

Captain Wray takes up the tale..

"Heard from the Arabs that Ahwaz was not occupied, and that the troops that had been there had gone up the river the day before, frightened by the appearance of our steamers, and that nothing now remained but 30 horsemen ; that they had no means of crossing, excepting by two boats and two canoes. It was therefore determined to land all our party (300 men), advance up the left bank upon Ahwaz, and endeavour to destroy the enemy's depot of grain and ammunition, and, in the event of our finding that we had been deceived, or that they were in force in the town, that we should turn our move into an armed reconnaissance, and return to our ships.

At 11 A.M., the troops commenced landing, and advanced at once in three columns, covered by skirmishers, the whole party being.extended in such a way that they looked like a large body of men.
Captain Hunt, of the 78th, commanded, and arranged it all. The left column consisted of the light company, 78th, divided into skirmishers and supports, both in one rank, the remainder of the company in columns of threes, also in single ranks. The 64th grenadiers, and the other company, 78th, formed centre and right columns in the same way.

British Infantry in the uniform of the 64th later that year in Inda

The two gun-boats were sent off in advance up the river, and took up positions within shell-range of the enemy's ridge, and opened fire. The enemy apparently had some guns in position on the ridge, but the moment the gunners made their appearance the gun-boats opened, and drove them away; they consequently did not return a single shot, though they attempted a little musketry, which did no harm.  In the meantime the troops pushed on ; the Persians still collected, .though in reduced numbers, on the opposite bank of the river, at about 1000 yards from us.

At twelve o'clock, the troops approached the town, when the Arab Sheik came out, tendered submission, and informed our party that the enemy were retreating, and with our glasses we saw a large army of 7000 men, with a perfect swarm of Bukhtiaree horsemen, and 5 or 6 guns, retiring from a very strong position, before a body of 300 infantry, 3 small steamers, and 3 gun-boats. The enemy retired in tolerable order, covered by their horse, the Shahzada himself travelling in a green palankeen carriage, the wheel marks of which we had seen in the several encamping grounds on the rive

The action was a complete success, destroying all the Persian stores of ammunition and food ("1 gun, a brass 14-pounder field piece, 154 stand of arms, 56 mules, 230 sheep, besides an enormous quantity of grain, wheat, and. barley", much of which was actually looted by the Arabs). More importantly, a huge moral victory had been won, as General Outram reports...

"it is impossible to calculate upon the advantages which must ensue from the successful result of this expedition, in the effect it will have upon the Arab tribes, who, in crowds, witnessed the extraordinary scene of a large army of 7,000 infantry, with five or six guns, and a host of cavalry, precipitately retreating before a detachment of 300 British infantry, three small river steamers, and three gun-boats."

This was to be the last action of the war, as a peace deal had been signed. The British left Persia, and returned to India.


The Persians abandoned Herat, the main cause of the war, as well as agreeing to apologise to the former ambassador to Persia, Charles Murray over the Meerza Khan affair.They also agreed to cooperate in reducing the slave trade in the Persian Gulf.  In return the British vacated all Persian territory, including the island of Kharag, which they had rather fancied keeping.

Thus the British succeeded in all their war aims. It has to be said though that it could have gone the other way. If the Persians had held on for longer, exchanging land for time, the Anglo-Persian war would have overlapped with the Indian mutiny. With many of their best troops and commanders in Persia, Britain would have struggled even more than she did, and certainly could not have kept an expeditionary force in Persia. Fortunately or unfortunately,  nobody knew what was coming.

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