Accidental Humanitarians: The Mission of Dunsterforce in Eastern Anatolia, Iran, and the Caucasus, January to September 1918
After Russia withdrew from the Entente in 1917 during the Russian Civil War, critical oil resources in the Caucasus region were exposed to be potentially exploited by either German or Ottoman forces. Titled Dunsterforce by the War Office, an operation commissioned and led by General Lionel C. Dunsterville who, with no more than a thousand or so men, advanced through Iraq, Iran, and Azerbaijan in order to deny the Central Powers access to these resources. By foot, mule train, and motorcar, they covered thousands of kilometres of territory. This group had traversed extreme conditions, with temperatures reaching between negative 40o C along the Zagros Mountains and positive 400 C through the harsh deserts of Northwestern Persia. Moreover, they witnessed the dire famine, disease, and sectarian violence of the area, and the damaging effects these factors had on the civilian population.
This essay examines the original mission of Dunsterville’s force between its beginnings in December 1917, its deployment toward the northwestern areas of Persia and Iraq, and the operation’s eventual end in Azerbaijan with the Fall of Baku in September 1918. Using primary sources, the essay seeks to analyse the soldiers and their mission in the areas they were stationed. Due to the ever-changing nature of their objectives and the systemic issues plaguing Qajar Persia at the time, these soldiers became accidental humanitarians when they enacted efforts to challenge the famine, disease, and lawlessness in the communities they were stationed within. Efforts such as food kitchens, police patrols, and field hospitals were balanced by their primary military objectives of combatting the pro-Ottoman and pro-German presence in Iran and Azerbaijan. The essay itself will be divided into several sections with an expansive appendix. The sections will elaborate upon the extremely complicated contextual history of the region in which the Dunsterforce operated, the military force’s objectives, and the actual aid dispensed by the unit. Finally, it will conclude by stating how these accidental humanitarians were endangered by the broader operational choices of General Dunsterville himself. Despite his diplomatic skill and charisma, his ego and short-sighted decision-making ultimately endangered the delicate gains the Dunsterforce made in Persia by over-focusing all his forces on Baku.
By September 1918 the Dunsterforce had failed its original military objectives given to them by the British War Office. What is often overlooked however was the prominent humanitarian role fulfilled by these soldiers in order to secure their original military objectives. Although this was by no means part of their original official mission, the aid was necessary to attempt to restore order in the war-torn areas the group was stationed in. This involved providing aid to tens of thousands of people, regardless of race, religion, or culture, in isolated locations where strife amongst these groups was frequent and endemic. Regardless of their military record, the men who served in the unit left a legacy of successfully providing humanitarian efforts in the region with only minimal resources and manpower.