The Battle of Baku (Azerbaijani language: Bakı döyüşü, Russian: Битва за Баку) in June – September 1918 was a clash between the Ottoman–Azerbaijani coalition forces led by Nuri Pasha and Bolshevik–Dashnak Baku Soviet forces, later succeeded by the British–Armenian–White Russian forces led by Lionel Dunsterville. The battle was fought as a conclusive part the Caucasus Campaign, but as a beginning of the Armenian-Azerbaijani War.
In 1917, the Russian Caucasus Front collapsed following the abdication of the Tsar. On 9 March 1917, the Special Transcaucasian Committee was established to fill the administrative gap in areas occupied in the course of the war on the Caucasian front by the Russian Provisional Government in the Transcaucasia. This administration, which included representatives of Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian groups, did not last long. In November 1917, the first government of the independent Transcaucasia was created in Tbilisi and named the "Transcaucasian Commissariat" (also known as the Sejm) following the Bolshevik seizure of power in St. Petersburg. On 5 December 1917, this new "Transcaucasian Committee" gave endorsement to the Armistice of Erzincan which was signed by the Russians with the command of the Ottoman Third Army. Russian soldiers mainly left the front and returned to their homes. A number of Russian troops left for the Persian Campaign, contrary to the rules of the Armistice. General Nikolai Baratov remained in Hamadan and at Kermanshah, a Russian colonel named Lazar Bicherakhov remained with 10,000 troops. Both forces were supplemented by British liaison officers.
In 1918, the British invited the Armenians to hold out and picked officers and non-commissioned officers to form an "advisory" force, organizing them under the command of Lionel Dunsterville at Baghdad. It was named the Dunsterforce. The military goal of Dunsterforce was to reach the Caucasus via Persia while the Persian Campaign was active. The British planned to organize an army to be recruited from the Armenians and other pro-Allied elements that still existed in the Caucasus. On 10 February 1918, the Sejm gathered and made the decision to establish independence. On 24 February 1918, the Sejm proclaimed the Transcaucasia as independent under the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. The Transcaucasian Commissariat was anti-Bolshevik in its political goals and sought the separation of Transcaucasia from Bolshevik Russia. On 27 January 1918, the British mission Dunsterforce set out from Baghdad with officers and instructors to the region. Dunsterforce was ordered to keep the Caucasus-Tabriz front intact and put a stop to Enver's plans. On 17 February, Dunsterforce arrived at Enzeli; here they were denied passage to Baku by local Bolsheviks, who cited the change in the political situation.
On 3 March 1918, the Grand Vizier Talat Pasha signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Russian SFSR. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk stipulated that the border be pulled back to prewar levels and that the cities of Batum, Kars, and Ardahan be transferred to the Ottoman Empire. Between 14 March - April 1918, the Trabzon peace conference was held between the Ottoman Empire and the delegation of the Sejm.
On 30 March 1918, the tenth day of Trabzon peace conference, the news of the internecine conflict & massacre of Azerbaijanis and other Muslims in Baku and adjacent areas of the Baku Governorate arrived. The following days witnessed the inter-ethnic warfare referred to as the March Days. It resulted in the massacre of up to 12,000 Azerbaijanis by the Bolsheviks and armed Armenian units in the city of Baku and other locations in the Baku Governorate. While before the "March Days" Azerbaijani leaders claimed autonomy within Russia, after these events they demanded only independence and placed their hopes no longer in the Russian Revolution, but in support from Ottoman Empire.
On 5 April 1918, Akaki Chkhenkeli of the Transcaucasian delegation to the Trabzon peace conference accepted the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk as a basis for more negotiations and wired the governing bodies urging them to accept this position. The mood prevailing in Tiflis (where the assembly located) was very different. Tiflis acknowledged the existence of a state of war between themselves and the Ottoman Empire. Shortly after, the Third Army began its advance and took Erzerum, Kars and Van. The situation was especially dire in the Caucasus, where Enver Pasha had wanted to place Transcaucasia under Turkish suzerainty as part of his Pan-Turanian plan. This would give the Central Powers numerous natural resources, including the oilfields of Baku. The control of the Caspian would open the way to further expansion in Central Asia, and possibly British India.
On 11 May 1918, a new peace conference opened at Batum. At this conference Ottomans extended their demands to include Tiflis as well as Alexandropol and Echmiadzin through which they wanted a railroad to be built to connect Kars and Julfa with Baku. The Armenian and Georgian members of the Republic's delegation began to stall. Beginning on 21 May, the Ottoman army moved ahead once again. The conflict led to the Battle of Sardarapat (21–29 May), the Battle of Kara Killisse (1918) (24–28 May), and the Battle of Bash Abaran (21–24 May).
On 26 May 1918, the federation dissolved initially with the Georgian declaration of independence (Democratic Republic of Georgia), quickly followed by those of the Armenian (First Republic of Armenia), and Azerbaijan (Azerbaijan Democratic Republic) representatives on 28 May. On 28 May 1918, Georgia signed the Treaty of Poti with Germany and welcomed the German Caucasus Expedition, seeing in the Germans protectors against the post-Russian Revolution havoc and the Ottoman military advances. The government of Azerbaijan moved from Tiflis to Ganjak (or Ganja). At the same time, Germany turned to negotiations with the Soviet Russia and offered to stop the Ottoman Army of Islam in return for guaranteed access to Baku's oil. They reached an agreement on 27 August whereby Germany was to receive a quarter of Baku's oil production. The German government requested that the Ottoman Empire delay any offensive into Azerbaijan; Enver Pasha ignored this request.
In May, on the Persian Front, a military mission under Nuri Pasha, brother of Enver Pasha, settled in Tabriz to organize the Ottoman Army of Islam to fight not only Armenians but also the Bolsheviks. Nuri Pasha's army occupied large parts of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic without much opposition, influencing the fragile structure of the newly formed state. Ottoman interference led some elements of Azerbaijani society to oppose Turks.
On 4 June 1918, Azerbaijan and the Ottoman empire signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation, clause 4 of which held that the Ottoman empire would provide military assistance to Azerbaijan, if such assistance was required for maintaining peace and security in the country.
The Ottoman Army of Islam was under the command of Nuri Pasha. It was formed in Ganja. It included the Ottoman 5th Caucasian and 15th divisions, and the Azerbaijani Muslim Corps under general Ali-Agha Shikhlinski. There were roughly 14,000 Ottoman troops with 500 cavalrymen and 40 pieces of artillery. 30% of the newly formed army consisted of Ottoman soldiers, the rest being Azerbaijani forces and volunteers from Dagestan.
The Baku forces were commanded by the former Tsarist General Dokuchaev, with his Armenian Chief of Staff, Colonel Avetisov. Under their command were about 6,000 Centrocaspian Dictatorship troops of the Baku Army or Baku Battalions. The vast majority of the troops in this force were Armenians, though there were some Russians among them. Their artillery comprised some 40 field guns. Most of the Baku Soviet troops and practically all their officers were Armenians of Dashnak leanings, and often outright Dashnaks. One of the Red Army commanders was the notorious Amazasp, who had fought as a guerrilla leader against the Turks, and for whom any Muslim was an enemy simply because he was a Muslim.
The British mission, Dunsterforce, was headed by Major-General Lionel Dunsterville, who had arrived to take command of the mission force in Baghdad on 18 January 1918. The first members of the force were already assembled. Dunsterville set out from Baghdad on 27 January 1918, with four NCOs and batmen in 41 Ford vans and cars. The British troops in battle under Dunsterville numbered roughly 1,000. They were supported by a field artillery battery, machine gun section, three armoured cars, and two airplanes. He was to proceed through Persia (began from Mesopotamian Campaign through Persian Campaign) to the port of Anzali.
Outside city of Baku
On 6 June 1918, Grigory Korganov, People's Commissar of Military and Naval Affairs of the Baku Soviet, issued an order to the Red Army to begin offensive operations against Ganja. Being unable to defend the independence of the country on their own, the government of Azerbaijan asked the Ottoman empire for military support in accordance with clause 4 of the treaty between the two countries. The Baku Soviet troops looted and killed Muslims as they moved towards Ganja. However many of the troops Shahumian requested from Moscow for the protection of Baku did not arrive because they were held up on the orders of Joseph Stalin in Tsaritsyn. Also, on Stalin's orders, grain collected in Northern Caucasus to feed the starving people in Baku was directed to Tsaritsyn. Shahumian protested to Lenin and to the Military Committee about Stalin's behavior and he often stated: "Stalin will not help us". Lack of troops and food would be decisive in the fate of the Baku Soviet.
On 27 June - 1 July 1918, in the battle near Goychay, the Army of Islam defeated the Red Army and started advancing towards Baku. At this point, earlier in June, Bicherakhov was in the vicinity of Qazvin, trying to go north. After defeating some Jangalis, he proceeded to check the situation in Baku. Returning on 22 June, he planned to save the situation by blocking the Army of Islam at Alyaty Pristan'. However, he arrived too late, and instead went farther north to Derbent, planning to attack the invading Army of Islam from the north. At Baku, he left only a small Cossack contingent. Beside the Russians, the Jangalis also harassed elements of the Dunsterforce going to Anzali on their way to Baku. Once defeated, the Jangalis dispersed. On reaching Anzali in late July, Dunsterville also arrested the local Bolsheviks who had sided with the Jangalis.
On 26 July 1918, a coup d'état overthrew the Bolsheviks in Baku. The new body, the Central Caspian Dictatorship, wanted to arrest Stepan Shahumian, but he and his 1,200 Red Army troops seized the local arsenal and 13 ships, and began heading to Astrakhan. The Caspian fleet, loyal to the new government, turned them back.
By 30 July 1918, the advance parties of the Army of Islam had reached the heights above Baku, causing Dunsterville to immediately send contingents of his troops to Baku, which arrived on 16 August.
On 17 August 1918, Dokuchaev started an offensive at Diga. He planned for 600 Armenians under Colonel Stepanov to attack to the north of Baku. He would further be reinforced by some Warwicks and North Staffords, eventually taking Novkhani. By doing this, they planned to close the gap to the sea, and control a strongly defensible line from one end of the Apsheron Peninsula to the other. The attack failed without artillery support, as the "Inspector of Artillery" had not been given warning. As a result of the failure, the remnants of the force retired to a line slightly north of Diga.
City of Baku
While Baku and its environs had been the site of clashes since June and into mid-August, the term Battle of Baku refers to the operations of 26 August - 14 September. On 26 August, the Army of Islam launched its main attack against positions at the Wolf's Gate. Despite a shortage of artillery, British and Baku troops held the positions against the Army of Islam. Following the main assault, the Turks also attacked Binagadi Hill farther north, but also failed. After these attacks, reinforcements were sent to the Balajari station, from where they held the heights to the north. However, faced with increased artillery fire from Turks, they retired to the railway line.
Over the period 28–29 August, the Turks shelled the city heavily, and attacked the Binagadi Hill position. 500 Turks in close order charged up the hill, but were repulsed with the help of artillery. However, the under-strength British troops were forced to retire to positions further south.
29 August– 1 September, the Turks managed to capture the positions of Binagadi Hill and Diga. Several coalition units were overrun, and losses were heavy. By this point, allied troops were pushed back to the saucer-like position that made up the heights surrounding Baku. However, Ottoman losses were so heavy that Mürsel Bey was not immediately able to continue his offensive. This gave the Baku Army invaluable time to reorganize. Faced with an ever worsening situation, Dunsterville organized a meeting with the Centrocaspian Dictators on 1 September. He said that he was not willing to risk more British lives and hinted at his withdrawal. However, the dictators protested that they would fight to the bitter end, and the British should leave only when troops of the Baku Army did. Dunsterville decided to stay until the situation became hopeless. Meanwhile, Bicherakhov captured Petrovsk, allowing him to send help to Baku. The reinforcements consisting of 600 men from his force, including Cossacks, raised hope.
1–13 September, the Turks did not attack. During this period, the Baku force prepared itself and sent out airplane patrols constantly. In his diary, Dunsterville reported the atrocities against the Muslim population perpetrated by Armenian militants. On 12 September, an Arab officer from the Ottoman 10th Division deserted, giving information suggesting the main assault would take place on 14 September.
On the night of 13/14 September, the Turks began their attacks. The Turks nearly overran the strategic Wolf's Gate (Azerbaijani language: Qurd qapısı) west of Baku, from which the whole battlefield could be seen. However, their advance was halted by a counterattack. The fighting continued for the rest of the day, and the situation eventually became hopeless. By the night of 14 September, the remnants of the Baku Army and Dunsterforce evacuated the city for Anzali.
On 30 October, The Armistice of Mudros was signed by the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman forces left the city.
On 9 March 1918, the arrest of General Talyshinski, the commander of the Azerbaijani division, and some of its officers all of whom arrived in Baku increased the anti-Soviet feelings among the city's Azeri population. On 30 March, based on the unfounded report that the Azerbaijani (Muslim) crew of the ship Evelina was armed and ready to revolt against the Soviet, the Soviet disarmed the crew who tried to resist  The three days of inter-ethnic warfare referred to as the March Days, which resulted in the massacre of up to 12,000 Azerbaijanis by the Bolsheviks and armed Armenian units in the city of Baku and other locations in the Baku Governorate. The March events, beyond the violent three-day period, touched off a series of massacres all over Azerbaijan.
In September 1918, a terrible panic in Baku ensued when the Army of Islam began to enter the city. Armenians crowded the harbour in a frantic effort to escape. Regular Ottoman troops were not allowed to enter the city for two days, so that the local irregulars could take their bloody revenge for the massacre of Azeris in March 1918. It was the last major massacre of World War I.
The British losses in the battle totaled about 200 men and officers killed, missing or wounded. Mürsel Bey admitted Ottoman losses of around 2,000. Among the civilians the casualties of Baku's 80,000 person Armenian community were between 9,000 and 10,000, roughly equal to the number of Azeris massacred by Armenians and Bolsheviks during the March Days. Altogether up to 20,000 Armenians were killed or deported.
No oil from Baku's oilfields got beyond Tbilisi before the Ottomans and Germans signed the armistice. By 16 November, Nuri and Mürsel Bey were ejected from Baku and a British general sailed into the city, headed by one of the ships that had evacuated on the night of 14 September.
A memorial in Baku was established to the Turkish soldiers, who were killed in combat. There is also a memorial to the British soldiers in Baku.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of Baku.|
- Dunsterville, Lionel. "The Diaries of General Lionel Dunsterville, 1918". Great War Documentary Archive. Archived from the original on 20 August 2007. http://web.archive.org/web/20070820210218/http://www.gwpda.org/Dunsterville/Dunsterville_1918.html. Retrieved 24 July 2007.
- Judge, Cecil. "With General Dunsterville in Persia and Transcaucasus". Russia-Australia Historical Military Connections. Archived from the original on 31 August 2007. http://web.archive.org/web/20070831095401/http://www.argo.net.au/andre/captain_judge.htm. Retrieved 24 July 2007.
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