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An elite force, a secret mission, a fleet of

Model-T Fords, a far flung corner of WWI

Barry Stone

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First published in 2017

Copyright © Barry Stone 2017

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in
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Map vii

Introduction ix





Epilogue 217
Bibliography 223
Index 226

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‘I know Dunster, but where is the force?’
Commander, 1st Caucasus Cossack Corps

and well-­armed group of exceptionally talented individuals and
sending them in harm’s way is not a recent military concept. In the
eleventh century BCE the Chinese general Jiang Ziya in his work
Six Secret Teachings called for acts of sabotage and ‘hit and run’
tactics by well-­trained men formed into elite units. The Romans
sent small camouflaged ships crewed by specially trained men on
reconnaissance missions. There were the ninjas of feudal Japan,
mercenaries who would use stealth to infiltrate enemy positions
and whose unorthodox methods of espionage and assassination


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were deemed ‘dishonourable’ by the country’s samurai class.
Certainly there are many historical precedents to draw on. But
in terms of modern warfare, however, what this ‘mad enterprise’
was trying to do in Persia was largely untried, a leap into the
Near East’s vast unknown. And command of it would be given to
an equally untried, and often overlooked, British officer.
The commander of the Hush-­Hush Army would be Major
General Lionel Dunsterville, the ‘Stalky’ of author Rudyard
Kipling’s book Stalky & Co., a childhood friend of Kipling and
British veteran of India and the northwest frontier. Lionel
and Rudyard met as teenagers at the United Services College in
Devon, England, a school established to provide an alternate route
into the army for less privileged families, and to help bring to an
end the practice of aristocratic families being able to ‘purchase’
military commissions for their children by sending them to
schools such as Eton or Harrow. Young Lionel and Rudyard
quickly became friends and were joined by another boy, George
Beresford, together forming a clique they called ‘Stalky & Co.’.
It would be another twenty years before Kipling immortalised
their adventures and their railing against authority and tradition,
admittedly magnifying characters and incidents. The character
of Stalky found a particular resonance with young readers in the
dominions where the struggle to establish egalitarian, classless
societies had some hope of one day being realised. With Lionel
as Stalky, Beresford as M’Turk and himself as Beetle, Kipling
had created a formidable trio of which Dunsterville would
later reminisce:


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What one lacked the other had and we really must have been a
very difficult trio to tackle. Our earlier escapades were on the lines
of simple buffoonery, but we soon evolved on to a higher plain of
astute plotting on more intellectual lines, the essence of each plot
being that it should leave our adversaries nothing to hit back at.

Dunsterville’s early military career gave few hints of the notoriety
to come. Prior to 1900 he was all but resigned to a life serving in
obscure regions of India, Russia and China, always missing out on
the higher profile theatres of war such as Egypt and South Africa,
which saw others of his age forging enviable reputations. When
the Great War broke out he was in India with the 20th Punjabis
Infantry Regiment, but instead of being considered for a promotion
or reassignment, his commission as a colonel in the Indian Army
was withdrawn and he returned to England to be given a job as
a train officer, riding troop trains filled with ammunition to and
from the frontlines. British Indian Army colonels, the War Office
thought, were not the sort of men you sent to the trenches.
In 1914, short on money, Dunsterville approached his friend
Rudyard Kipling for a loan. Kipling was happy to help him, and
not just financially—he made numerous advances to the War
Office arguing his old friend’s tactical merits. Finally, after twelve
months going back and forth on trains in France, Dunsterville
was given another commission, this time as commander of the
1st Infantry Brigade on the frontier of India and Afghanistan,
an area which had long been a strategic bottleneck in Britain
and Russia’s ongoing geopolitical ‘Great Game’. And a strategic


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region it may well have been, although once war broke out the
Indian–Afghan frontier was far removed from providing the
sort of opportunities for advancement that one had in Europe.
Even with a new command, Dunsterville would often lament he
was again in the same backwater he was before, a dull world of
routine garrison duties and uneventful patrols.
His steadily accumulating experience in dealing with ethnic
groups in the Far East, however, coupled with his fluency in
Russian, German and Persian, would soon stand him in good stead
for a new and prestigious appointment. Late in 1917 he received
orders to relinquish his Indian command and report immediately
to army headquarters in Delhi, where he was promoted to the
rank of major general and given a slew of new titles, including
Chief of the British Mission to the Caucasus, and British
Representative at Tiflis, the capital of Georgia (now Tbilisi). He
would be sent to Baghdad, he was told, and be given command
over a new all-­volunteer army made up of the finest officers and
NCOs the War Office could find. Together they would move north
through Persia (modern-­day Iran) and into the Caucasus to Tiflis
and work diplomatically to keep Tiflis out of Russian, Turkish
and German hands, to create a buffer zone between Turkey and
Russia, and assist in establishing a government sympathetic to
British interests. The men he would command were nicknamed,
with an air of inevitability, the Dunsterforce.
It wouldn’t be easy. The British government was a long way
behind the diplomatic eight ball in the Caucasus, and Georgia in
particular. Long before the first shots were fired in this war, the


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German government had been working to establish a political
presence in the Georgian capital, and since Russia’s October
Revolution had been arming Georgians with thousands of rifles,
small arms and millions of rounds of ammunition so they could
better fill the vacuum along the Caucasian front line left by Russia’s
withdrawal from the region and the retreat of the Czar’s armies.
Add to this an obvious intellectual affectation by Georgians
towards most things German, particularly in the political realm
where Georgia’s social democrats had long feted Germany’s social
democrats meant the British had much to do to gain a foothold in
a region they had long ignored.
According to Noe Zhordania, the leader of Georgia’s
Moscow-­leaning Mensheviks, the whole nation had long been in
something of a ‘Germanophile mood’. Georgians in 1917–18 had
a highly developed sense of nationhood, led by a popular party
of German-­
inspired intellectual Marxists who enjoyed broad
support among both the peasantry and working class. After the
raising of the new Georgian flag above the palace of the former
viceroy on 26 May 1918, the first task the new government of
Prime Minister Noe Ramishvili gave itself was to open secret
negotiations with the German government to establish a German
protectorate over the new republic, in a bulwark to Turkey’s
growing territorial appetite. In return for their diplomatic
recognition, the Georgian government was happy to hand over to
the Germans their railways, give their ships access to their ports,
permit free circulation within their borders of German currency,
and grant exclusive access to mining rights and raw materials.


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After years of patient and thorough ‘Germanisation’, it was
asking a lot of Dunsterville and his army of volunteers to simply
enter Tiflis and propose to its citizens that they establish a pro-­
British government. Dunsterville appreciated the nature of the
task and was aware of the extensive groundwork the Germans
had done, and with whom Georgia’s recent sympathies clearly
lay. He knew that the people of Tiflis received their news of the
war in Western Europe via German propaganda, and as far as
they knew the Germans were on the cusp of a great victory. Why
then should they now support the British? Dunsterville wrote:

The truth of the matter is that Tiflis, long before the war, had what
the Russians called a ‘German orientation’. In their deep preparation
for this great war the Germans left no stone unturned, and the
Caucasus, north and south, had been thoroughly exploited by them
in view of possible eventualities.

The Germans too had for years looked further south of
the Caucasus to British possessions in Persia and Kuwait, and
even sent spies into the region in an attempt to counter British
influence there through the inciting of anti-­British revolts. The
most famous of these spies was Wilhelm Wassmuss. Dubbed the
German Lawrence of Arabia, Wassmuss, a diplomat in the foreign
office, remained in Persia at the beginning of the war when almost
all of his colleagues rushed back to Europe, to the opportunities
they saw beckoning in the new German Empire. But Wassmuss
stayed, determined instead to turn Persia’s southern tribes against


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British rule, his words backed up by considerable amounts of
German gold to be used to bankroll a great new crusade. He knew
Persia like a native, and was a master of one-­upmanship. When
the British announced they had attacked the Somme in 1916,
Wassmuss simply countered by saying to his Persian hosts that
German troops had landed in England—and killed King George!
A trenchant guerilla war was desired and planned by Wassmuss,
but the bigger picture in Europe didn’t progress the way he had
hoped. By mid-­1916 and into 1917, with each new setback on
the battlefields back home, Persia’s tribes were becoming less and
less convinced of his promises of future victories. Wassmuss’s star
was waning despite the almost mythological status his name had
in London looking as though it might burn brightly with never an
end in sight. To understand how dangerous London considered
him, once a fortnight the Intelligence Branch of the General Staff
issued a map that showed the distribution of the enemy’s forces
throughout the Eastern theatre of operations, and each fortnight,
in big red letters across the entire region of southern Persia, a
region several times larger than England itself, was written just
one name: Wassmuss.

Dunsterforce were promised a glut of equipment—a total of
750 vehicles—to ensure their objectives would be met. Once
their numbers swelled with additional reinforcements, this would
translate to almost one vehicle per volunteer! With logistical
support on that sort of scale, even given the fact that all supplies


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would first have to go upriver to Baghdad, and from there to
the border with Persia, and from there transported on the backs
of mules and camels, it was thought there’d be no substantial
threat to supply lines because the Germans and Turks were
still somewhere west of Tiflis. Dunsterforce were landing in
controlled Basra in Mesopotamia (modern-­
day Iraq),
travelling from there to British-­
controlled Baghdad, and then
progressing north into Persia, a neutral country. From there it
was north through countryside lacking any real enemy presence
to the Caucasus, the mountainous region between the Black and
Caspian seas that included Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and
part of southern Russia. Could it all be achieved by stealth, with
a small, well-­armed force and the elements of surprise?
British oilfields and cotton-­producing interests (‘guncotton’
was a mild explosive used in rockets and artillery as a propellant)
in the Caucasus were in increasing need of protection in the
wake of the recent Russian Revolution, a change of government
that had fundamentally altered the political landscape. Czar
Nicholas was gone and in his place the communists felt little
allegiance to his former allies in the west. Even a cursory look
at a map of the Near East revealed that the primary routes from
Turkey eastwards to British interests in India were looking
horribly open and porous, with the local Persian, Afghan and
other ethnic and tribal groups allied by religion to Turkey.
Fortunately a myriad of mountain ranges with passes that
routinely became snowbound in winter provided a six-­month
window of opportunity, time enough to gather together an


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intervention force in an attempt to redress any German/Turkish
The initial list of volunteers’ names Dunsterville had in his
possession comprised twenty members of the Australian Imperial
Force (AIF), a list that had been prepared by General William
‘Birdie’ Birdwood, born in Khadki, India in 1865 and a man who,
despite being a career British Army officer, embodied the ‘heart
and soul’ of the Anzac spirit. Birdwood led the Australian and
New Zealand Army Corps onto the beaches at Gallipoli in 1915,
showing his disregard for Turkish guns by swimming almost
every day in the waters off Anzac Cove in full view of the enemy.
His headquarters on the peninsula was so exposed to Turkish
shelling that worried members of his staff stacked up bales of hay
to protect him. He was often seen walking the trenches and ridges
and in no time gained the favour of the men under his command.
Birdwood was also in charge of that disastrous campaign’s
only real success—the evacuation of forces from the beaches
in December 1915 and January 1916. Birdwood’s affection for
Australia was plain to see. In the years after the war, he even
entertained the idea of becoming Australia’s governor-­general.
It was Birdwood’s list, comprised of officers with the rank of
captain, that formed the nucleus of Dunsterforce. The list was
requested by a South African officer, Colonel John Byron, who
would become second-­in-­command of the Dunsterforce Caucasus
Military Mission. In January 1918 Byron, in a personal letter to
Birdwood, left little doubt as to the importance the mission had
in the eyes of those who had conceived it:


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We well realise how difficult it is for you to spare good officers,
and especially the kind of officers we want . . . but a big question
is involved, nothing more or less than the defence of India and the
security of our whole position in the East. If we can only stem the
rot in the Caucasus and on the Persian frontier and interpose a
barrier against the vast German-­Turkish propaganda of their Pan-­
Turanian scheme, which threatens to inflame the whole of Central
Asia including Afghanistan, our minds will be at rest as regards
Mesopotamia and India.

The twenty names on Birdwood’s list were the product of
the collective thoughts of divisional commanders in France,
Salonika, Palestine and Mesopotamia, and represented the best
of the best of Australian regimental leaders, including several
members of the divisions that had fought in the horror that
was Passchendaele. But in a pattern that soon became all too
familiar, briefings were short on detail. At an initial meeting
with the twenty at Château de Flêtre, Australia’s headquarters in
northern France, in early January 1918 Byron refused to answer
specific questions regarding their deployment and spoke in only
the vaguest terms about how the collapse of the Russian Army in
the Caucasus and Persia in the wake of the October Revolution
had opened the door to German and Turkish expansion in the
east. British interests were threatened, he said, and the need to
therefore intervene and ‘stop the rot’ was a clear and present
one. The meeting ended with the young Australians ordered to
return to their units and await further orders. But the twenty


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left the chateau with more questions than they had answers for
and no wiser as to the specifics of their mission. In the days that
followed that initial briefing the list of Australians was seen as
so impressive that a second request came to Birdwood for an
additional forty officers of similar stature.
This continual adding to its numbers was typical of how
Dunsterforce grew over time. One of the names on that initial
list was 2nd Division’s Captain Stanley George Savige. Born in
Morwell, Victoria on 26 June 1890, Savige left school at the
age of twelve, became a blacksmith’s striker for two shillings a
week, and later joined a cadet detachment as a bugler. He studied
the life of Baden Powell and joined the Boy Scouts, and was a
deeply committed Christian, being baptised full immersion as
a Baptist after being raised Anglican. At the age of seventeen he
moved with his family from Gippsland to Melbourne, and when
war came in 1914 found himself with something of a dilemma,
wanting desperately to serve his country while at the same time
wanting to remain true to his religious convictions. Savige joined
the AIF on 6 March 1915 and was posted to the 24th Battalion,
which landed on the beaches of Gallipoli in September. After
a series of promotions he was put in command of one of his
battalion’s rearguard parties when they evacuated in November.
In March 1916 he was sent to France and was promoted to
captain in September after serving as an intelligence officer at
Pozières and Mouquet Farm. Wounded at Flers in November, he
returned to his battalion in February 1917 and a series of battles
followed—Warlencourt, Grévillers, Bullecourt. A recipient of


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the Military Cross, he was selected to join Dunsterforce in
March 1918.
In Stalky’s Forlorn Hope, Savige’s own very readable description
of his days with Dunsterforce, he describes the day he first met
Colonel John Byron (he was not present at the chateau in early
January) in London on 13 January 1918. ‘Are you prepared,’
Byron asked those assembled, ‘to undertake a desperate venture
which will probably cost you your lives, but, if successful, will
mean everything at this stage of the war to the British Empire?’
Savige recalled the calibre of questions Byron then fielded,
reflecting the sort of predictable ambivalence you’d expect from
men who had already served in the hell of the trenches. ‘Well,
what’s the job?’ some asked. ‘Sorry, I can’t tell you that,’ came
the reply. ‘Where are we going?’ ‘Sorry, I cannot tell you that
either.’ It was a meeting full of ambiguities but still laced with a
compelling sense of adventure and appeal to King and country.
Secrecy in the military wasn’t anything new, though this time
things seemed different: the degree of secrecy was extreme even
by the usual military standards. The lack of information as to
what might lay ahead annoyed some and led them to consider
the whole thing, whatever it was, to be a folly, even a death knell
for the careers of anyone who went. Lieutenant Colonel John
Weightman Warden, commander of the 102nd Canadian Infantry
Battalion, was told he’d be literally throwing away his military
career if he chose to go, but like all those who volunteered he was
tired of witnessing the indifference of generals to the suffering
caused by questionable tactics and ill-­conceived strategies, and


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was bored by the continual stalemate so characteristic of trench
warfare. Warden, formerly a real estate agent from Vancouver,
claimed to be the first man in British Columbia to volunteer for
service, putting his name on the volunteer list on 28 July 1914,
the day Austria declared war on Serbia.
Weary of war and in need of fresh challenges, Warden felt
there was something different about this mission. The secrecy
seemed to be speaking to him, even if it meant leaving behind his
beloved 102nd, the battalion affectionately known as ‘Warden’s
Warriors’ and considered by the Canadian military to be the
finest battalion serving on the Allied front.

I have the best battalion in France. There never were men truer,
braver, more gallant or loyal or capable, or more loved by their
senior commanding officer . . . this is just breaking my heart. I could
not say goodbye to a single soul.

Candour can be hard to find in the writings of hard military men,
but thanks to Warden and his predilection for plain speaking we
have a singular insight—the only insight, really—suggesting that not
every man selected for Dunsterforce was necessarily of the highest
calibre. Warden knew of one Canadian, Roy Casey, who was in the
custody of military police on a charge of insubordination, wilfully
disobeying orders and resisting arrest. It appears that Casey, for
one, was there because he preferred adventure over incarceration.


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On 11 January 1918 Savige received orders to proceed to London,
and the next day he left Flanders in a private car for the four-­hour
drive to the English Channel. The snow was thick on the ground
on Savige’s last day as a combatant in France, and the roads wet
with slush all the way to the port town of Boulogne, the first
point of entry into Europe for the British Expeditionary Force
in 1914 and used extensively as an entry and exit point by the
Allied forces ever since. At Boulogne Savige boarded a ferry to
England, and on the morning of 13 January he reported to the
Tower of London.
At the same time as Savige was making his way to London,
Captain Roy Stewart, who had also been present at the initial
meeting at Château de Flêtre, had caught the Calais to Dover ferry
then a train to London, arriving a day early at AIF Administrative
Headquarters in Westminster, only to be told to instead report to
the Tower of London the next morning. Roy Stewart stayed at the
Alexandra Hotel near Hyde Park Corner, an 1890s townhouse
not far from Paddington Station with about a hundred simply
furnished guestrooms where he could be guaranteed anonymity
and a good night’s sleep.
Roy Stewart was born in 1894 in the tiny town of Peak Hill
in the central west of New South Wales. After spending what
his parents considered too much time wandering about home
doing not a lot, he was sent to boarding school in Sydney at the
Presbyterian Scots College, though its emphasis on a Christian
education went largely unheeded. Pushed into the realm of the
agnostic by what he said was an ‘overdose’ of religiosity, Stewart


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returned home and settled in nearby Parkes, becoming that town’s
first AIF volunteer.
Stewart came ashore at Gallipoli more than four months before
Savige, arriving under fire from Turkish guns on 25 April 1915,
the very first Anzac Day. Three days later, while leading an assault
through scrub-­filled terrain in the hills above his landing site, he
was shot in the right leg by an enemy sniper. Carried back down
to the beach without incident, he was put on a ship and sent to a
British Army hospital in Egypt. The leg was saved but Stewart was
sent home to Australia on convalescent leave. When he returned
to active service a few months later he was asked to help form the
34th Battalion of the just-­raised 3rd Division; sent to France at
the end of 1916, this division lost no time in gaining for itself an
enviable reputation for its efficiency in offensive operations.
The 3rd Division was thrown into the assault on the tiny
Belgian village of Passchendaele as part of British Commander-­
Chief General Haig’s grand vision of pushing through to
the Belgian coast, capturing the U-­boat pens in the port cities
of Ostend and Zeebrugge, then bludgeoning his way along the
enemy’s right flank all the way into Germany and thus winning
the war. What happened, of course, was very different.
The ten-­day-­long, 3000-­gun strong British bombardment of the
ditches and dykes in the fields around the town turned the terrain
into a quagmire, which was further compounded by autumn
rains that began in August and didn’t let up till October. Haig
was a cavalryman, a next to useless résumé in the era of trench
warfare, who never visited the front to see the reality for himself,


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a lunar-­
like landscape of water-­
filled craters. Five Australian
divisions were at the forefront of the attack on Passchendaele,
including Roy Stewart’s 34th Battalion, which was thrown into
the nightmare with eight hundred men and twenty officers only
to emerge from it with eighty men and three officers. No wonder,
then, that Stewart and other 3rd Division officers responded as
they did on hearing of a request from General Birdwood calling
for men with the rank of captain to volunteer for an unspecified
operation a long way from the horrors of the Western Front.
Anything had to be better than the battlefields of Belgium.
For some volunteers, though, it wasn’t the horrors of the
field that provided the incentive to leave, it was the
insufferableness of their commanding officers. John Warden
of the 102nd Canadian Infantry Battalion and a veteran of the
Boer War in South Africa, couldn’t wait to get away from his
own commanders, whom he considered phonies and ‘decoration

I should never have left the Canadians, but for the fact I could
not stand my Brigadier General Victor Odlum any longer, nor
Major General David Watson, Divisional Commander. Both very
mercenary men . . . who used their commands to gain public notice
and repute.

In time, Lionel Dunsterville too would feel the wrath Warden
seemed to keep tucked away in reserve for those under-­achieving
officers he considered not up to 102nd Canadian standard.


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