Persia/Chapter 9

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The Persian army is divided into the king’s troops and those of the state: the former are regulars; the latter might not inaptly be termed militia.

The king’s guards, those of the princes, and the garrisons of the towns, compose the regular troops, to whom we apply this term because they are under a particular discipline, and are permanently employed. Having treated in another place of the guards of the king and princes, we shall confine the following observations to the militia.

The warlike tribes spread over the country, form its real military force: it is these that furnish the militia. When the king is going to war, he intimates his intention to their different chiefs, who are obliged to repair with their contingents to the royal camp: the number of these contingents is governed by the population of the tribe. Each town and village has to furnish its quota. In this manner, Feth Ali Shah might raise probably from 150,000 to 200,000 men, in case of emergency.

By way of pay, each officer and soldier receives a grant of land; but when they take the field, they have pay, and a suroosat, or allowance of barley and straw for their horses, and wheat, rice, and butter, for themselves. They receive also something under the head of inams or presents. They must find their own arms, horses, and clothing, and are supplied with nothing but ammunition.

The Persian armies are composed of infantry and cavalry. The infantry are generally employed at sieges; but as their services are seldom required, they are for that reason very indifferent soldiers. They are employed to discharge a piece of cannon perhaps once in an hour; and as long as they hit the wall, they are considered to be well qualified for effecting a breach. If there are infantry and guns, a body of bildars, or pioneers, accompany the army. It was to its cavalry that Persia in ancient times owed its military glory, and it still constitutes the chief force of the kingdom. The Persian is less ostentatious in the harness of his horse than the Turk. Luxury has given place to utility and convenience. Nadir Shah substituted to the Arabian stirrups and bit, a very simple bridle and iron stirrups. The Persian saddle, though lighter than that of the Turks and Mamelukes, is not broad enough in the seat: it requires great practice to keep upon it, especially as the stirrups also are very narrow.

All the troops are in the immediate service of the king. They are commonly divided into regiments of one thousand men, commanded by a Membashee, then into hundreds over whom is a Yoozbashee, and then into tens under an Oonbashee which literally signify, chief of a thousand, of one hundred, and of ten. The Khan of the tribe commands the whole. Each regiment has its standard. These standards are of every colour, and of every sort of rich stuff, and cut to a point. They bear for a motto, either the Mahometan profession of faith, or a passage of the Koran; and many of them display a lion with a rising sun, or the dzou'lfecar, or two-edged sword of Ali. It is a point of honour with them, as with our troops, to preserve the standard from falling into the hands of an enemy. The bearer of it is styled Alemdar. The Alemdar-bashee, or chief standard-bearer, is an important personage in the military hierarchy of the Persians.

It is inconceivable, says Mr. Scott Waring, with what ease an army in Persia is collected. In times of anarchy and confusion, every man who can purchase arms is a soldier. They flock to the nearest standard of rebellion, and retire on the approach of an enemy to their homes. They assemble to plunder, not to fight, and feel no compunction in deserting a chieftain who can no longer countenance their depredations. Many persons are reduced to the necessity of becoming soldiers; they have been plundered of their all, and therefore join the army in the hope of retrieving their losses. An army in Persia is nothing but an immense baud of robbers, who are only held together by the expectation of plunder: success commands their services; they support no particular cause, but join the chief, whose affairs appear the most prosperous. The only tie upon their fidelity is the possession of their wives and families, or the influence which their commanders may have among them. The first is probably very inconsiderable, and the later even more so, for the interest of the commander and his troops will be the same, and they are both actuated by the same principles. The danger of a military life in Persia does not deserve mention; and as the
A Camel Artilleryman.jpg

A Camel Artilleryman.

advantages are greater than in any other country, we ought not to be astonished at its being infested with hordes of licensed robbers, or that a chief should plunder his way to the throne.



The arms of the Persians are the scimitar, the carbine, the lance, the bow, and the noose. A horseman, when fully equipped, usually carries a pair of pistols either in his girdle, or at the saddle-bow, a carbine or a bow slung at his back by a transverse shoulder-belt, and a lance. The latter, which is very light, being made of bamboo, he carries in his right hand, and uses the bow with great dexterity and promptitude.

The use of the kemend, which is a long rope with a noose at one end, is of great antiquity in Persia. There exist paintings in illustration of the Shah Nameh, in which Roustam is represented catching his enemies with this noose, and dragging them after him. It is well known that the ancient Sclavonians and Bulgarians employed this species of offensive weapon in war, At present, the kemend is but little used; it is said, however, that Ismael Bey, one of the king'a generals, excels in the management of it.

The whole artillery of the Persians consisted till lately of a few field-pieces, and a number of swivels mounted on the backs of camels. A representation of a soldier belonging to the camel corps is given in the annexed engraving. The uniform of this corps is red, and something like the fashion of the British regimentals about twenty years ago. They wear a bright brass cap of a conical shape, with a bunch of cock's feathers stuck in the pointed top. The gunner is seated behind the swivel, which turns on a pivot at the point of the saddle in front; and on the back of the camel is fixed a small triangular red and green flag. There is nothing martial in their appearance, says Sir Robert Porter, and so little of dignity from the incongruity of their oddly-mixed half-European costume, with the Asiatic animals they ride, that the troop rather recalled to my risible faculties certain impressions connected with cavalcades I had seen in England, accompanying our splendid shows of wild beasts, than suggested the respectful ideas which belong to a regal escort.

Captain Kotzebue, who on several occasions saw some hundreds of this corps manoeuvred, says, the guns are so light, that an artilleryman can take his piece on his back and run about with it. They do not attempt to take aim in firing: the gun lies on the ground and is fired at random. They are never discharged but in volleys, which are very powerful and do great execution from their number.

As to the field-pieces, they were, till the recent improvements in this branch of the service, of very little use. The wretched state of the roads on the frontiers prevented the transport of them from place to place, and the carriages were so miserably constructed, that they were sure to break with a few discharges, if they escaped being dashed in pieces by rocks or tumbled down precipices.

A Persian soldier armed cap-a-pie, observes Mr. Scott Waring, is of all figures the most ridiculous. It is really laughable to see how they encumber themselves with weapons of defence: their horses groan under the weight of their arms. These consist of a pair of pistols in their holsters, a single one slung in their waist, a carbine or a long Turkish gun, a sword, a dagger, and an immense long spear; for all these fire-arms they have separate ramrods, tied about their persons, powder-horns for loading, others for priming, and a variety of cartouch-boxes, filled with different sized cartridges. The rattling of all these things may be heard when they are a great way off. Their saddle and arms cannot weigh less than eighty pounds, an enormous addition to the horse's burden: they nevertheless consider themselves as light-armed troops, ridiculing the Turkish cavalry, who, they say, can take care of little else than their big boots and their cap.

The arms of the Persians are very good, particularly their swords, which are highly prized by the Turks. They are full of jouhur, or what is called damask, which, however, does not express the meaning of the word; for the jouhur is inherent in the steel. Tavernier says, that none but the Golconda steel can be damasked; but in this he is mistaken, as the Khorasan swords are more valuable than any others, the blade alone often costing twenty or thirty guineas.



It may be affirmed with truth, that till Abbas Mirza, the heir-apparent to the throne, undertook a few years since to reform the military system of the Persians, they had no idea of tactics and military engineering. They are wholly ignorant of the art of entrenchment and fortification; their camp consists of a circle surrounded with a few lines, and it is reputed to be impregnable when it is pitched on the bank of a river or against the declivity of a hill. The best fortified towns are encompassed with a wall built of mud mixed with straw, a few brick towers, and a ditch: the means of attack, it is true, are in an exact ratio with those of defence; so that an obstacle which would scarcely stop a European regiment for an hour, here detains a victorious army several days.

In Persia, and indeed all over the East, the art of war consists in hovering about an enemy, falling unawares on his quarters, intercepting his provisions, depriving him of water by turning off the streams and filling the wells, and in attacking his troops when sinking under famine and fatigue. The cavalry, like all irregular cavalry, cannot act with uniformity; it would be unable to cope with a corps disciplined in the European manner, though its evolutions and movements are extremely rapid, and each individual excels in the management of the horse. They are accustomed to no more than two manœuvres, the one for attack, and the other for flight. The first consists in charging all together pellmell; stopping here and there in groups of four or five, sometimes at the distance of several yards from one another, and each in an opposite direction. The second manœuvre is to gallop at full speed, to pull up the horse all at once, to turn in the saddle, fire backward at an enemy, and gallop away again. On various occasions, the Persians have pursued in their wars with the Turks a system ruinous to the inhabitants of the country, but which has frequently delivered them from their enemies without their having occasion to strike a blow. When they have known beforehand the point of attack, they have carried away the whole population and laid the country entirely waste for the space of several days' journey; and when the foe has penetrated into this desert, they have harassed him incessantly and reduced him with the assistance of famine.

A fault inherent in the organization of their cavalry, which damps the courage of the men, and diminishes the chance of success in battle, is the custom of obliging the soldier to find his own arms and horse. These frequently constitute his whole property; and as the state grants no compensation in case of their loss, his chief care is to preserve them. On more than one occasion, this solicitude has proved fatal to the honour of the Persian arms.

In Persia, there is no distinction between the civilian and the military man; every subject suddenly turns soldier. The khan of a tribe exchanges his pastoral occupations for the command of troops; and the same is the case with regard to the subaltern officers. The general-in-chief, who is almost always the prime minister, quits the divan for the camp: hence the army is deficient in good officers.

It has been already observed, that the infantry are much worse than the cavalry. Mr. Scott Waring mentions an instance which may serve as a specimen of their proficiency in military affairs. A salute was to be fired at Bushire, and as the guns were not shotted, they conceived that they might discharge them without any danger to the people who were crowded about them. They fired the guns, and several persons were killed on the spot.

One of the most remarkable facts in the modern history of Asia, is the introduction of European discipline in the armies of Persia, which owes this improvement solely to the superior intelligence and personal exertions of Abbas Mirza, the heir-apparent to the throne, for the following account of which we are indebted to Mr. Morier.

In one of the first interviews which this prince had with our ambassador, Sir Gore Ouseley, he described with great naïveté, the motives which induced him to attempt its introduction among his troops. He said, that he soon found out that it was in vain to fight the Russians unless he had soldiers like theirs: that their artillery was only to be opposed by artillery; and that all his efforts to make an impression upon them with his undisciplined rabble were uniformly unsuccessful. His first essays in discipline were attended with little success, because he had in the outset to combat the prejudices of the Persian recruits themselves, who rejected the idea of being assimilated in any manner to Europeans, and particularly to Russians, whom their national hatred made them despise, or perhaps their fear caused them to hate, more than all other Europeans. To efface such impressions, he was himself obliged to adopt a soldier's dress, and to submit to learn the military exercise from a Russian: he commenced with twenty or thirty men at a time, whom he caused to be drilled in a separate court by themselves, that they might not be exposed to the ridicule of the populace; and it was not till he ordered his nobles to follow the example and handle a musket, that he found his scheme making any progress. He had succeeded in teaching a few of his men the platoon exercise and some of the most common evolutions; yet probably he would have got no farther for want of officers, but for the arrival of the French embassy from Buonaparte, the officers of which were put into the command of large bodies, and they advanced his views to the utmost of his expectations. The English mission, which succeeded the French, also supplied him with officers, and his first wish was to raise a corps of artillery, which was done by lieutenant Lindsay, an officer of the Madras army, in a manner truly astonishing. The zeal of this officer was only to be equalled by the encouragement of the prince, who, putting himself above all prejudices, resisting the jealousy of his officers, and the cabal of courtiers, liberally adopted every method proposed, and supported lieutenant Lindsay against every difficulty that was thrown in his way. He gave him full power to punish his recruits in any manner he chose, and unlimited control over his troop. It was only upon the article of shaving off beards, that the prince was inexorable; nor would the sacrifice of them have ever taken place, had it not happened that in firing guns before the prince, a powder-horn exploded in the hand of a gunner, who by good luck had been gifted with a long beard, which in an instant was blown away from his chin. Lieutenant Lindsay, seizing this opportunity to prove his argument on the encumbrance of beards to soldiers, immediately produced the scorched and mutilated gunner before the prince, who was so struck with his woful appearance, that the abolition of military beards was instantly decided upon.

The serbaz, or infantry, were placed under the command of Major Christie, of the Bombay army, an officer of the greatest merit, who inspired his troops with an esprit de corps, which manifested itself on many occasions. Abbas Mirza, who was partial to the corps disciplined partly by the French and partly by himself, thinking that it had acquired more steadiness from being longer embodied than Major Christie's, one day proposed a sham-fight, in which he would lead his corps, and Christie his. They were drawn out, and the prince's troops vigorously attacked those of Christie, who however, ordering a charge of bayonets, put the others to flight. Christie's men, perhaps not fully understanding that this was intended for play, and warmed by their success, were heard to exclaim: "Oh, that we had ball-car-tridges!"

The prince complained to the ambassador, that the new system which he had introduced had still many enemies, and that the most powerful of them was his brother, Mahomed All Mirza, who had endeavoured to render him and his nezam (discipline) odious to the Persians, by attempting to show that, in adopting the customs of the infidels, he was subverting the religion of Islam, which, till his day, had been upheld by the same sword and the same discipline that had served Mahomed in its establishment. In order to counteract this, the prince caused a passage in the Koran, that is favourable to the improvement of the means of attack and defence in the cause of religion, to be copied, sealed, and approved by the chiefs of the land in Persia, and disseminated throughout the country.

The English officers employed in Persia still found many impediments in their way, originating from the confined ideas which the prince himself had of military science. The necessity of a strict subordination of ranks, seemed to him incomprehensible. But the greatest difficulties encountered by our officers, arose from the knavery and intrigue of the Persian officers appointed by the prince to aid them in their different commands. The men themselves they found most docile and tractable, receiving the discipline more quickly than even Englishmen: but the moment a mirza or a khan interfered, all was trouble and dispute. Thus, for instance, a mirza who was appointed to pay the men, would keep a per-centage from each man for himself: sums which he received for the supplies of dress, furniture, &c. he would detain to trade with, or put out to usurious interest: nay, a man of some consequence was one day discovered to have stolen two muskets; and similar instances of knavery might be cited without end.

The Persians are greatly deficient in the soldier’s first art, the art of dying. A Persian talking to one of our officers on that subject, said very ingenuously: "If there was no dying in the case, how gloriously the Persians would fight!" Their ideas of courage, indeed, are totally different from ours: they look upon it as a quality which a man may have or not, as he may feel at the moment. One of the king’s generals, who has the reputation of being a courageous man, was not ashamed to own that he and a large body of troops had been kept at bay by two Russian soldiers, who alternately fired their muskets at them, and at length obliged them to move away. In talking of the Russians, they say that they are so divested of feeling, that rather than run away they will die on the spot.

Abbas Mirza, the prince-royal, is said to be personally brave; and in his different encounters with the Russians, he has risked himself farther than necessity required. He punishes cowardice: the following instance was witnessed by the British embassy. One of his generals, Mahomed Bey, had, on some emergency, quitted his post, and run away. The prince degraded him from his rank, tied his hands behind his back, put a wooden sword by his side, seated him on an ass, with his face towards the tail, and thus paraded him through the streets of Tabriz.

The citadel of Tabriz is the most interesting structure in that city, principally because it contains a proof of what the labour and ingenuity of a few Englishmen will accomplish, under all the disadvantages of a bad administration and want of resources. The prince originally intended to make it his own place of residence, but changed its destination, and converted it into an arsenal, where many of the European trades are in full activity. In the first yard are seen a range of guns, and all the accompaniments of artillery: a numerous body of carpenters and wheelwrights work with European tools, under the superintendence of a European. Farther on is a blacksmith's forge, and in another yard are piles of shot: while a series of apartments form workshops fer saddles and other artisans, and neatly ranged store-rooms. The Persians are delighted with this place, and it is frequently visited by the prince, who takes great pleasure in inspecting the works, and learning the uses and properties of every article. His chief delight is a machine for boring cannon, which is worked by a buffalo, and enables him to make guns of any calibre.