World One War: Wassmuss- The 'German Lawrence' and Persia

Wilhelm Wassmuss
Wilhelm Wassmuss
Turko-German Expedition in Persia, 1915
Turko-German Expedition in Persia, 1915

During World War One, one single figure, Wilhelm Wassmuss, earned the title ‘The German Lawrence’.

Persia or more commonly known as Iran, during World War One, was a hotbed of spies, espionage and quasi-political deals.  During the course of the First World War, Persia was technically neutral.  Despite this the warring Persian factions were affected by the rivalry of the Allied and central Powers.  Both the Allied and Central Power interest in Persia lay with the knowledge of Oil and the strategic location of the country.

In August 1914, the Kaiser’s Ministry of War secretly planned to ignite the first Jihad against British and French colonialism throughout the Middle-East.  Berlin sent a small German expedition to modern day Afghanistan, from where the revolution was to be ignited.  One figure of the German team was Wilhelm Wassmuss.

Not only was the Central Power’s plan to ignite fervent revolution in their favour, but also to gain control of the regions oil supply.  Aligned with the Germans, the Ottoman Empire wished to break away the Allied influence of the region and harvest the nationalistic sympathies of the peoples of Asia Minor.  Although Nationalistic movements throughout Imperial Empires led to political upheavals during and immediately after World War One; the decolonisation of Asia as planned by the Ottoman Empire never bore fruit.

The Allied position in 1914 was crucial to the Empires survival and victory of the war. The British government had a contract with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company for the supply of oil to the Navy.  The Company was crucial to the Allied War effort as it was directly in the Ottoman Empires sights.

In looking at the ‘German Lawrence’, Wassmuss recognised the niche for the Central Powers to ferment rebellion against Allied Imperial Powers.  Meeting with both German and Turkish officials in Constantinople in 1914, Wassmuss fermented the plan where he would organise and lead the Persians in a guerrilla war against Britain.  In turn the plan was not only approved by the German foreign office but also provided Wassmuss with caches of gold.

From his location in Mesopotamia, Wassmuss and his expedition moved into Persia and began work to end the Anglo-Russian domination of the Middle-East.

 Based in Bushehr, Wassmuss organised the Tangsir and Qashghai tribes to revolt against the British in the south of the country.  Passing through the towns of Dezful and Shushtar, he conferred with local tribal chiefs and distributed written word urging the tribes of Persia to rise up against Great Britain.

Although he fermented rebellion, his secrecy quickly evaporated and he became a wanted man by British officials

Travelling south, he befriended a local chief who invited him to dinner and who then promptly placed him under armed guard.  Wising to sell Wassmuss to the British, the chieftain sent for British officials.  Despite the arrival of the British, Wassmuss escaped as the bartering between the chieftain and the British gave him time to escape.  Despite his escape, Wassmuss’s luggage was captured by the British.  When opened in London, the luggage held a German secret codebook, which enabled the allies to decipher German communications, most notably the Zimmermann Telegram.

Knowing of Wassmuss’s actions, the British knew he had to be stopped.  The issue of capturing Wassmuss became more difficult as he quickly became a pro-Persian legend within a short period of time.  Organising one tribe after another to rise up against the British, Wassmuss became the German Lawrence of Arabia during his time in Persia.

Whilst buying and persuading Persian natives for the Central Powers, tribal support began to fade when it became obvious that Germany wasn’t going to win the war.  Following the war, Wassmuss, whose spy network ran from Afghanistan to India and who the British offered a £500,000 reward, was imprisoned by the British.

Released in 1920, Wassmuss travelled back to Germany where he failed to persuade the German authorities to honour his pledges and pay the people of Persia.

Deeply embittered, Wassmuss didn’t forget the promises he made to the tribes of Persia.  Returning to Persia in 1924, he purchased land and promised the tribes he would pay them from the profits of farming.  Despite his commitment, the farm failed and Wassmuss returned to Berlin in 1931.

Financially destitute and virtually forgotten, he died a broken man in November 1931.

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