The Persian army--The Persian soldier as he is and as he might
be--When and how he is drilled--Self-doctoring under
difficulties--Misappropriation of the army's salary--Cossack
regiments drilled by Russian officers--Death of the Head
Mullah--Tribute of the Jews--The position of Europeans--A gas
company--How it fulfilled its agreement.
A painful sight is the Persian army. With the exception of the good Cossack cavalry regiment, properly fed, dressed, armed and drilled by foreign instructors such as General Kossackowski, and Russian officers, the infantry and artillery are a wretched lot. There is no excuse for their being so wretched, because there is hardly a people in Asia who would make better soldiers than the Persians if they were properly trained. The Persian is a careless, easy-going devil, who can live on next to nothing; he is a good marksman, a splendid walker and horseman. He is fond of killing, and cares little if he is killed--and he is a master at taking cover. These are all good qualities in a soldier, and if they were brought out and cultivated; if the soldiers were punctually paid and fed and clothed and armed, there is no reason why Persia should not have as good an army as any other nation. The material is there and is unusually good; it only remains to use it properly.
I was most anxious to see the troops at drill, and asked a very high military officer when I might see them.
"We do not drill in summer," was the reply, "it is too hot!"
"Do you drill in winter?"
"No, it is too cold."
"Are the troops then only drilled in the autumn and spring?"
"Sometimes. They are principally drilled a few days before the Shah's birthday, so that they may look well on the parade before his Majesty."
"I suppose they are also only dressed and shod on the Shah's birthday?"
"What type and calibre rifle is used in the Persian army?"
"Make it plural, as plural as you can. They have every type under the sun. But," added the high military officer, "we use of course 'bullet rifles' (fusils à balle) not 'small shot guns'!"
This "highly technical explanation" about finished me up.
As luck or ill-luck would have it, I had an accident which detained me some four weeks in Teheran. While at the Resht hotel, it may be remembered how, walking barefooted on the matting of my room, an invisible germ bored its way into the sole of my foot, and I could not get it out again. One day, in attempting to make its life as lively as the brute made my foot, I proceeded to pour some drops of concentrated carbolic acid upon the home of my invisible tenant. Unluckily, in the operation my arm caught in the blankets of my bed, and in the jerk the whole contents of the bottle flowed out, severely burning all my toes and the lower and upper part of my foot, upon which the acid had quickly dripped between the toes.
With the intense heat of Teheran, this became a very bad sore, and I was unable to stand up for several days. Some ten days later, having gone for a drive to get a little air, a carriage coming full gallop from a side street ran into mine, turning it over, and I was thrown, injuring my leg very badly again; so with all these accidents I was detained in Teheran long enough to witness the Shah's birthday, and with it, for a few days previous, the "actual drilling of the troops."
I have heard it said, but will not be responsible for the statement, that the troops are nearer their full complement on such an auspicious occasion than at any other time of the year, so as to make a "show" before his Majesty. Very likely this is true. When I was in Teheran a great commotion took place, which shows how things are occasionally done in the land of Iran. The ex-Minister of War, Kawam-ed-douleh, who had previously been several times Governor of Teheran, was arrested, by order of the Shah, for embezzling a half year's pay of the whole Persian army. Soldiers were sent to his country residence and the old man, tied on a white mule, was dragged into Teheran. His cap having been knocked off--it is a disgrace to be seen in public without a hat--his relations asked that he should be given a cap, which concession was granted, on payment of several hundred tomans. A meal of rice is said to have cost the prisoner a few more hundred tomans, and so much salt had purposely been mixed with it that the thirsty ex-Minister had to ask for copious libations of water, each tumbler at hundreds of tomans.
Several other high officials were arrested in connection with these army frauds, and would probably have lost their heads, had it not been for the special kindness of the Shah who punished them by heavy fines, repayment of the sums appropriated, and exile. It is a well-known fact in Persia that whether the frauds begin high up or lower down in the scale of officials, the pay often does not reach the private soldier, and if it does is generally reduced to a minimum.
The food rations, too, if received by the men at all, are most irregular, which compels the soldiers to look out for themselves at the expense of the general public. This is a very great pity, for with what the Shah pays for the maintenance of the army, he could easily, were the money not appropriated for other purposes, keep quite an efficient little force, properly instructed, clothed, and armed.
The drilling of the soldiers, which I witnessed just before the Shah's birthday, partook very much of the character of a theatrical performance. The drilling, which hardly ever lasted more than a couple of hours a day, was limited to teaching the soldiers how to keep time while marching and presenting arms. The brass bands played fortissimo--but not benissimo--all the time, and various evolutions were gone through in the spacious place d'armes before the Italian General, in Persian employ, and a bevy of highly-dressed Persian officers. There was a great variety of ragged uniforms, and head-gears, from kolah caps to brass and tin helmets, and the soldiers' ages ranged from ten to sixty.
The soldiers seemed very good-humoured and obedient, and certainly, when I saw them later before the Shah in their new uniforms, they looked quite different and had not the wretched appearance they present in daily life.
But these infantry soldiers do not bear comparison with the Russian-drilled Persian Cossacks. The jump is enormous, and well shows what can be done with these men if method and discipline are used. Of course perfection could not be expected in such a short time, especially considering the difficulties and interference which foreign officers have to bear from the Persians, but it is certainly to be regretted that such excellent material is now practically wasted and useless.
There were several other excitements before I left Teheran. The head Mullah--a most important person--died, and the whole population of Teheran turned out to do him honour when his imposing funeral took place. Curiously enough, the entire male Jewish community marched in the funeral procession--an event unprecedented, I am told, in the annals of Persian Mussulman history. The head Mullah, a man of great wisdom and justice, had, it was said, been very considerate towards the Jews and had protected them against persecution: hence this mark of respect and grief at his death.
The discovery of the ex-Minister of War's frauds, the death of the head Mullah, the reported secret attempts to poison the Shah, the prospects of a drought, the reported murder of two Russians at Resht, and other minor sources of discontent, all coming together, gave rise to fears on the part of Europeans that a revolution might take place in Teheran. But such rumours are so very frequent in all Eastern countries that generally no one attaches any importance to them until it is too late. Europeans are rather tolerated than loved in Persia, and a walk through the native streets or bazaars in Teheran is quite sufficient to convince one of the fact. Nor are the Persians to be blamed, for there is hardly a nation in Asia that has suffered more often and in a more shameful manner from European speculators and adventurers than the land of Iran.
Perhaps the country itself, or rather the people, with their vainglory and empty pomp, are particularly adapted to be victimised by impostors and are easy preys to them. Some of the tricks that have been played upon them do not lack humour. Take, for instance, the pretty farce of the Compagnie générale pour l'éclairage et le chauffage en Perse, which undertook to light the city of Teheran with no less than one thousand gas lights. Machinery was really imported at great expense from Europe for the manufacture of the gas--many of the heavier pieces of machinery are still lying on the roadside between Resht and Teheran--extensive premises were built in Teheran itself, and an elaborate doorway with a suitable inscription on it, is still to be seen; but the most important part of all--the getting of the coal from which the gas was to be extracted--had not been considered. The Lalun coal mines, which offered a gleam of hope to the shareholders, were exploited and found practically useless. The Company and Government came to loggerheads, each accusing the other of false dealing, and the result was that the Persians insisted on the Company lighting up Teheran with the agreed 1,000 lights. If gas could not be manufactured, oil lights would do. There was the signed agreement and the Company must stick to it.
The Company willingly agreed, but as the document did not specify the site where each lamp-post should be situate nearly all were erected, at a distance of only a few feet from one another--a regular forest of them--in the two main streets of the European settlement.
One single man is employed after dark to set the lamps alight, and when he has got to the end of the two streets he proceeds on his return journey to blow them all out again. By ten o'clock everything is in perfect darkness.
The Company now claim that they have fulfilled their agreement!
The Belgian Company for the manufacture of Beetroot Sugar was another example of how speculations sometimes go wrong, and no wonder. In theory the venture seemed quite sound, for the consumption of sugar in Persia is large, and if it had been possible to produce cheap sugar in the country instead of importing it from Russia, France and India, huge profits would have been probable; but here again the same mistake was made as by the gas company. The obtaining of the raw material was neglected.
The sugar refinery was built at great cost in this case, too, machinery was imported to manufacture the three qualities of sugar most favoured by the Persians--loaf sugar, crystallised sugar, and sugar-candy,--but all this was done before ascertaining whether it was possible to grow the right quality of beetroot in sufficient quantities to make the concern pay. Theoretically it was proved that it would be possible to produce local sugar at a price which, while leaving the Company a huge profit, would easily beat Russian sugar, by which French and Indian sugar have now been almost altogether supplanted.
A model farm was actually started (and is still in existence) near Shah-Abdul Azim, where beetroot was to be grown in large quantities, the experts declaring that the soil was better suited for the crop than any to be found in Europe. Somehow or other it did not answer as well as expected. Moreover, the question of providing coal for the engines proved--as in the case of the Gas Company--to be another serious stumbling block. An attempt to overcome this difficulty by joining with the Gas Company in working the Lalun Mines was made, but, alas! proved an expensive failure.
Moreover, further difficulties were encountered in obtaining the right manure for the beetroots, in order that the acids, which delay crystallisation, might be eliminated; and the inexperience, carelessness and reluctance with which the natives took up the new cultivation--and, as it did not pay, eventually declined to go on with it--render it by no means strange that the sugar factory, too, which was to make the fortunes of so many became a derelict enterprise.