Thursday, 28 February 2013

Policing Persia: Swedes Very far From Home

In the early 20th century, some forces in Persia were pushing to modernise the country which had, in regards to organisation and government, changed very little in the past few hundred years.

The Shah of Persia arriving in Ourmiah, 1911 (source: Library of Congress)

In July 1910, the Democrats came to power and one part of their modernisation program was the construction of a national gendarmerie - a sort of paramilitarian force that was part police force and part armed force aimed at keeping the peace by any means necessary. While events soon lead to the program being dropped, the idea of a gendarmerie survived, partly likely because it was in the interest of the two super-powers in the region - Russia and Great Britain - to ensure safe passage through the notoriously dangerous region. As an example, Mr Smart, the British Consul at Shiraz, was attacked in the neighbourhood of Kazerun in December 1912. Grazed by a bullet, and trapped under his wounded horse, he was only saved due to the efficiency of the troop of the Central India Horse that escorted him and the kind care of some of the locals, and the incident led to considerable diplomatic tension. In fact, the Gendarmerie was to be in great part funded by Britain and Russia – for example, in may 1913, the British Government advanced a sum of £100,000 to the Persian government for this purpose, following the Smart-incident.

However, in order to build such a force, Persia needed help from the outside since the country lacked officers with the relevant sort of training. The question was which country to turn to? In 1907, Russia and Great Britain had, much to the outrage of the Persians, divided the country into two speheres of influence; one Russian and one Britain. Naturally, it was unthinkable for either side to allow the other party to organise a national armed Persian force, and they also vetoed Teheran's first choice Italy, because Italy was viewed to be too much of a power in itself.

Sweden, however... Let's face it; while the Russians may once have been trounced by Swedish forces in battles such as Narva, Sweden in the early 20th century was not that impressive. In fact, she had just voluntarily granted Norway independence and was now only a small fraction of the Baltic power she had once been. Nobody needed fear the Swedes – least of all super-powers like Russia and Britain.

Hence, in August 1911, Colonel Harald O. Hjalmarson (helpful tip: 'hj' is pronounced as an English 'y', so he would be 'Yalmarson')  arrived and with the help of several other Swedish officers, began the laborious task of organising a gendarmerie, aimed at maintaining security on the highways and roads. It was called the Persian Central Governemt Gendarmerie (or in Persian, Zhandarmiri-yi Dawlati).

 General Harald Hjalmarson (source: Wikipedia)

The Swedish officers were to a large degree Swedish aristocrats, and the Persian officers were also drawn from the higher social strata and well-educated – many of them spoke French, for instance. At the end of 1912 the Gendarmerie consisted of 21 Swedes and nearly 3,000 Persian officers and men. By the end of 1913, the number of Swedish officers had risen to 36 while nearly 6,000 Persians were employed. According to an article in The Times, around 2,000 of them were mounted, and they were organised in six regiments, or more accurately, nine battalions.

The outbreak of World War I led to a distinct shift in policy. First of all, Sweden recalled all the officers who were on the roll for active duty. Second, Persia was in a very delicate position, finding itself between Germany's ally Turkey and British India. Both sides wooed the Persians, who nominally remained neutral. However, the Gendarmerie had distinct German loyalties. Not only were the Swedish officers by tradition friendly towards their bigger Germanic cousin, but nationalist Persian forces who were still outraged at Russia's and Britain's high-handedness in splitting the country between them, were also in favour of Germany. They accepted subsidiaries from Germany and covertly aided German expiditions, such as the expedition headed by Niedermayer, as well as allowing Wasserman's proslyting among local potentates in southern Persia.

In 1916, the force split; some siding with the nationalists, actively fighting the Russians, while parts of the first and second regiments in Teheran remained neutral along with their Swedish officers. The troops who had remained neutral would later form the nucleus for the reconstructed Gendarmerie, which took part in the campaigns against the Bolsheviks in the Caspian provinces and the Kurdish rebellion in Azerbaijan, as well as keeping up its police duties of guarding the roads.

After the coup d'état in 1921, the Gendarmerie formed the core for the new national Iranian army together with the the Iranian Cossack Division and the remaining Swedish officers returned home. Harald O. Hjalmarson would later head the Swedish Brigade in the Finnish Civil War, and died in 1919, only 51 years old.

And that is how, bizarrely, a few Swedish officers actively aided Germany's overtures to the Muslim World during World War I.


"The Unrest In Southern Persia." Times [London, England] 5 Apr. 1912: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 28 July 2012.
"British Officer Killed In Persia." Times [London, England] 12 Dec. 1912: 6. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 28 July 2012.
"Policing Persia." Times [London, England] 27 Dec. 1913: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 28 July 2012.
"Indian Soldiers Attacked in Dangerous Pass: The Consul Smart Incident." The Straits Times, 26 January 1912, Page 2

Cronin, Stephanie, Gendarmerie, Encyclopaedia Iranica, online edition, 28 July 2012 (available at

Hopkirk, Peter, On Secret Service East of Constantinople: the plot to bring down the British empire, J. Murray, London, 1994

Wikipedia; entry on Swedish Gendarmerie in English, and on Harald Hjalmarson in Swedish.

(This post was originally posted on my old blog)

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