Nader Shah, the Persian Napoleon

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“Battle of Karnal” painting by Adel Adili

Nader Shah, a former ghulam, seized effective control of the empire under the last Safavid shah before claiming the throne for himself in 1736. The future conqueror started out as Nader Khan, an able leader from the Turkman Afshar tribe in northern Khorasan. He had initially fought with the Afghans against the Uzbeks, but after Esfahan fell Na der split from the Afghan army and offered his services to the Safavids in 1727. He assembled an army and began the reconsolidation of the country, displaying the military genius that led some historians to refer to him as the Napoleon of Persia or the Second Alexander. After successfully expelling the Afghans from Safavid domains in 1729, Nader was the true ruler, although he acknowledged Sultan Hussein’s weak son, Tahmasp II (r. 1722-32), as the Safavid shah. In 1730, Nader decisively defeated the Ottomans at the Battle of Hamadan, which he followed up with a swift occupation of southern Iraq and Azerbaijan. While Nader was quelling a revolt in Khorasan in 1732, Tahmasp led part of the Safavid army against the Ottomans and was soundly beaten. The young shah made an unfavorable peace treaty that surrendered Georgia, Armenia, and Nader’s gains in the west from two years earlier. Enraged by the shah’s actions, Nader deposed the Safavid monarch and then served as regent to Tahmasp’s infant son, Abbas III, until 1736, at which time Nader declared himself shah.

Nader Shah used every religious and political ploy in his power to build up his position in Persia. He was a Sunni and proclaimed Sunnism as the religion of Iran at his coronation. He made various attempts to reconcile his Persian subjects’ Shia beliefs with the Sunni creed and sought to get the Ottomans to recognize this new Persian Sunnism as its own sect. His motivation may have been to facilitate relations with the Sunni Ottomans, but possibly his real aim was to overthrow the Turks by uniting the Muslim world with him as its head. This would extend his domains to the ancient Achaemenian boundaries and would create a cohesive Muslim front better able to prevent the depredation of the rising Christian powers of Europe. Nader Shah’s personal devotion was very shallow, however, which created doubts about his real intentions, especially among his rivals for Islamic leadership in the Ottoman capital of Istanbul. For the most part, Nader Shah’s major motivation for conquest was to restore lost territory and protect his frontiers against avaricious neighbors. He also sought to improve Iran’s economic position through plunder and to reassert Iran’s control over the silk trade, which had been damaged by the Russian and Ottoman conquests during the latter stages of the Safavid decline.

Nader Shah’s military was administratively and organizationally a direct continuation of the Safavid establishment. Its ideology and resources had changed, however, which affected the army’s composition and role. Most of his core troops were Afghans, steppe Turkman, and Khorasan Kurds who shared Nader Shah’s Sunni beliefs. These Sunni fighters outnumbered the other members of Nader’s military, the Shia Turkman and the ethnic Persian soldiers from central and western Iran who made up the Safavid partisans. In its later campaigns, the army swelled as various tribal forces, allies, camp followers, and freebooters joined it. The army Nader assembled in 1741 for a campaign in Dagestan in the northern Caucasus supposedly included up to one hundred and fifty thousand men, with Indians and Uzbeks joining the mix of nationalities. His 1743 campaign against the Ottomans allegedly involved a polyglot and multisectarian host of three hundred seventy- five thousand, which included Sunni Turkman, Afghans, Uzbeks, and Kurds; Shia Persians, Arabs, and Turks; Christian Armenians and Georgians; and both Sunni and Shia Indians. Nader Shah’s large army became the main element of the state, and he subordinated the Persian economy, much diminished by Afghan and Ottoman occupations, to the needs of his growing military. His requirement for more and more funds probably was a factor driving him to his later military conquests, especially after increased taxation to support the army provoked rebellions.

Organizationally, the army was composed primarily of cavalry recruited from pastoral nomadic tribes, who were lightly armored and armed with lances and broadswords. In a shift from past Safavid practice, Nader often supplied horses to his cavalry at his own expense, possibly to reduce the horsemen’s reluctance to put their mounts at risk, especially against firearms. The rest of Nader’s army was composed of a large force with gunpowder weapons that was trained to use them effectively on the battlefield. Infantry armed with matchlock muskets were recruited from the Persian peasantry. To preserve their newly developed skills, Nader enlisted these poor souls for life, with desertion punishable by death. Another force of musketeers, the jazayerchis, generally served on horseback as a mobile force and carried a larger musket, called a jazayer, which was fired dismounted from a rest. The Persian musketeers used a powder horn and ball rather than a paper cartridge, measuring the appropriate charge for the range of each target. This flexibility improved their accuracy, especially over longer ranges, although at the cost of a slower rate of fire.

Nader Shah clearly believed in the decisive impact of fi repower, but the region’s rugged terrain and the absence of good roads, which had been allowed to deteriorate since Abbas the Great’s reign, inhibited the use of heavy siege artillery. Instead, Nader had a small artillery force that employed the zanburak, the small cannon that could swivel around on its mount on its special camel saddle and fired a half- pound to two- pound ball. Nader’s corps of musketeers and field artillery were well disciplined, if not always well trained. Lacking a skilled corps of engineers, Nader’s various sieges were less successful than his battles.

Nader Shah recognized the importance of having his own navy, especially following his 1741-42 campaign in Dagestan, when he had to rely on mercilessly greedy Russian merchants for the transportation of supplies. He increased spending and initiated several major projects to build Caspian and Persian Gulf fleets to reduce his dependence on foreign shipping. He first ordered eleven ships from Surat, India, that were constructed of teak and known for their durability. After the first ship was delivered in 1741, Nader balked at the cost. The traditional source of lumber for the Gulf region, however, was India, and Nader Shah was forced to devise a new means to create his navy.

Ignoring the practical problems and costs, Nader conscripted thousands of his subjects and enemy prisoners of war to procure timber from the Alborz Mountains, some six hundred miles from the port of Bushehr, where the new ships were to be constructed. Much of the lumber was transported on the shoulders of the conscripted peasants because there was a shortage of wagons, and large numbers died of exhaustion in the effort to move Nader’s shipbuilding material. A cannon foundry to provide arms for his ships was built at Gombroom (near Jarun and part of the area incorporated into the modern port of Bandar Abbas). In the end, however, the shipwrights and other laborers at Bushehr were unable to construct the type and number of ships Nader Shah wanted. He turned back to the Indian shipyards, and by 1745 his navy numbered some thirty ships. The Shah’s demands for men and money for a navy increased popular grievances against him, and he eventually abandoned the effort to build a large fleet and instead sought an alliance with the British in an effort to get them to supply him ships.

Nader Shah was a poor judge of naval talent and made serious mistakes in choosing his admirals and marine commanders. Years before the Dagestan campaign, Nader had selected Latif Khan to be his first admiral and to create a small naval force. In 1735 Latif sailed into the Shatt al- Arab to threaten the city of Al Basrah with a few small vessels and three ghurabs, or “grabs,” a local type of trading ship used by Arabs on the coast. The local Ottoman commander commandeered two British ships and attacked Latif’s small flotilla, which quickly retreated. In 1737 Latif provided transports to move troops to Oman to help the local ruler suppress rebels there. In the course of these operations, the Persian land commander, Muhammad Taqi Khan, poisoned Latif and took over command of the navy. Taqi Khan’s poor treatment of his Arab seamen caused a mutiny that ended the Persian intervention.

Over the next several years, new admirals fared little better, because they and their subordinate officers were unprofessional and generally incompetent. The Arab sailors, upon whom Nader Shah’s navy relied, repeatedly mutinied, and in 1740 mutineers waged a war of coastal raids against Iran. Nader sent two admirals to end the raids, but they spent more time quarrelling over precedence and command. One eventually was imprisoned by his rival, Imamverdi Khan, a seriously unqualified officer. Khan was later killed when a cannon exploded after he ordered its powder charge doubled with the goal of increasing the weapon’s range. In January 1742 Nader Shah inexplicably turned again to Muhammad Taqi Khan to be his chief admiral. Persian forces intervened in another rebellion in Oman later that year, capturing Oman’s capital, Muscat, for Nader’s Omani ally. After a lengthy siege and three thousand casualties, the Persian ground forces, under Kalb Ali Khan, captured the city of Suhar in July 1743, which put an end to the rebellion. With Oman pacified, Nader recalled most of his forces. For a second time, however, Muhammad Taqi Khan murdered his superior officer, killing Kalb Ali and then attempting to spark a revolt in Fars. Na der put down the revolt, but the disruption in the navy prevented him from supporting his garrisons in Oman, which were overrun and cost him the intervention’s political gains.

In land warfare Nader’s success rested on careful planning and preparations as much as on the capabilities of his armed forces. He effectively mobilized large forces for his campaigns and was careful to stockpile provisions to sustain his forces in the field. Nader paid attention to the morale of his army and did not rely just on the material improvements he made to its organization and administration. He ensured that his troops were regularly paid and fully equipped, which, along with the prospect of spoils from their successful wars, undoubtedly helped to keep them motivated. Nader maintained his officers’ support and commitment with generous gifts of money, horses, and weapons.

Daily exercises to prepare the troops for campaigns were routine in Nader’s army. In these exercises, according to a Greek observer, the cavalry practiced wheels and counterwheels, charges, retreats, and counterattacks while using real weapons. The jazayerchis also exercised together and even conducted target practice, expending expensive powder and balls to improve their skills. Nader sometimes joined in the exercises, demonstrating his skill with a bow on horseback and generally leading by example. Individual soldiers observed doing well by Nader and his commanders were often promoted on the spot, providing further encouragement for each soldier to do his best. In addition, the diversified ethnic composition of the army probably helped to encourage competition and improve military effectiveness. It also lessened the risk of disaffection spreading and offset the influence of the Safavid partisans. The large amount of resources and time put into building his army meant that Nader Shah could not allow it to be demobilized or allow the soldiers to return to their tribal homelands, as had been the Safavid practice.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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