IRONSIDE, WILLIAM EDMUND, Field Marshall, 1st Baron Ironside of Archangel and Ironside (b. Edinburgh, 6 May 1880; d. London, 22 September 1959), noted for his important role as commander of British forces in Persia in 1920-21. He was the second child of Surgeon-Major William Ironside, and was educated at Tonbridge School and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and commissioned in the Royal Artillery Regiment in 1899. He served in the South African war, 1899-1902, and in France in World War I, 1914-18. After commanding Allied forces in Archangel, North Russia (1918-19) and British forces in Izmit, Turkey (1920), he commanded some 6,000 British forces in Persia (NORPERFORCE) with headquarters in Qazvin from 4 October 1920 to 18 February 1921. There followed a succession of senior staff appointments and promotions in the UK and India, culminating as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) on the eve of World War II. In May 1940, when a German invasion of Britain seemed imminent, Ironside was appointed Commander-in-Chief of Home Forces but was retired in July of the same year.

Ironside’s four and a half months in Persia were notable on two accounts: first, his role in the dismissal of more than a hundred Russian officers and NCOs of the Cossack Division and their replacement by Persians under the command of Reżā Khan, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty; and second, his encouragement of Reżā Khan’s coup d’état of 1299/1921(q.v.; see GREAT BRITAIN v). On each occasion Ironside acted on his own responsibility without authority from London. He distrusted Russian loyalties after the 1917 Revolution and, with the help of Herman Norman, the British Minister in Tehran, persuaded a reluctant shah to dismiss Colonel Starosselsky, the Cossack Division’s commanding officer, and all the Russians under him. It was also Ironside who selected Lt. Colonel Reżā Khan as Starosselsky’s successor. This he did on the advice of Lt. Colonel Henry Smyth of the Cheshire Regiment (not Lt. Colonel R. C. Smythe of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, as is sometimes said), a British officer temporarily attached to the Cossacks, and after several visits to their camp at Āqā Bābā near Qazvin, where he was much impressed by the contingent (ātriyād) from Hamadān under Reżā Khan “the most manly Persian I have yet struck” (MS. Diary 29.1.1921). Ironside’s decision “to let the Cossacks go” (MS. Diary 15.2.1921) was because he wanted a strong military commander in the capital to save the country from the Bolsheviks and chaos and to safeguard the imminent withdrawal of NORPERFORCE from Persia. In return, Ironside recorded, Reżā Khan promised not to hinder British withdrawal or depose the shah (MS. Diary 12.2.1921).

An edited volume of Ironside’s Persian diary High Road to Command was published in 1972. He was knighted in 1919, promoted to full general in 1935, and to field marshall in 1940, and raised to the peerage in 1941. Nicknamed “Tiny” because of his great height, he has been described by a fellow officer as “simple, modest, and forthright . . . universally liked and respected . . . an intelligent, imaginative, and unconventional soldier” (Roderick Macleod in the Dictionary of National Biography, 1951-60 edition, pp. 533-35). He was a good linguist, qualifying as an Army interpreter in seven languages. He married in 1915, and had a daughter and a son who succeeded him to the peerage. 


Archival sources. 2nd Lord Ironside, Private papers including MS Persian diary, London University, Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives. R. Mcleod papers, Public Record Office, Kew, UK.

Published sources. Dictionary of National Biography, 1951-60 ed., pp. 533-55.

Cyrus Ghani, Iran and the Rise of Reza Shah, London, 1998.

R.M. (R. Mcleod) and H. G. de W, “Field Marshall Lord Ironside,” Journal of the Royal Artillery 86, London, 1959, pp. 153-57.

William Edmund Ironside, Tannenberg: The First Thirty Days in East Prussia, Edinburgh, 1925.

Idem, Archangel 1918-19, London, 1953.

Idem The Ironside Diaries 1937-1940, ed. R. Mcleod and D. Kelly, London, 1962.

Idem, High Road to Command. The Diaries of Major-General Sir E. Ironside 1920-22, ed. Lord Ironside, London, 1972.

Richard Henry Ullman, The Anglo-Soviet Accord, Princeton, 1973.

Donald N. Wilber, Riza Shah Pahlavi, New York, 1975.

Denis Wright, The English Amongst the Persians, London, 1977.

(Denis Wright)

Originally Published: December 15, 2006

Last Updated: December 15, 2006

Cite this entry:

Denis Wright, “IRONSIDE, WILLIAM EDMUND,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2006, available at (accessed on 16 August 2017).