Britain’s quest for oil: the First World War and the Peace Conferences
by Martin Gibson
published by Helion & Company, 2017
in the Wolverhampton Military Studies series
ISBN (hardback) 978 1 911512 07 3
Hardback. 196 pages plus appendices, bibliography, index. Not illustrated but for three maps.
Reviewed by Chris Baker.
Unlike those of more recent times, the Great War is not usually regarded as a war for oil and petroleum. After all, the internal combustion engine was still largely in its infancy and the economic dominance of the motor car lay in the future. It was, however, an important factor and in particular it was behind much of Britain’s colonial war of conquest in the Middle East. The Royal Navy, by a considerable measure the largest in the world, was in the process of switching to oil after decades of being coal-driven. On its own, the navy represented a very large oil consumer on the world stage of 1914-1918. Britain and India committed a force to Mesopotamia in 1914 simply to secure the existing British interests in the oilfield of Abadan; by 1918 that campaign had developed into a land-grab, greedy eyes on vast oil finds in the Mosul vilayet and elsewhere in the north of Mesopotamia. Its action there and the carving up of oil interests with the United States and France at the 1919 peace conferences would have consequences that impact upon us even now.
“Britain’s quest for oil” is not a military history but a good, academic analysis of the oil industry as it was in the early 20th Century; Britain’s position and strategy, both military and political; and the diplomacy and disputes that shaped the eventual carve-up. There are statistics galore and it appears to be very solidly researched. As someone interested in the economics of the Great War I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it is inevitably fairly specialist in nature and not likely to challenge for a slot on the best-seller shelves of an airport or railway station bookshop. The book is nicely produced in the good quality materials we have come to expect from Helion. A good and valuable read for anyone interested in this subject.
I would recommend that it is read in conjunction with Ian Rutledge’s “Enemy on the Euphrates”, which covers the complex and often depressing military situation of northern Mesopotamia in the Great War and the years that followed; it brings out the problems posed for British oil expansion in what was then an increasingly hostile Muslim region.