Global Policy Forum

Britain's Priority: Control of Oil Reserves


By Helmut Mejcher

The following text is an excerpt from Imperial Quest for Oil: Iraq 1910-1928, St. Antony's Middle East Monographs no. 6
(London: Ithaca Press, 1976).

Here, Helmut Mejcher gives the lie to Lord Curzon, the British Foreign Secretary, who famously stated "Oil had not the remotest connection with my attitude over Mosul." Thanks to a careful study of the correspondence and official archives, Mejcher demonstrates that oil was in fact at the center of British government thinking. This text was published as part of a research series by St. Antony's College, Oxford University.

(pp. 35 - 42)

In the last months of the war cotton, grain and navigation rights were interests which became negligible compared with the oil–rush originating in the Admiralty. Bound up with the oil problem was – thanks to American pressure – the whole issues of the Open Door principle. To assess the full impact of the oil issue and the Open Door challenge as well as that of the Admiralty's reaction to them on policy making, one has to look at the estimated capacity of world oil resources and of the demands of the Empire. The figures, and also the wording, are revealing.

Physical Control was the slogan under which a massive campaign was set in motion against the Open Door principle. That the Admiralty's oil expert, [Rear Admiral Sir Edmund] Slade, wanted more than the Open Door under British control is clearly shown in one of the summary statements of the policy which he suggested. As he urged the Admiralty, it was necessary ‘to encourage and assist British Companies to obtain control of as many oil-producing areas in foreign countries as possible, with the stipulation (in order to prevent control being obtained by foreign interests) that the oil produced should only be sold to or through British oil-distributing Companies. These oil-producing areas could be developed to assist in providing out requirements in times of peace whilst our own resources in British territory can be conserved to war.'48 It is evident from his conclusion that, besides the figures and the principles, the Navy's war-time experience of the important role of bunker fuel for sustaining naval actions and blockades must have contributed greatly to the rush for oil and to the pleas for the establishment of monopolies.

The facts about fuel oil and oil reserves are as follows. Before the war, coal had begun to be replaced by oil, which as a means of raising steam was about twice as economical, and four times so if used in internal combustion engines. Not only were oil-burning vessels more economical, they were also faster. Therefore, as Slade emphasized, it was certain that oil would gradually take the place of coal for all maritime purpose. Moreover, the control should be absolute, with no foreign interests of any sort involved. However, as foreign interests were already taking between 20 and 25 million pounds sterling annually from the profits of British oil concerns, Britain would first have to become mistress in her own house. Clearly, because most of the new oil-deposits lay outside the boundaries of the Empire, her domain must be enlarged. But anther factor rendered expansion necessary: experts reckoned that the exportable surplus of the main sources of supply hitherto tapped would begin to decrease rapidly after the war. Consequently the major oil-producing countries of the day would be in a position to impose serious restriction upon the Empire's supplies.

The following table shows Britain's main sources of supply, the total output of those sources, the exportable surplus and the amount of the latter received by Britain in the year 1913.49

1913      Total output      Exportable surplus      Amount received by UK

USA      33, 150, 000      7, 120, 000                 16% of total or 1, 100, 000

Rumania   1, 880, 000          940, 000                 19% of total or 230, 000

Russia      8, 370, 000          670, 000                 19% of total or 130, 000

Mexico     3, 480, 000       1, 740,000                  4% of total or 70, 000

Dutch        1, 500, 000                                         8% of total or 125, 000

When Rumania and later Russia dropped out of the Entente the supply percentages altered to the extent that 80 per cent came from the United States. Although it was agreed that this temporary dislocation and its causes would probably cease to exist after the war, other far more powerful factors were certain by that time radically to worsen the entire petroleum position. An inquiry ordered by the United States Senate in 1916 had reported that most of the American oil-fields had already reached and passed their prime and were on the down-grade. Given a rise in yearly consumption, the estimated resources would, according to the most optimistic calculation, last for less than 25 years. As a consequence the Americans reckoned that exports would have to be drastically curtailed. In Admiral Slade's view supplies from America would greatly diminish after the war, if not entirely cease within 10 years, because the Senate would not allow the petroleum resources of the US to be endangered by excessive export. Predictions for the other sources of supply were similarly pessimistic. The output of the Russian fields, though likely to increase in the future, would nevertheless be absorbed by the increase of industrial development in Russia. No increase of supply was to be expected from Rumania, quite apart from any question of political control, because output there had also shown signs of diminution and was generally likely to be absorbed by the domestic market, or else controlled by the Central Powers. A great increase in output was likely from Mexico's large oil-fields; but since stocks in the United States were decreasing while consumption was increasing, the USA was bound to the augment her present intake of 75 per cent of Mexico's exportable surplus. A large proportion of Mexico's crude oil was in any case of very low grade and yielded only 60 per cent usable oil. The Dutch East Indies and the Burmah fields were not capable of great expansion and were likely to be absorbed by markets nearer the source of supply.

Slade next turned to the estimates of the future demands of Britain and the Empire. The prospects were rather bleak. In the middle of 1918 annual imports of petroleum intro Britain amounted to approximately 6, 000, 0000 tons, made up of 3.2 million tons for home consumption, 1 million tons for building up stocks of naval fuel and 1.5 million tons for other purposes. The requirements of the Dominions, Colonies and India added a total of 4 million tons, making a grand total for the Empire of 10 million tons a year. Obviously the Empire had to look for fresh sources. At the same time the increasing demands of other countries, and the resultant stiffening of competition for the limited supplies available, had to be considered. In the Admiralty's view the greatest competition was likely from the German Empire. Having experienced the effect of Britain's absolute control over her coal reserves, she would presumably stick at nothing to prevent the control of liquid fuel from passing into British hands and try any means to secure it for herself. Severe competition was inevitable and Britain would have to prepare for it. In retrospect, Slade's Memorandum may also be seen as anticipating the impending naval rivalry between Britain and America, although this motive was yet nowhere explicitly stated.

That the Admiralty did not act entirely on its own, but was under pressure from British oil groups, is clear from the way Slade's Memorandum was brought to the attention of the Cabinet Secretariate. Approaches made to [Sir Maurice] Hankey, Secretary of the War Cabinet ‘by people with knowledge of oil production' started the ball rolling. These people told him ‘privately' that the future supplies of oil were very uncertain: the USA would presumably consume all their home-produced oil, and a good deal of the Mexican production as well. Hankey was further told that the largest potential oilfields then known were in Persia and Mesopotamia, and that these included some as far north as Mosul. Hankey does not name the people who approached him, but it is likely that they were in contact with the Admiralty for Hankey's next steps indicate that his requests for more information were directed to the Admiralty. When he wrote Sir Eric Geddes, First Lord of the Admiralty, on July 30 he received in reply Admiral Slade's Memorandum which bore the date of the previous day. As this was an elaborate document well supported by comprehensive statistics and analysis, it must have been in careful preparation for an appreciable time.

The approaches made to Hankey were well timed. Arthur Balfour was due to make declaration on War Aims at the forthcoming Cabinet Meeting. Clearly the matter of oil could not be left aside. As Hankey put it bluntly to Geddes: ‘the retention of the oil-bearing regions in Mesopotamia and Persia in British hands, as well as proper strategic boundary to cover them, would appear to be a first class British war aim… we should obtain possession of all the oil-bearing regions in Mesopotamia and Southern Persia.'50

Hankey himself gives evidence that this had never before been adopted as the foremost strategic aim in the Middle East. Even now the Chief of Staff's paper on the Future Campaign had declared both Palestine and Mesopotamia to be ‘dead ends' for the enemy's new line of penetration to the East pointed to the Caspian and from thence through Turkestan or Persia towards India. Of course, Hankey must long since have had been a member of the De Bunsen Committee early in 1915. This Committee's report had emphasised that the presence of oil made it commercially desirable for Britain ‘to carry our control on to Mosul, in the vicinity of which place there are valuable wells possession of which by another Power would be prejudicial to our interests'.51 The possession of Mosul was further advocated because it provided an opportunity for creating a ‘granary which should ensure an ample and unhampered supply of corn to this country.'52

As the oilfields round Mosul were not covered in Slade's paper of the 29th, Hankey at once asked Slade for further information and for confirmation of what he had been told about Mosul. Slade not only confirmed his news but also showed Hankey a map on which the oilfields were marked. Hankey asked him to forward through the Admiralty a further short memorandum, and with it the map giving the evidence about oil deposits in Mesopotamia north of the line then held by the Expeditionary Force. As there was a Cabinet meeting next day, Hankey wrote at once to Balfour and LIoyd George without waiting for the additional memorandum; he received this the day before the meeting. As the two letters reveal not only the importance attached to the Mosul oilfields and the actual ‘military stagnation' of the campaign in Mesopotamia, but also the lines along which opinion on the subject was developing, relevant extracts from the two letters are worth recording. In both of his statements Hankey drew attention to Slade's first paper to the additional information he had received from him. Hankey wrote to Balfour: ‘As I understand the matter, oil in the next war will occupy the place of coal in the present war, or at least a parallel place to coal. The only big potential supply that we can get under British control is the Persian and Mesopotamian supply. The point where you come in is that the control over these oil supplies becomes a first class British War Aim. I write to urge that in your statement to the Imperial War Cabinet you should rub this in. You will do it much better than the Admiralty will, and as an ex-First Lord you have greater interest in it than most…'53

In this letter LIoyd George of the same date, Hankey referred in particular to the recent assessment made by General Staff of the state of the Mesopotamian Campaign. He continued: ‘There is no military advantage in pushing forward in Mesopotamia. Briefly the argument is that the German gun is now aimed at India, across the Caspian Sea, instead of, as formerly down the Baghdad Railway. From Mesopotamia we cannot affect their advance across the Caspian.

Admiral Slade's paper. However, and more particularly the map which he has shown me, suggest that there may be reasons other than purely military for pushing on in Mesopotamia where the British have an enormous preponderance of force. Would it not be an advantage, before the end of the war, to secure the valuable oil wells in Mesopotamia?'54

At the Cabinet meeting next day, on the proposal of Walter Long, Secretary of State for the Colonies, the matter was referred for further consideration to Lord Hardcourt's Petroleum Policy Committee.55 The Committee reviewed the earlier attempts to bring Shell under British control; like the Foreign Office, they rated as being too high in demands of Shell for sharing in the A.P.O.C. Later in the year, the Committee proposed to the Government that it should recognize as valid the concession obtained in 1914 by T.P.C., and that it should purchase from the Public Trustee the German 25 per cent share and offer part of it to the Shell Company. Throughout, of course, Lord Harcourt's Committee exerted pressure on the Cabinet to increase physical control over the oil-bearing regions in upper Iraq.

Meantime the Cabinet was preoccupied with the series of heavy German offensives on the Western Front. In Mesopotamia, the British Army refrained from any military activity during the hot season. But as the day of Balfour's statement on War Aims approached, the question of the oil-bearing regions came to the fore again. Balfour had previously told Hankey that he regarded the acquisition of the oil-bearing regions as a ‘purely Imperialist War Aim.'But Hankey, now also inspired by Harcourt, continued to try and convert him. The day before the statement was due he mixed the oil and water of the Upped Mesopotamian regions into a potion for the idealist. He wrote:

‘it appears to me even viewed from the point of view of the idealist, that it is almost unavoidable that we should acquire the Northern regions of Mesopotamia…neither President Wilson nor any one else will wish to place vast regions of Mesopotamia bordering the Tigris and Euphrates again under Turkish control….

The question I ask, therefore is as to whether it is not of great importance to push forward Mesopotamia at least as far as Lesser Zab, or as far as is necessary to secure a proper supply of water. Incidentally this would give us most of the oil-bearing regions…'56

On October 2 Hankey's ceaseless efforts at last began to bear fruit. Marshall, who was in command of the Mesopotamian Campaign, was requested by the War Office to study the note that follows; and as it ended with a reminder that any action to be effective must be initiated without delay, he was on his way to Mosul by mid-October:

‘The Turks have been placed in a position of extreme difficulty by the victories in Palestine and the collapse of Bulgaria, and a request from them for cessation of hostilities in the near future may result. It is advisable in these circumstances that as much ground as possible should be gained up the Tigris. Such action is important not only for political reasons but also to occupy as large a portion of the oil-bearing regions as possible. At the same time, the work on the L and C to the Caspian should not be retarded in any way as the development of this route is looked upon as of primary importance. In view of the possibility that General Allenby's Cavalry may be pushed on northwards towards Aleppo, the possibility of making a Cavalry raid by a small force up the Euphrates with a view to assisting his operations should be studied by you.'57

The early cessation of hostilities with Turkey had become so desirable an object that Marshall's advance along the Tigris developed into a race against time. Indeed, since his object was extensive occupation rather than defeat of the Turks, peace constituted a menace for the Mesopotamian Campaign. As this proceeded, the importance of capturing Mosul itself caused some slight difference of opinion in the Cabinet. Nobody contemplated renouncing claim to the city; there was general agreement that it must in any case be taken away from Turkey. But some concluded that, in view of the urgency of eliminating Turkey from the war, it was more appropriate to obtain the surrender of the city by means of an armistice or by making it one of the conditions of peace. Others, however, preferred taking it by military action despite any consequent prolongation of the war. The latter view prevailed, chiefly because the intricate question had been decided of whether a peace or only an armistice should be concluded with Turkey. In the end, the pause which these deliberation involved gave Marshall valuable time in his advance on Mosul.

By October 21, Marshall, although pushing as fast as he could towards Mosul, was still about 140 miles away. Three days later Allenby was still 46 miles from Aleppo, while Marshall was further than this from Mosul. Both were once more urged to press on and occupy the two cities. Finally, on 30 October, the armistice was signed at Moudros. When Admiral Calthrop sailed into the Straits the British Forces in Mesopotamia were still advancing upon Mosul. Active hostilities had been in progress not far south of the town at the very moment when armistice was signed. Its terms, however, included a provision by which Marshall and his forces were enabled to slip into the town. As Churchill put it later, ‘the status quo was to be maintained, further advance of our troops being permissible only in so far as it might be necessary for the purpose of safeguarding our existing military position.'58


48. Paper by Admiral Sir Edmond Slade on the Petroleum Situation in the British Empire, 29 July 1918, CAB 21/119. The other conclusions were:

1. To press the Government to take the most energetic measures to prevent the enemy in any way from endangering the oilfields and works in Persia. This is indispensable to the success of the war.

2. To push forward as soon as possible the further development of the oil lands of Persia and those in Mesopotamia by purely British interests.

3. To push forward the exploration and development of all possible lands in the British Empire by purely British interests.

4. To encourage and assist British Companies to obtain control of as much oil lands in foreign countries as possible, with the stipulation (to prevent control being obtained by foreign interests) that the oil produced shall only be sold to or through British oil distributing Companies. These oil lands can be developed to assist to provide our requirements in peace whilst our own resources in British territory can be conserved for war.

5. To exclude from participation in British Petroleum business all foreign interests in any shape or form, such participation being only a stepping stone to ultimate control and a very great danger in any future war.


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