Part Two of: Mesopotamia – Why?

Our Middle-East researcher continues exploring just why the British Army and the Norfolk Regiment were in Mesopotamia during World War One and in this installment turns to the murky world of oil.

The Strategic Background (Part 2)

Oil, the background until 1907

Kerosene (from the Greek κηρός (keros) – wax, and -ene – the suffix used in chemistry to indicate a hydrocarbon compound) was first distilled in a clear form which could be used for lighting by the Canadian geologist, Abraham Gesner, in 1846. In 1851 kerosene (or paraffin, as it is known in Britain) was first distilled from crude oil (petroleum) by Samuel Martin Kier in Pennsylvania. Kier also invented a lamp for burning it. By the 1860’s kerosene had largely replaced whale oil and tallow as the main source of lighting for all those who could afford it in North America and Europe. It was one of the wonders of the age.

Oil lamps were still being manufactured in Birmingham as late as the 1960’s, and the large number for sale as antiques in Norfolk indicates their value in rural communities until quite recent times!

In the early days the lamps could be quite hazardous to light and explosions were not uncommon especially if the kerosene was poorly refined and contained the more flammable fraction known as gasoline. In the 1860’s gasoline had few known uses. But, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, with the rapid development of the internal combustion engine to power motor vehicles, a use was found for gasoline (or petrol, as it is known in Britain) that was to become of vital importance during the First World War. In addition to providing fuel for motor vehicles gasoline could also be used as fuel oil in the boilers of factories, trains and ships.

By 1907 there were four principal suppliers and refiners of crude oil or petroleum:

  • John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, which had first discovered oil in north-western Pennsylvania in 1859;
  • Branobel, the Nobel Brothers Petroleum Company, operating at Baku on the Caspian Sea in the Russian Empire;
  • De Rothschild Frères, with concessions at Baku, operating in association with the Shell Oil Company, founded by the Marcus and Samuel Samuel brothers of London, which revolutionized the transport of oil by tanker and distributed oil east of Suez in competition with Standard Oil;
  • the Royal Dutch Company, which had discovered oil in Sumatra and merged with Shell in 1907.

Also in 1907, a fifth source was added – the oilfields of south-western Persia, which would come under the influence of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.

The Importance of Persian Oil

Persia was a neutral state during the First World War, but one which had undergone a series of constitutional upheavals in the years before which had left it independent but dominated by Russia and Britain. Its significance lay in its location between the Russian, Ottoman and British Empires, and in its oilfields.

German agents were actively encouraging unrest in Persia. If Persia were destabilized then Germany might be able to drive a wedge between the Russian and British spheres in the country and thereby leave India vulnerable to local Turkish and German supported insurrections. Another German aim was to use military means to deny Russia access to the oilfields around Baku.


The Peril of Persia in The World War (from The Graphic, November 20, 1915)

The Peril of Persia in The World War
(from The Graphic, November 20, 1915)

The November 20, 1915 issue of ‘The Graphic’, a weekly illustrated newspaper of the time, maps the area south of Baghdad eventually captured by British forces in 1915, but also shows Persia in the context of the time. It is worth noting the following:

  • the distance marker to Bombay, just 480 miles;
  • the terminus of the ‘German Railway’, 400 miles from Baghdad;
  • the location of Baku and the oil railway to the port of Batum on the Black Sea;
  • the oil field of south-western Persia and its pipeline to Mohamerrah (Abadan);
  • the British protected sheikdoms of Kuwait (Koweit) and Mohamerrah in their strategically important locations in the Persian Gulf. The Sheik of Mohamerrah was also the landlord of the Anglo-Persian oil refinery on Abadan Island.

The Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907 helped stabilize relations between the two countries after nearly a century of antagonism over influence in Persia and the northern approaches to India. At this time Britain did not seek territorial gain, nor had oil yet become a significant factor; it was the security of India which was paramount.

The Constantinople Agreement of 1915 was another of the understandings among the nations of the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) for the division of the Ottoman Empire in the event of its defeat and dissolution in the war. Its significance for the Mesopotamian Campaign lies in the evolving British priorities post 1907.

The Constantinople Agreement awarded Russia control of the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles – that is, the straits which link the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea – a prize long sought by the Russian Empire. (As it happened, the failure of the Gallipoli Campaign meant that Russia never achieved this goal.) In return, Russia agreed that the neutral zone of Persia between the Russian and British zones should now come under British influence.

Britain now found itself with two concerns in the region: as always, the security of India, but now maintenance of the oilfields of south-western Persia, too.

What were the circumstances that brought about this change of priorities?

The name William Knox D’Arcy is not widely known today, but at the turn of the Twentieth Century he was a major investor and speculator. He had emigrated from Devon and had made a fortune from gold mining in Australia and New Zealand. In 1901 he negotiated a 60 year concession from the cash-strapped Shah of Persia for oil exploration and exploitation rights over most of the country.

In 1907 oil exploration moved from Chiakh Surkh to an area known as Maidan-i-Napthan, where, in 1908, the first oil ‘gusher’ erupted. In 1909 D’Arcy’s concession (with some additional investment from Burmah Oil) went public as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company – later to be known as British Petroleum (BP).

By 1911 a 138 mile (222 km) pipeline had been constructed from the oilfields to a refinery at Abadan on the Shatt al-Arab waterway, formed from the confluence of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, at the head of the Persian Gulf. The waterway forms the frequently disputed border between what in 1911 was Ottoman Mesopotamia and Persia (modern Iraq and Iran). The town of Basra lies 37 miles (60 km) upstream of Abadan, and Baghdad approximately 370 miles (600 km) upstream.

However, by the close of 1912, Anglo-Persian was in financial difficulties. In the same year Admiral Sir John Fisher, a former First Sea Lord, was appointed Chairman of the ‘Royal Commission… on Supply and Storage of Liquid Fuel… and its Application to Warship Engines…’ Fisher wanted to convert the Royal Navy fleet from coal to oil. As early as 1904 he had met William Knox D’Arcy and discussed how the Royal Navy could become a market for Persian oil.

Oil brought advantages for naval vessels:

  • they could remain on operations longer since they could be refueled at sea,
  • were faster and got up to speed faster than coal-powered ships
  • were more manoeuvrable,
  • required fewer hands to man them
  • used manpower more effectively than in shovelling coal from bunkers to furnaces

At a time when Britain was in a naval race with Germany, both in the size of the fleets and in technological advance, a fuel that was more efficient and, East of Suez, cheaper than coal, had clear military benefits. Already Britain was building destroyers and submarines that were oil driven, but the battleships still burned coal.

The First Lord of the Admiralty at the time was Winston Churchill. In 1910, as Home Secretary, he had opposed higher naval expenditure and favoured an Anglo-German naval agreement, but by 1911, having witnessed German naval aggression in Morocco, he had been converted to the case for modernization of the fleet if Britain were to maintain its mastery of the high seas.

However, at that time the British Isles did not have any significant known oil reserves, and to base Britain’s naval supremacy upon oil meant that it had to be available in sufficient quantities at secure prices, that there were adequate facilities for oil storage, and that continuity of supply would be guaranteed in time of war. Consequently, in 1914, with the support of the Foreign Office fearful of Anglo-Persian falling into foreign ownership, the British Government signed an agreement with the company for the supply of fuel oil, and in 1915 took a 51% controlling stake in the company for an investment of £2.2 million. Within 18 months of the start of the war Anglo-Persian was supplying 20% of the Royal Navy’s fuel oil requirements from Abadan.

Hence, by 1914 Britain was committed to a strategic involvement at the head of the Persian Gulf – where the Anglo-Persian Oil Company had opened its refinery at Abadan in 1912 – an area within striking distance of India and within a few hours march of Turkish troops in Basra.

The Head of the Persian Gulf at the Outbreak of War (from J.A. Hammerton and H.W. Wilson, 'The Great War', London 1919)

The Head of the Persian Gulf at the Outbreak of War
(from J.A. Hammerton and H.W. Wilson, ‘The Great War’, London 1919)

With the outbreak of war, the governments in London and India both became convinced of the need to defend British oil interests at the head of the Gulf and to show support for the British protected sheikdoms of Kuwait and Mohamerrah. The dispatch of the 18th Indian Brigade, including the 2nd Battalion the Norfolk Regiment, together with gunboats sent to the Shatt al-Arab Waterway, was intended to make good a show of strength.

On 14 November a fatwa calling for jihad against the British was issued in the name of Ottoman Sultan.

Oil in Mesopotamia (Iraq)

As the war progressed and demand for oil increased for aviation fuel, for gasoline for the tanks and lorries of a progressively mechanized war other oil companies, notably Royal Dutch and Shell which had merged in 1907, supplied British military needs from sources in the Dutch East Indies and from Baku on the Caspian Sea. But, both oil companies and national governments were now in a race to secure reliable supplies of oil as well as refining and storage facilities.

Geology does not respect the frontiers of nations. The oilfields discovered in the 1900’s straddled the borderlands between the nominally independent kingdom of Persia and Ottoman Mesopotamia. However, it was not until 1918 that Anglo-Persian geologists became convinced of the oil-producing potential of two areas, one close to the Persian border and another north-east of Baghdad in what was by then British occupied territory. Other reserves were known near Mosul.

Ian Rutledge, in his book ‘Enemy on the Euphrates’, quotes a 1905 dossier received at the Foreign Office in London marked SECRET: from H.M. Ambassador in Constantinople. ‘Report on the Petroliferous Districts of the Vilayets of Baghdad, Mosul and Bitlis, prepared by Sir Mark Sykes, Hon. Attach. The dossier was based upon information from an informant working on the Berlin-Baghdad Railway.

This was the same Sir Mark Sykes who, ten years later, was the co-architect of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Although, by 1918 with the withdrawal of Russia from the war, Sykes-Picot was dead in all but name, it nonetheless formed the basis of the post-war carve-up of Ottoman territories in the Middle East. Mosul came under French control and Baghdad and Basra formed the core of the State of Iraq under British mandate from the League of Nations.

The politics of that arrangement are a long story and must await another day.

(The text of this article may be freely used, but the maps must be titled and cited as above)



One thought on “Part Two of: Mesopotamia – Why?

  1. Pingback: The 2nd Battalion the Norfolk Regiment in Mesopotamia | Norfolk in World War One

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