Monthly Archives: February 2012

British Strategy and Oil, 1914-1923

I’ve recently completed a PhD at Glasgow University on ‘British Strategy and Oil, 1914-1923.’

This thesis analyses the significance of oil to British strategy during 1914-1923. It shows that by 1923 Britain had a coherent oil policy, which affected naval strategy, diplomatic relations, policy towards the oil industry and post-war aims in the Middle East. Previous works have looked at only part of the picture and have not appreciated the extent to which oil affected all these areas. This work brings all these different facets together into a single study. The most important British user of oil was the Royal Navy, which was replacing coal with oil as its principal fuel even before the First World War, which saw great growth in the use of oil. Aircraft and land vehicles powered by oil fuelled internal combustion engines transformed both warfare and civilian life, but their overall usage of oil was much less than that of the RN. British industry was slower than the RN to adopt oil because coal was cheaper; the RN put the technical advantages of oil ahead of cost.  Britain’s power and prestige was based on its naval supremacy; British dominance of naval fuel bunkering was a key factor in this. Britain had substantial reserves of coal, including Welsh steam coal, the best in the world for naval use, but little oil. Britain’s oil strategy in 1914 was to build up reserves cheaply in peacetime and to buy on the market in wartime. An oil crisis in 1917 showed that this was flawed and that secure, British controlled supplies were needed. The war created an opportunity for Britain to secure substantial oil reserves in the Middle East. Attempts to obtain control of these affected the peace treaties and Britain’s post-war relations with its Allies. The USA was then the world’s largest producer and was the main supplier to the Allies during the war. It believed, wrongly, that its output would decline in the 1920s and feared that Britain was trying to exclude it from the rest of the world. France also realised that it needed access to safe and reliable supplies of oil.  The largest available potential oilfield was in the Mosul vilayet, part of the Ottoman Empire in 1914, and now part of Iraq. The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement allocated about half of Mosul to France, which in 1918 agreed to include all of it in the British mandate territory of Iraq in return for a share of the oil and British support elsewhere. Other disagreements delayed an Anglo-French oil agreement, but one was finally signed at San Remo in 1920. It was followed by the Treaty of Sèvres with the Ottoman Empire, which appeared to give Britain all that it wanted in the Middle East. The resurgence of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal meant that it had to be re-negotiated at Lausanne in 1923. Sèvres angered the USA, since it appeared to exclude US oil companies from Iraq. For a period Britain focused on the need to have a large, British controlled oil company, but it was eventually realised that control of oil bearing territory was more important than the nationality of companies. This allowed US oil companies to be given a stake in Iraqi oil, improving Anglo-American relations. Britain’s need for oil meant that it had to ensure that the Treaty of Lausanne left Mosul as part of the British mandate territory of Iraq. Turkey objected, but the League of Nations ruled in Britain’s favour. Britain had other interests in the region, but most of them did not require control over Mosul. Mosul’s oil gave Britain secure supplies and revenue that made Iraq viable without British subsidies. By 1923 Britain had devised a coherent strategy of ensuring secure supplies of oil by controlling oil bearing territory.

The full thesis is available as a PDF from the university’s website:



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Two Western Journalists Killed in Syria

Marie Colvin, an American who reported for the London Sunday Times, and Remi Ochlik, a French photographer, were killed this morning (22 February 2012) when a shell hit a house in the Baba Amr district of Homs, Syria that was being used as a media centre. Two other foreign journalists were wounded; Edith Bouvier of the French newspaper Le Figaro, who is reported to be in a serious condition, and Paul Conroy, a British freelance photographer who was working with Colvin.

Homs has been besieged by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 4 February. More than 40 people were killed yesterday alone, including Rami al-Sayed, who had broadcast a live video stream that was used by world media. Western journalists have mostly had to enter Syria secretly since the uprising against al-Assad’s regime began in March 2011. Colvin’s reports have been used by a number of Western media outlets.

This shows the risks that journalists are prepared to take to report on war zones, and also the difficulty of finding out what is actually happening in a situation such as that in Syria, where there are relatively few independent reporters. The death of journalists will bring the story back to the front pages, but it is hard to see what the West can do. Some will try to draw parallels with Libya, but there is little prospect of China or Russia backing a UN Security Council resolution calling for intervention, and al-Assad appears to have the backing of a higher proportion of his armed forces than was the case for Colonel Gaddafi in Libya.

See the BBC website for more:

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Bullets, Bombs and Bandages: How to Really Win at War: BBC4 TV

BBC4 has recently broadcast a very interesting three part series titled Bullets, Bombs and Bandages: How to Really Win at War. It was introduced by Saul David, Professor of War Studies at the University of Buckingham and explained the importance of planning, supply and logistics in war. Wars are won by the side with more supplies and better equipment, It has now finished, but is available, for UK viewers only, on the BBC I-Player until 28 February.

The first episode, ‘Staying Alive’, discussed the difficulties of keeping an army supplied with food. Archaeological evidence shows that the Romans shipped some foodstuffs from Spain to Hadrian’s Wall. Wellington’s army in Portugal and Spain during the Napoleonic Wars had to take a herd of cattle with it. An army of 80,000 men had to slaughter 300 animals per day. The invention of canned food eased supply problems, but early tin cans had to be opened with bayonets because the tin can was invented several years before the tin opener.

The second episode, ‘Stealing a March’, covered the difficulties of moving armies. In 1066, King Harold of England faced two threats. He quickly moved his army north to defeat Harald Hadrada’s Vikings at Stamford Bridge, but then had to return south to face William the Conqueror’s well prepared Normans. Harold’s army was depleted and exhausted, and he should have followed his mother’s advice and delayed giving battle. Instead he fought and lost.

Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim was one of logistics. His army used two-wheeled spring carts to transport its supplies. They were twice as fast as the farm carts used by his French and Bavarian opponents. In 1812, Napoleon expected to defeat Russia before winter. His army was equipped for summer, including the wrong type of horse shoes. A farrier explained that horses have to have different shoes in winter; Napoleon’s had summer shoes so could not grip the ice going up and down hills.

Railways enabled armies to be deployed more quickly and in greater numbers than previously. Helmuth von Moltke was one of the first to realise this, and his meticulous planning allowed the Prussians to mobilise more quickly than the French and to defeat them in the Franco-Prussian War. Railways allowed huge armies to be mobilised in World War I, but horses remained crucial in World War II because they were the fastest way of crossing rough ground until the invention of the jeep. The use of tanks and other motor vehicles made petrol supply vital; modern petrol cans are called jerry cans in the English-speaking world because they are based on a German design, which was more robust and practical than the British version.

Modern armies require huge amounts of supplies. The Allies required a port to keep their troops supplied after D-Day. Rather than capture one, they brought an artificial one, code-named Mulberry, with them. It was designed to last for nine weeks, but remained in use for nine months. Camp Bastion, Britain’s main supply base in Afghanistan, is a busier airport than Stansted. Despite all the modern equipment, losses of helicopters meant that British soldiers had to march to fight in the Falklands War.

See the BBC website for more on episode 2:

The final episode, ‘Raising Arms’, dealt with the importance of having the best equipment and being able to afford enough of it. The Bank of England was founded in the 1690s after England ran out of money following wars with France and Spain. Sound finances enabled wars to be fought as equipment became more sophisticated and thus expensive. The increasing importance of artillery meant greater casualties, requiring more attention to medical facilities. Armies became more professional and technical, requiring better training.

In the late 19th century the increasing range of rifles meant that armies had to abandon colourful clothing, such as the British red coat, which was replaced by khaki. By 1908, British soldiers wore equipment that was designed from scratch for efficiency rather than adapting what had been used before. The British Lee-Enfield rifle had a shorter range than the German Mauser but was otherwise superior. Its magazine held 10 rather than 5 bullets and it had a bent bolt that enable the British soldier to keep his eye on the target whilst operating it, unlike the Mauser’s straight bolt.

In 1915 British machine guns and artillery were firing ammunition more quickly than it could be manufactured. A Ministry of Munitions was established and new factories built. Shortage of acetone, imported before the war, created problems with the manufacture of cordite. Chaim Weizmann, a chemistry lecturer at Manchester University, discovered a method of fermenting grain to produce acetone. In 1917 the British Empire produced over 50 million shells and a billion bullets and the Allies were out-producing the Germans. In 1917-18 the war cost £20 million per day in 2012 money.

Since World War I military power has been measured by the means of destruction rather than by numbers of men and horses. The Allies dropped 3.4 million tons of bombs in World War II. The USA dropped 7 million tons in the Vietnam War. Equipment is now stockpiled in peace, but this leads to risks of its own. An accident at an RAF munitions depot at Fauld in Staffordshire on 27 November 1944 caused one of  the largest ever non-nuclear explosions and killed more than 70 people.

The cost of military equipment continues to rise. The USA fired 800 Tomahawk cruise missiles in 48 hours during its Shock and Awe attack on Baghdad in 2003. Each costs $0.5 million. A Typhoon Eurofighter costs £50 million and the Joint Strike Fighter is likely to be twice as expensive. NATO’s opponents in Afghanistan are armed with little more than AK47s and home-made bombs, but this conflict has cost the UK £18bn. The question is knowing who the next enemy will be. The problem is that tipping points in military technology are not apparent until after the event.

See the BBC website for more on episode 3:


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Transformation and Innovation in the British Military

In April 2011 I presented a paper on ‘The Royal Navy’s Adoption of Oil Before the First World War’ at a conference on ‘Transformation and Innovation in the British Military from 1642 to 1945’, organised by the Centre for War Studies at the University of Birmingham. The conference was successful, and Helion are going to publish a book of the papers, which will be edited by Ross Mahoney, Stuart Mitchell and Michael LoCicero of the Birmingham Centre for War Studies . The book will concentrate on the period 1792 to 1945, which includes most of the papers presented.

See the links to ‘Birmingham “On War”‘, the blog of the Birmingham War Studies students for the book synopsis (first link) and table of contents (second link).

Abstracts of the chapters will soon be published on ‘Birmingham “On War”‘.

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Rising tensions in the South Atlantic

In recent months Argentina has stepped up its claim to the Falkland Islands and has persuaded the members of Mercosur, the regional trading bloc, to close their ports to ships flying the Falkland Islands flag. Hector Timerman, the Argentinian Foreign Minister, has accused Britain of increasing its military presence in the South Atlantic.

Argentina claims that the posting of Prince William to the Falklands is provocative, but Britain argues that it is a normal part of his duties as an RAF air sea rescue pilot. The Argentinians made a formal complaint to the UN after Britain sent HMS Dauntless, its most modern destroyer, to the South Atlantic. Britain points out that this is a routine deployment of one of its warships, and that it always has a guardship in the Falklands. Dauntless is a far more powerful and sophisticated ship than those that have been assigned to that duty in the past, but the declining size of the Royal Navy means that Britain has few ships available to send.

Hector Timerman, the Argentinian Foreign Minister, has now claimed that Britain has sent a Vanguard class nuclear submarine to the South Atlantic. Vanguard’s Trident nuclear missiles are capable of destroying a city such as Buenos Aires. Its presence in the South Atlantic  would contravene the Treaty of Tlatelolco for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean. The movements of such boats are exceedingly secret and it is unlikely that Britain would send one to the South Atlantic. It is more likely that Britain has sent a nuclear powered but conventionally armed submarine to the South Atlantic. Such a boat would not threaten Argentina’s cities, but would be able to sink an invasion fleet.

It is unlikely that there will be an invasion. There’s been a lot of comment in the UK that Britain could not retake the Falklands as it did in 1982 since it no longer has aircraft carriers. In fact, this has probably been the case since 2006, when the Sea Harrier interceptors were taken out of service, leaving the RN with only Harrier GR9 ground attack aircraft, now also taken out of service. The Harrier GR9 could carry air to air missiles, but did not have the right type of radar to be a successful interceptor. What British commentators often ignore is that Argentina’s air force is obsolete and its navy is not capable of launching an amphibious assault against a garrison that is much larger than in 1982. There are only 4 Typhoon Eurofighters on the Falklands, but it is a far more modern aircraft than any possessed by Argentina.

A recent article in The Sunday Times (no link as it is behind a paywall) admitted that Argentina could not invade the Falklands by sea but postulated that Argentinian special forces could arrive in an airliner and seize Mount Pleasant airfield. It argued that this could succeed because most of the British garrison are not infantry, but it seems unlikely that such a venture could succeed when there are 500 British troops at Mount Pleasant.

Tensions have risen since oil has been found in the South Atlantic. Perhaps Argentina should remember that the safest way to make money from mineral prospectors is to supply prospectors rather than to prospect yourself.


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Welcome to the War and Security Blog

The War and Security Blog will mostly be about the history of warfare, but I will also comment on current national security issues. As I’m British, the focus will be mostly, but not exclusively, on the UK.

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