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:



Filed under War History

3 responses to “British Strategy and Oil, 1914-1923

  1. This sounds very interesting Martin. I have downloaded it and will have a read. Will we see it in book form?

  2. Thanks. The examiners thought that it is worthy of publication.. Not really done anything about it yet, but intend to do so shortly.

  3. Pingback: Christopher Clark and Charles Emerson – Aye Write | War and Security

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