Of Blood and Oil – How the Fight for Petroleum in WW1 Changed Warfare Forever

The new mechanized armies of the First World War were powered by petroleum. From the Great War onwards, the world's military powers would be obsessed with oil. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The new mechanized armies of the First World War were driven by petroleum. From the Great War onwards, the world’s military powers would be obsessed with oil. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“World War One was the first conflict to be fuelled by oil. For the first time in warfare, petroleum possession became the lifeblood of armies and it entered into the strategic machinations of military planners from all nations involved.”

By Timothy C. Winegard

DURING WORLD WAR TWO, roughly, 90 per cent of global oil output was controlled by the Allies, while the Axis nations controlled a mere 3 per cent. Of the 7 billion barrels of oil consumed by the Allies in between 1939 and 1945, 6 billion was pumped from American wells.

“The Allies had long regarded oil as the German Achilles heel,” wrote historian Richard Overy. “It would be wrong to argue that oil determined the outcome of the war on its own, though there could scarcely have been a resource more vital to waging modern combat.”[i] And as warfare evolved in the post-war era, oil became exponentially more important.

But how did this marriage between oil and war happen? When, did the United States and the United Kingdom come to dominate global oil? The answers to both questions lie in the First World War, and its fraudulent peace.

During the Great War, oil not only led to the mechanization and industrialization of the world’s armies, but became a reason for armed conflict itself. Correspondingly, the thirst for petroleum led the war to expand into tiers never seen before resulting in the horrific history of total war during the 20th century. It was during the conflict that oil first gained status as a preeminent strategic commodity, imperative to the national security of the Great Powers. It was also the first contest to be fuelled by oil. For the first time in warfare, petroleum possession became the lifeblood of armies and it entered into the strategic machinations of military planners from all nations involved.

In the years leading up to 1914, the world's navies switched from coal-powered warships to those that ran on fuel oil. (Image source: WikiCommons)

In the years leading up to 1914, the world’s navies switched from coal-powered warships to those that ran on fuel oil. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The First Gas Guzzlers

In fact, a young Winston Churchill, appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, was instrumental in creating the modern petroleum political military-industrial complex with his 1914 pre-war governmental acquisition of 51 percent of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (BP) to feed the new Royal Navy destroyers and dreadnoughts being champagne-christened at British shipyards. The future prime-minister had successfully orchestrated and cemented for the first time in history the enduring strategic marriage between oil, national security and global economic power, while making “the paradigm of the shift that occurred in the strategic perception of oil.”[ii] The Great War buttressed this perception. Navies, and merchant fleets the world over switched from coal to oil fuel as oil-fired ships offered numerous and substantial advantages.

As the First World War continued, armies became increasingly reliant on gas-powered vehicles. (Image source: WikiCommons)

As the First World War continued, armies became increasingly reliant on gas-powered vehicles. (Image source: WikiCommons)

And it wasn’t just naval warfare that was transformed my petroleum, fighting on land was transformed as well. The antiquated cavalry charges of 1914 gave way to the British “land ship” or tank at the Somme in 1916, while motorized vehicles replaced horse-drawn transportation (albeit not completely, especially in the case of Germany).

Airplanes and artillery took on a greater importance as the war progressed – they were increasingly employed in combined-arms operations and set-piece battles. Mechanization dominated the battlefield, and industry required increasing quantities of oil to mass-produce these weapons of war. For the first time in history, territory was specifically conquered to possess oil fields and resources, which were vital cogs in the continuation of not only this industrialized war of attrition, but also for strategic advantage in future wars.

The post Versailles world saw the great powers scramble for influence in the Middle East. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The post-Versailles world saw the great powers scramble for influence in the Middle East. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Spoils of War

Following the Armistice, oil concessions were a contentious issue around the Versailles peace table, creating a diplomatic oil war between Britain and the United States (and France to a lesser degree).

Oil imperialism was conceived during the First World War, ushering in a new framework for war and aggression. Consequently, during the Great War the oil fronts Middle East and the Caucasus were “a veritable tower of Babel, an unprecedented conflict between international armies.”[iii] This precedent set by, and imitated from, the First World War shows no signs of ebbing, and remains omnipresent. The Middle East and the Caucasus were (and remain) the petroleum targets for all belligerents.

The geographical regions encompassed in these oil wars of 1917-1920 witnessed events that altered the course of history. During the progression of the conflict, and into its early peace, ethnic nationalism and sectarian divides spawned movements and conflict across the Middle East and the Caucasus, many of which remain sources of tension and violence a century later. Arabs led by Sherif Hussein of Mecca were given a hollow promise of an Arab state by the British, if they agreed to shrug off the yoke of Ottoman rule with the aid of modern arms and leadership channelled through the alluring Thomas Edward (T.E.) Lawrence (of Arabia).

The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 divided up the Ottoman Empire into French and British spheres of influence, with smaller concessions granted to Italy and Russia. During the dolling out of League of Nation mandates at the Paris Peace Conference, oil was the core issue in establishing the borders of the modern Middle East. Correspondingly, the 1917 Balfour Declaration established, on paper and in principle, a Jewish homeland and Zionist state in Palestine/Israel, in paradox to the pledges prearranged with the Arabs. The legacy of these decisions continue to haunt the Middle East and the global political order to this day.

After 1919, Western European troops became ever-present in the Middle East.

After 1919, Western troops would become ever-present in the Middle East.

Petro Hangover

The formulation of British strategy in the greater Middle East during the First World War has been branded a “hydra-headed political organism,” operating under “unpleasing Machiavellism” and hollow promises.[iv] These oil wars hastily thrust the Middle East and the Muslim world into contemporary geo-politics, for which they were unprepared and ideologically unaccustomed, and created the crevices in the East-West divide and the current clash of civilizations.

In the aftermath of the Great War, the Western powers, specifically Britain, introduced through the peace process and the League of Nations mandates, “European-type notions of territorial sovereignty to an area where tribes were much more important than the state, where tribal borders were better understood than international ones, and where the law of the desert prevailed…. Whatever their gains for British imperial ambitions, these arrangements planted seeds for long-term conflict in the Middle East.”[v]

Prior to the birth of these British and French protectorates or “nation-states” within the crucible of colonialism, Islam itself was the organizing and cohesive foundation across Muslim lands. “The inherent contradictions of the nation-state,” writes Karen Armstrong, “would be especially wrenching in the Muslim world, where there was no tradition of nationalism.”

The frontiers drawn up by the Europeans were so arbitrary that creating a national ‘imaginary community’ became almost impossible.[vi] These Middle Eastern borders drawn in 1922 by Sir Percy Cox remain the source of tension and dispute in our contemporary world.

Anglo-Persian Oil Company, founded in 1908, would grow into British Petroleum (BP). Image source: WikiCommons)

The Anglo-Persian Oil Company, founded in 1908, would grow to become British Petroleum (BP) in 1954. Image source: WikiCommons)

Modern Islam, including but in no way typical of al-Qaeda (The Base) and other zealot religious factions, is the product of these shifts associated with the Great Oil War. While Islam (and jihad) existed before 1914, it was the war, more specifically the ruin of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate, and the western powers’ thirst for oil in Muslim lands, that spawned the modern Islamic order. The tempestuous “Arc of Crisis,” as American strategists now call it, was born in the blood and oil of the Great War. By the time of the peace talks in Paris, this arc stretched from northern Africa through the Middle East, penetrating central and southern Asia. This map has no doubt occupied a strategic location on the desk of every western military planning operations centre and oil and gas prospector ever since.

In 1906, Baron Max von Oppenheim, the famed German orientalist, archaeologist, diplomat and head of the Intelligence Bureau for the East during the war, roused Kaiser Wilhelm II to understand that “we must not forget that everything taking place in a Mohammedan country sends waves across the entire world of Islam.” He went on to predict that, “In the future Islam will play a much greater role. [The] striking power and demographic strength of Islamic lands will one day have a great significance to European states.”[vii]

With the insatiable Western thirst for petroleum in Islamic domains, Oppenheim’s prophesy remains just as ominous today.

Imperial Russia collapsed in 1917. From its remains emerged the Soviet Union. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Imperial Russia collapsed in 1917. From its remains emerged the Soviet Union. Control of global oil reserves would become a major objective of the opposing factions during the Cold War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Oil Powered Realpolitik

In the year 1917, the Russian revolution unfolded escorting in the sweeping introduction of communism as a global political and economic entity with the advent of the Soviet Union. Its arrival sounded the beginnings of the Red Menace and the Cold War, which consumed the world until 1991. These were followed by Moscow’s wars of decolonization, and the recent resurgence of Russian imperialism under Vladimir Putin.

While America’s entry into the First World War in April 1917 nurtured the atmosphere for Allied victory, it also announced the Unites States’ geo-political arrival as an economic and military superpower within realpolitik, not to mention, the country’s unquenchable thirst for petroleum.

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles redrew the map of the world, most notably Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East, and fostered the environment for future war, none more shattering than the successor to its fraudulent peace. As journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft mused, “the First World War changed everything; without it, there would have been no Russian Revolution, no Third Reich, almost certainly no Jewish State.”[viii] It might be added that without the conflict, oil would have had to have waited years to take its preeminent place on the mantle of the geo-political-military game. Oil, and the quest to control it, was in part responsible for the failed peace, which created the breeding ground for future hostilities.

Government troops crack down on demonstrators during the Iranian Revolution. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Government troops crack down on demonstrators during the Iranian Revolution, 1978. Western powers propped up the Tehran dictatorship to ensure the nation’s oil reserves remained in what were considered to be friendly and reliable hands. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Pipeline Politics

The First World War created an imperial Anglo-American oil cartel known as the Seven Sisters—all majority-owned by either Britain and/or the United States; five American, one British, one Anglo-Dutch—with enduring and current ramifications. This oil monopoly is more imposing and omnipresent a century later, as with mergers, takeovers, and name changes, by 2010 the seven became only four: British Petroleum (BP), Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell. Prior to the 1973 OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) Oil Crisis, however, the Seven Sisters controlled 85 per cent of the world’s petroleum. How did this happen? The origin of this oil monopoly was a direct result of the First World War. My new book, The First World Oil War, tells this story.

Oil, the “central factor in world politics and the global economy, in the global calculus of power, and in how people live their lives,” is still consistently coupled to war, not deviating from the course of history it created a century ago during and in the immediate aftermath of the Great War.[ix] And so pipeline politics endure through various mediums, cloaked in evolving disguises, but at its center lives the Anglo-American petroleum cartel. Created during the First World War, and in the wake of its fraudulent peace, it has shaped all facets of history, and all that has come to pass and will pass, until alternative energy sources unseat oil’s monopoly of power-politics.

51g1qheqojl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Timothy C. Winegard, author of The First World Oil War (University of Toronto Press; October 2016), holds a PhD. from the University of Oxford. He served for nine years as an officer in the Canadian and British armed forces. Dr. Winegard teaches history and political science at Colorado Mesa University.


[i] Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won (New York: Norton, 1995), 232-234.

[ii] Leonardo Maugeri, The Age of Oil: The Mythology, History, and the Future of the World’s Most Controversial Resource (London: Praeger, 2006), 24.

[iii] Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (New York: Basic, 2015), xvii.

[iv] Helmut Mejcher, “British Middle East Policy 1917-1921: The Inter-Departmental Level,” Journal of Contemporary History 8/4 (1973): 81; V.H. Rothwell, “Mesopotamia in British War Aims, 1914-1918,” Historical Journal 13/2 (1970): 275.

[v] Peter L. Hahn, Missions Accomplished?: The United States and Iraq since World War I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 14.

[vi] Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Knopf, 2014), 306-307.

[vii] Sean McMeekin, The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power (Toronto: Penguin, 2011), 6.

[viii] Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 25.

[ix] Daniel Yergin, The Prize, (New York: Free Press, 2009), 773.

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