The impact availability of crude oil had on the outcome of the war

By Chris J Fone, September, 2017

The global supply position before and during World War 1

At the time of the first major oil field discovery in the USA in 1859, 21 m below the surface, the primary use was for lamp fuel; the kerosene lamp had been developed a few years before. This changed with the invention of the combustion engine and the adaption of petroleum to steam boilers and other products after 1900. The rush for sources of the new resource started in the latter 1800's and the global situation in the WW1 period could be summarised by the table below (Ref 1). The values are in 1000 tons (kt) but in this research there have been a variety of different values published so in this table most values have been rounded to the nearest 100 kt to reflect these inconsistencies. A significant amount of available data is unclear about whether the ton is a 'long ton' (British) or 'short ton' (USA). Throughout this paper every attempt has been made to be consistent in using short tons i.e. 2000 lb = 1 ton




































Dutch East Indies1







British India2














British Empire4














Other countries6















Ref 1 did not give a detailed breakdown of the above areas but a guess based on assembling individual country values is in the key below;
1 Oil had been discovered in the Dutch East Indies, notably in Sumatra (now Indonesia) and South Borneo (now Indonesia)
2 This term applies to the country now known as, Myanmar (previously Burma) plus resources in the Punjab, India.
3 The only indigenous oilfields were in Galicia (southern Poland)
4 The total includes oil extracted from shale in Scotland, oil from Trinidad, Egypt, Canada, and Sarawak (now East Malaysia) (see page 3)
5 This was under the control of APOC, a Company majority owned by the British Government (see page 3)
6. A quality oil discovery had been made in Lobitos, Peru.

It is clear that the USA were by far the largest producer of oil at the start of WW1. With the proximity of Mexico and the good political and economic co-operation between the two countries, control of the Mexican output must also be considered within the American total. The USA thus had management of over 70% of the global oil output.

The Russian oilfields were primarily based in Baku, Azerbaijan, on the west coast of the Caspian Sea, the area being under Russian political control during the period of WW1. Development of the oilfields also had significant Russian and Swedish investment, together with British investment through the Royal Dutch Shell Company. Access to Europe for the petroleum products was a major challenge. A pipeline was built in 1906 from Baku to Batumi in Georgia on the Black Sea following the rail line previously used for kerosene transport (see photo page 2, below). Access to European Markets could then be achieved by shipment across the sea to Odessa and a rail line through Ukraine or Romania and barges up the River Danube.


Romanian oil had heavy investment by Germany/Austro-Hungary, Standard Oil (USA financed) and by the French in the early 1900's. It was the fourth largest global producer prior to WW1. Access to Europe was a simple process of barging the oil up the River Danube

Oil from the Dutch East Indies was primarily under the control of Royal Dutch Shell. Although the UK had a significant share-holding (40%) in this Company, accessibility by the UK was under the management of the Netherlands. One of its strengths was its oil tanker fleet which had originated from the British 'Shell' side of the business. The crude oil from Borneo was known to contain significant amounts of the hydrocarbon, toluol. This was a basic ingrediant of the explosive TNT and Shell in their Rotterdam Refinery perfected the extraction of it. It thus became an important bi-product critical to the operation of WW1.

The Burmese oilfields were located in the Central Burma Basin. The British constrained oil concessions in the Empire to British owned Companies and in Burma it was Burmah Oil Company. The output from this source in 1914 was 1,030,000 tons which was by far the largest supplier in the British Empire. The primary market for Burmese petroleum products was India and it was important to the British Empire to protect this outlet as the Indian oilfields in discovered in the Punjab were quite limited. It was also one of the early suppliers of the British Navy.

Shale oil extract was a significant supply resource for crude oil prior to WW1. It was primarily based in West Lothian, Scotland and although a more expensive process to oilfield extracted crude oil it had the large advantage of local protection and control. Oil shale, from the Visean epoch of Carboniferous rocks was mined using similar techniques to coal. Crude oil and other chemicals were extracted by heating the shale in a large retort. The skill and technology were primarily in the designs of the retorts and Scottish engineers led the world in this field (see photo below on page 3). Yields varied considerably from 0.7 to 1.1 bbl per ton and in 1914 the Scottish output for crude oil was 300,000 tons/year. The crude, however, was highly sulphurous and proved to be unsuitable as a fuel oil for the Admiralty without expensive chemical treatment to lower the sulphur content.


In British controlled Trinidad the majority of the significant oil had been discovered in 1911/12 but by 1914 export production had reached 1 mn bbl/year (109,000 tons/year), the UK Admiralty taking a significant proportion of this (see page 4).

Egypt, although nominally part of the Ottoman Empire was under the control of British forces and a de facto British Protectorate; this was formally declared by the British Government in 1914. Egypt had a burgeoning oilfield near the Red Sea and was able to produce at a rate of nearly 100,000 ton/year (Ref 2).

The period just before WW1 was when oil was discovered in the British Protectorate of Sarawak, under the rule of the Brooke family. It was produced from the Miri Oilfield near Brunei at a production level of 45,000 ton/annum in 1914 (Ref 2).

Canada's oilfields in Ontario never fulfilled early promise and by 1914 could only supply 27,000 ton/year (Ref 2).

Persia was nominally an independent country (see note on page 8) but Britain had assumed an informal 'Protectorate' strategy in the south of the country. Persian oil from Khuzestan in the SW had taken a considerable period before any significant export output was achieved; most of the issues were resolved by 1914 and in that year 300,000 tons were produced (see page 10). Great Britain's Admiralty had a contract with APOC for the supply of fuel oil for its naval ships (see page 4).

The decision by the British Admiralty to change the fuel for the naval fleet from coal to fuel oil

The debate between coal-fired and oil-power naval ships was a significant issue to Britain. Britain's security of its global Empire and the potential for blockading enemy imports of raw materials was primarily dependent on the superiority of its Naval Fleet. The technical arguments had been made by Captain Jack Fisher, later Admiral Lord Fisher and in 1904 Britain's first Sea Lord (1905 – 1911). It required 4 to 9 hours for a coal-fired motor to reach full power whereas an oil-fired motor only required 30 minutes and peak power in 5 minutes. The man-power to provide the same energy level was 144 man-hrs for an oil-powered ship whilst a coal-powered needed 60,000 man-hrs and there was a ⅔ saving in engine weight. Perhaps the most significant is that for the same energy output the oil-fuelled motor had nearly 25% of the fuel weight per day of an equivalent coal-powered vessel, increasing the active area of operation up to a multiple of 4. The advantage of less weight and higher energy efficiency offered the possible benefit of higher speed and manoeuvrability; it was this that later proved to be greatest advantage. The added bonus of oil-fuelled vessels is they are cheaper to produce and below the horizon do not emit sufficient smoke to reveal their location (see pre-WW1 photo below; coal-fuelled German naval vessel).

German Battleship Mecklenburg

The down-side, however, was the security of supply to the British Navy as there was extensive coal reserves in the UK but fuel oil needed to be supplied from overseas regions that were exposed to various security risks. There was a compromise and from 1905 all destroyers and submarines built were exclusively oil-fuelled but cruisers and battleships continued to be coal-fired (Ref 3). Coal-fired vessels were using a fuel consisting of coal sprayed with fuel oil which had been proven to be more efficient than pure coal. By 1912, when the German Navy were beginning their major Dreadnought class of battleship Prime Minister Asquith brought Fisher out of retirement to head a Royal Commission on Oil and the Oil Engine. In the same year the first oil-fuelled battleship, the Queen Elizabeth was begun together with a plan for sister ships and a new class of cruiser. Fisher argued that "In war speed is everything".

Winston Churchill replaced Fisher as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911 and strongly supported Fisher's Commission conclusions for an oil-fuelled vessel navy. He remarked, "We must become the owners or at any rate the controllers at the source of at least a proportion of the oil we require." The security of supply was partially covered by a plan to build up reserves but Winston Churchill's words were to dictate a significant strategy in foreign policy in the subsequent years.

The combatants in WW1 and their access and control of the supply of oil

The combatants in WW1 came from the wider parts of the globe, primarily because the main European fighting countries had large global Empires and used them as needed.

The "Central Powers", who formed a loose, co-operating group of armies, consisted of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. The opposing group, referred to as the "Entente Powers" or "Allies" included Russia, France, Belgium and Great Britain. Joining the Entente Powers in 1915 was Italy, Romania in 1916 and the USA and Greece in 1917.

Petroleum oil in the form of fuel oil, kerosene and gasoline (petrol) played an increasingly important factor in the success of the combatants as the war progressed. This was in the following subjects;
1. The fuel used to drive the Naval ships of both sides was critical and we've already discussed the British strategy to change to a combination oil-sprayed coal in all its ships and a move toward an all fuel oil driven Navy (see page ??). This was not a unique decision as Italy had led the way; they had experimented with oil fuels and by 1900 most of its torpedo boats were oil-fired. The US was also building oil-fuelled destroyers in 1910 with battleships planned in 1911. Critically, however, the German Navy had not embraced the new fuel and only started using oil-sprayed coal in 1909 and their first oil-fuelled Naval vessels were only produced after WW1 (Ref 4).
2. The tactics of trench-warfare along a wide front in WW1 developed into who could move vast numbers of troops into a narrow area in a short time and launch a surprise attack to punch a hole in the enemy front. The German army made use of rail-lines and coal-driven steam trains to quickly move the troops but this still required the transference of troops from the rail-line to the front. The Allied strategy after horse-power was constrained by supply was to supplement physical marching of troops with the use gasoline-driven trucks and the already sophisticated road systems in France. This was more efficient than the German system but depended on the availability of gasoline and trucks.
3. The use of aircraft for reconnaissance and air protection was driven by the French with a rather poor contribution from the British. As the war progressed this became increasingly important with fighting technologies being developed on both sides. The engines were dependent, however, on the supply of gasoline. The photo, page 6 shows a Zeppelin taking off prior to a London bombing raid in 1915.

Zeppelin 1915

4. After 1917 gasoline-driven tanks became increasingly used in the concentrated battles
5. The explosive chemical TNT in the artillery technology was critical to both the warring sides and the chemical Toluol was fundamental to the production of TNT. Traditionally Britain obtained Toluol from the treatment of coal but by the end of 1914 supplies from this source were running out. A supply from oil was needed and it was known that the crude oil from Borneo and extracted by the Royal Dutch Shell Refinery in Rotterdam provided much of the German Toluol (see page 15)

The availability and control over petroleum oil supplies became a critical issue for both the Entente Powers and the Central Powers. In 1914 control of oil supplies by the Entente Powers were primarily in the hands of Russia (9600 kt) and Great Britain (1590 kt); this clearly changed when the USA joined the Allies in 1917. The Central Powers, however, only had direct control over the Austro-Hungary Galician fields (900 kt) which had a decreasing potential for subsequent years in WW1.

Although the balance of ownership of supply sources was heavily on the side of the Allies access to the Russian oil in Azerbaijan was difficult for the Western Allied powers so this supply was not a viable option. British investment, however, in Royal Dutch Shell and other independent oil companies, although it could not be described as 'control', gave them a strong influence over supply strategy. Perhaps above all it was the favourable relationship with the USA, who joined the Allies in 1917, that was a massive political advantage as the war progressed. Throughout the war the USA was the Allies major supplier, with the exception of Russia who had access to the massive fields in Baku; in 1918 75% of the oil supplied to Britain, Italy and France was sourced from the USA and in Britain this figure was 79.4% (Ref 5).

The Central Powers had massive resources of coal and Germany had invested heavily in various ways of extracting oil from coal. It is estimated that about 33% of Germany's oil came from coal-sourced synthetic oils (Ref 3); it was probably this that made them initially complacent about controlling a major source of oil. The Central Powers had only direct control over the supply source in Galicia but Germany had invested heavily in the Romanian oilfields which were sandwiched between the Austro-Hungarian land and the Ottoman Empire. Initially it was Romania, in the early stages of the war a neutral country, who was their main source of petroleum oil. The lack of control, however, on this source became a major issue when Romania was encouraged to join the Allies in 1916 (see page 16)

Business and money continue to thrive, often at an increased rate during wars and WW1 was no exception. Neutral countries and their oil companies thrived and although the Allies had arranged a Naval blockade of Northern Germany, US oil companies continued to supply the Central Powers through secretive routes such as the Scandinavian countries. Although Royal Dutch Shell had a 40% British ownership it too was a significant supplier through refineries in Holland.

British strategy was heavily influenced by its risky decision to move its naval vessels from coal to oil and from before the war it realised that geographic control of oil sources was to become important. Although its control over the Burmese supply source was important, the longer-term prospects for supply were questionable and a back-up option was required. Persian oil, although it had had its challenges to bring on stream had great potential and it was well known that the adjacent area of Mesopotamia (now Iraq) had similar oil-bearing features that had led to the Persian oil discovery.

Oil exploration, discovery, geological environment and development of oil in Persia prior to 1914

This story evolves through the drive and exploits of William Knox D'Arcy (1849 – 1917), an Englishman who had made his fortune in gold mining in Australia and New Zealand. He moved back to England in 1889 and in 1900 became interested in the possibility of discovering oil in Persia. There was a known history of oil seepage (tar pits) in various parts of the country and archaeological evidence of 'everlasting flames' in Zoroastrian Temples, enough to tempt D'Arcy into investing in the new global resource. He managed to negotiate a deal in 1901 with the King of Persia, Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar for a concession to explore, obtain and market oil, gas, asphalt and the mineral ozocerite (mineral hydrocarbon wax) over a major areas (1,200,000 km2)of southern Persia. The negotiations agreed a lump sum of £20,000 (a significant sum in 1901) plus shares in the exploration Company and 16% of the profits to be paid to the Persian Government. The concession was for 60 years and became known as the 'D'Arcy Concession'. The validity of the agreement has been questioned subsequently by the Persians as the authority of the Shah to formalise such concessions was not clear in his political remit and no doubt D'Arcy took advantage of the confused Persian politics of the time.

Reynolds 1908D'Arcy set up a syndicate called "First Exploitation Company" and employed an oil exploration engineer George B. Reynolds (see 1908 Masjid-i-Sulaiman photo above, G B Reynolds on left), who had previously worked in Burma and Sumatra together with Canadian, Polish and American engineers and drillers. Drilling was carried out in various parts of the country where known historical seepages of hydrocarbons occurred but without significant success. By 1904 D'Arcy had spent over £220,000 and was beginning to have some financial worries and started to look for some additional backing. It came in 1905 in the form of the Burmah Oil Company, a Scottish-based organisation primarily operating in Burma/Myanamar. They agreed to put in another £100,000 in return for a substantial amount of stock in the new joint Company, 'Concessions Syndicate Ltd' (Ref 6). Further drill failures occurred in the area of Qasr-i-Shirin, on the border with the Ottoman Empire, near Kermanshah (close to the major oilfield Naft Shahr discovered in 1931!). In 1907 Reynolds switched his drilling area to the location called Shardin and later, Masjid-i-Sulaiman (the Temple of Solomon) in the foothills of Khuzestan, SW Persia.

The area was the home of the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe and Reynolds employed them as labour and protection against any local aggression. Against the wishes of the central government in Tehran, in 1905 the Bakhtiari Khans (leaders) agreed the terms of a 5 year contract. In return for access to their land the Bakhtiari were to receive 3% of shares in the Company owning the concession and for a price of £2500/annum to provide the guard/protection needed (Ref 6). Initially the Shardin drilled wells were dry and Reynolds decided to move to Masjid-i-Sulaiman. D'Arcy's money had dried-up enough for him to consider selling his Concession. He is reputed to have telegraphed Reynolds to stop all work but he insisted D'Arcy put this instruction formally in the mail before he was prepared to act on it. In the two weeks it took the mail to reach Reynolds he had drilled a fourth hole and this one was a "gusher". The crude shot 15 meters over the derrick from a well that was 360 m deep on May 26, 1908, the first commercially successful well in the Middle East (see below photo on page 8) (Ref 6).

Oil gusher in Persia


*The use of the country name 'Persia' throughout this paper is merely a reflection of the documentation at the time of WW1. It was a naive descriptive name used by Western Countries based around a historical tribe living in the area. Iran was a name used by locals of this area to describe the whole country and eventually became formalised and recognised internationally in 1935. 

The relief to D'Arcy must have been immense but it took nearly a year for him and his financial backers in Burmah Oil Company (BOC) to set up a Company to exploit the Masjid-i-Suleiman oilfield. The new Company, conceived in 1909, had a capital of £2,000,000, nearly all provided by BOC with a financial and BOC shares settlement given to D'Arcy. The Company was named the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) (Ref 6).

Over the next few years APOC built a 56 km road and water pipeline from the highest navigable point on the Karun River, Dar-i-Khazineh to Masjid-i-Sulaiman to provide provisions and equipment. An uninhabited mud-flat called 'Abadan' on the Shatt-al-'Arab waterway leading to the Persian Gulf was purchased through the local Sheikh as the site for a refinery, storage and oil loading facilities. Construction of the Refinery started in 1910 and was commissioned in 1913. A pipeline and four pumping stations was constructed from the oilfield to Abadan, a distance of 222 km, crossing two ranges of hills of 425 m down to a coastal plain of 40 m and then following the course of the River Karun (Ref 7). 37 European and 1000 Bakhtiari (see photo below, page 9) were employed to build the pipeline which was finished in July 1911 (Ref 7)

Laying the pipeline 1910
In 1912 when Fisher and Winston Churchill were debating and concluding the British Naval strategy in regard to a move from coal to oil (see page 4) they were encouraged by the APOC Directors to conclude a deal in the supply of oil to the Admiralty. To ensure the continued stability of the agreement they were also encouraged to take a controlling share of APOC which the British Treasury did by buying a 51% voting share for £2,200,000 (Ref 3). APOC had effectively become a state-controlled Company.
Early bench of stills. Abadan 1913

The light Persian crude oil from Masjid-i-Sulaiman unfortunately contained a high proportion of sulphur (1.3%) which exacerbated the already challenging technical problems that Abadan Refinery had in producing a Kerosene or fuel oil specification that met the required standards of their customers. The photo above shows the horizontal stills in Abadan used to distill the crude oil to its various useable grades. The major issue appeared to be the viscosity of the fuel oil being too high and whilst this was not an issue to local shipping it was unacceptable for the British Navy (their main customer) in the much colder field of operation in the North Atlantic. This delayed the output from Persia until 1914 before any significant volume could be achieved.

The Masjid-i-Sulaiman oilfield was called the Maidan-i-Naftan (plain of oil) and was about 25 km2 which rapidly grew in numbers of wells and output. By 1914 about 30 wells had been drilled in the oilfield which increased to 45 over WW1 (Ref 7). Whilst output before the war was limited Britain realised this was temporary and this field and the area in Khuzestan had massive potential which would be strategically worth protecting (see page 12). The Refinery had been designed with a capacity of 1,220,000 tons and the pipeline 1,132,000 tons. The region is shown in the map on page 11 (Ref 8). Although well numbers were increased throughout 1914 to 1918 the pipeline restricted the output typically to only 5 operating wells. The published figures for Persian output capacity are not consistent so the source used is from the APOC's own publication, originally quoted in Long tons but converted here into short tons (Ref 8)).Generally the Refinery produced about 75% Fuel oil, the other 25% being about equal levels of Gasoline (petrol) and Kerosene. (Ref 3)

khusistan mapAbadan output in 1912 – 73 kt
1913 – 90 kt
1914 – 306 kt
1915 – 421 kt
1916 – 503 kt
1917 – 721 kt
1918 – 1,005 kt

Geological Setting
The Zagros Mountains in southern Iran are a result of the collision between the Arabian Plate and the Asian Plate over the course of the Cenozoic. Between the two plates existed what is known as the Tethys Ocean. As the two plates closed a foreland basin formed which filled up with new sediments from the sea and from erosion of the mountains (Ref 9).

Geological map of IranThe original source rock for the petroleum is the bituminous shales of the Kazhdumi Formation, laid down in the Albian of the Lower Cretaceous (100 to 113 Ma). The Kazhdumi was an embayment of the South Tethys, called the Dezful Embayment where the geomorphology encouraged large phytoplanktonic blooms; a combination of water stratification and sea level rise created a period of anoxic conditions in the sediment. After a period of time and temperature eventually this developed into a hydrocarbon rich shale. This shale is the source rocks for all the oil found in SW Iran, Kuwait and Iraq. The crude oil and gas from the shale moved vertically through the rock strata until it became "trapped".

The sedimentary rocks laid down in the foreland basin mentioned above were themselves squeezed by the compression of the Arabian plate to form a succession of gentle folds that make up the area on the map above described as 'Simply Folded Zagros'.

Thomas OldhamOne of the sedimentary rocks, laid down in the Oligocene and lower Miocene was what has been called by geologists the 'Asmari Limestone'. This strata is as much as 300 m in thickness. The sea level must have dropped significantly afterwards because the subsequent rock layer on top of this limestone were evaporates, called the Gach-saran evaporate, one being sodium chloride salt. Soon afterwards the folding of the 'Simply Folded Zagros' occurred during which the limestone fractured, enough for it to be able to absorb the oil and gas rising from below. The oil and gas can be 'trapped', however, in the upper part of a fold, called an anticline, where the seal to prevent further migration upwards is a dense and more flexible evaporate. In Masjid-i-Sulaiman the fractured Asmari Limestone is the 'reservoir rock' and the impermeable seal or 'cap rock' is the Gach-saran evaporate.

The theory of entrapment as applied to petroleum oil and gas through anticlinal features was developed by an Anglo-Irish Geologist, Thomas Oldham, working in Burma in 1855. It took until the early 1900's before oil exploration moved from detecting and drilling in oil seepage locations to combining this with a geological survey of the shape of the strata and applying Oldham's anticlinal theory.

Jaque de MorganGeorge B Reynolds was an engineer and self-taught geologist but three trained geologists were involved in the research and survey that led to Masjid-i-Sulaiman. A French geologist and archaeologist, Jacque de Morgan, spent many years surveying parts of Iran and published a paper in 1892 in which he reported on the number of oil seeps in SW Persia and the possibility of a significant oil industry (see adjacent photo) (Ref 9). D'Arcy had sent two geologists, W. H. Dalton and H. T. Burls, on a surveying mission in 1901. They were enthusiastic about oil in Khuzestan and favoured what turned out to be the dry well Shardin location (east of Ahwaz)(see page 8).

Military intervention during WW1 related to oil issues

Persian Oil Industry protection
The agreements with the Bakhtiari tribe, who historically inhabited the oilfield area of Masjid-i-Sulaiman, had provided the protection atmosphere and personnel for the plant and equipment in the foothills of SW Persia. It was quickly recognised, however, that the proximity to the Ottoman Empire to SW Persia, the strategic importance of the Oil supply to the British Navy, the limited military experience of the Bakhtiaris and the inadequate military personnel of the Persian Government, meant that in the event of a war some additional military support from Britain would be required. The security interests of the Indian sub-continent were also a factor and the British planned to use Indian military personnel in the Mesopotamian region.

Map of Mesopotamia 1914 to 1915

A day after war was declared, on the 6th November 1914 the IEF-D (Indian Expeditionary Force), a Brigade of the 6th Division of the Indian Army landed at Fao, a village on the Ottoman side of the Shatt-al-Arab, adjacent to Abadan. Their strategy was to eliminate Turkish military control of the region such that the Allies controlled the waterway, protecting the Persian oil facilities. They moved north and occupied Basra on the 22nd November and soon after a town at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates, Qurna (see map above) (Ref 3). Unfortunately this was not totally successful and in February 1915 the Persian oil pipeline was attacked and severely damaged near Ahwaz. The incursion was blamed on Turks inciting the local tribesman. This area of Persia, through which the bulk of the pipeline runs is called Arabistan and one of the indigenous Arab ethnic tribes, the Bawi, who follow the Sunni branch of Islam, were blamed for the rebellion.

Nominally the Arab tribes of Arabistan had an allegiance to Sheikh Khaz'al of Mohammerah, who was based in Khorramshah (near Abadan). The Sheikh owned most of the land in Arabistan; APOC had negotiated an attractive rental agreement and security arrangements for the pipeline and Refinery with the Sheikh. He thus worked with the British to get back control of the region.

To impress on the Arab tribesmen the futility of revolt the IEF-D reinforced their resources in the region with two further Divisions and in May 1915 there were three brigades of 12500 men based in Ahwaz. This tactic worked and the majority of the troops then moved west and took the town of Amara in Mesopotamia (June 1915) to minimise any further risk of Turkish incursion into the oil/pipeline/refinery districts.

The pipeline was repaired and resumed operation after about 3 months and apart from some pro-German hostility in a proportion of the Bakhtiari Khans in August 1916 there was little further hostility in the region throughout the remainder of the war (Ref 10).

The rush for Mosul
The demands for petroleum products by the Allies rose sharply in 1916 followed by a concerted effort by Germany's submarine fleet to sink as many Allied shipping tankers as possible caused an oil crisis in early 1917. Demand exceeded supply and reserves were dwindling worryingly low. Various measures were taken to recover the situation such as restricted speeds for naval vessels, restricted naval movements, improved tanker design and different convoying tactics.

Indian troops Mesopotamia 1918

The crisis was overcome but it made Britain aware that relying on buying oil on the market during the war was not viable and more secure supplies were needed. The price of oil was also getting out of control; US oil price in 1914 was $0.81/barrel but in 1918 it was $1.98/barrel (Ref 3). Having control over the supply of Persian oil and the possibility of extending that over undiscovered oil resources elsewhere in Mesopotamia was an increasingly attractive strategy to the British Government. From pre-war surveys it was known that the same geological conditions that led to the oil discovery in Persia also extended into Mesopotamia as far north as Mosul.

In 1916 the British-Indian army in Mesopotamia (see photo above, page 14) suffered an embarrassing defeat at the siege of Kut, just south of Baghdad. They regrouped, however, in 1917 and moved back north in Mesopotamia and eventually took Baghdad in March of that year. In October 1918 the Ottoman Empire were clearly looking for an armistice and Britain's strategy to gain control over possible land with oil potential gained fever-pitch. An Anglo-Indian Force from Baghdad marched north east and covered 120 km in 39 hrs to confront the Ottoman 6th Army. They withdrew a further 100km to Sharqat (80 km S of Mosul) at which point a battle occurred. The Anglo-Indian Force was able to overcome the Ottoman Force. (Ref 3)

Indian Cavalry_Mesopotamia_WW1From this success one of the Anglo-British Divisions raced north and had reached 19 km south of Mosel when the Armistice was eventually agreed. Two Indian cavalry Brigades (see adjacent photo), however, ignored the request to remain at the Armistice position and peacefully occupied the city of Mosul on the 1st November 1918 (Ref 3).

This 'grab-for-land' was successful because in the Treaty of Sèvre, 1920 Britain was allocated the Mandate of Iraq and the Turkish Petroleum Company, that was 50% owned by APOC, held the concessionary petroleum rights to the Mosul vilayet. During the 4 years of the Anglo-Indian Mesopotamian Campaign the deaths in action and disease amounted to 1,340 officers and 29,769 men (Ref 11).

Royal Dutch Shell and supply of Toluol
Toluol was an essential ingredient of the explosive TNT (Trinitrotoluol) used extensively in WW1. Traditionally the Toluol was obtained by the distillation of coal and coal tar but both the Entente Powers and the Central Powers were unable to produce enough for their war requirements using this process.

In 1903 a chemist from Cambridge University discovered that significant amounts of toluol could be extracted from crude oil from Borneo. This was developed by the Royal Dutch Shell Company and a plant at Rotterdam's Refinery was created to supply the product. Sir Marcus Samuel, who had been an owner of the Shell side of the Royal Dutch Shell merger, made it clear that the German source of toluol came primarily from the Rotterdam plant and with his colleagues conceived a daring plan to acquire the technology (Ref 12).

With the silent support of the RDS management, in the dead of night on the 30th January 1915, the plant in Rotterdam was dismantled, part by part. Each part was numbered, camouflaged and then loaded on a Dutch freighter. The freighter was escorted by a British destroyer to London, transferred by rail and was reassembled in a plant at Portishead, Somerset (see photo page 16 extracted from 'The Shell that hit Germany the hardest', P G A Smith) (Ref 12).

This covert exercise was leaked purposely to German agents but the date given was a day after the British night-operation and whether by coincidence or not a neutral Dutch freighter was torpedoed by the Germans at the mouth of Rotterdam Harbour the following night (Ref 12).

The plant was fully operational only 6 weeks later producing 1100 tons of toluol/month, enough to create 1300 tons of TNT. A reduced capacity copy was designed and constructed at Barrow-in-Furness. These two plants provided 80% of the toluol needed for the British Military's TNT requirements for shells and mines. By the Armistice the Portishead plant had supplied 18,500 tons and Barrow 11,500 tons. Marcus Samuel was rightly awarded a peerage after the war.

Toluol plant at Portishead

Romanian oil supply
Romania entered WW1 in August 1916 on the side of the Entente Powers after promises of widened borders in the event of the Entente Powers winning the war. The Romanian Army of 650,000 men were initially successful in Transylvania against Austro-Hungarian troops but Germany joined the fight and quickly routed the Romanians. Germany was highly dependent on the supply of Romanian oil and wheat grain and control of these commodities became a critical strategy at this stage in the war. The German success was a disaster; according to Lloyd George, the defeat of Romania, "was a blunder of the most inexplicable character'.

Romania had not received any help from its allies but when Britain realised control of the oil industry and grain stocks were to fall into the hands of the Germans in mid-November 1916 they sent a small group of soldiers to assist the Romanians in destroying their oil facilities and oil and grain stocks. The British soldiers were led by the infamous Colonel John Norton-Griffiths. He had gained a reputation for his loyalty and flamboyant style ("Empire Jack"), notably using his pre-war experience of constructing sewers in Manchester, in the organisation of a military unit to dig tunnels under the German lines and for them to be filled with explosives.

The Romanians were reluctant to destroy their important industries but Norton-Griffiths and his gang operated at 14 locations over 10 days and claimed they were successful in single-handedly damaging 70 refineries, a high proportion of their oil wells and reputedly set fire to over 800,000 tons of stored oil (Ref 3). There is much debate amongst historians about the truth behind the extent of the damage claims but the reality was that within 6 months much had been recovered by the German engineers and oil and grain were being despatched from Romania to Germany. The 1917 output of oil was 30% of the 1915 level and less than half the wells that were operating in July 1916 were back in production by November 1918. The oil output, however, in 1918 had been restored to 75% of the 1915 level (Ref 3). Clearly Norton-Griffiths and his gang had made a significant dent in Germany's supply of oil from Romania in 1917 but not enough to cripple the German war machine.

In writing his memoirs, Lloyd George suggested that if the Allies had taken steps to secure the Balkans, and thus control of Romanian oil in 1915, "as we ought to have done … the failure of oil supplies would have shortened the war by at least two years."

After the Armistice the Romanians curiously claimed compensation for the damage done by Norton-Griffiths. They were not successful as the claim was offset against the considerable war debt they had amassed.

The Ottoman take-over of Baku
The Russians had already realised they were unable to protect Baku from a potential Ottoman incursion and handed power over to another Azerbaijan faction who in turn had asked for help from the British Government. The British realised the Strategic importance of the Baku oilfields and facilities plus the threat of losing control over areas to the East of the Caspian. It was decided to support the Baku Russians in the event that the Ottoman Army were to invade Azerbaijan. A small British Military Mission, under General Lionel Dunsterville, nicknamed the 'Dunsterforce', had left Baghdad at the end of January 1918 and arrived on the Caspian coast of Iran on the 17th February 1918. The Dunsterforce was reinforced with several infantry companies and light artillery.

After the collapse of Russian Empire in 1917 Azerbaijan power politics developed into various factions eventually creating an independent democratic republic in May 1918. The Bolshevik Russians, however, were still occupying Baku and a rather complicated situation developed in which the new Azerbaijan government asked for military help from the Ottoman Army, not realising the ambitions of the Ottomans. The Ottoman Army or so-called Caucasus Army of Islam landed in Azerbaijan in May 1918 and started a move toward Baku.

The Dunsterforce eventually reached Baku on the 4th August but being unable to hold Baku had to withdraw on the 14th September. The oil facilities were left intact and thus available to the Ottoman Army but the impact on the war turned out to be minimal as the Armistice of Mudros was signed only 6 weeks later. The Ottoman troops had to withdraw from Azerbaijan.

Discussion on the impact of geology and petroleum oil on the balance of strength between combatants in WW1
The background of earlier sections and the tactics during the war detailed in the above section clearly confirms that it was the availability and control over oil that had a significant impact on the balance of strengths of the combatants in WW1. The Entente Powers had a significant advantage in their access and control over oil supply.

Was it the geological knowledge or science which gave the original Entente Powers this advantage?

In the case of Scottish Shale oil, Britain had certainly developed a processing advantage that significantly improved the yield of oil but the scale of shale oil production was inadequate to claim this as a factor differentiating the two combatants.

The history of petroleum oil exploration developments were achieved primarily through knowledge gained from individuals with indigenous involvement in their industry. Initially it was Russian engineers, Polish and Romanian, followed by US drilling technology that achieved the growth. Certainly, prior to WW1 British geologists contributed greatly to the science but this was not the issue that made the difference between the two sides.
How did Britain and its original Entente allies succeed in the race for petroleum oil?

If we examine the background of the Persian discoveries it was strongly influenced by the early field research of the French archaeologist/geologist Jacque de Morgan. This then required the entrepreneurial spirit and finance of individuals such as D'Arcy combined with the determination, adaptability, intelligence and managerial skills of someone like George B. Reynolds to achieve the oil discovery.

Reynolds's success was not the unique stroke of luck it first appeared. After 'Masjid-i-Sulaiman' he did not fit-in with the new bureaucratic management of APOC. In 1911, he was fired, receiving a paltry bonus of a £1,000. Reynolds then joined Shell and discovered the massive 'La Rosa' oil field in Venezuela in 1922! (Ref 9).

So we must conclude the oil success was actually achieved by a mixture of different talented individuals. The consolidation of the Industry, however, was only sustained by the Imperialist strategy prevailing at this time. Today we would question the morals of Imperialism but we must not forget that 100 years ago the world was a very different environment.

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4. Naval Innovation: from Coal to Oil, Erik J Dahl, 2001
5. NA, POWE 33/8:Inter-allied Petroleum Conference, minutes, 1918
6. Oil in Persia and the Bakhtiaris, Bahman Oskoui
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