Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

World War One: A War For Oil?

Was the First World War all about oil?

This is claim made by comedian Robert Newman in his History of Oil

Newman, formerly of the TV comedy group The Mary Whitehouse Experience, and who along with David Baddiel performed to the largest comedy audiences ever, is a performer who has turned his back on mainstream success and now very much ploughs his own furrow. Whilst his old partners are regulars on TV and Radio he is more likely to be found performing a squat or a protest camp.

In History of Oil he deploys his considerable comic talents to a take shots at recent US and UK policy in the Middle East in general and the follies of Bush and Blair in particular. It's well aimed stuff that I mostly agree with.

But along the way he takes a pop at readers of books such as Marching to the Drums - a volume which sits happily on my bookshelf - claiming we are all obsessed with trivia on military weaponry. Here he is very much mistaken.

Newman - who wrongly claims the Gatling gun was made by Webley when it was in actual fact Colt - starts his story in 1912, when Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, made the decision to switch the battleships of the Royal Navy from Welsh coal to Arabian oil. If you want a date in which the world entered the Oil Age, this is it.

Two years later the First World War broke out, and, Newman points out, the first thing Britain does is invade Iraq. The entire war, he suggests, was fought for one reason - to control Middle Eastern oil.

The trigger for this oil grab, he contends, was the Berlin to Baghdad railway.

You can't discuss the railways in this era without discussing the influence of an academic who is now largely forgotten, but whose star was very much in the ascendant in 1914; Harold J. Mackinder.

Mackinder's Heartland Theory
The founder of Oxford's School of Geography, and in 1914 a Conservative Member of Parliament, Mackinder's brainchild was the Heartland theory of geopolitics.

The gist of this was that railways had shifted the balance between sea travel and land travel. 

Before the twentieth century anyone with any sense travelled by water. Rome may have been famous for its roads, but the heart of its empire was the Mediterranean Sea. Spain, Holland and then Great Britain had all built empires based on their control of the seas.

HMS Dreadnought at sea
It made sense. Rather than keeping large armies everywhere we could just send troops by boat from Britain or better still India, where we had a locally funded army designed for this sort of thing, to sort the problem whilst keeping rival empires away with the mighty Royal Navy.

Then at the end of the nineteenth century the Russians started to build the Trans-Siberian Railway.  This would allow them to send troops to the borders of India by railway faster than we could send reinforcements by sea.

The Japanese ended the Russian threat for us in 1905, but not before tensions had led to a British invasion of peaceful Tibet in search of non-existent Russian Agents of Mass Destruction.
Berlin to Baghdad (almost)

However by then the Germans had started build not only a navy, but also a railway through Turkey to the Persian Gulf. They also made sure to route the track well out of range of the Royal Navy's guns.

The worry now was before the Royal Navy could get the Indian Army to the region spiky hatted German soldiers would have laid their towels on the beach and grabbed all the oil. 

The result, Newman suggests, was that Britain started a World War in order to make sure we got the black stuff first.

British troops enter Baghdad.
Maybe, but there are problems with this theory.

For a start the railway was still 300 miles short of Baghdad when Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry (as Baldrick put it).

Secondly, in June 1914 an agreement was actually reached with Germany about zones of influence in the Middle East. Supposedly the issue had been resolved. However like a lot of other issues 'resolved' in the years up to 1914, the suspicions may have remained.

More seriously invading Iraq was not, as Newman contends, the first thing Britain did when we entered the war. The troops that were sent out to the Middle East in September 1914 - after the BEF had landed in France - were actually deployed to Abadan Island, which was part of Iran, in order to protect Persian oil rather than to grab Iraqi oil, of which there wasn't that much coming out of the ground at that time.

That they ended up in Iraq was largely the result of the commander, General Townshend, a rather strange chap who'd been famous for fifteen minutes a couple of decades earlier after a scrap in an obscure part of the Himalayas and who was missing the limelight. He plunged bravely on into Iraq, believing that Johnny Turk was no match for his plucky troops, only to get himself surrounded ina  place called Kut. When he couldn't be rescued he surrendered, spending the rest of the war in comfort whilst his men starved to death in Turkish prison camps.

However whilst the railway may not have been a direct cause of the war, it may have been a minor reason for Britain joining in. It was also probably a reason why Britain and Turkey, countries that had been allies during the Victorian era, ended up fighting on opposite sides.

And whilst oil may not have been the main reason the nations of the most 'civilised' nations of the
world spent five years killing nine million of their own citizens, it was certainly a major reason for Britain involving itself in the Middle East afterwards.

The legacy of that colonial meddling is with us still and Newman is dead right that we really need to know this history.

Because the Middle East, for sure, has not forgotten.

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