Mosul, Britain and Oil

By Martin Gibson

When I began researching Britain and oil during and after the First World War, it did not occur to me that Mosul – an important place in my story – would be making headline news as the book was about to go into print. The forces of the Iraqi government and its allies are currently battling to take the city of Mosul from ISIS.

The First World War was not a war for oil, but it demonstrated the vital need for oil. The development of aircraft, tanks, trucks and submarines and a move from coal to oil as the main fuel of warships meant that demand for oil increased greatly during the war. The Allies – supplied by the USA – had far more oil than their opponents, leading Lord Curzon (a member of the War Cabinet) to claim just after the war that ‘he might say that the Allies floated to victory upon a wave of oil.’ There was a time in 1917 when supplies were very tight, but the crisis was overcome.

US supplies could not, however, be relied upon in future. The USA might not be friendly and there were fears, which proved to be unfounded, that its reserves would soon run out. This made Britain and other countries realise that they needed secure supplies of oil.

The most obvious place to obtain these was the province of Mosul – part of the Ottoman Empire in 1914. Its proximity to the British-owned Persian oilfields and oil seepages left little doubt that it contained huge oil reserves, although this was not confirmed until a major discovery was made near Kirkuk in 1927.

Mosul was captured by British forces right at the end of the war. Protection of its Persian oilfields, pipeline and refinery were key reasons (though not the only ones) why Britain sent an expeditionary force to Basra in 1914. Oil, however, became much less important as the Mesopotamian Campaign progressed – only to become significant again at the end when British forces (which had been inactive for some time) pushed forward to take Mosul.

Little of the oil that has subsequently been discovered in the-then British Empire could have been exploited with 1914 technology. France and Italy had no oil. The USA wanted new sources to replace the oil that it had supplied during the war. Mosul and its oil thus became an important issue at the post-war peace conferences.

It is sometimes claimed that during the war Britain gave Mosul and its oil to France in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. In fact, Sykes-Picot gave France the city of Mosul, but Britain was to receive about half the province of Mosul and the potential oilfields – including Kirkuk. Britain’s objectives at the post-war peace conferences included control of an Iraq that contained all of the province of Mosul and its oil.

Just after the war, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau agreed to a request by his British counterpart, David Lloyd George, that Britain should have all of Mosul. Uncertainty about what the French wanted in return meant that it was some time before it was agreed that Britain should control Iraq (including Mosul) under a League of Nations Mandate, with the French receiving a stake in the oil.

Anglo-American relations were poor after the war –  one of the reasons being US fears that Britain was trying to shut it out of the global oil market. The British eventually realised that the physical control of oilfields was more important than ownership of companies, so allowed US companies a stake in Mosul’s oil. This created a model for the Middle Eastern oil industry, with oilfields being exploited by consortiums of Western companies. Iraq was governed by a pro-British Arab government under King Feisal, whose heirs remained on the throne until a coup in 1958 made Iraq a republic.

Britain’s Quest For Oil. The First World War and the Peace Conferences can be purchased from Helion here.

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