Modern history





The Blood of Victory: World War I

IT WAS SUPPOSED to be a short war, over in a few weeks or, at most, a few months. Instead, it sank into stalemate and dragged on and on. All the mechanical ingenuity of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was drafted into the conflict. And, when it was over, people groped to understand why it had occurred and what it had been about. Many reasons were proffered—from blunder, arrogance, and stupidity to the accumulated tensions of international rivalries and industrial society. The reasons also encompassed the secular religion of nationalism; the sclerosis of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Turkish empires; the collapse of the traditional balance of power; and the ambitions and insecurities of the recently risen German Reich.

The Great War would prove a disaster for the victors as well as the vanquished. An estimated 13 million people died, and many millions more were wounded and displaced. It was also a catastrophe for the political systems of much of Europe, and for the economies of all concerned. Such was the dismal effect of the First World War that a new upheaval would breed in its aftermath. Indeed, so terrible was the cataclysm that one of the great twentieth-century historians of international relations would look back from his old age, a half century later, and recall the war as “the well-spring of our discontents.”

It was a war that was fought between men and machines. And these machines were powered by oil—just as Admiral Fisher and Winston Churchill had foreseen, but to a much greater extent than even they or any other leader had expected. For, in the course of the First World War, oil and the internal combustion engine changed every dimension of warfare, even the very meaning of mobility on land and sea and in the air. In the preceding decades, land warfare had depended on inflexible railway systems that could carry troops and supplies to a railhead, as had occurred in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. From the railhead onward, the troops’ movement had been circumscribed by physical endurance, muscular capabilities, and the legs of man and beast. How much could be carried, how far and how fast—all that would change with the introduction of the internal combustion engine.

The extent of this transformation far outpaced anything conceived by strategists. Horses were still the basis of planning at the outbreak of the war—one horse for every three soldiers. Moreover, the reliance on horses greatly complicated the problems of supply, for each horse required ten times as much food as each man. At the beginning of the war, at the First Battle of the Marne, one German general cursed that he did not have a single horse that was not too exhausted to drag itself forward across the battlefield. By the end of the war, whole nations would lie exhausted; for the oil-powered engine, while simplifying the problems of mobility and supply, also multiplied the devastation.

Yet at first, insofar as the land war was concerned, it hardly seemed likely that oil would be of great significance. Boasting superiority in iron and coal and a better rail transport system, the German General Staff, with its methodical plans, assumed that the campaign in the West would be swift and decisive. During the initial month of hostilities, the German armies did press forward pretty much according to plan. By early September 1914, one battle line stretched 125 miles, from northeast of Paris to Verdun, where it joined another battle line that stretched to the Alps—the two lines altogether encompassing two million fighting men. The right flank of the German Army was just forty miles from Paris, headed directly for the City of Light. At this critical moment, the internal combustion engine would prove its strategic importance—in a totally unexpected way.1

The Taxi Armada

The French government, along with one hundred thousand civilians, had already evacuated Paris. The fall of the capital seemed imminent, and it looked as if France might soon be suing for peace, perhaps from Bordeaux. General Joseph Césaire Joffre, the Commander in Chief of the French Army, considered ordering his troops to drop back to the south and east of Paris, leaving the city mostly unguarded. But the military governor of Paris, General Joseph Gallieni, had other ideas. Aerial reconnaissance convinced him that an opportunity existed to hit the German lines and stop the advance. He tried to convince the British Army to assist him, but to no avail. They would not take him seriously. The old general, with his shaggy mustache and wearing black-buttoned boots, yellow leggings, and an ill-fitting uniform, hardly looked the image of the spit-and-polish officer. “No British officer would be seen speaking to such a comedian,” said one eminent British commander. But in an emotional angry nighttime phone call on September 4—what Gallieni later called his “coups de téléphone”—he finally persuaded General Joffre to launch a counterattack.

On September 6, 1914, through forests and fields of ripe grain and under scorching heat, the French went on the offensive, scoring some early successes. But then the Germans brought up more troops. The French now found themselves in a truly precarious position. Their own desperately needed reinforcements were in the immediate environs of Paris, but there seemed no way to get them to the front. They certainly could not move by railway; the French system was effectively disrupted. If they marched on foot, they would never arrive in time. And many more men were needed than could be moved by the paltry number of military vehicles available. What else could be done?

General Gallieni would not give up. He seemed to be everywhere in Paris, in his baggy, untidy uniform, organizing and rallying his forces. Despite his shoddy appearance, Gallieni was no comedian. He was a military genius and a master of improvisation, and in the face of bleak necessity, he was the first to grasp the possibilities of yoking motor transport and the internal combustion engine to the exigencies of warfare.

Already, a few days earlier, he had ordered the formation of a unique transport squad, to be held in reserve in case the city had to be evacuated. It was composed of a number of Paris taxicabs. But now, on September 6, it became obvious to Gallieni that the existing taxi reserve was much too small and that all available taxis would have to be transformed at once into a troop transport system. At 8:00 P.M., sitting in his headquarters at a lycée on the boulevard des Invalides, Gallieni had his inspiration: He decided that an armada of taxis would have to be organized to move thousands of troops to the front.

Gallieni ordered that every one of the three thousand available taxis be sought out and commandeered. Policemen and soldiers immediately began to stop cabs, demanded that they disgorge their paying passengers on the spot, and directed them to drive to the Invalides.

“How will we be paid?” one driver asked the lieutenant who had flagged him down. “By the meter or on a flat rate?”

“By the meter,” the lieutenant said.

“All right, let’s go,” replied the driver, making sure to put down his flag before starting off.

By ten in the evening, within two hours of Gallieni’s order, scores of taxis were already converging at the esplanade des Invalides. A first group set out in the dark for Tremblay-les-Gonesse, a small town to the northwest of Paris. The following morning a second army of taxis gathered at the Invalides. They took off in a great convoy, up the Champs-Elysées, along the rue Royale and the rue Lafayette, then left the city for another staging point to the east, at Gagny. During the day of September 7, while the taxis regrouped at their gathering spots, the fighting—and with it, the war—hung in a critical balance. “Today destiny will deliver a great decision,” Helmuth von Moltke, the German Commander-in-Chief, wrote to his wife. “What torrents of blood have flowed!”

Once night had fallen, each taxi was crammed with soldiers—under the personal watch of General Gallieni, who noted, with a mixture of amusement and understatement, “Well, at least it’s not commonplace.” Then the overloaded vehicles, their meter flags down, began to set off in convoys of twenty-five to fifty toward the battlefield—“this forerunner of the future motorized column,” as one historian later wrote, driving as only Parisian taxicab drivers can, speeding and passing and repassing each other, their headlamps darting points of light along the dark roads.

Thousands and thousands of troops were rushed to the critical point on the front by Gallieni’s taxicabs. They made the difference. The French line was strengthened, and the troops fought all along it with new vigor beginning with the dawn on September 8. On September 9, the Germans fell back and began to retreat. “Things are going badly, the battles east of Paris will not be decided in our favor,” Moltke wrote to his wife as the German armies reeled. “Our campaign is a cruel disillusion. … The war which began with such good hopes will in the end go against us.”

The taxicab drivers, hungry and tired after two days with no sleep, returned to Paris, where they were besieged by the curious and were paid their fares. They had helped save Paris. They had also demonstrated, under General Gallieni’s improvisational tutelage, what motorized transport would mean in the future. Later, a grateful city rechristened the broad roadway that traverses the esplanade des Invalides as the avenue du Maréchal Gallieni.2

Internal Combustion at War

The French counterattack of September 6–8, 1914, combined with a concurrent British assault, was of decisive importance—the turning point in the First Battle of the Marne, and the end of the much-planned German offensive. It also decisively changed the character of battle and ended any chance that it would be a short war. When the Germans halted their retreat, the opposing forces dug trenches on both sides and settled in for what was to prove a long, bloody, senseless war of attrition—the static war of defense. Indeed, for more than two years, the lines on the western front were to move no more than ten miles in either direction. The widespread use of the machine gun, combined with trenches and barbed-wire entanglements, gave primacy to the defense and thus guaranteed the stalemate. “I don’t know what is to be done,” said a frustrated Lord Kitchener, the British War Secretary. “This isn’t war.”

The only obvious way to break the stalemate of trench warfare was with some kind of mechanical innovation that would enable troops to move across the battlefield with greater protection than their own skin and uniforms. As the military historian Basil Liddell Hart expressed it, what was needed was “a specific antidote for a specific disease.” The first military man “who diagnosed the disease and conceived the antidote” was a British colonel, Ernest Swinton, a writer of popular war fiction who, as a result of his earlier work on the official British history of the Russo-Japanese War, had already foreseen the potential impact of the machine gun. Later, he paid close attention to various military experiments with the agricultural tractor, which had recently been developed in the United States. When dispatched early in the war to France, to be an official “eyewitness” at general headquarters, he put two and two together and came up with the idea for the antidote—an armored vehicle that was powered by the internal combustion engine and moved on traction, impervious to machine gun bullets and barbed wire.

Yet what was needed was not necessarily wanted. Entrenched opponents in the high command of the British Army did not take the idea seriously and did everything they could to squelch it. Indeed, it might well have died altogether had it not been taken up and championed by Winston Churchill. The First Lord of the Admiralty appreciated military innovation and was outraged at the failure of the Army and the War Office to begin developing such vehicles. “The present war has revolutionized all military theories about the field of fire,” he told the Prime Minister in January 1915. And, in the face of the Army’s resistance, Churchill doled out Navy funds for the continuing research needed to develop the new vehicle. Reflecting the Navy’s temporary sponsorship, the new machine was known as the “land cruiser” or the “landship.” Churchill called it the “caterpillar.” To maintain secrecy, it needed a code name while it was being tested and transported, and various names—among others, the “cistern” and the “reservoir”—were considered. But finally it became known by another of its code names—the “tank.”

The tank was first used, prematurely, in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. It played a more important role in November 1917, at Cambrai. But it had its most decisive impact on August 8, 1918, at the Battle of Amiens, when a swarm of 456 tanks broke through the German line, resulting in what General Erich Ludendorff, who was deputy to Supreme Commander Paul von Hindenburg, later called the “black day of the German Army in the history of the war.” The “primacy of the defense” was over. When the German High Command declared in October 1918 that victory was no longer possible, the first reason it gave was the introduction of the tank.

Another reason was the extent to which the car and truck (the lorry, as the British call it) had succeeded in mechanizing transport. While the Germans had held the advantage when it came to railway transport, the Allies were to gain the upper hand insofar as cars and trucks were concerned. The British Expeditionary Force that went to France in August 1914 had just 827 motor cars—747 of them requisitioned—and a mere 15 motorcycles. By the last months of the war, British Army vehicles included 56,000 trucks, 23,000 motorcars, and 34,000 motorcycles and motor bicycles. In addition, the United States, which entered the war in April 1917, brought another 50,000 gasoline-driven vehicles to France. All these vehicles provided the mobility to move troops and supplies swiftly from one point to another as the need arose—a capability that proved critical in many battles. It was rightly said after the war that the victory of the Allies over Germany was in some ways the victory of the truck over the locomotive.3

The War in the Air and at Sea

The internal combustion engine had an even more dramatic impact in a new arena for war—the air. The Wright brothers had made their first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. But until the Italians made use of airplanes in fighting against the Turks at Tripoli in 1911–12, the conventional attitude of the military toward the airplane had been summed up by the French General Ferdinand Foch, who dismissed aviation as “good sport, but for the Army the aeroplane is worthless.” At the outbreak of the war in 1914, the “trade,” as the British military called the aviation industry, barely numbered a thousand people, and by January 1915, five months later, the British industry had managed to build just 250 planes—sixty of them experimental.

Even so, the airplane had been immediately pressed into military service, and the potential of its impact had quickly become apparent. “Since war broke out,” a British aviation writer observed in early 1915, “the aeroplane has done such surprising things that even the least imaginative begin to realize that it affords a vital adjunct to naval and military operations, and possibly even a vehicle for ordinary use when war ceases.” The development of air power required the quick build-up of an industrial infrastructure; the automobile industry provided a major part of the base, especially for the engines. As the war stretched on, aviation developed swiftly, driven by rapid-fire innovation. By July 1915, every machine that had been in the air at the outbreak of the war, less than a year earlier, had become obsolete.

The first significant use of aviation in the war had been for reconnaissance and observation. Air combat initially involved pilots shooting at each other with rifles and handguns. Then machine guns were fitted on scouting planes, and new mechanisms were developed to synchronize their firing with the rotation of the propellers, so that the pilot would not accidentally shoot his own propellers. Thus, the fighter plane was born. By 1916, planes were flying in formation, and tactics of aerial combat had been developed. Tactical bombing—in conjunction with infantry combat—was introduced, and it was used by the British both against the Turks, with devastating effect, and also to stop the onrush when the Germans broke through the British front in March 1918. The Germans took the lead in strategic bombing, launching assaults directly against England, with zeppelins and then with bombers, and so violating the insularity of the British Isles in what became “the first Battle of Britain.” The British replied in the closing months of the war with air attacks on targets inside Germany.

The war constantly pushed the pace of innovation. By the last months of the struggle, the speed of the most advanced aircraft had more than doubled, to over 120 miles per hour, and they operated with a ceiling of nearly 27,000 feet. The overall production numbers told the same story of rapid development. In the course of the war, Britain produced 55,000 planes; France, 68,000; Italy, 20,000; and Germany, 48,000. In its year and a half in the war, the United States produced 15,000 planes. Such proved to be the utility of what had, before the war, been dismissed as merely “good sport.” What the Chief of the British Air Staff said of the Royal Air Force could well be applied to military aviation in general: “The necessities of war created it in a night.”

By contrast, the prewar naval race, which had so aggravated relations between Britain and Germany, produced a stalemate. At the outbreak of the war, Britain’s Grand Fleet was superior to Germany’s High Seas Fleet. In the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914, the Royal Navy defeated a German squadron, and by that victory deprived Germany of access to the trading centers of the world. Yet, despite the central role that the naval rivalry had played in leading the two countries to war, the Grand Fleet and the High Seas Fleet met only once in major engagement—at the Battle of Jutland on May 31, 1916. The outcome of that legendary encounter has been debated ever since. The German fleet was victorious in a tactical sense, succeeding as it did in escaping from a trap. But, strategically, the British won, for they were able to dominate the North Sea for the rest of the war and keep the German fleet penned up in its home bases.

Events thus proved Churchill and Fisher generally right in forcing the conversion of the Royal Navy to oil, for it did give the British fleet an overall advantage—greater range, greater speed, and faster refueling. The German High Seas Fleet was primarily coal burning; it had no stations outside Germany at which to resupply, and thus its range and flexibility were more limited. In truth, its reliance on coal made its very name, the High Seas Fleet, a misnomer. But then Germany had never been in the position that Britain was—able to make a calculated bet on its ability to maintain access to petroleum during war.4

Anglo-Persian Versus Shell

Britain’s acquisition of shares in Anglo-Persian had been made for exactly that purpose of ensuring oil supplies. But war had come even before the purchase could be completed, let alone the relationship between government and company sorted out. Moreover, the enterprise in Persia was still only of minute significance, accounting in 1914 for just less than one percent of total world oil output. But as production grew, its strategic value would be enormous, and the British commitments, both to oil fuel and to the company, had to be protected. Yet it was not at all evident that this could actually be done. Ironically, less than a month after the war began, it was Churchill himself, the champion of oil and of the Anglo-Persian acquisition, who despaired of Britain’s ability to defend the Persian oil fields and refinery. “There is little likelihood of any troops being available for this purpose,” he said on September 1. “We shall have to buy our oil from elsewhere.”

The forces of the Ottoman Empire were the chief threat. Immediately after Turkey’s entry into the war on Germany’s side in the autumn of 1914, its troops were threatening the Abadan refinery site in Persia. They were repulsed by British soldiers, who went on to capture Basra—a city of critical importance, as it guarded the strategic approaches from the West toward the Persian oil. Control of Basra also secured the safety of the local rulers friendly to British interests, including the Amir of Kuwait. The British wanted to extend their defensive line further to the northwest, if possible to Baghdad itself. Again, one of the major considerations was to secure oil fields, as well as to counteract German subversion in Persia. At the same time, the oil potential of Mesopotamia (in what is in present-day Iraq) was beginning to loom larger in British military and political planning. In 1917, after a degrading defeat at the hands of the Turks, the British did finally succeed in capturing Baghdad.

Oil production in Persia itself was little disturbed during the war, except early in 1915, when local tribesmen, riled up by German agents and the Turks, damaged the pipeline from the oil fields to Abadan. Five months elapsed before the oil was flowing satisfactorily again. Despite problems in the quality of Abadan’s refined products and wartime shortages of equipment, a great industrial enterprise was taking root in Persia, driven by military demand. Oil production in Persia grew more than tenfold between 1912 and 1918—from 1600 barrels per day to 18,000. By late 1916, Anglo-Persian was meeting a fifth of the British Navy’s entire oil needs. The company, which had often been about to go broke in its first decade and a half of existence, started to make quite substantial profits.

Anglo-Persian’s character was also changing, as its managing director Charles Greenway pursued a clear and determined strategy to transform Anglo-Persian from exclusively a crude producer into an integrated oil company—“to build up,” in his words, “an absolutely self-contained organization” that would sell products to “wherever there may be a profitable outlet for them without the intervention of any third parties.” In the midst of the world war, Greenway was positioning the company for postwar competition. His most important step was the purchase from the British government of one of the largest petroleum distribution networks in the United Kingdom, a company called British Petroleum. Despite its name, it had belonged to the Deutsche Bank, which used it as the outlet in the United Kingdom for its Rumanian oil; after the outbreak of the war, the British government had taken over the German-controlled company. Now, with its acquisition of British Petroleum, Anglo-Persian acquired not only a major marketing system, but also what would subsequently prove a most useful name. Anglo-Persian also developed its own tanker fleet. The very base of Anglo-Persian was changed by these transactions. Up until 1916–17, over 80 percent of its fixed assets were in Persia; in the very next fiscal year, only half were in Persia, with the rest in the tankers and the distribution system. It had indeed become an integrated company.

But Greenway had a second objective as well, which he pursued no less passionately—to turn Anglo-Persian into the oil champion of the British empire. He often reiterated his aim to make Anglo-Persian the nucleus of an “All-British Company … free from foreign taint of any kind”—an obvious reference to Royal Dutch/Shell. Greenway revived the “Shell menace,” attacking “the schemes of Sir Marcus and his associates for securing a worldwide monopoly of the oil trade.” Again and again, Greenway and his supporters charged Royal Dutch/Shell with disloyalty to British interests, with “making large profits out of the sale of Oil Products to Germany” and with having become “a serious National menace.”5

These charges were both unfair and untrue. The merchant Deterding, who had himself naturalized and spent the war years in London, strongly identified his own interests and those of his company with the Allies. As for Marcus Samuel, he was, simply, a fierce British patriot, and he paid the price. One of his two sons, who had run a settlement house for poor boys in the East End of London before the war, was killed in France leading his platoon into action. Samuel and his wife published posthumously a small volume of the young man’s poems as a memorial. Of his two sons-in-law, one was also killed in action, while the other died after the war from the effects of trench warfare.

Samuel himself masterminded an audacious scheme that proved of critical importance to the entire British war effort. Toluol, an essential ingredient for the explosive TNT, was generally extracted from coal. In 1903, a chemist from Cambridge University had discovered that toluol could also be extracted in significant amounts from Shell’s Borneo crude. Samuel tried to win the Admiralty’s interest, but the Admiralty greeted his report with great skepticism and rejected his offer of supplies. Eleven years later, at the beginning of the war, the offer was again made, and again rejected. Even when presented with evidence of German TNT almost certainly derived from the Borneo crude, the Navy was not interested. But the picture changed rapidly. By the end of 1914, the coal-based production of toluol was inadequate, and Britain was perilously close to running out of explosives. It needed toluol from oil, but there were no facilities to make it. The toluol-extracting factory that might have been built in Britain by Shell had instead been built in Rotterdam, in the neutral Netherlands, by the Dutch arm of the group. It was clear, moreover, that German companies were using the Rotterdam factory’s output to make TNT.

Samuel and his colleagues conceived a daring plan, which was swiftly put into effect. In the middle of the night at the end of January 1915, the plant in Rotterdam was disassembled, part by part, each piece numbered and camouflaged, and then carried to the docks and loaded onto a Dutch freighter, which slipped out into the darkness to rendezvous at sea with British destroyers. A cover story was leaked to German agents that such an evacuation was to take place—but that it would occur a day later than the actual event. That following night, whether by coincidence or not, a similar Dutch freighter was torpedoed by the Germans at the mouth of Rotterdam’s harbor. The parts of the toluol plant, meanwhile, were transported to Britain, and were re-erected in Somerset within weeks. That plant, along with a second one that Shell subsequently built, provided 80 percent of the British military’s TNT. It was for this achievement, in large part, that Samuel was awarded a peerage after the war.

Despite Greenway’s continuing assaults on the patriotism of Royal Dutch/Shell, the company became integral to the Allies’ war effort; in effect, Shell acted as the quartermaster general for oil, acquiring and organizing supplies around the world for the British forces and the entire war effort and ensuring the delivery of the required products from Borneo, Sumatra, and the United States to the railheads and airfields in France.

Shell, thus, was central to Britain’s prosecution of the war. Government officials, concerned about alienating Shell just when it was needed most, began to react negatively to the continuing attacks on the Group by Greenway and his supporters. Indeed, Greenway so overplayed his hand that he eventually turned many in the government against Anglo-Persian. They suspected Greenway’s arrogation of the patriot’s mantle and questioned his strategy of trying to build an integrated company with interests beyond Persia. There was much discussion and debate in Whitehall, as officials tried to figure out exactly what should be the government’s objective for this company, in which it had just acquired a 51 percent stake. Was it only, as a skeptical Treasury official said, “to secure navy supplies” and no more? Or was it to help create an integrated state-owned oil company, a national champion, and then to assist that company in expanding its commercial interests worldwide? Some sought to tie the commercial ambitions of the company to Britain’s postwar needs, looking to a time when “the Nation would secure an independent position in oil as it now holds in coal.” But Arthur Balfour, Churchill’s successor as First Lord of the Admiralty, wondered in August 1916 about the competence of government “to be responsible for the policy of a huge combine dealing with a prime necessity of modern life.” Various forms of government-sanctioned mergers were also debated, including schemes for making British interests, rather than Dutch, predominant within the Royal Dutch/Shell Group. These proposals came to naught during the war. Much more urgent and pressing matters were at hand.6

“A Dearth of Petrol”

As late as 1915, the supply of oil to feed the engines of war raised little sense of anxiety in Britain. But that changed at the beginning of 1916. A “dearth of petrol” was reported by the Times of London in January 1916. And the following May, the Times called “for a sharp definition of where motoring for business ends,” adding that “‘joy-riding’ may have to go altogether” in the face of “the demands of the war services.”

The reasons for the emerging oil crisis were twofold. One was the growing shortage of shipping tonnage—owing to the German submarine campaign—which constricted supplies of oil, along with all other raw materials and food, to the British Isles. The internal combustion engine had provided Germany with its only clear advantage at sea—the diesel-driven submarine. And Germany responded to the British economic blockade of Germany and Britain’s overall superiority on the seas by instituting deadly submarine warfare, aimed at choking off supplies to the British Isles as well as to France. The other reason for the crisis was the rapidly growing demand for oil—to meet wartime needs both on the battlefield and on the home front. Fearing shortage, the government instituted a system of rationing. The relief was only temporary.

Pressure on supplies returned at the beginning of 1917 when Germany unleashed its unrestricted submarine campaign against Allied shipping. Ultimately that campaign proved to be a blunder of immense proportions, for it led the United States to forsake its neutrality and declare war against Germany. Still, the effects of the submarine attacks were large and quickly felt. Tonnage lost in the first half of 1917 was twice that lost in the comparable period in 1916. Between May and September, Standard Oil of New Jersey lost six tankers, including the brand new John D. Archbold. Among the many tankers that Shell lost during the war was the Murex, which had been the first vessel dispatched by Marcus Samuel through the Suez Canal in 1892 to carry out his great coup. The Admiralty’s policy was to maintain stocks equivalent to six months of consumption, but, by the end of May 1917, they were less than half that level, and already, the shortfall in oil supplies was constraining the mobility of the Royal Navy. So serious had the situation become that it was even suggested that the Royal Navy stop building oil-driven ships and go back to coal!7

The grave shortages of 1917 gave a strong push to official efforts in Britain to develop a coherent national petroleum policy. A variety of committees and offices, including a Petroleum Executive, were established to coordinate oil policy—both to contribute to better prosecution of the war and to try to enhance Britain’s oil position in the postwar years. Similarly, the French government established a Comité Général du Pétrole, modeled on Britain’s Petroleum Executive and headed by a Senator, Henry G. Bérenger, to respond to the growing crisis. But it was recognized in both countries that the only real solution to the crisis was to be found in the United States. Shipping—tankers—held the key to the supply situation.

What have been described as “desperate” telegrams were dispatched from London to America, declaring that the Royal Navy would be immobilized, putting the “fleet out of action,” unless the United States government made more tonnage available. “The Germans are succeeding,” the American ambassador in London despairingly wrote in July 1917. “They have lately sunk so many fuel oil ships, that this country may very soon be in a perilous condition—even the Grand Fleet may not have enough fuel. … It is a very grave danger.” By the autumn of 1917, Britain was exceedingly short of supplies. “Oil is probably more important at this moment than anything else,” Walter Long, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, warned the House of Commons in October. “You may have men, munitions, and money, but if you do not have oil, which is today the greatest motive power that you use, all your other advantages would be of comparatively little value.” In that same month, pleasure driving in Britain was summarily and completely banned.

France’s oil position was also degenerating rapidly in the face of Germany’s unrestricted submarine campaign. In December 1917, Senator Bérenger warned Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau that the country would run out of oil by March 1918—just when the next spring offensive was set to begin. Supplies were so low that France could sustain no more than three days of heavy German attacks, such as those experienced at Verdun, where massive convoys of trucks had been needed to rush reserves to the front and hold off the German assault. On December 15, 1917, Clemenceau urgently appealed to President Wilson that an additional hundred thousand tons of tanker capacity be made immediately available. Declaring that gasoline was “as vital as blood in the coming battles,” he told Wilson that “a failure in the supply of gasoline would cause the immediate paralysis of our armies.” He ominously added that a shortage might even “compel us to a peace unfavorable to the Allies.” Wilson responded quickly, and the necessary tonnage was swiftly made available.

But more than ad hoc solutions were needed. The oil crisis was already forcing the United States and its European Allies into much tighter integration of supply activities. An Inter-Allied Petroleum Conference was established in February 1918 to pool, coordinate, and control all oil supplies and tanker shipping. Its members were the United States, Britain, France, and Italy. It proved effective at distributing the available supplies among the Allied nations and their military forces. By the very nature of their domination of the international oil trade, however, Standard Oil of New Jersey and Royal Dutch/Shell really made the system work—though they continually argued about who was making the larger contribution. That joint system—along with the introduction of convoys as an antidote to the German U-boats—solved the Allies’ oil supply problems for the rest of the war.8

The Energy Czar

The Inter-Allied Petroleum Conference was also created in response to domestic American energy problems. Clearly, American oil had become an essential element in the conduct of the European war. In 1914, the United States had produced 266 million barrels—65 percent of total world output. By 1917, output had risen to 335 million barrels—67 percent of world output. Exports accounted for a quarter of total U.S. production, with the bulk going to Europe. Now that access to Russian oil had been closed off by war and revolution, the New World had become the oil granary for the Old; altogether, the United States was to satisfy 80 percent of the Allies’ wartime requirement for petroleum.

Nevertheless, America’s entry into the war greatly complicated the American oil picture. For there needed to be adequate supplies for many purposes—the American military, the Allies’ forces, the American war industries, and normal civilian use. How to assure sufficient supplies, efficient distribution, and appropriate allocation? This became the charge of the Fuel Administration, established by President Wilson in August 1917 as part of the overall economic mobilization. All of the belligerent states faced a parallel challenge—to harness the industrial economies that had emerged over the preceding half century to the requirements of modern warfare. In each country, the needs of mobilization expanded the role of the state in the economy and created new alliances between government and private business. The United States and the American oil industry were no exception.

The head of the Oil Division in the Fuel Administration was a California petroleum engineer named Mark Requa, who became America’s first energy czar. His main job was to forge a new and unprecedented working relationship between the government and the oil industry. The Oil Division worked in close liaison with the National Petroleum War Service Committee, whose members were the leaders of major companies, and whose chairman was Alfred Bedford, president of Standard Oil of New Jersey. It was this committee that organized the supply of American oil for the war in Europe. It placed the major orders from the various Allied governments with American refiners and played a central role in arranging the shipping. In essence, it was the agency on the American side that pooled the oil supplies for Europe. This new pattern of close cooperation between business and government stood in marked contrast to the battle between government and Standard Oil just a decade earlier. Trust busting seemed far away, as the industry was now pushed to run itself as a single body, under the leadership of the once-hated Standard Oil of New Jersey.9

In 1917, the surging demand for American oil began to hit the limit of available supplies. The gap was being closed only by using up inventories and by importing more oil from Mexico. On top of that, the bitterly cold winter of 1917–18 and the overall pace of industrial activity combined to create a shortage of coal in the United States—so severe that local officials commandeered coal trains passing through their jurisdictions, and policemen had to stand guard over industrial coal piles to prevent pilfering. Orphanages and asylums ran out of fuel, and inmates died of frostbite. Even the wealthy were complaining of empty coal bins and chattering teeth. In January 1918, the Fuel Administration ordered almost all industrial plants east of the Mississippi to close for a week in order to free fuel for hundreds of ships filled with war materials for Europe that were immobilized in East Coast harbors for want of coal. Thereafter, the factories were ordered to remain closed on Mondays to conserve coal. “Bedlam broke loose,” observed Colonel Edward House, Woodrow Wilson’s political confidant. “I have never seen such a storm of protest.”

The coal shortage stimulated a sharp increase in the demand for oil, and oil prices rose accordingly. By early 1918, average crude prices were double what they had been at the beginning of 1914. Refiners were offering bonuses and premiums in order to obtain supplies, while producers were withholding supplies on the expectation of still higher prices. This situation greatly alarmed the government. On May 17, 1918, Requa, the energy czar, warned the industry that there was “no justification” for “any further advance in the price of crude oil” and called for “voluntary” price controls on the part of the oil industry. Standard Oil of New Jersey was agreeable to Requa’s call for such price restraint. Not so the independent producers. But without “voluntary” controls, Requa bluntly told a group of producers in Tulsa, there would be direct government controls. Moreover, he reminded them, it was the government that helped producers obtain steel and other drilling supplies (the oil industry took a twelfth of the country’s output of iron and steel), and it was the government that provided draft exemptions for oil field workers. These arguments were persuasive. In August 1918, maximum prices were set in each producing region and prices leveled off for the remainder of the war.

Still, demand continued to outstrip supply, not only because of the war but also because of the phenomenal growth in the number of automobiles in the United States. The number of cars in use had almost doubled between 1916 and 1918. Petroleum shortages seemed imminent, which could threaten the war effort in Europe and restrict essential activities in the United States. An “appeal”—not a mandatory order—for “Gasolineless Sundays” was made. The only exemptions were for freight, doctors, police, emergency vehicles, and hearses. Inevitably, the call aroused suspicions and complaints, but it was for the most part faithfully observed, even in the White House. “I suppose,” declared President Wilson, “I must walk to church.”10

The Man with the Sledgehammer

Despite periodic alarms and critical moments of shortages of supply, the Allies never suffered from a protracted oil crunch. Germany did, as the Allied blockade succeeded in choking off supplies to Germany from overseas. That left only one source available to them—Rumania. And while Rumania’s output on a worldwide scale was comparatively small, it was the largest European producer, excluding Russia. Germany was heavily dependent on it. The activities of the Deutsche Bank and other German firms had already, before the war, tied a significant part of the Rumanian oil industry to the German economy. For the first two years of the war, Rumania remained neutral, waiting to see which side was likely to win. But finally, in August 1916, in the wake of Russian success on the eastern front, Rumania declared war against Austria-Hungary, thus bringing it almost immediately into a state of war with Germany as well.

Victory in this Eastern theater was essential for Germany. “As I now saw quite clearly, we should not have been able to exist, much less to carry on the war, without Rumania’s corn and oil,” said General Erich Ludendorff, who was the true mastermind of Germany’s war effort. German and Austrian troops advanced on Rumania in September of 1916, but the Rumanians dug in and managed to hold on to the mountain passes, which protected the Wallachian Plain, where the oil production was concentrated. In mid-October the Germans and Austrians captured a vast amount of petroleum products, including a large cache of gasoline belonging to the Allies, held in storage at a Rumanian oil port on the Black Sea. There had been a plan to destroy all the facilities and oil supplies, but in the confusion of battle it had never been executed. And now the great prize itself—the Rumanian oil fields and refineries—seemed almost within Germany’s grasp.

Could it be denied to the Germans? On October 31, 1916, the subject was urgently discussed in London by the British Cabinet War Committee. “No efforts should be spared to ensure, in case of necessity, the destruction of the supplies of grain and oil, as well as of the oil wells,” the committee concluded. But the Rumanian government was reluctant to consider destroying its national treasure, especially while there was still some hope on the battlefield. That hope faded by November 17, when the Germans succeeded in breaking through the Rumanian resistance in the mountain passes and began pouring down through the mountains and across the Wallachian Plain.

The British government took matters into its own hands and recruited Colonel John Norton-Griffiths, M.P., to organize the destruction of the Rumanian oil industry. A larger-than-life figure, Norton-Griffiths was one of the great engineering contractors of the British empire. He had undertaken construction projects in almost every corner of the world—railways in Angola and Chile and Australia, harbors in Canada, aqueducts in Baku, sewage systems in Battersea and Manchester. On the eve of World War I, he was in the midst of promoting a plan for a new subway for Chicago. Handsome, physically imposing, and with the strength and endurance of a prizefighter, Norton-Griffiths was a charming swashbuckler and persuasive showman. Men invested in his projects, women were attracted to him. He was considered “one of the most dashing men of the Edwardian era.” He was also a man of fiery temperament, rebellious nature, and uncontrollable rages. He lacked discipline and perseverance, and some of his projects were spectacular financial flops. But he did achieve prominence as a Parliamentary back-bencher, variously known as “Hell-fire Jack,” “the Monkey Man” (for having eaten a monkey while in Africa) and—since he was a thoroughgoing imperialist—by the sobriquet he treasured most, “Empire Jack.”

Norton-Griffiths’s first great engineering feat during World War I was to adapt techniques he had previously developed for the Manchester sewers to the challenge of tunneling beneath German lines and trenches, where underground mines were then placed and detonated. His methods were proved at Ypres. But he had alienated many commanders as he careened about Flanders in his two-ton Rolls-Royce, which was permanently supplied with crates of champagne, and he was recalled from the front. Still, there was no one better suited for the Rumanian mission. On November 18, 1916, the day after the Germans broke through the Rumanian lines, “Empire Jack” arrived in Bucharest, via Russia, accompanied only by his manservant. As the Germans continued their advance, the Rumanian government, under Allied pressure, finally agreed to the policy of destruction.

The destruction teams now swung into action, with “Empire Jack” at the forefront. The first fields went up in flames on November 26 and 27. The teams followed the same general procedure at each site. Explosives were placed in refineries. Then, petroleum products in storage were allowed to flow into the refineries, creating lakes several inches, or even feet, deep. Equipment was brought in and dumped into the pools of oil. And then, with matches and burning straw, the entire facility was set afire. Those who challenged Norton-Griffiths or stood in his way were overwhelmed by the sheer force of his personality. If that proved insufficient, he would deliver a powerful kick or pull out his revolver and shout, “I don’t speak your blasted language.”

Apparatus in the fields was smashed; derricks were dynamited; wells were plugged with stone, spikes, mud, broken chains, drillbits, and whatever else was handy; pipelines were crippled; and huge oil storage tanks were set ablaze, exploding with great roars. At some installations, “Empire Jack” insisted on setting the blaze himself. In one engine house, after lighting the flammable gases, he was blown out by the blast, with his hair afire. That didn’t stop him. Again and again, Norton-Griffiths took the lead in swinging a huge hammer to wreck derricks and pipes, leaving an indelible memory in Rumania of “the man with the sledgehammer.”

The oil valleys were ablaze, with red flames rising high into a sky completely filled with a dense, black, asphyxiating smoke that blotted out the sun. Yet beyond the valleys could be heard the sound of the big guns, growing closer all the time. The last field to be set afire was Ploesti itself. The work was completed just in time. For, on December 5, only a few hours after the facilities went up in flames, the Germans entered the town of Ploesti. Norton-Griffiths barely escaped by car, just ahead of the German cavalry. “To lay waste the land” had been his mission, he said, but as a builder, the destruction sickened him, and though awarded military honors for his efforts, he was uncharacteristically loath to talk about this exploit in later years.

After the war, General Ludendorff admitted that Norton-Griffiths’s efforts “did materially reduce the oil supplies of our army and the home country.” The German general grudgingly added, “We must attribute our shortages in part to him.” Altogether, some seventy refineries and an estimated eight hundred thousand tons of crude oil and petroleum products had been destroyed in Rumania under Norton-Griffiths’s tutelage. It took five months before the Germans could begin to get the fields back into production, and for all of 1917, production was only a third of what it had been in 1914. The Germans applied themselves methodically to undoing Norton-Griffiths’s work, and by 1918, they had pushed production back up to 80 percent of the 1914 level. The Rumanian oil was sorely needed. The Germans might well have not been able to continue the war without it. As a historian of Britain’s Imperial Defense Committee later observed, Germany’s timely capture of the Rumanian oil industry, along with the Rumanian grain, “made just the difference between shortage and collapse” for the German side. But only for a time.11


Even as the Germans were getting the Rumanian fields back into operation, General Ludendorff set his sights on a greater prize, which might help meet the enormous and rising need for oil and so turn the tide of battle in Germany’s favor. It was Baku, on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The collapse of the Czarist regime in early 1917, the rise of the Bolsheviks later in the year, and the fragmentation of the Russian empire—all held out some hope for the Germans that they might be able to get their hands on oil supplies from Baku. They began to seek access to Baku petroleum in March 1918 with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended hostilities between Germany and revolutionary Russia. However, the Turks, the ally of Germany and Austria, had already begun to advance toward Baku. Fearing that success by their ally would lead to the wanton destruction of the oil fields, the Germans promised the Bolsheviks that they would try to restrain the Turks in exchange for oil. “Of course, we agreed,” said Lenin. Joseph Stalin, who by then had emerged as one of the leading Bolsheviks, telegraphed the Bolshevik Baku Commune, which controlled the city, ordering it to comply with this “request.” But the local Bolsheviks were in no mood to go along. “Neither in victory nor in defeat will we give the German plunderers one drop of oil produced by our labor,” they replied.

The Turks, in their quest for the Baku prize, spurned Berlin’s entreaties and continued their advance toward the oil region. By the end of July, they were laying siege to the city, and by early August had captured some of the producing fields. The Armenian and Russian residents of Baku had long been imploring the British for help. Finally, in mid-August 1918, the British intervened with a small force that made its way through Persia. The troops were charged with saving Baku and keeping the oil from the enemy. If need be, they were (in the words of the War Office) to follow the Rumanian plan and “destroy the Baku pumping plant, pipeline and oil reservoirs.”

The British stayed in Baku only a month, but that was enough to deny Baku oil to the Germans at the critical moment. It was, Ludendorff was to say, “a serious blow for us.” Then the British withdrew and the Turks captured the city. In the maelstrom, the local Moslems, abetted by the Turks, once again—as in the revolutionary days of 1905—began to pillage and destroy, in the process killing every Armenian they could find, even those lying in hospital. Meanwhile, Bolshevik commissars from the Baku Commune were captured by revolutionary rivals. Twenty-six of them were taken to a desolate spot in the desert, 140 miles east of the Caspian Sea, and there executed. One of the few to escape was a young Armenian named Anastas Mikoyan, who eventually got to Moscow to tell Lenin what had happened. But, by the time the Turks took Baku, it was too late to do the Germans and their oil supply any good.12

Floating to Victory

The denial of Baku at that juncture was, in fact, a decisive blow for Germany. The pressure on its oil supplies was growing ever more acute. By the desperate month of October 1918, the picture was grim. The German Army had all but exhausted its reserves, and the German High Command was anticipating a grave petroleum crisis in the coming winter and spring. In October, it was estimated in Berlin that the battle at sea could be continued for only six to eight months. The war industries that operated on oil would run out of supplies within two months; the entire stock of industrial lubricants would be exhausted within six months. Limited land operations could be carried out with supplies on a strictly rationed basis. But air and mechanized land warfare would cease absolutely within two months.

The validity of these estimates was never tested, for within a month, an exhausted Germany surrendered. The armistice was signed at five in the morning, November 11, 1918, in Marshal Foch’s railway car in the Forest of Compiègne. Six hours later, it went into effect. The war was over.

In London, some ten days after the Armistice, the British government hosted a dinner for the Inter-Allied Petroleum Conference at Lancaster House, with the distinguished Lord Curzon as chairman. He had once been the Foreign Office’s great Persian expert; he had been Viceroy of India, in which capacity he had supported D’Arcy’s oil venture in Persia on strategic grounds. He had been a member of the War Cabinet, and was shortly to become Foreign Secretary. Now he rose to tell the assembled guests that “one of the most astonishing things” he had seen in France and Flanders during the war “was the tremendous army of motor lorries.” Then he resoundingly declared, “The Allied cause had floated to victory upon a wave of oil.”

Senator Bérenger, the director of France’s Comité Général du Pétrole, was even more eloquent. Speaking in French, he said that oil—“the blood of the earth”—was “the blood of victory … Germany had boasted too much of its superiority in iron and coal, but it had not taken sufficient account of our superiority of oil.” Bérenger also had a prophecy to make. Continuing in French, he said, “As oil had been the blood of war, so it would be the blood of the peace. At this hour, at the beginning of the peace, our civilian populations, our industries, our commerce, our farmers are all calling for more oil, always more oil, for more gasoline, always more gasoline.” Then he broke into English to drive home his point—“More oil, ever more oil!”13

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!