Anglo-Persian oil discovery in 1908

Having spent a great deal of his personal fortune on exploration in Persia without any convincing returns, William Knox D’Arcy had had enough. The anticipated profit had not materialised and he transferred his holdings to Burmah Oil, recouped his outlay in full and made a profit of 170,000 Burmah shares, valued around £895,000 [1] for himself and his associates. [2] It was clear to the Secret Elite that D’Arcy’s personal fortune was more important than the future of the Empire and as a consequence he received no official honour for his ‘loyalty’. Not even a knighthood!Then, low and behold, the barren deserts spouted the priceless oil shortly after, in a district which had been identified as oil-bearing more than half a century before. [3] D’Arcy was either decidedly unlucky, or the victim of a calculated plan. In the summer of 1908, two tremendously profitable gushers were struck to the delight of his replacement, Lord Strathcona, a Scottish born Canadian financier, and other investors.

As Chairman of the Hudson Bay Company and Empire philanthropist, [4] Strathcona had all the international contacts necessary to lead from the front. From 1909 he played an active role as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s first chairman, ably assisted by Charles Greenway, a British businessman. Greenway’s ambitions reflected those of the Secret Elite; to obtain sufficient capital to transform Anglo-Persian into a major force in world oil, resist the early and unwelcome overtures from Royal Dutch/ Shell, and gain the Admiralty contract to supply the Navy. In 1913 he offered them a twenty-year fuel contract that would both guarantee their supply by a ‘British’ concern and co-incidentally, rescue the company from financial straits. [5] He shamelessly played on Marcus Samuel’s ‘Jewishness’ and Henry Deterding’s ‘Dutchness’ to better accentuate his own patriotic intent, arguing repeatedly that Anglo-Persian was a natural adjunct to British strategy and policy and was a significant national asset.

[6] Admiral Fisher, retired, but still highly influential at the Admiralty, was impressed by these arguments, and in May 1914 an agreement was signed with the British government. Much of Greenway’s biased rhetoric was reiterated in Churchill’s speech to Parliament on 17 June 1914 when he sought Parliamentary approval to purchase a majority shareholding of the Anglo Persian Oil Company at a cost of £2.2 million. [7] Its importance, he stated, was that ‘over the whole of these enormous regions we obtain the power to regulate developments according to naval and national interests’. [8] It was classic British Imperialism at its worst. ‘National interests’ covered a multitude of sins.

British Navy in 1913

Churchill’s role was to front the signing of a deal that flew in the face of all previous Liberal Free Trade philosophy. To accusations of ‘Jew baiting’ he steered the proposal through what could have been troublesome Parliamentary waters with commendable success. His intervention dressed the purchase of oil from Persia in naval uniform and wrapped it in the Red Ensign. It focused minds on the fleet, on the price of oil, on the manipulation of greedy multinational oil companies, and on German rivalries. It played on old bigotries and new found fears. Though Sir Marcus Samuel and his colleagues at Royal Dutch/Shell were apoplectic at Churchill’s sneers and misrepresentations, [9] they could not change the government’s intentions.

But it had all been set up years before through the guiding hands of the Secret Elite who were able to mobilise their wealthy associates, William Knox D’Arcy and then Lord Strathcona, to nurture and protect the oil interests in Persia. They were altering the map of the Middle East and quietly but effectively planting a union flag in the Persian Gulf. Some seven weeks before the outbreak of war the government bought a fifty-one per cent holding in the Anglo Persian Oil Company, and at a stroke changed the rules of engagement. The claim to Persian oil was thus backed by the might of the British Government, not some commercial company. Eleven days before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the proposal was presented to Parliament for its approval. Ramsay MacDonald, leader of the Labour opposition, warned that the contract ‘was far more political in its significance than economic’ and, with considerable prescience added, ‘commercial concessions, especially when government money was in them, had an unhappy knack of becoming territorial acquisitions.’ [10]

Six days after war had been declared, the Bill received Royal consent. [11] The Secret Elite had played a master-stroke in what one of their leading players, Lord Curzon, described as ‘the game for the domination of the world’. [12] Without the consent of any other government, and in full denial of such intent, the Foreign Office had effectively created a new protectorate to sit beside Egypt, Sudan and the route to India. And it had all started with the bribe which D’Arcy used to gain the concession from the Shah [13]

Sir Henri Deterring, Chairman of Royal Dutch/ Shell in his later years.

Once the deal with Anglo-Persian was approved, Churchill quickly contacted  Henry Deterding of Royal Dutch/Shell to negotiate a new agreement with them. Having trashed their reputation in public, he quietly secured their oil. Deterding promised that Britain ‘shan’t want for oil or tankers in case of war’. He was a practical man. He understood what had happened [14] Despite Sir Edward Grey’s denials, this was not primarily about the availability of oil, nor the price of oil. It was about a strategic and vital stretch of land in the Middle East. The decision had been driven not just by the Admiralty, whose technical imperatives demanded that Germany never got ahead in the Naval race, but, more importantly, by the Foreign Office.  It both secured the future of Anglo Persian as a ‘British’ oil company and signalled the fact that this region was now firmly a British sphere of influence.

And where did the money come from? It had not been included in the Naval Estimates, so technically it could not be allocated from the Admiralty. Amazingly, money was found by the Chancellor of the Exchequer without any requirement for additional borrowing. [15] It was indeed a fortunate circumstance that such a large sum [16] just happened to be available. Therefore, the Treasury, the Admiralty and the Foreign Office were in cahoots. In a month of unparalleled domestic upheaval, the rights to a small piece of land in Persia were purchased for the nation by the triumvirate of Secret Elite agents inside the Cabinet without prior discussion. This oil-bearing land had been acquired on the basis of supplying the navy. That was the Admiralty’s public position. In the depth of the Foreign Office oil had been transformed into an instrument of national policy for Britain. It gave the government claim to own part of Persia.

Typical oil tanker built pre-1914.

Thus in the weeks immediately before the declaration of war, Britain established its ownership of a potentially invaluable future source of oil. Unlike Germany, which was dependent to a large extent on the monopolies she could not break, it was relatively straightforward for Britain to purchase and transport by sea, oil from America, Mexico, Trinidad, Borneo, Romania and beyond, to guarantee supplies for the Royal Navy. So there was no urgency, no immediate necessity to protect the navy’s oil supplies even in time of war. The deal that was rushed through the British parliament had future ambition written large behind its front cover. The Anglo Persian field would require more time to prove economically effective and it did not disappoint in the long run. [17] But as Britain entered the mammoth struggle with Germany, it had established a claim on the disintegrating Ottoman region around Persia and the Gulf.

And even if the decision to acquire a majority stake in Anglo-Persian had been only an economic consideration, if it was simply the supply of oil for the navy that was of concern, surely that was sufficiently important to beg another question. Given that the politicians and planners knew how critical the supply of oil would be in time of war, why did the Allies not move immediately to deny Germany and the Central Powers access to oil at the outbreak of war? No-one can claim that the British government was unaware of this. Indeed Churchill spoke about the impact of such an embargo in the House of Commons when he argued that, ‘if he [the enemy] were able to stop oil ships and enforce his doctrine of contraband, he could also stop the grain ships, the meat ships, and the ships bringing cotton and all the other varieties of raw material to this country and, of course, he could very quickly bring the war to an end by that means.’  [18] He was absolutely correct. It therefore follows that had Britain stopped the supply of oil and other commodities to Germany from the outbreak of war, it would very quickly have been brought to an end.

Winston Churchill and Admiral lord Fisher leaving the Admiralty in 1914.

And let us not forget another point which Churchill correctly identified. Control of oil throughout the world was in the hands of a relatively few very powerful oil companies. These were essentially Standard Oil (American) and Royal Dutch/Shell (Dutch/British), with Mexican Eagle (British) and the nascent Anglo Persian Oil Company (British) running far behind those two giants. Even though Germany had some influence through Deutsche Bank holdings, most of the shareholdings in Romanian and Russian oil lay with the Rothschild Dynasty and had by 1914 been amalgamated into the Royal Dutch/Shell giant. [19] Such a comprehensive stranglehold on the supply of oil should surely have spelled disaster for Germany after stalemate on the Western Front prolonged the First World War beyond the expectation of most observers. It did not.

[1] The current value of these share at 1909 prices is just over £83,000,000. Dr FC Gerretson, History of the Royal Dutch states that D’Arcy was paid £170,000 in shares, while Ferrier, see below, cites 170,000 shares.
[2] R.W. Ferrier, The History of the British Petroleum Company, p. 112.
[3] F.C. Gerretson, History of the Royal Dutch, p. 231.
[4] Donna McDonald, Lord Strathconna, pp. 507-526.
[5] Daniel Yergin, The Prize, p. 159.
[6] Ibid., p. 158.
[7] The Times, 18 June 1914, p. 12.
[8] Yergin, The Prize, p. 161.
[9] The Times, 23 June 1914, p. 19. Company Meetings, Shell Transport and Trading Co. (ltd)
[10] The Times, 18 June, 1914, p. 12. Mr Ramsay MacDonald’s Views.
[11] Hansard, House of Commons Debate 10 August 1914 vol 65 cc2308-35.
[12] John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World, p. 101.
[13] Engdahl, A Century of War, p. 20.
[14] Yergin, The Prize, p. 163.
[15] Hansard, House of Commons Debate 05 August 1914 vol 65 c2001.
[16] Roughly £189 million at today’s prices.
[17] Churchill was later to claim, without a moment’s hesitation, that the sums realised from this venture meant that the cost of all the great ships laid down between 1912-1914 were added to the British navy at no cost to the taxpayer. Winston Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918, p. 77.
[18] The Times, 18 June 1914, p. 12.
[19] Gerretson, History of the Royal Dutch, vol. Four, inset pp. 174-5 details the complex interlocking of the giant Royal Dutch/Shell’s organisation in the Western Market in 1914.