Balfour and Oil I

German officers consult with local leaders in Tiflis, Georgia, June 1918

By the autumn of 1915, northern Arabs were disillusioned with Turkish domination and, under Sherif Hussein of Mecca, lobbied to revive the long-fallen Arab Empire as an independent state. The British government welcomed his opposition to the Central Powers, and negotiations began in October 1915. However, Britain could not promise independence to Syria and other regions of Arabia, as the result of incompatible French interests. With the advent of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, the 1917 Balfour Declaration, and the clamour for post-war oil, Arab independence was merely lip service to further British machinations in the region. In desperation, the British were making contradictory and backhanded pledges to allies and interest groups that they never intended to keep. George Antonius, the first serious historian of Arab nationalism, denounced the Sykes-Picot agreement as “not only the product of greed at its worst, that is to say, of greed allied to suspicion and so leading to stupidity: it also stands out as a startling piece of double-dealing.”34 In late 1917, when the Bolsheviks published these secret treaties and agreements, “the British and French were seriously embarrassed because the Sykes-Picot condominium, though phrased in general terms, clearly conflicted with what had been promised” to Sherif Hussein and the Arabs. In addition, Balfour pledged that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” (which would be 90 per cent of the population). It was clear, however, that his declaration meant, as the Times headline read, “Palestine for the Jews.”

Although the Russians requested Allied assistance during Enver’s fruitless foray into eastern Anatolia, it is doubtful that this request alone influenced the decision to launch the Gallipoli campaign. While Russian pleas abetted the final decision, there were, however, other Allied interests in the area, specifically the Dardanelles. The strategic advantage of this region, without going into lengthy detail, was the geographical benefit of transportation and trade (including Baku oil). By early 1915, the prices of imported staple foods to Britain, particularly meat and wheat, had risen by over 20 per cent, leading to strikes and demands for higher wages. For example, coal miners threatened a national strike in March 1915, demanding a 20 per cent wage increase to “meet the extra cost of living.” No less than 80 per cent of Britain’s wheat requirements came from abroad, primarily from Russia, with lesser amounts from Canada and the United States. Britain’s wartime economy could scarcely afford labour unrest and unchecked inflation of staple consumer goods.36 On 22 January, the British prime minister, Herbert Asquith, wrote to a friend, “The only exciting thing in prospect (after seeing you on Friday) is what will happen in the Dardanelles. If successful, it will smash up the Turks, and, incidentally, let through all the Russian wheat wh. is now locked up & so lower the price of bread.” The industrial and labour unrest of 1911 had unnerved Winston Churchill, who was then Home Secretary. He had witnessed the disastrous effects of the strikes and four years later in 1915 was “deeply concerned about the possible impact that war might have upon public order in Britain … how much worse might be the economic and social dislocation of war? Churchill, as the minister responsible for maintaining order in both circumstances, inevitably found himself considering this very question.” The Dardanelles connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea, a vital waterway for channelling Russian wheat and oil.

In addition, policymakers also referenced Britain’s tradition of hostility with Russia in Central Asia. The rise of Anglo-German antagonism “had only overlaid, but had not abolished, Britain’s quarrels with France and Russia.” Membership in their mutual alliance undoubtedly added a sense a security for British imperial possessions, specifically India, but it also created a dichotomous war for Britain: fighting to achieve its own war aims, but those of its allies as well. These goals were not always compatible: “All policy-makers were agreed that measures had to be taken to protect the British Empire in the East and that Britain had to assist its Russian ally.” A push through the Dardanelles could satisfy both objectives. The outbreak of war in 1914 did not cause the Entente partners to overlook their pre-war disputes. “British desiderata were chosen not only with an eye towards securing Britain’s postwar position against Germany,” concludes David French, “but also against France and Russia.” For British policymakers the ideal outcome of the war was an Entente victory on the Western Front, and a British victory in the greater Middle East.

This resulted in the March 1915 Constantinople Agreement between the Entente powers. Believing that the Ottoman Empire would soon be defeated, the agreement dictated the geographical divisions of the spoils of war. Russia would receive control of the former Turkish holdings of Constantinople (a free port to be administered by Russia), the western shores of the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, the Dardanelles, and southern Thrace. France maintained its demands for Syria (including Palestine), the Gulf of Alexandretta, and the coastal region of Cilicia surrounding the Turkish city of Adana. Britain would be granted control over the neutral zone in Persia, Mesopotamia, and southern Mediterranean ports, free passage through the Dardanelles, and the rump of Turkey in Asia, stretching from Anatolia to the Persian border, to provide a buffer between Russia and the British possessions of Mesopotamia, Persia, and India. The British also stressed that “Arabia and the Holy Places had to remain under Muslim control. It would never do for the British to be seen as despoilers of Islam. But above all else the agreement had to be kept secret.” As Foreign Secretary Edward Grey explained to his peers, Britain had to preserve some form of independent Muslim state in the Middle East and “take into account the very strong feelings in the Moslem world that Mohammedanism ought to have a political as well as a religious existence.” This agreement also meant that the territorial war aims of the allies could not be postponed until after the cessation of hostilities. The game of bluff, two-faced covenants, and Machiavellian diplomacy had begun, and future (often conflicting) pacts would follow, such as the 1915 consolidation of exchanges between the high commissioner of Egypt, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Henry McMahon, and Sharif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca, promising an independent Arab state in return for military assistance against the Ottomans; the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement; and the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

Another reason for the Dardanelles campaign was that the British believed the war was unpopular in Turkey and was engineered by a small and disliked assembly of pro-German supporters. British strategists concluded that this German-allied regime would be replaced by a pro-British administration at the first instance of military defeat, or, at the least, would be willing to settle for peace to maintain power: “The almost casual way in which the British went about mounting the Dardanelles expedition can only be understood in the light of their belief that the Turks were not a first class Western power but a backward oriental despotism which would collapse immediately the first shots were fired. Too many British decision-makers simply did not believe that the lengthy military preparations necessary to confront a European power like Germany would be necessary in a campaign against the Turks.” It was also reasoned that a swift and decisive victory would increase British prestige and garner support across the Muslim world. The Dardanelles campaign would also force Turkey to relocate troops from Mesopotamia and Palestine, allowing the British to push their offensives in both theatres.

Nevertheless, the benefits of getting through the Dardanelles were so obvious that a naval operation was planned by Winston Churchill, then Lord of the Admiralty. On 18 March, under the direction of General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF), a combined British and French fleet assembled at the Dardanelles Strait and bombarded coastal defences. With no amphibious landings planned, the naval attempt to force the strait was unsuccessful and was aborted. The plan to take the Dardanelles, however, was not. On 25 April 1915, now known as ANZAC Day, British, Australian, New Zealand, and Newfoundland troops landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula (with the French landing to the south on the Asiatic shore of the straits at Kumkale), supported by a naval bombardment. The campaign proved to be futile and was abandoned by the Allies in January 1916.


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