Book Review-‘Britain’s Quest for Oil: The First World War and the peace conferences’ by M. Gibson

By James Goldrick, published November 2020


The changes in Britain’s strategic situation, and thus defence and foreign policy, caused by the transition from coal to oil for were nothing short of profound. Before oil, Britain provided the globe with the key energy source for marine propulsive power, and was the beneficiary of a virtuous cycle by which steam coal was the outbound cargo for many British flagged bulk carriers, which would return carrying materials from around the world to supply British factories and the British people. The Royal Navy could be confident, outside industrial action, that it had guaranteed access to supplies in home waters, as well as a global network of coaling stations. It also, in Admiralty steam coal from South Wales, had by far the best coal for naval boilers, providing key operational and tactical benefits. With the advent of oil, Britain’s navy and elements of its economy became increasingly dependent on a form of energy over which Britain had no control and which had to come by sea. From well before the First World War, efforts were in hand to provide secure and cost-effective sources of oil and this effort had to redouble during and after the conflict. The cheapness and ready availability of steam coal meant that British industry and the railways were slow to take up oil firing, however Britain’s new dependence not only extended to a now almost wholly oil-powered navy, but to an increasing extent to road transport…

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Filed under: Other (Twentieth C)
Subjects include: Strategy & Diplomacy

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