Energy and war – intertwined then and now

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Courtesy of Courtesy of Energy Institute (EI)

Given that it is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, there has been a lot of focus on 1914. Whilst our own EI century seems such a small event in comparison to the Great War, it does provide an interesting context.

The August 1914 issue of Petroleum Review said “The review has never taken sides politically…yet it always recognises the incalculable harm which must result to the petroleum industry from such periods of unrest between nations. We can only hope that such counsels will prevail as will render the recourse to arms quite outside the question.”

Of course these hopes were dashed soon after. The same article goes on to say: ‘It is at such times as these that interest in the petroleum industry sinks into insignificance”. This was also inaccurate. As Daniel Yergin says in his major book on the oil industry, The Prize, “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”.

Whether it was Royal Navy ships recently converted to oil, taxis being mobilised to defend Paris or the introduction of tanks and aircraft to the battlefield, combat was radically changed in the years after 1914. Indeed by 1916 shortage of oil was starting to emerge as a major strategic theme. At the end of the war Lord Curzon declared “The Allied cause had floated to victory upon a wave of oil.”

Military matters and energy have remained intertwined ever since as we are reminded on a regular basis, and I suspect they will be for the next hundred years as well.

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