See also our pamphlet: World War One: an Interimperialist War to Redivide the World.
The following presentation was given to the Stalin Society in London on 18 November 2018.
Examining the situation at the end of World War One, one cannot help but remark on the truth of Mao Zedong’s observation that imperialists are paper tigers, with far greater impact on people’s minds than their actual physical strength warrants.
During the first world war, British imperialism set itself the goal of adding to its empire a large part of the middle east that had until the war been for centuries under the suzerainty of the Ottoman empire. The lures were many and various.
1. Colonisation enables the colonisers to secure for their corporate proteges a highly dominant position in the countries colonised; Britain’s near-bankruptcy as a result of the cost of the war made the acquisition of expanded territorial control after the war a matter of extreme financial urgency.
2. The middle east in particular was known to be rich in oil, on which not only the British Royal Navy, but the entire imperialist war machine, was becoming increasingly dependent. Thus Britain sought to gain control of the world’s oil resources to secure its own needs, while also being in a position to ration supplies to rival imperialists, which might seek to challenge its interests.
3. Colonisation also facilitated access to a pool of manpower/cannonfodder for the more effective conduct of war and post-war ‘peacekeeping’.
4. Creating a reliable buffer to protect British interests in India, the ‘Jewel in the Crown’, from the rapacious ambitions of Britain’s imperialist rivals.
Uppermost in Britain’s mind was to consolidate its position as an imperialist superpower:
Britain’s “grand design was to link England’s vast colonial possessions, from the gold and diamond mines of Cecil Rhodes’ and Rothschild’s Consolidated Gold Fields in South Africa, north to Egypt and the vital shipping route through the Suez canal, and on through Mesopotamia (Iraq), Kuwait and Persia (Iran), into India and the east.
“The British conquest of the German colony of Tanganyika (German East Africa) … in 1916 was not a decisive battle in a war to bring Germany to the peace table, but rather completion of a vital link in the chain of British imperial control, from the Cape of Good Hope to Cairo.” (F William Engdahl, A Century of War, 2011)
The aim of imperialist world domination was also to be served by gaining a world oil monopoly, which for a short while Britain was reasonably successful in achieving. In 1912, Britain had controlled roughly 12 percent of the world’s oil supplies; by 1925 it had gained control of the major part of them. Crucial for obtaining that dominant position was control of the oil of the middle east, especially the Ottoman province of Mosul (in present-day Iraq).
The Sykes-Picot treaty
When Turkey joined the war on the side of Germany, and mobilised to endeavour to cut off allied access to the Suez canal, this provided the perfect opportunity for military intervention for the purpose of annexing Turkey’s weak and oil-rich empire.
Britain had the firepower and the soldiery in quantities sufficient for the purpose, given that it had access not only to its own proletarians but also to the populations of its dominions and colonies – in particular Australia, New Zealand and India, the latter being mobilised in very large numbers for the attempted takeover of the Ottoman-ruled middle east.
However, France too had its own middle-eastern ambitions and, given that France was Britain’s ally in the war, Britain’s intervention in the region was, in theory at least, supposed to be on behalf of both countries. After all, as French prime minister Georges Clemenceau pointed out, had the million-plus troops Britain deployed in the middle east instead been sent to France, the German forces there would have been routed in no time.
And in fact, during the war itself, a secret treaty had been entered into between Britain, France, Italy and imperial Russia carving up the Ottoman empire – including much of Turkey itself – between them.
This treaty, known as the Sykes-Picot treaty – Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot being the British and French representatives respectively who drew up the terms and signed on behalf of their respective governments – promised effective control to France over Greater Syria (Syria and Lebanon), including the major inland towns of Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus, as well as the oil-rich Mosul to the north-east, including the oil concessions then held by the Deutsche Bank in the Turkish Petroleum Gesellschaft.
This French control paid nominal lip-service to recognition of Arab ‘independence’ from Turkey under a French ‘protectorate’.
“Britain would control … the region to the south-east of the French region from what today is Jordan, east to most of Iraq and Kuwait, including Basra and Baghdad. Further Britain was to get the ports of Haifa and Acre, and rights to build a railway from Haifa through the French zone to Baghdad …
“Italy had been promised a huge section of the mountainous coastline of Turkish Anatolia … while tsarist Russia was to receive the areas of Ottoman Armenia and Kurdistan, south-west of Terevan.” (FW Engdahl, ibid, p50)
Following the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, this secret treaty was made public by the Soviet government, much to the embarrassment of the parties concerned. Britain in particular was put on the spot, because it had promised the Arabs independence in exchange for their help in fighting Turkey.
There was written evidence of this promise in the McMahon correspondence between Hussein bin Ali, sharif of Mecca, and Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry McMahon, British high commissioner to Egypt. Hussein, who was also the ruler of the Hejaz (today a region of Saudi Arabia), was told in effect that Arabia, to include what is today Syria, Iraq, most of Palestine and Jordan plus the Hejaz, would be ruled by him (with British guidance).
In June 1916, Hussein accordingly mounted an Arab revolt against Turkish rule, and his forces were mobilised for guerrilla warfare in support of the British, with the assistance of TE Lawrence, the notorious ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, who was well aware of the fraudulent nature of the promises that were being made to the Arabs. He was to write in his memoirs:
“I risked the fraud on my conviction that Arab help to our cheap and easy victory in the east, and that better we win and break our word, than lose … The Arab inspiration was our main tool for winning the eastern war. So I assured them that England kept her word in letter and spirit.
“In this comfort they performed their fine things; but of course, instead of being proud of what we did together, I was continually and bitterly ashamed.” (Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1935)
But by the end of the war the British were most anxious to renegotiate the May 1916 Sykes-Picot treaty, which had made huge concessions to the French at a time when the eastern war was going badly for the British.
The Turks had defeated the British ignominiously at Gallipoli in 1915, with the loss of 44,000 soldiers’ lives on the British side (mainly Anzac troops), and, when troops from British India in Iraq advanced towards Baghdad from Basra, they too were severely defeated at Kut where they were besieged, ending with another 13,000 troops being knocked out of the war in early 1916.
In these circumstances the British government had thought it prudent to promise oil-rich territory to the French as a justification for the British maintaining a million troops in the middle east when they could have been beating back the Germans in France.
However, the fortunes of war were shortly to change.
On 23 December 1916, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force commanded by General Sir Archibald Murray was able to defeat the Turkish forces at Magdhaba, at the start of a campaign to remove them from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in order to safeguard the Suez canal from Turkish takeover (which would have led to the canal’s closure and had disastrous consequences for British shipping).
On 19 January 1917, British and Anzac (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops of the Mobile Desert Column succeeded in taking Rafah (today the main border point between Egypt and Palestine), effectively expelling the Turks from Sinai. However, attempts in March and April 1917 to dislodge them from Gaza failed, in part at least because necessary troop reinforcements were withheld by London.
Meanwhile to the east, in March 1917, the British under Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude were at last able to capture Baghdad.
General Sir Edmund Allenby took over from Murray, being also supplied with significant troop reinforcements. By October 1917, British troops outnumbered the Turkish two to one in infantry and eight to one in cavalry.
Beersheeba, on the edge of Sinai, was captured at the end of October 1917, and on 7 November Allenby took Gaza, followed by Jaffa on 20 November and Jerusalem on 11 December.
The Turks still held a defensive line across Palestine from Jaffa to the River Jordan, but on 19 September 1918 the British infantry broke through at a place called Sharon, pushing the Turks away from the sea. Sir Henry Chauvel’s Desert Mounted Corps poured through the gap and went 30km north up the coast to take Haifa.
The Ottoman opposition collapsed and General Allenby swept into Syria, taking Damascus on 1 October 1918 and Aleppo on the 3rd. On 14 November – in breach of the armistice agreement that had just been signed – Allenby’s troops took Mosul.
The Treaty of Sèvres
Once the war was over it was necessary to replace the armistice of Mudros (30 October 1918) with peace treaties, which were negotiated at a six-month long peace conference in Paris. The conference led to the Treaty of Versailles, which was the peace treaty with Germany, and the Treaty of Sèvres, which was the peace treaty with Turkey, signed on 10 August 1920.
The Sèvres treaty marked the beginning of the partitioning of the Ottoman empire, and its dismemberment. The terms it stipulated included the renunciation by Turkey of all non-Turkish territory and its cession to the Allied administration.
Although by the terms of the October 1918 armistice agreement between Britain and Turkey, British demands on Turkey stopped short of Turkey being required to surrender any part of its own territory, even Constantinople (now Istanbul), in the end the British decided it needed to occupy the city as the only way of safeguarding shipping through the nearby Dardanelles strait.
On the one hand, British imperialism needed to protect the route to India through the Suez canal, and on the other hand it needed to safeguard the transportation of oil from Mosul and from Iran. Constantinople was officially occupied in March 1920.
As it happened, however, the terms of the treaty stirred hostility and nationalist feeling amongst Turks and ignited the Turkish war of independence. In that war, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Atatürk led the Turkish nationalists to defeating the combined armies of the signatories of the Treaty of Sèvres, including the remnants of the Ottoman empire.
In a new treaty, that of Lausanne in 1923, Turkish sovereignty was preserved through the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.
At the time the Sèvres treaty was signed the French and British were still at loggerheads as to which was to control what in the middle-eastern territories ceded by Turkey. However, a compromise was reached after France was granted the German rights in the Turkish Oil Company and 25 percent of the profits from oil production in Mosul, so, in December 1920, the French and British managed to reach agreement as to the partition of the middle east.
It was agreed that the French would have Syria and the Lebanese coast, while the British would have, in addition to Iraq, Mosul and Palestine – the former for its oil and the latter because it was so close to the Suez canal.
“Although the British and the French acted as though the middle east was theirs to quarrel over, they did have to pay some attention to their allies. The vague promises that had been made to Italy during the war – promises of access to ports such as Haifa and Acre, of a say in the administration of Palestine; of equal treatment in the Arabian peninsula and the Red Sea – could be safely ignored and generally were. The United States was a different matter.” (Margaret Macmillan, Paris 1919, Random House, New York, 2001, p386)
The United States, on the other hand, was anxious to break up the European trade monopolies that European colonisation had facilitated.
It did not require any formal colonies of its own, as it found that the power of the dollar was already delivering to it all the advantages of colonisation with far less of the administrative costs. It had, for instance, effectively created for itself a monopoly of trade with Latin America on the basis of its Monroe Doctrine.
To break down European trade monopolies, US president Woodrow Wilson came up with a series of 14 principles that were theoretically to underly the peace agreements that were being negotiated in Paris. These included:
I. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.
II. Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants.
III. The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.
IV. Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.
V. A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable government whose title is to be determined.
Specifically on the middle east he demanded:
XII. The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.
As moneylender-in-chief to the warring parties, the US endeavoured to make sure that it too should benefit from the peace – hence its perennial anti-colonial cry favouring self-determination for the peoples of the world (or at least those colonised by rival imperialist powers). The “removal … of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions” did not of course apply to Latin America – but then Latin America was not under discussion at the peace conference …
US imperialism was not yet strong or confident enough to blight completely the various European powers’ annexationist ambitions, but the latter did nevertheless find it necessary, and even at times convenient, at least to pay lip service to the concept of ‘self-determination’.
This is why the countries taken over by France and Britain respectively were not taken over as colonies or, much less, incorporated into French or British national territory, but were ‘only’ held by them under ‘mandates’ from the newly-formed League of Nations ‘in trust’ ‘until such time as they had learnt to administer themselves’, which they had never previously had experience of doing, ruled as they had been by Turkey.
Betrayal of the Arabs
The ‘principle’ of self-determination should have led to the creation of one Arab nation, one Armenian nation and one Kurdish nation. Effective military action taken by Turkey to prevent partition of its territory put paid to the Kurdish nation, however, and confined the Armenian nation to the area that joined the Soviet Union. The Arab nation, meanwhile, was frustrated by British and French imperialist ambitions.
Those Arabs who, under the leadership of Hussein, the sharif of Mecca, had expected an independent Arab state to include what is today Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, most of Palestine and that part of Saudi Arabia which at the time was the independent country of Hejaz were destined to be bitterly disappointed.
On 7 November 1918, the British and French had made a declaration to the Arabs that indigenous governments would be set up in Syria and Mesopotamia (Iraq), chosen freely by their populations. Faisal, the Hashemite (descendants of the ancient rulers of Mecca) son of the sharif of Mecca and field commander of the Arab revolt, charged with forming a government in ‘Syria’ (which, as far as he was concerned, included Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan), took this promise seriously, but was soon to find out that it was not seriously meant.
Not only Faisal but even General Sir Edmund Allenby, supreme commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, had assumed that the promise of an independent Arab state was serious and had allowed Faisal to administer Syrian affairs from Damascus. He is even said to have been in full approval when, on 5 October 1918, Faisal took it upon himself to claim an “independent Arab constitutional government with authority over all Syria” and to install a Syrian congress in Damascus.
In the meantime, however, after months of vituperative bickering, Britain and France had managed to come to terms to carve up areas for their respective control of the region, and what is today Syria had been allocated to France. France was certainly not prepared to accept any degree of independence of any Arab government, and moved fast to have Faisal removed.
But it was not only France that was bothered by Faisal’s ambitions: Faisal’s Syrian congress claimed not only Lebanon but also Palestine, and was also demanding independence for Mesopotamia too, as a result of which British interests (Palestine, Jordan and Iraq) were seriously threatened.
Fired by his Arab nationalist supporters, Faisal did try to hold out against the French, but he lacked the firepower to resist, and the British weren’t prepared to help him. On 26 July 1920, the French army occupied Damascus and overthrew Faisal, forcing him into exile.
This unleashed a furious reaction from a still relatively young and immature Arab nationalist movement, which spread beyond Syria to affect other areas of the middle east. The uprisings in British-controlled Iraq took several months to put down, at great expense to a British treasury already reeling from the cost of the war.
The British response to this was to seek to set up an apparently independent government or governments for the British-controlled middle east, but to pull the strings of that government, or those governments, behind the scenes. This policy in fact was very soundly based as the best for achieving British imperialism’s goals for domination of the region on the cheap.
Although Faisal was not militarily very strong, nevertheless his supporters were capable of causing trouble, as had been demonstrated by the 1920 uprisings. Because Faisal had fought ostensibly for Arab independence in the Arab revolt, he was acceptable to the nationalists. At the same time, he had privately made it clear to the British that if he were in charge he would reliably protect their interests.
It would seem that the experience of being deposed in Syria had taught him how to behave: “He had learned the limits of Arab nationalism and of Europe’s superior strength.” (The Hashemites, the Arab Revolt and Arab Nationalism by Mary C Wilson, in Rashid Khalidi, Lisa Anderson, Muhammad Muslih and Reeva S Simon (eds), The Origins of Arab Nationalism, 1991)
So he was all on board to help the British, though of course he would only be able to do so effectively if he at least appeared to be completely independent of them. In return for the British seeing to it that he became king of Iraq, Faisal undertook to endeavour to persuade his father Hussein, the sharif of Mecca, to sign the Versailles treaty, accepting (among other things) the exclusion of Palestine from the area of Arab ‘self-rule’.
The sharif refused, however, outraged by the Balfour declaration and the carve-up of the territories he had expected to rule over into four separate states. He paid for his principled stand with the loss of his country, the Hejaz, when the British withdrew their protection and encouraged neighbouring Nejd, ruled by the al-Saud family, to annexe it. This happened in 1925, and the al-Sauds’ enlarged territory was christened Saudi Arabia.
The land east of the River Jordan was named Transjordania, and Faisal’s older brother Abdullah was put on the throne there, where his descendants still reign to this day, though the Hashemites were toppled from the Iraqi throne by Arab nationalists in 1958.
Palestine, however, was designated by the British as a ‘national home for the jews’, and in July 1922 the League of Nations accorded to Britain the Palestine Mandate, enabling Britain to set about encouraging jewish immigration, on the assumption that a strong, westernised presence in the area would be conducive to the protection of British interests – in particular safeguarding the Suez canal.
Interestingly, the United States backed the Balfour declaration, which in principle it should have objected to since it was in flagrant contradiction to its declared commitment to self-determination. Why should the wishes of a handful of jews prevail over that of the Arabs who constituted the overwhelming majority of the population? Ah, but, ran the sophistic argument – since all jews everywhere in the world ‘belonged’ to Palestine, it followed that it was jews who were really in the majority, and that, therefore, it was their views which should prevail!
Besides this, the US’s power as a major creditor of both France and Britain meant that it could to a considerable extent call the shots in the region without having the expense of itself maintaining troops and an administration in place there to keep order.
US imperialism muscles in
President Woodrow Wilson “used his unrivaled influence as leader of the emerging American power to force the creation of the League of Nations, while deferring to France in drafting the punitive Versailles treaty in what his own secretary of state called a ‘victor’s peace’ that would breed resentment in Germany leading to another world war.
“Wilson, who did not always practice the ideals at home that he preached abroad, also let his stubbornness doom his cherished league, which Republicans prevented the United States from ever joining.” (Wilson went to Paris to bind America’s ties to the world. Trump is there to loosen them by Peter Baker, New York Times, 9 November 2018)
Direct US influence on the peace negotiations was curtailed following the Republican-dominated US Senate’s decision in November 1919 to refuse to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or to join the League of Nations set up by it. Despite the Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s enthusiasm for the league, the Republicans felt that the price the US would have to pay for the right to influence world politics through participation was too high – that is, the right granted to the League of Nations to dictate policy on matters of war and peace to all participating states.
However, indirect influence continued and was considerable, and that influence came through the US holding the purse strings.
The victory over Germany and Turkey had been secured with borrowed money. Britain ended the war with a total debt of £7.4bn, of which $4.7bn was owed to the United States. At the same time, its economy was in very poor shape. Not only had the national debt increased ninefold but, “with the end of war orders, a serious depression hit the [British] economy by 1921-22. Exports fell to half of their 1913 levels, and unemployment peaked at 17 percent.
“The diversion of shipping and production towards the war effort between 1914 and 1918 meant that regional producers like the United States in Latin America or Japan in the far east usurped important markets for British goods.
“Britain never regained its pre-1914 export volumes. By 1929, exports were still only 80 percent of what they had been in 1913.” (Economic history of the United Kingdom, Wikipedia, 16 November 2018)
It should be noted that in heavy lending to the Allied powers during the war, led by New York bankers JP Morgan & Co, a hefty risk was being taken, since it would have been nothing short of calamitous for US banking had the Allies lost the war. However, a massive profit was there for the asking. Britain was buying a great deal of both its military and non-military supplies from the US and, “under an exclusive arrangement, the purchase of all Allied powers in Europe was funnelled through the House of Morgan.” (FW Engdahl, A Century of War, op cit)
JP Morgan, therefore, was in a very powerful position vis-a-vis American producers, as it was able to choose which companies were to benefit from the lucrative contracts on offer. Itself, it took a 2 percent commission on the net price of all goods sold, and by 1917 the British war office had ordered supplies worth some $20bn.
In January 1917, Britain and France were in danger of collapse after Russian withdrawal from the war. This was the cue for Morgan, which didn’t want to see its European war loans to go up in smoke, to pressurise a reluctant US government to join the war on the side of the Allies. German help in this effort came when, exasperated by America’s supplying of the Allies in contravention of international law (as applying to neutral countries in wartime), it announced that its submarines had orders to sink American ships. In April 1917, the United States finally declared war on Germany.
Thus it was that after the war, the USA, in the shape of President Wilson, was a major player in the Paris peace conference. Even after the United States refused to ratify the Versailles treaty, JP Morgan representatives were involved in negotiating the reparations bill that was to be presented to the losing side.
JP Morgan, incidentally, had taken the opportunity when the US declared war on Germany to shift its private loans to Europe on to the US treasury, leaving the taxpayer to bear the risk that it had incurred as banker. Thus in the peace negotiations the distinction between the US government and JP Morgan were blurred, with the “US government [having] increasingly made itself simply a useful instrument for the extension of the new power of New York’s international bankers”. (Engdahl, op cit)
However, US oil companies were undoubtedly peeved that they had been left out of the British-French share-out of middle-eastern oil, which in turn no doubt hardened US determination to give the Europeans no quarter when it came to repayment of the war debt. This was a hurdle Britain and France could weather, with the help, among other things, of their war loot, although the latter was not taken into account when calculating Germany’s $33bn war reparations debt.
This there was no way Germany could repay since “Germany after the war had been stripped systematically by the Allied victors of her most vital economic resources. All her valuable colonies, especially Tanganyika and South West Africa were taken by Britain. The growing economic markets of the Ottoman empire opening up through the expansion of the Baghdad railway were gone. And Germany itself had lost its most valuable source of iron ore for its steel industry in the Alsace-Lorraine, and in the eastern parts, including Silesia with its rich mineral and agricultural regions.
“Germany had lost 75 percent of her iron ore, 68 percent of her zinc ore and 26 percent of her coal as a consequence of Versailles. Alsatian textiles industries and potash mines were gone. Her entire merchant fleet, one fifth of her river transport, one quarter of her fishing fleet, 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railroad cars and 5,000 motor trucks were taken by the Allied powers after Versailles.” (Engdahl, ibid)
With its back against the wall, the German government announced it had entered into a treaty, the Treaty of Rapallo, with the Soviet Union, under which Russia agreed to forego any war reparations claims in return for a German agreement to sell industrial technology to Russia.
This frustrated a British plan to bury the hatchet with Bolshevik Russia with a view to securing control over the Baku oilfields (in present-day Azerbaijan) and cementing its world oil monopoly. In a rage, Britain stood by to allow France in January 1923 to occupy the Ruhr valley in Germany on the pretext of an alleged minor German failure to meet the reparations schedule set for it by the Treaty of Versailles.
This could not but lead to the collapse of the German economy, which had already been suffering from extremely high inflation rates as a result of the money supply outstripping German levels of production. When these plummeted as a result of the French takeover of the Ruhr valley, the German currency collapsed altogether.
By September 1923, prices in Germany had risen an astronomic 7.5 billion times higher than they had been a year previously. People’s savings were wiped out, the German middle class was pauperised, and living standards for everyone plummeted. In short, Germany became ripe for revolution.
The issue for the bankers in New York as well as in London was how to avert a revolution while continuing to secure repayment of German debts and extracting high rates of interest. The solution they came up with was simple: to back a political party to take over the German government that would forcefully hold the population in check while continuing to pay up.
The ideal candidate in Germany was perceived to be virulently anti-communist Nazi party. This is the basis for the support for Hitler’s Germany given by prominent British and American statesmen, who were merely representing the apparent interests of their countries’ banks, which had been active in promoting the rise of fascism in both Germany and Italy.
In 1927, US financial power enabled it to bring the British and French to heel, forcing them to share their middle-eastern oil with US oil giants by means of the creation of an Anglo-American oil cartel – the Seven Sisters. Mergers have now consoloidated these seven into four gigantic corporations, which still hold onto that world monopoly, and which defend their position with all the military might at their disposal. Indeed, Nato is nothing but their enforcer.