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A film by Marty Callaghan

Reviewed by Henry Falconer

The basic premise of this documentary film is beyond dispute – namely that the seeds of the current conflict in the Middle East were sown during and after the First World War. Between 1918 and 1923 the territories of the defeated Ottoman (Turkish) Empire were carved up by Britain and France. Britain gained control of Iraq and Palestine; France took Syria and Lebanon. As the film emphasises, the British fleet (on which her security and position as a world power depended) was converting from coal to oil even before 1914; oil was already recognised as the fuel of the future. Unless the implications of these points are grasped, an understanding of the current predicament in Iraq and Palestine is impossible.

The film provides a detailed and wide-ranging account of the fighting in Anatolia, Gallipoli, Iraq, Palestine, Syria and the Caucasus. There is much more here about blood than about oil. Much of this, informative though it is, is irrelevant to the basic premise. Turkey for example, although defeated in the1914-18 war and humiliated by the post-war treaties, is a member of N.A.T.O. and an aspiring member of the European Union. The film is heavy on information and light on analysis. As background to the current conflict, it would have been better to have focused more narrowly on Iraq and Palestine.

Iraq was a creation of the First World War. The British wished to construct a political entity containing major oilfields in the region which they could dominate – hence they forced together a Shiite Muslim majority with Kurdish and Sunni minorities under a Sunni monarch (Faisal) from what is now Saudi Arabia. This artificial entity could only ever be held together by some form of dictatorship (by direct or proxy British control or by Baathists like Saddam). Only supremely arrogant, ignorant and na�ve leaders such as those who directed United States and British foreign policy after 2001 could conceivably have believed otherwise. A Kurdish revolt against British rule in the 1920s was crushed with considerable brutality, involving indiscriminate aerial bombardment by the infant Royal Air Force under the leadership of none other than Arthur “Bomber” Harris of Dresden fame (that this butcher should have been honoured with a memorial statue in the Strand is a national disgrace). A Sunni-led nationalist revolt against Iraq`s pro-British rulers was defeated in 1941. British influence was finally brought to an end by the Baathist coup of 1957 which led in turn to Saddam`s dictatorship. How “democracy” is supposed to take root in this divided and artificial construct is beyond understanding.

The Palestinian problem too was a product of the First World War. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 gave British support to the establishment of a “National Home” for Jews in a predominantly Arab Palestine; the post-war treaties made Britain responsible for the government of Palestine under a so-called League of Nations mandate. By 1949 this “National Home” had become the state of Israel with a Jewish majority after the flight (or expulsion, depending on your point of view) of much of the Arab population. The wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973, as well as the two recent intafadas, are the enduring legacy of the injustices perpetrated on the Arab population of Palestine by the “peacemakers” of 1919.

None of this was inevitable. Had the principles of national self-determination been followed, what is now northern Iraq would have formed part of a state of Kurdistan. Instead of this, the 20 million Kurds are without a state of their own, scattered around Turkey, Iran Syria and Iraq. The rest of Iraq would have been divided along Sunni/Shia sectarian lines, as it had been in Ottoman times. But no – the British determination to control the oil took precedence over the interests of the inhabitants of the area. Ironically, a major British concern at the time was to limit FRENCH influence in the region! So much for the Entente Cordiale and Anglo-French co-operation during the 1914-1918 war! Similarly, an Arab state would have been created in Palestine had the principles of national self-determination been followed. Instead of this, the British chose to establish their own control of the country – not least in order to protect the Suez Canal (again the French were regarded as the major rivals!). A Jewish population in Palestine would, it was thought, help cement British influence there. Thus the 1914-1918 war was as great a disaster in the Middle East as it was in Europe, leaving the region in a condition considerably worse than it had been before.

The film touches upon but does not highlight these issues. The fighting between Turks and Russians in the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia is interesting – and rarely mentioned by historians of the 1914-1918 war obsessed with the trench warfare of the Western Front – but these somewhat obscure campaigns are given equal weight with those in Iraq and Palestine. A few errors may be noted. The film repeats the widespread misapprehension that the Australians and New Zealanders (Anzacs) were the backbone of the Allied forces in Gallipoli in 1915 (in fact they were vastly outnumbered by the British and French). Asquith as not “voted out” as Prime Minister in favour of Lloyd George in 1916. Above all, I was mystified by the omission of all reference to the Armenian Massacres of 1915, despite Armenian affairs being discussed in some detail (exactly as if the Jews in World War 2 had been discussed without reference to the Holocaust).

So, anyone wishing to acquire a factual overview of events in the Middle East in the First World War will profit from a viewing of Blood and Oil. But he/she will have to concentrate very hard and have an atlas and search engine to hand. For an analysis of the importance of oil, and of the campaigns` relevance to the future of the region, further research will be needed.

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