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Some perspectives on the Petroleum Energy Mix



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By Olabode Sowunmi III

World War I was supposed to be a short war. Instead it sank into a stalemate and dragged on and on. It was a war that started with horses & carts but ended with planes and tanks. You will recall that it was in the course of WWI, that oil and the internal combustions engine, changed every dimension of warfare. It redefined the very meaning of mobility on land, in the sea and in the air. One very striking example of all of these is what was come to be known as the Paris Taxi Armada.

In September, 1914; the French government along with about one hundred thousand civilians had evacuated Paris for Bordeaux. This was because the fall of the city looked imminent. The thinking was that the French would soon be suing for peace. That’s euphemism for surrendering. One of their heroes, the General Joseph Joffre, the commander-in-chief of the French Army had considered ordering his troops to the south and east of the city, leaving the city mostly unguarded. However the military Governor of Paris, himself a general had other ideas. His name was Joseph Gallieni.

As part of his work in mapping out a way to secure the city, he had regular aerial reconnaissance of the frontlines. These had convinced him that an opportunity existed to hit the German lines and stop that advance. He tried to convince the British army to help him but to no avail.  They would not take him seriously. The old general with his shaggy moustache, yellow leggings and ill-fitting uniform was hardly the image of a spit-and-polish officer. “No British officer would ever be seen talking to such a comedian” retorted one eminent British war commander. However Gallieni was no fool and so in an emotional angry nighttime phone call on September 4, he persuaded Joffre to launch a counter-attack.

It so happened that two days later on September 6, going through forests, fields of ripe grains and under the scorching sun, the French went on the offensive scoring some vital early successes. However the Germans brought in more troops and the French found themselves in a precarious situation. Their troops needed reinforcements and there was no way to get to them or so it seemed. They could not move by railways as the system had been effectively disrupted and they could not move by foot as they would not get to the frontlines on time. What else could they do?

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General Gallieni would not give up. Despite his shoddy appearance, he was seen everywhere in the city rallying the troops and giving orders.  He proved to be a military genius and a master of improvisation. He was the first to grasp the possibilities yoking the motor transport and the internal combustion engine to the exigencies of warfare.  He ordered a unique transport made up of Paris taxi cabs. He concluded that an ‘armada’ of taxis was the only options to get troops to the war front. Galleieni ordered that every one of the over three thousand taxi cabs in Paris been commandeered. “How will I be paid?,” one driver asked the soldier who flagged him down, “by the meter or a flat rate?” By the meter the Lieutenant said. Don’t the French love some adventure!

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Within two hours of Gallieni’s orders, there were scores of taxis at the Esplanade des Invalides. The next morning, they took off in a great convoy for another staging point to the east at Gagny. Once it was nightfall each taxi was crammed with soliders – under the personal watchful eye of General Gallieni himself. Then the vehicles began to set off in convoys of 25 to 50 towards the battle field in what proved to be the forerunner for the motorized column. Driving as only Paris Taxi drivers can, speeding and re-passing each other, their headlamps were like darting points of light along the dark roads. That way, thousands and thousands of troops were rushed to the critical point and they made the difference.

The frontline being strengthened, the French soldiers fought with renewed vigor. On September 9, the Germans fellback and began a retreat. The German general at the war front wrote to his wife as the Germans reeled, “Things are going badly, the battles east of Paris will not be decided in our favor.” Letter on, he also wrote that, “The war which began with such great hopes will in the end go against us!” The taxi drivers, hungry and tired after two days of no sleep, returned to Paris where they were besieged by the curious and paid their fares. Later on a grateful city will rechristen the Avenue des Invalides as Avenue du Marcechal Gallieni.

The Paris taxi cabs of world war one was a turning point in military logistics. In a new world where batteries would replace the internal combustion engine, how many Generals would be comfortable to allow their army vehicles to run on batteries while the enemy is running on diesel or petrol? Or better still, how many citizens will feel safe? The key point being that the world has not yet digested how much the world really depends on Petroleum.

  • Sowunmi Olabode III is CEO Cabtree Limited and SLA to the Senate President