Gilbert’s sojourn in Constantinople coincided with the Conference on Mosul, which began May 19, 1924 in an Ottoman neo-Classical palace used by the Turkish Admiralty on the east shore of the Golden Horn. 

Before the War, oil had been used largely for kerosene, and companies like American Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell competed for global resources. Just before WW I, the British Navy was beginning to realize that oil-driven ships could be smaller and sail faster and further than comparable coal-fired ships and be refueled at sea. Although Britain had coal mines, its Empire lacked oil fields. During the war, the use of tanks, planes, and ships rapidly increased the demand for and shortage of oil so that all governments suddenly became acutely aware of its paramount strategic and military importance: the land war alone was said to have demonstrated the victory of gas-powered trucks over coal-fired locomotives. It was ironic that the European War demonstrated the crucial importance of oil, which Europe lacked. The so-called peace negotiations at Paris included a scramble by the victorious European governments for suspected sources of oil anywhere around the world, but especially in the newly liberated Middle Eastern nations of Persia and Mesopotamia, now called Iraq. 

Although the Mudros Armistice between Britain and the Ottoman Empire had been signed on 30 October, 1918, British forces nonetheless forcibly occupied Mosul within days afterward to gain the upper hand in negotiations with France as well as with Turkey over the potential oil region to be assigned to British-controlled Iraq.

During the War Britain had occupied the southern Mesopotamian province of Basra to protect her oil interest in Persia needed to supply the British Navy through the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean, and there was no naturally defensible boundary between flat Mesopotamia and mountainous Anatolia until the north side of Kurdish Mosul. British High Commissioner to Iraq, Sir Percy Cox, and the remarkable Gertrude Bell had together guided the British mandate to transition from foreign military occupation to the independent Kingdom of Iraq in 1921. The existence of Iraq was recognized by Turkey in the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, but its precise boundaries remained a matter for dispute in Constantinople.

In 1923 oil was finally struck in the south of Mesopotamia, and the presence of oil was strongly suspected in the northern Mosul province as well, thanks to countless pits of naphtha and bitumen, which had been used centuries earlier by the Byzantines to make “Greek fire.” At loggerheads whether the province of Mosul should be assigned to Turkey or to Iraq, the British and Turks had agreed at Lausanne to pursue bilateral negotiations for nine more months after which they would submit the decision for arbitration by the League of Nations. Britain’s chief negotiator at the Constantinople conference was Sir Percy Cox, formerly British High Commissioner to Iraq, “an awe-inspiring man renowned for his ability to keep silent in a dozen languages.” (According to the traveler, Wilfred Thesiger, cited by Townsend, Proconsul to the Middle East, 193) The Turkish negotiators argued that Mosul was inhabited by Kurds who were Sunni Muslims like the Turks, unlike the Shias around Baghdad in southern Iraq, but Turkish newspapers pointed out the real motive was oil. Neither side budged from their positions and the conference ended on June 5 in a stalemate. Nonetheless, Gilbert’s mission coincided with the conference, and his Italian overseers would have been happy to receive any of his observations and insights.

Also while Gilbert was in Constantinople, the Nationalist Turkish Government closed down the British-owned Eastern Telegraph Company, which transmitted telegrams all around the Mediterranean. (Berridge British Diplomacy in Turkey, 135) The pretext was a dispute between Greece and Turkey over revenues the Company had collected during the Greek occupation of Smyrna, but this was a convenient story to cover what was likely the real reason: it was through the Eastern Telegraph Company that British agents in Constantinople were intercepting and deciphering telegrams throughout the Middle East, especially Russian and Turkish. Telegraphy then being a relatively new technology like the internet, no one had yet anticipated its potential to attract governmental interest, oversight and intrigue. The under-cover British intelligence gathering operations in Constantinople after the War were regarded as one of the best in the Near East and the Empire, largely because they so successfully intercepted coded diplomatic and military messages sent via telegraph cables and radio signals which they deciphered. (Jeffrey, The Secret History of MI6, 203-4) As early as October 1921, they had identified the organizational structure and functions (arms thefts and smuggling, bank transfers) of all the Nationalists’ cells in Constantinople but did little to stop them either to conceal awareness of their ability to read coded messages or because they had inadequate resources to deal with the situation. (Cross, Istanbul under Allied Occupation, 137)