I have been reading Ranulph Fiennes fascinating book, Cold – somewhat appropriate mid way through a Kazakh winter. Amongst the many parts of his adventures that made me go ‘wow’ there were also many thing I didn’t know about. One of these things was the link between whales and WW1. Ranulph had been talking about the development of the whaling industry over time and the impact it had had on the wildlife and the humans involved.
“During the First World War, when humans turned on themselves the same destructive energies that they had once directed at the whales, the demand for Antarctic whales increased. It was the first ‘modern’ war, and the large-scale use of artillery bombs stoked the world demand for glycerine, the derived primarily from whale oil, to make explosives.”
The glycerine was a by-product of the soap industry – the soap having been made from whale oil. The glycerine was combined with nitric acid creates a liquid explosive that makes a very Big Bang. It was also used in the making of cordite that, in 1889 replaced gunpowder giving a less corrosive bang for guns.
Whale oil also proved a very effective lubricant for rifles and other military machine being non-corrosive and it’s ability to keep liquid even in low temperatures. It was used to allow jute fibres to be spun and then used to make the sandbags for trench warfare. The oil proved an effective treatment for trench foot. It was used as fuel in trench stoves. Whale grease was used by the first pilots to protect their faces.
On the home-front, whale oil was used to make margerine when the supply of fats and butter became in short supply.