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Why Whales Were Vital In The First World War

Assistant Curator

Whale oil was an extremely important material in the First World War. Around 58,000 whales were killed during the war to provide Britain and its allies with the oil they needed to continue fighting. At this time, the whaling industry was dominated by Norway, who remained neutral during the war. However, the Norwegian whaling fleet operated mainly in British South Atlantic territory. This meant Britain was able to control the whaling industry, acquiring almost all of the oil at very low prices. By denying Germany and Austria-Hungary access to this strategically important raw material the Allies gained a significant advantage over the Central Powers.

A common use of whale oil was to make soap. A by-product of this process was glycerine. Nitro-glycerine was a key component of cordite, the standard propellant used in British artillery shells and small arms ammunition. The high demand for cordite meant the glycerine became the main product of British soap factories during the war.

Whale oils were also used to make high quality lubricants which were thin, didn’t corrode metals and remained liquid in freezing temperatures. These qualities made them ideal for use in rifles, watches, marine chronometers and many other military instruments and machines. It was also instrumental in allowing jute fibres to be spun mechanically to make fabric. Jute fabric was used to make the sandbags that lined the British trenches. Inside the trenches, British soldiers covered their feet in whale oil to protect them from trench foot and they warmed themselves around whale oil stoves. Above the trenches, British pilots smeared whale grease on their faces to protect them from the cold.

On the home front whale oil was also a vital resource. As supplies of butter and vegetable oils failed, whale oil was used to make margarine. This was made possible by the recent invention of the hydrogenation process, which allowed liquid oils to be made into solid fats.

After the First World War, whale oil remained an important raw material. Whaling increased rapidly, reaching a peak in the early 1960s when around 65,000 whales were killed each year. The anti-whaling movement of the 1970s led to the establishment of a temporary ban on commercial whaling, which came into force in 1985. Today, only Norway and Iceland continue to take whales commercially.