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.
Fischer, Schafft Tran Heran! [Fishermen, Bring Train Oil!]
German poster encouraging fishermen to catch dolphins and seals for their oil. Britain’s control of the whaling industry during the First World War led to a shortage of fats in Germany and Austria-Hungary.
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.
Sectioned 18-pounder artillery round
Sectioned 18-pounder artillery round showing simulated cordite propellant inside the cartridge case. Whale oil was Britain’s main source of glycerine, which was vital for making cordite.
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.
HMS RATTLER, 1916
Some whalers were purchased by the Royal Navy during the First World War for use as auxiliary patrol vessels. This photograph shows HMS Rattler in 1916. Before and after the war, it was a South Atlantic whale catcher named Splint.
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.
The Forgotten Animals of the First World War
Whales were far from the only animals to suffer from the search for oil. Find out about the penguins, dolphins and seals who lost their lives in the first total war.
This is Macquarie Island, about halfway between Australia and New Zealand. Today, it's a thriving Nature Reserve with penguins, albatross and seals, but during the First World War it was the site of a battle for resources. A battle which almost brought the island's animal population to extinction. The resources on Macquarie were crucial for making shells, bullets, rifles, sandbags, different weapons and equipment, and even for saving soldiers feet. Resources so important that Britain's control over them played a significant role in their eventual victory. But this isn't a video about coal or steel, this is a video about whale oil.
Right, so it's 1914, Britain, France and the other Allied powers are at war with Germany, Austria-Hungary and the other central powers. This is a global war on a previously unimaginable scale and suddenly huge quantities of weapons, ammunition and supplies are needed to keep these hulking armies in the fight. But what's whale oil got to do with guns and bombs?
“It’s actually surprisingly important”. That’s Chloe Bowerbank, Assistant Curator in the First World War team at Imperial War Museums.
Chloe Bowerbank: “Well, before the war whale oil was mainly used for making common household soap. One of the by-products of that production process is a product called glycerin, and glycerin is used to make nitroglycerin, which is a key component in cordite, and cordite is the propellant used in British shells and bullets.”
Obviously, First World War armies needed a lot of those, it's estimated that by the end of the war the British Army alone had fired over a hundred and seventy million shells.
Chloe Bowerbank: “The oil was even used to lubricate the machines in these factories. So whale oil was literally keeping the war machine moving.”
Whale oil was also ideal for use on the front lines. It was a great lubricant, so it was vital for cleaning rifles and for running different pieces of military machinery. It was also integral in making the sandbags that lined British trenches allowing jute fibres to be spun mechanically into fabric. However, it was inside those trenches where whale oil had its most famous usage.
Chloe Bowerbank: “Yes, soldiers were told to rub their feet in whale oil to prevent trench foot. In the trenches when the weather got bad the trenches would get waterlogged. If you stood long enough in these waterlogged trenches the feet would become white, numb, then turn red and blue and eventually sepsis could set in. So, in addition to changing their socks every day, soldiers were told to rub each other’s feet in whale oil. It's said that some battalions would get through ten gallons of whale oil a day.”
So clearly whale oil was important to all sides, but how did Britain get the upper hand? Well, to find out we have to take a look at a map. Before the war Norway produced a whopping 77 percent of all whale oil, selling over a third of that to Germany. But when war broke out Norway decided to remain neutral. Crucially the Norwegian whaling fleet operated mainly in British waters and for the British that presented an opportunity. Britain was able to control the Norwegian whaling industry and negotiate exclusive sales, acquiring almost all of the oil at very low prices. The shortages were disastrous for the Central Powers, this poster asks fishermen to catch dolphins and seals so desperate were they for oil.
Chloe Bowerbank: “It wasn't just the front line. When supplies of butter and vegetable oils failed in Britain whale oil was used to make margarine, but in Germany there was a severe shortage of all fats and there nothing they could do about it. And that's what Germany experienced across-the-board thanks to the Allied blockade.”
Since 1914 Germany and Austria-Hungary had been cut off by the Royal Navy and really struggled to supply their populations. Leading to hunger, malnutrition and even civil disobedience. This photograph compares the amount that German citizens ate before the war to what they ate after it.
Chloe Bowerbank: “Germany created substitutes known as ersatz, but these had the effect of disillusioning the public even more. Coffee was made from acorns, bread from potato flour, and shoes had wooden soles. In the end Germany was forced to choose between giving up the wall or tearing itself apart to continue the fight. Eventually it became too much, and Germany chose to surrender in 1918.”
The First World War was all encompassing, the first total war. That meant that every part of a nation was involved in the conflict and every facet had to be managed to keep the frontline going. The victims of this new global warfare stretched beyond the millions of soldiers in the trenches, millions more civilians also died including an estimated 500,000 Germans killed during the Allied blockade who didn't have the supplies they needed to live. And then alongside this human tragedy there's also an environmental one.
Chloe Bowerbank: “Well, off the back of two world wars whaling increased rapidly, reaching a peak in the early 1960s when around 65,000 whales were killed each year. But it wasn't just whales that were killed. Seals, dolphins and even penguins were slaughtered to obtain the oil used throughout the war effort.”
And that brings us back to Macquarie Island. Before the war the hundreds of thousands of penguins that lived there were relatively well protected, but once war broke out the dire need for oil changed everything. The penguin colonies on Macquarie were decimated, so that when the hunting finally stopped there were just four thousand individual king penguins remaining.
Chloe Bowerbank: “This truly was a total war. Every possible resource was utilised to continue the fight and nothing was out of reach. Even remote and unpopulated Islands like Macquarie, thousands of miles away from battlefields, couldn't escape."