Whaling for World War I


Science writer
Basingstoke, United Kingdom


The industrial-scale killing and wounding of soldiers and civilians and destruction in The First World that was fought from 1914 to 1918 required the industrial-scale production of propellants. Manufacture of these explosives on such a scale would not have been possible without whale oil and the slaughter of tens of thousands of whales. Whale oil also had other uses in the war.


The agony was intolerable and indescribable, observed Harry Roberts in an interview after the war. “I have heard men cry and even scream with the pain and many had to have their feet and legs amputated,” he said. Roberts, a sergeant in the British Army’s Royal Army Medical Corps, was talking about trench foot, a medical condition caused by lack of circulation in the feet and legs and characterised by a variety of symptoms including swelling, numbness, lesions, blackening of the toes, and peeling skin.

Early on in World War I, especially during the dire European winter of 1914/1915, many troops had to walk, stand, or sit in waterlogged and poorly drained trenches wearing non-waterproof boots sodden with mud and water. The conditions were particularly challenging in Flanders, Belgium, where the land was flat and the water table high. The soldiers’ feet remained cold and wet often for days on end and, as a result, trench foot was commonplace. To compound the problem, pathogenic microbes that thrived in the mire of the trenches seized the opportunity to infect the damaged feet resulting in diseases such as tetanus. If the feet we ...