From the miniature to the mighty, the First World War impacted on the lives of many creatures, not just the war horse or the messenger dog (visited earlier by this blog). Following the recent stranding this month of over 400 pilot whales at Farewell Spit in New Zealand, we take a timely look back at the perhaps unexpected ways in which the war affected whales, and the contribution that whales made to the war effort.
Two aerial images, published after the war in 1919 in The Illustrated London News, show how, from the air, the silhouette of a whale could easily be mistaken for a submarine beneath the surface of the water. The Illustrated London News reported that a policy of ‘when in doubt, bomb’ was adopted, making whales an unwitting casualty of the war.
Though some whales were mistaken for U-boats when viewed from the air, in death, a floating whale could similarly be mistaken for a downed zeppelin. The throat and abdomen of the whale becomes distended with the gases of decomposition, causing it to be buoyed upwards in the water, belly first. On 17 October 1914, the lifeboat team at Margate in Kent set out to rescue possible survivors of a ‘sinking zeppelin’ that had been spotted out at sea. They returned disappointed, as the zeppelin was discovered to be merely a bloated whale carcass, floating in the water. Eager crowds gathered to see the prisoners of war they imagined to be plucked from the stranded zeppelin, but they too were disappointed. Instead, further down the coast at Birchington, the 61ft long body of a female common rorqual whale was later washed up on to the beach, probably the victim of a mine, rather than an aerial attack.
William Plane Pycraft, the eminent zoologist and regular contributor to The Illustrated London News, was there in his official role as an employee of the Natural History Museum, and set about the slippery business of taking the Birchington whale’s measurements at low tide. In 1913, in response to a mass stranding of fifty sperm whales in Cornwall, the Natural History Museum was given the rights to collect whales and other cetaceans washed up on our shores; until then, a 1324 statute had only granted this to the Crown, the creatures being known as ‘Fishes Royal’. The data gathered provided useful information when little was known about these rarely seen mammals. The two white lines in the photograph mark the size of the wound on the whale’s body; Pycraft reports that the enormous gash in the abdomen could easily have accommodated a large armchair, with more room besides. The war had started only months before, but already the potential impact even on sea life could be seen. Though it was just one death in a war in which millions would die, there seems a terrible waste of life and a deal of pathos in the loss of a creature as majestic as the Birchington whale.
Though bombs and mines were bad news for the whales, their corpses could contribute to the war effort. Pycraft highlighted the opportunity of using beached whales, porpoises and dolphins as an under-utilised source of protein when meat was rationed. He even went to the lengths of sampling some, when a very elderly, deceased whale, measuring 11ft and weighing nearly half a ton, came under his charge. He also reproduced these menus in his regular editorial column in The Illustrated London News from a whale steak luncheon given at the American Museum of Natural History on 8 February 1918, in the interests of food conservation. Pycraft relates that the whale liver was tough, though similar to bullock’s liver in flavour, with every promise of it making a good soup. The flesh from the blade bone was rubbery, and the meat from other parts of the whale varied in tenderness, rather than flavour.
Whales even had a part to play on the front lines. Whale oil had valuable health benefits when it was employed to prevent trench foot, as when it was rubbed into the foot it formed a protective waterproof barrier. Soldiers were ordered to administer daily greasing to each other’s feet to maintain good foot health, with some estimates suggesting that a single battalion at the front (approximately 1,000 men) could get through 10 gallons (an impressive 80 pints) of whale oil a day.
Whale oil was also used in the production of the high explosive nitro-glycerine. Whale fat was a rich source of glycerol, which was released when the whale fat was treated with an alkali. Nitro-glycerine was then produced by reacting glycerol with concentrated nitric and sulphuric acids, and was used extensively throughout the war as an explosive.
Whales who found themselves caught up in a human conflict unwittingly became a valuable resource for food, foot care, ammunition and even information about their kind during the First World War. The small but significant role played by whales in wartime is worthy of acknowledgement, and a reflection of the all-encompassing nature of total war.
Taken from ‘Animals in the Great War’ by Lucinda Moore, to be published March 2017.