Fat & Explosives – February 3rd, 1918

Sunday Feb 3rd, 1918

Nice day – cool. Kit inspection 10am. Dinner 2 o’clock. Me and Jack Sherlock went to Manchester Transport canteen for stuff – brought back 40 Francs worth and divided it in dug-out between eight. Sweating and hard toil coming back. Fine tea time – herrings, greengages & custard & chocolate.

The Manchester Transport Canteen

BRITISH FORCES IN THE SALONIKA CAMPAIGN 1915 - 1918
A shell-proof canteen in Salonika. Copyright: © IWM (Q 31844)

The photograph shows British soldiers tapping a barrel of beer in a shell-proof canteen on the Birdcage defences in Salonika in March 1916. While the beer wouldn’t have been of interest to Frank – we do know how he loved his food!

Frank and his friend Jack Sherlock (304099), both of the 13th Battalion, took some of their pay and visited the Manchester Transport canteen in search of extra and more varied rations.  It sounds like they did very well shopping on behalf of their dugout.  Their bounty even included chocolate, manufacture of which had ceased in Britain before Christmas.  From descriptions of the countryside, its orchards, coastline and lakes, it is likely that the greengages were  grown nearby. The fish, unless pickled, was most likely sardine or mackerel if locally caught.

Fat & Explosives

This entry intrigued me most.  The Battalion diary seems most perturbed about the reduction in the amount of fat being ‘returned’ and goes into quite an explanation.  Who knew that rabbits and meat from Australia and Africa don’t render much fat? Think also of the poor troops being forced to eat mainly preserved meats on the front line in December.

Thanks to the Manchester Regiment Forum – mystery solved.¹ Apparently one pound of fat produces enough glycerol to be used in the manufacture of one pound of explosives.  Nitroglycerin was used extensively in WWI, primarily as a propellant for fire arms.  It is the key ingredient, along with gun cotton and petroleum jelly, in cordite which was used by both the Army and the Navy.  The largest factory in Britain was in Gretna which needed 336 tons of nitroglycerin to produce 800 tons of cordite each week.  This factory appeared in another article on this site about the Temperance movement.  A factory in Nobel in Ontario, Canada was also a significant cordite producer.

Science in War

Atora Suet appeal for calm!

While I haven’t yet found evidence to support my theory, it would appear that the BSF were sending their waste fat home.  Certainly its value was widely recognized and dead horses and other animals were commonly being used to render fat. Even in 1916, in a letter to The Guardian Newspaper, a scholar was advocating the need for more scientists and less classicists coming out of University.  As ‘Converted Classic’ put it, in times of war much harm could come to a country that did not know that ‘glycerol can be obtained from lard and that there are workable iron ores other than haematite’.²

Also by early 1918, fat as a foodstuff was being rationed in many European countries on both sides the conflict, including the UK.  The shortage led companies like Atora to put this appeal for calm in The Guardian on March 4th, 1918.³

The U-boat threat also had scientists seeking alternative sources for many imported items. This included acetone which a professor at the University of Manchester discovered could be made from conkers. This in turn led to an appeal for their widespread collection (with green husks removed). For the entrepreneurial schoolboy or scout troop, this was paying 7s 6d per cwt – which is a week’s pay to Frank!

13th (Service) Battalion War Diary – 3rd February 1918 – Vladaja Camp

Church service as usual. Kit inspection etc. Attention is again drawn to the quantities of fat returned. December shows a large decrease on November. January again showed an increase but the returns were short of November. This was all caused by the lack of meat from home, lack of bacon and occasion rations of rabbit. Australian and African meat do not render much fat. Preserved meat was mostly only meat at the end of December. 3 OR having rejoined are again taken on the effective strength from 2-2-18. The following are compulsorily transferred from the RE (Royal Engineers) to the Manchester Regt and posted to this Battalion, 2 OR.

References & Further Reading

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Firing Line‘ Walt Disney WWII video

Explosives on The Slaughter of the Whales

¹ Manchester Regiment Forum

² ‘Teaching of Science’ The Guardian, February 12th, 1916

³ Atora Beef Suet advertisement, The Guardian, March 4th, 1918, copyright newspapers.com

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