A century ago, the First World War began. At this time, Holton Heath, near Wareham was a quiet tract of heathland bordering Poole Harbour. Within a year everything had changed and the heath had been transformed into a busy construction site for the highly secret Royal Naval Cordite Factory. This factory provided critical support for ammunition production for the Navy during WW1. The site is now partly a nature reserve and partly a business park.
What was cordite?
In 1914, all bullets and shells used by British forces depended on cordite as a propellant. Cordite was packed in to ammunition and once ignited, produced hot gases whose pressure propelled the shell or bullet towards its target. Cordite was made by mixing the viscous liquid nitroglycerine with fibrous guncotton (nitrocellulose), a little petroleum jelly and the solvent acetone to form a paste. This paste was extruded through a hydraulic press to produced spaghetti-like strands of cordite which were dried and cut to convenient lengths for use in ammunition.
Superficially, this sounds like a simple process but don’t forget that the WW1 conflict was on a scale previously unimagined. This placed huge demands on cordite production requiring industrial-scale chemistry to make the raw materials. Many of these were potentially explosive so that there were great risks for workers.
The Royal Naval Cordite Factory at Holton Heath.
In 1914, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, decided that the Navy needed its own protected supply of cordite; perhaps he foresaw problems with supply. He commissioned building a factory to produce cordite exclusively for the Navy and a search began for a suitable site. Holton Heath was finally chosen because it was away from centres of population but with good transport links by rail and by sea. Work began in 1915 and the factory opened the following year. The site employed more than a thousand people during WW1 and Holton Heath station was built to help people get to work. Many of the workers were women, the so-called munitionettes, and the steam trains carrying staff to work were nicknamed “glamour puffers”. We should not, however, underestimate the courage of these women. They were performing dangerous work, they were handling explosive materials and they were exposed to toxic chemicals. They risked their lives every day and their work could be seen as an echo of the lives of the men fighting abroad.
The acetone crisis and Chaim Weizmann.
Acetone was a critical ingredient in the manufacture of cordite and the scale of the conflict meant that huge amounts of the chemical were required. At the start of the war, acetone was imported from the major timber growing countries of the United States, Canada and Austria where it was made by distillation from wood. By 1915 there were supply problems and it became clear that another source would be needed to satisfy the huge demand of the munitions industry. The Synthetic Products Company in the UK tried to produce acetone on a large scale using bacteria to break down potato starch but ultimately failed to deliver the amounts required.
The solution to the acetone problem was supplied by a Russian Jewish immigrant, Chaim Weizmann, working in the chemistry department of the University of Manchester. Weizmann was an expert in what we now call biotechnology, the use of biological processes to perform chemical transformations. He had collaborated with the Synthetic Products Company in their work on bacteria but eventually they parted company and he worked alone. After several frustrating years of research between 1912 and 1914 he finally isolated a bacterium that would produce acetone from maize starch in good yield. This microbe came to be called “Clostridium aceto-butylicum Weizmann” and provided the answer to the acetone problem.
Weizmann’s work had been performed on a small scale in the lab but, in 1915, when the Admiralty heard about his findings, they asked him to try to scale up the process. This was done in stages, first in a former gin factory in London and then in a 15,000 gallon tank built specially at Holton Heath. Weizmann must have paid regular visits to Dorset at this time to oversee progress. The work went well and the Admiralty decided to build a full scale acetone plant at Holton Heath employing Weizmann’s process. The new facility generated 2000 tons of acetone a year from maize starch. The success of the work in Dorset encouraged the Ministry of Munitions to adopt Weizmann’s process for production of cordite required for ammunition for all British forces.
Weizmann’s work on acetone, much of which was implemented in Dorset, was, therefore, fundamental to the outcome of the First World War. It was also the first application of industrial biotechnology, the use of biological systems to make valuable products on a large scale, now widely used for the production of drugs and vaccines.
Weizmann and Zionism.
Weizmann was a passionate Zionist and in 1917, became President of the British Zionist Federation. His principal wish was that the Jewish people should return to their homeland. The contribution he made to the war effort put him in a unique position of respect and influence. Although he was not a member of government, he knew and was respected by many of the politicians of the time. His views would have been listened to and he had long discussions with the Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour. Indeed it was Balfour who in 1917 issued a Declaration supporting Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people. Israel was established in 1948, Weizmann was its first President and chemistry had influenced politics. The Royal Naval Cordite Factory in Dorset was inextricably interwoven with these events which still reverberate.
Philip Strange is Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Reading. He writes about how science fits in to society, hoping to bridge the gap between science and public understanding of science. His work may be read at http://philipstrange.wordpress.com/