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Cordite had been used by the British military since 1889, when it first replaced black gunpowder.It consisted chiefly of the high-explosives nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose (gun-cotton), with acetone playing the key role of solvent in the manufacturing process.
But by the outbreak of war in 1914, the stocks for military use were just 3,200 tonnes, and it was soon obvious that an alternative domestic supply would be needed.
The actual production of acetone from conkers was, despite Weizmann’s assurances, never that successful. They played their part, certainly, even if their role was more walk-on than centre stage.
Teething problems meant the manufacturing process did not begin in the King’s Lynn factory until April 1918, and it was soon discovered that horse chestnuts did not provide the yields the government had hoped for. The real star of the show was Chaim Weizmann, whose brilliant solution to the acetone shortage – using a variety of natural products from maize to conkers – helped to solve the shell crisis and get Britain’s guns firing again.
This collection is invaluable war work and is very urgent.
Please encourage it.”It was never explained to schoolchildren exactly how conkers could help the war effort. They were more interested in the War Office’s bounty of 7s 6d (37.5p) for every hundred weight they handed in, and for weeks they scoured woods and lanes for the shiny brown objects they usually destroyed in the playground game.
A leading Zionist, Weizmann was rewarded for his vital contribution to Britain’s war effort when the cabinet – prompted by Lloyd George, prime minister since late 1916 – approved the signing of the Balfour Declaration on 2 November 1917.
Taking the form of a letter from Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary, to Lord Rothschild, a leading British Jew, it promised government support “for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, and was the first step on the long road to Israeli statehood.In May 1915, after Weizmann had demonstrated to the Admiralty that he could convert 100 tonnes of grain to 12 tonnes of acetone, the government commandeered brewing and distillery equipment, and built factories to utilise the new process at Holton Heath in Dorset and King’s Lynn in Norfolk.Together they produced more than 90,000 gallons of acetone a year, enough to feed the war’s seemingly insatiable demand for cordite.The children’s efforts were so successful that they collected more conkers than there were trains to transport them, and piles were seen rotting at railway stations.But a total of 3,000 tonnes of conkers did reach their destination – the Synthetic Products Company at King’s Lynn – where they were used to make acetone, a vital component of the smokeless propellant for shells and bullets known as cordite.(The British army and Royal Navy, alone, fired 248 million shells from 1914 to 1918.)But by 1917, as grain and potatoes were needed to feed the British population, and German U-boat activity in the Atlantic was threatening to cut off the import of maize from the United States, Weizmann was tasked to find another supply of starch for his process that would not interfere with the already limited food supplies.