WAR correspondent Kate Adie took a step back through time with pupils at a Corfe Mullen middle school yesterday.
Students at Lockyer’s will feature in a BBC documentary about the First World War later this year, almost 100 years after their predecessors played an unusual role in the conflict.
The schoolchildren’s involvement in the war came about after a cordite factory was built at Holton Heath on the orders of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, in response to the shell crisis of 1915.
So many shells had been fired during fighting that stocks were low, and cordite – a propellant used in guns – was much in demand.
But there was no getting hold of a key ingredient of cordite, acetone, as blockades prevented shipments from America getting to Britain’s shores.
Chemist Chaim Weizman, who was later to become the first president of the state of Israel, found a solution to the problem by fermenting maize for acetone.
However, by 1917, maize was in short supply, and an alternative needed to be found.
The answer was acorns and conkers, many of which were collected by schoolchildren.
Lockey’s deputy head Richard Ettling said: “All of these events were recorded by the school in a historically important logbook, so there is a detailed account of that time here at the school. We have been able to show the pupils the history of the school, including this amazing and little-known contribution to the war effort.”
Children from years five, six, seven and eight mixed together during the day to investigate the school’s history, writing news reports, biographies of Weizman and diary entries.
Adie, a household name who has been regularly dispatched to report on disasters and conflicts from around the world, said: “I was asked by BBC Southampton if I would make a film with them about Holton Heath.
“I have written a book during the last year about women and wartime. Around 2,000 women worked at the cordite factory, being paid half as much as men, and yet still more than they would earn at factories or as housemaids.”
She said the history being researched by the children is “phenomenal and fascinating”.
“History books about World War One are, quite rightly, often focused on the terrible sacrifice made by soldiers fighting at the front,” she said.
“But without the women working at home, it could have been a very different story.”