The Corpse Factory
An Infamous World War One Propaganda Fable
By Arthur Ponsonby
A series of extracts will give the record of one of the most revolting lies invented during the First World War, the dissemination of which throughout not only Britain but the world was encouraged and connived at by both the Government and the press. It started in 1917, and was not finally disposed of till 1925.
(Most of the quotations given are from The Times. The references in the lower strata of the press, it will be remembered, were far more lurid.)
One of the United States consuls, on leaving Germany in February 1917, stated in Switzerland that the Germans were distilling glycerine from the bodies of their dead.
The Times, April 16, 1917
Herr Karl Rosner, the Correspondent of the Berlin Lokalanzeiger, on the Western front ... published last Tuesday the first definite German admission concerning the way in which the Germans use dead bodies.
We pass through Everingcourt. There is a dull smell in the air as if lime were being burnt. We are passing the great Corpse Exploitation Establishment (Kadaververwertungsanstalt) of this Army Group. The fat that is won here is turned into lubricating oils, and everything else is ground down in the bone mill into a powder which is used for mixing with pig's food and as manure-nothing can be permitted to go to waste.
The Times, April 16, 1917
There was a report in The Times of April 17, 1917 from La Belgique (Leyden), via l'Indépendance Belge, April 10, giving a very long and detailed account of a Deutsche Abfallverwertungsgesellschaft [German Refuse Processing Company] factory near Coblenz, where train-loads of the stripped bodies of German soldiers, wired into bundles, arrive and are simmered down in cauldrons, the products being stearine and refined oil.
In The Times of April 18, 1917, there was a letter from C.E. Bunbury commenting and suggesting the use of the story for propaganda purposes, in neutral countries and the East, where it would be especially calculated to horrify Buddhists, Hindus, and Mohammedans. He suggested broadcasting by the Foreign Office, India Office, and Colonial Office; there were other letters to the same effect on April 19th.
In The Times of April 20, 1917, there was a story told by Sergeant B_____, of the Kents, that a prisoner had told him that the Germans boil down their dead for munitions and pig and poultry food. "This fellow told me that Fritz calls his margarine 'corpse fat' because they suspect that's what it comes from."
The Times stated that it had received a number of letters "questioning the translation of the German word Kadaver, and suggesting that it is not used of human bodies. As to this, the best authorities are agreed that it is also used of the bodies of animals." Other letters were received confirming the story from Belgian and Dutch sources (later from Roumania).
There was an article in the Lancet discussing the "business aspect" (or rather the technical one) of the industry. An expression of horror appeared from the Chinese Minister in London, and also from the Maharajah of Bikanir, in The Times of April 21, 1917.
The Times of April 23, 1917, quotes a German statement that the report is "loathsome and ridiculous," and that [the term] Kadaver is never used of a human body. The Times produces dictionary quotations to show that it is. Also that both Tierkörpermehl and Kadavermehl appear in German official catalogs, the implication being that they must be something different.
In The Times of April 24, 1917, there was a letter, signed E.H. Parker, enclosing copy of the North China Herald, March 3, 1917, recounting an interview between the German Minister and the Chinese Premier in Pekin:
But the matter was clinched when Admiral von Hinke was dilating upon the ingenious methods by which German scientists were obtaining chemicals necessary for the manufacture of munitions. The admiral triumphantly stated that they were extracting glycerine out of their dead soldiers! From that moment onward the horrified Premier had no more use for Germany, and the business of persuading him to turn against her became comparatively easy.
The following questions in Parliament show the Government evading the issue, although they knew there was not a particle of authentic evidence for the report -- a good instance of the official method of spreading falsehood.
Mr. Ronald McNeill asked the Prime Minister if he will take steps to make it known as widely as possible in Egypt, India, and the East generally, that the Germans use the dead bodies of their own soldiers and of their enemies when they obtain possession of them, as food for swine.
Mr. Dillon asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether his attention has been called to the reports widely circulated in this country that the German Government have set up factories for extracting fat from the bodies of soldiers killed in battle; whether these reports have been endorsed by many prominent men in this country, including Lord Curzon of Kedleston; whether the Government have any solid grounds for believing that these statements are well-founded; and if so, whether he will communicate the information at the disposal of the Government to the House.
Lord R. Cecil: With respect to this question and that standing in the name of the Hon. Member for East Mayo, the Government have no information at present beyond that contained in extracts from the German Press which have been published in the Press here. In view of other actions by German military authorities, there is nothing incredible in the present charge against them. His Majesty's Government have allowed the circulation of facts as they have appeared through the usual channels.
Mr, McNeill: Can the Right Hon. Gentleman answer whether the Government will take any steps to give wide publicity in the East to this story emanating from German sources?
Lord R. Cecil: I think at present it is not desirable to take any other steps than those that have been taken.
Mr. Dillon: May I ask whether we are to conclude from that answer that the Government have no solid evidence whatever in proof of the truth of this charge, and they have taken no steps to investigate it; And has their attention been turned to the fact that it is not only a gross scandal, but a very great evil to this country to allow the circulation of such statements, authorized by Ministers of the Crown, if they are, as I believe them to be, absolutely false?
Lord R. Cecil: The Hon. Member has, perhaps, information that we have not. I can only speak from statements that have been published in the Press. I have already told the House that we have no other information whatever. The information is the statement that has been published and that I have before me (quoting Times quotation from Lokalanzeiger). This statement has been published in the Press, and that is the whole of the information that I have.
Mr. Dillon: Has the Noble Lord's attention been drawn to the fact that there have been published in the Frankfurter Zeitung and other leading German newspapers descriptions of this whole process, in which the word Kadaver is used, and from which it is perfectly manifest that these factories are for the purpose of boiling down the dead bodies of horses and other animals which are lying on the battlefield -- (an Hon. Member: "Human animals!") -- and I ask the Right Hon. Gentleman whether the Government propose to take any steps to obtain authentic information whether this story that has been circulated is true or absolutely false. For the credit of human nature, he ought to.
Lord R. Cecil: It is not any part of the duties of the Government, nor is it possible for the Government, to institute inquiries as to what goes on in Germany. The Hon. Member is surely very unreasonable in making the suggestion, and as for his quotations from the Frankfurter Zeitung, I have not seen them, but I have seen statements made by the German Government after the publication of this, and I confess that I am not able to attach very great importance to any statements made by the German Government.
Mr. Dillon: I beg to ask the Right Hon. Gentleman whether, before a Minister of the Crown, a member of the War Cabinet, gives authorization to these rumors, he ought not to have obtained accurate information as to whether they are true or not.
Lord R. Cecil: I think any Minister of the Crown is entitled to comment on and refer to something which has been published in one of the leading papers of the country. He only purported to do that, and did not make himself responsible for the statement (an Hon. Member: "He did!"). I am informed that he did not. He said: "As has been stated in the papers."
Mr. Outhwaite: May I ask if the Noble Lord is aware that the circulation of these reports (interruption) has caused anxiety and misery to British people who have lost their sons on the battlefield, and who think that their bodies may be put to this purpose, and does not that give a reason why he should try to find out the truth of what is happening in Germany?
House of Commons, April 30, 1917
In The Times of May 3, 1917, there were quotations from the Frankfurter Zeitung stating that the French Press is now treating the Kadaver story as a "misunderstanding."
The Times of May 17, 1917 reported that Herr Zimmermann denied in the Reichstag that human bodies were used; and stated that the story appeared first in the French Press. In reply to a question in the House of Commons on May 23, Mr. A. Chamberlain stated that the report would be "available to the public in India through the usual channels."
A corpse factory cartoon appeared in Punch:
Kaiser (to 1917 recruit): And don't forget that your Kaiser will find a use for you alive or dead. (At the enemy's establishment for the utilization of corpses the dead bodies of German soldiers are treated chemically, the chief commercial products being lubricant oils and pig food.)
View of the corpse factory out of the window.
The story had a world-wide circulation and had considerable propaganda value in the East. Not till 1925 did the truth emerge.
A painful impression has been produced here by an unfortunate speech of Brigadier-General Charteris at the dinner of the National Arts Club, in which he professed to tell the true story of the war-time report that Germany was boiling down the bodies of her dead soldiers in order to get fats for munitions and fertilizers.
According to General Charteris, the story began as propaganda for China. By transposing the caption from one of two photographs found on German prisoners to the other he gave the impression that the Germans were making a dreadful use of their own dead soldiers. This photograph he sent to a Chinese newspaper in Shanghai. He told the familiar story of its later republication in England and of the discussion it created there. He told, too, how, when a question put in the House was referred to him, he answered it by saying that from what he knew of German mentality, he was prepared for anything.
Later, said General Charteris, in order to support the story, what purported to be the diary of a German soldier was forged in his office. It was planned to have this discovered on a dead German by a war correspondent with a passion for German diaries, but the plan was never carried out. The diary was now in the war museum in London.
The Times, October 22, 1925. From New York Correspondent.
Some opinions of politicians may be given.
Lloyd George: The story came under my notice in various ways at the time. I did not believe it then; I do not believe it now. It was never adopted as part of the armory of the British Propaganda Department. It was, in fact, "turned down" by that department.
Mr. Masterman: We certainly did not accept the story as true, and I know nobody in official positions at the time who credited it. Nothing as suspect as this was made use of in our propaganda. Only such information as had been properly verified was circulated.
Mr. 1. Macpherson: I was at the War Office at the time. We had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the story when it came through. It was supported by the captured divisional orders of the German Army in France, and I have an impression it was also backed up by the Foreign Office on the strength of extracts from the German Press. We did not know that it had been invented by anybody, and had we known there was the slightest doubt about the truth of the story, it would not have been used in any way by us.
A New York correspondent describes how he rang General Charteris up, and inquired the truth of the report and suggested that, if untrue, he should take it up with the New York Times.
On this he protested vigorously that he could not think of challenging the report, as the mistakes were only of minor importance.
Daily News, November 5, 1925
There was a Times article on the same subject quoting the New York Times' assertion of the truth of their version of the speech.
This paper makes the significant observation that in the course of his denial he offered no comment on his reported admission that he avoided telling the truth when questioned about the matter in the House of Commons, or on his own description of a scheme to support the Corpse Factory story by "planting" a forged diary in the clothing of a dead German prisoner -- a proposal which he only abandoned lest the deception might be discovered.
Brigadier-General Charteris, who returned from America at the week-end, visited the War Office yesterday and had an interview with the Secretary of State for War (Sir Laming Worthington-Evans) concerning the reports of his speech on war propaganda in New York. It is understood that the War Office now regard the incident as closed and that no further inquiry is likely to be held.
General Charteris left for Scotland later in the day, and on arrival in Glasgow issued the following statement:
"On arrival in Scotland I was surprised to find that, in spite of the repudiation issued by me at New York through Reuter's agency, some public interest was still excited in the entirely incorrect report of my remarks at a private dinner in New York. I feel it necessary therefore to give again a categorical denial to the statement attributed to me. Certain suggestions and speculations as regards the origins of the Kadaver story, which have already been published in These Eventful Years (British Encyclopedia Press) and elsewhere, which I repeated, are, doubtless unintentionally, but nevertheless unfortunately, turned into definite statements of fact and attributed to me.
"Lest there should still be any doubt, let me say that I neither invented the Kadaver story nor did I alter the captions in any photographs, nor did I use faked material for propaganda purposes. The allegations that I did so are not only incorrect but absurd, as propaganda was in no way under G.H.Q. France, where I had charge of the Intelligence Services. I should be as interested as the general public to know what was the true origin of the Kadaver story. G.H.Q. France only came in when a fictitious diary supporting the Kadaver story was submitted. When this diary was discovered to be fictitious, it was at once rejected.
"I have seen the Secretary of State this morning and have explained the whole circumstances to him, and have his authority to say that he is perfectly satisfied."
The Times, November 4, 1925
Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy asked the Secretary of Mate for War if, in view of the feeling aroused in Germany by the recrudescence of the rumours of the so-called corpse conversion factory behind the German lines in the late war, he can give any information as to the source of the original rumour and the extent to which it was accepted by the War Office at the time.
Sir L. Worthington-Evans: At this distance of time I do not think that the source of the rumour can be traced with any certainty. The statement that the Germans had set up a factory for the conversion of dead bodies first appeared on April 10, 1917, in the Lokalanzeiger, published in Berlin, and in l'Independance Belge and La Belgique, two Belgian newspapers published in France and Holland. The statements were reproduced in the Press here, with the comment that it was the first German admission concerning the way in which the Germans used their dead bodies.
Questions were asked in the House of Commons on April 30, 1917, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs replied on behalf of the Government that he had then no information beyond that contained in the extract from the German Press. But shortly afterwards a German Army Order containing instructions for the delivery of dead bodies to the establishments described in the Lokalanzeiger was captured in France and forwarded to the War Office, who, after careful consideration, permitted it to be published.
The terms of this order were such that, taken in conjunction with the articles in the Lokalanzeiger and in the two Belgian papers and the previously existing rumours, it appeared to the War Office to afford corroborative evidence of the story. Evidence that the word Kadaver was used to mean human bodies, and not only carcasses of animals, was found in German dictionaries and anatomical and other works, and the German assertion that the story was disposed of by reference to the meaning of the word Kadaver was not accepted. On the information before them at the time, the War Office appear to have seen no reason to disbelieve the truth of the story.
Lieut. -Commander Kenworthy: I am much obliged to the Right Hon. Gentleman for his very full answer. Does he not think it desirable now that the War Office should finally disavow the story and their present belief in it?
Sir L. Worthington-Evans: I cannot believe any public interest is served by further questions on this story. I have given the House the fullest information in my possession in the hope that the Hon. Members will be satisfied with what I have said. (Hon. Members: Hear, hear.)
Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy: Does not the Right Hon. Gentleman think it desirable, even now, to finally admit the inaccuracy of the original story, in view of Locarno and other things?
Sir L. Worthington-Evans: It is not a question of whether it was accurate or inaccurate. What I was concerned with was the information upon which the War Office acted at the time. Of course, the fact that there has been no corroboration since necessarily alters the complexion of the case, but I was dealing with the information in the possession of the authorities at the time.
House of Commons, November 24, 1925
This was a continued attempt to avoid making a complete denial, and it was left to Sir Austen Chamberlain to nail the lie finally to the counter. In reply to Mr. Arthur Henderson on December 2, 1925, asking if he had any statement to make as to the Kadaver story, he said:
Yes, sir; my Right Hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War told the House last week how the story reached His Majesty's Government in 1917. The Chancellor of the German Reich has authorized me to say, on the authority of the German Government, that there was never any foundation for it. I need scarcely add that on behalf of His Majesty's Government I accept this denial, and I trust that this false report will not again be revived.
The painful impression made by this episode and similar propaganda efforts in America is well illustrated by an editorial in the Times-Dispatch, of Richmond, U.S.A., on December 6, 1925.
Not the least of the horrors of modern warfare is the propaganda bureau, which is an important item in the military establishment of every nation. Neither is it the least of the many encouraging signs which each year add to the probability of eventual peace on earth. The famous Kadaver story, which aroused hatred against the German to the boiling-point in this and other Allied nations during the war, has been denounced as a lie in the British House of Commons. Months ago the world learned the details of how this lie was planned and broadcasted by the efficient officer in the British Intelligence Service. Now we are told that, imbued with the spirit of the Locarno pact, Sir Austen Chamberlain rose in the House, said that the German Chancellor had denied the truth of the story, and that the denial had been accepted by the British Government.
A few years ago the story of how the Kaiser was reducing human corpses to fat aroused the citizens of this and other enlightened nations to a fury of hatred. Normally sane men doubled their fists and rushed off to the nearest recruiting sergeant. Now they are being told, in effect, that they were dupes and fools; that their own officers deliberately goaded them to the desired boiling-point, using an infamous lie to arouse them, just as a grown bully whispers to one little boy that another little boy said he could lick him.
The encouraging sign found in this revolting admission of how modern war is waged is the natural inference that the modern man is not over-eager to throw himself at his brother's throat at the simple word of command. His passions must be played upon, so the propaganda bureau has taken its place as one of the chief weapons.
In the next war, the propaganda must be more subtle and clever than the best the World War produced. These frank admissions of wholesale lying on the part of trusted Governments in the last war will not soon be forgotten.
This article is a chapter from the book Falsehood in Wartime, by Arthur Ponsonby, first published in Britain in 1928. This chapter was reprinted in The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1980 (Vol. 1, No. 2), pages 121 -130.
About the Author
Arthur Ponsonby (1871-1946), was a British politician, writer and social activist. He was first elected to parliament in 1908. Along with some other prominent British political figures,in 1914 he opposed his country’s entry into the First World War. After defeat in the 1918 general election, he was out of parliament for four years. But in 1922 he was elected as a Labour Party MP. He became a Baron in 1930 and served as leader of the Labour Party in the House of Lords from 1935. He resigned this post in opposition to the Party's policy of sanctions against Italy for its invasion of Ethiopia.