German Corpse Factories

Even the most popular atrocity story of all — the German corpse factory — turned out to be another war correspondents’ invention. This particular story had a long and highly successful run. It had several variations, but basically it was that close behind their front line the Germans had established factories for boiling down the corpses of their soldiers, from which to distill glycerine for munitions. The Times initiated the story, on April 16, 1917, with a suspiciously vague paragraph that said baldly: “One of the United States consuls, on leaving Germany in February, stated in Switzerland that the Germans were distilling glycerine from the bodies of their dead.” The account quickly blossomed. The Times expanded the original report by reproducing a dispatch by a German correspondent, Karl Rosner, in which he referred to the German army’s Kadaververwertungsanstalt, which The Times translated as “Corpse Exploitation Establishment.” Foreign newspapers picked up the story. It appeared in LInde’pendance and La Belge, two Belgian newspapers published in France and Holland. French correspondents were instructed by their army authorities to send dispatches to their newspapers over their own signatures detailing what was known about the corpse factories. The matter came up in the House of Commons on April 30, when the Prime Minister was asked if he would make the story known as widely as possible in Egypt, India, and the East generally. A corpse-factory cartoon appeared iii Punch, and in general the affair had world-wide circulation and considerable propaganda value.

The Germans protested in vain that the report was “loathsome and ridiculous” and that The Times had mistranslated Rosner’s report, the word Kadaver not being used for a human body. In vain a British MP tried to get the government to clarify the matter. He said it was perfectly clear, from accounts published in the Frankfurter Zeitung and other leading German papers, that the factories were for boiling down the corpses of horses and other animals from the battlefield. Would the government therefore try to find out whether the story published in Britain was true or absolutely false? The government, of course, had no such intention. Lord Robert Cecil, Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, replied that the government knew no more than had been published, but “in view of other actions by German military authorities there is nothing incredible in the present charge against them”-a typical case of appearing to lend substance to the report without the responsibility of actually doing so.

Germany had to live with the accusation until 1925, when, according to an American newspaper report, Brigadier-General Charteris, who had been in charge of British military intelligence, first admitted that he had been responsible for starting the canard. Two photographs captured from German sources had turned up on his desk. One showed German corpses being hauled away for burial behind the lines; the other showed dead horses on their way to a soap factory. Charteris, so the report said, told the guests at a private dinner party in New York that he had simply interchanged the captions and then, knowing the reverence of the Chinese for ancestors and the uncertainty of Chinese opinion towards the Germans, had sent the photographs to Shanghai for release, hoping the story would @e “played back” to Europe. To support the story, what purported to be the diary of a German soldier had been forged, and it was planned to feed this to a British war correspondent with a passion for German diaries. The plan, General Charteris said, was never carried out, and the diary was now in the Imperial War Museum in London.*

On his return to England, Charteris denied his confession, which had been reported in the New York Times, and said he had not altered the captions on any photographs and had not been responsible for the fictitious diary. In fact, he said, when the diary had been submitted to GHQ in France it had been discovered to be fictitious and had been rejected. “I should be as interested as the general public to know what was the true origin of the Kadaver story.”31

That the story was untrue was finally admitted officially on December 2, 1925. A statement in the House of Commons made it clear that there had never been any foundation for the story, and Germany was vindicated. Not that she was entirely innocent in such propaganda techniques herself. T’he German press abounded with stories of hospitals filled with German soldiers who had had their eyes gouged out. The Weser Zeitung reported that a ten-year-old boy had seen “a whole bucketful of soldiers’ eyes,” an atrocity story as old as the Crusades. Die Zeit in Bild ran an account of a French priest who wore around his neck a chain of rings taken from fingers he had cut off. The Hamburger Fremdenblatt said that Belgians gave German troops cigars filled with gunpowder. But these all appear to have been government-inspired propaganda stories, rather than, like the Courbeck Loo atrocity, deliberate pieces of invention by war correspondents.

The correspondent in question was Captain F. W. Wilson of the Daily Mail, who was in Brussels when war broke out. The first message from his office asked for an article on atrocities. Wilson said that he could find no evidence of atrocities, whereupon his office replied that a piece on refugees would do. […]


Philip Knightley, The First Casualty. Harvest Books, 1976.