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World War 1 History: Britain “Exposes” Germany's Corpse Conversion Factory

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

WW1: Kaiser (to 1917 Recruit). "And don't forget that your Kaiser will find a use for you-- alive or dead." Punch, 25 April 1917.

WW1: Kaiser (to 1917 Recruit). "And don't forget that your Kaiser will find a use for you-- alive or dead." Punch, 25 April 1917.

Huns and Their Dead–Great Corpse Factory

In April of 1917, the fourth year of World War I, British newspapers printed an account of the existence of a German factory. The story was entitled “Huns and Their Dead – Great Corpse Factory.”

According to papers like the Times and the Daily Mail, dead German soldiers were loaded onto railway cars and shipped from the front. German soldiers unloaded the corpses deep in a densely wooded area and protected by electrified fences. They hung them from constantly moving hooks on a chain where they were fed into the factory. The bodies were then rendered into essential fats that were further processed into soap, lubricating oils, candles and nitroglycerine for explosives.

Everything else was ground down into a fine powder to be mixed with pig feed or used as manure. Here was proof of the Huns’ inhuman depravity and the effectiveness of the British Naval Blockade.

WWI: Dead German Soldiers-- Candidates for Germany's Corpse Conversion Factory?

WWI: Dead German Soldiers-- Candidates for Germany's Corpse Conversion Factory?

The Story Breaks

The accusations described a German Army’s “Kadaververwertungsanstalt” north of Reims. They were supposedly based on a story in a Belgian newspaper based on another Belgian newspaper and run side-by-side with a (50 word) story in the Berlin Lokalannzeiger. It was claimed that an American Consul had also stated that the Germans were distilling nitroglycerine from their dead bodies.

The so-called Belgian account told of Germans stripping the bodies of their dead comrades, wrapping three or four naked bodies into a bundle with wire and loading these grisly bundles onto trains where they were shipped to the factory. Once there, the bodies were unloaded by soldiers wearing oilskin overalls and goggles. Using long, hooked poles, they pushed the bundles of bodies toward the endless chain of hooks, which fed them into a disinfecting chamber, a drying chamber and, finally, into a great cauldron steamed for hours while constantly stirred by machinery.

There were further, rather mundane details on the distillation process. The witness to all this, who was never named, had extraordinary access to such a tightly guarded location, giving dimensions, locations of equipment, etc., and detailing each step in the process. He also knew that the factory was run by a chief chemist with two assistants and 78 soldiers of the 8th Army Corps.

The British papers also claimed to protect their readers’ sensitivities, “omitting the most repulsive details” of the Belgian account. Coincidentally, Lord Northcliffe, who controlled both the Times and the Daily Mail, was also responsible for dealing with propaganda to enemy countries.

Housewife in the next war turning in fats to be rendered and used to produce explosives.

Housewife in the next war turning in fats to be rendered and used to produce explosives.

The British Government's Non-Denial

The account stirred up a firestorm of horror and indignation all around the world, including China and the U.S. (which, also coincidentally, had just declared war on Germany). As questions began to be asked by the more thoughtful, the story was debated in Parliament. The British Government said they had no information regarding the matter and, perhaps more pointedly, said they had no information that would refute it either. This non-non-endorsement only served to fan the fires, which, of course, was the desired result.

The Germans immediately denied it as an outrage. Aside from the utter and horrific act itself, their denial accused the British of deliberately misinterpreting the word “Kadaver” in “Kadaververwertungsanstalt” as the English “cadaver”, or “human body”, when it actually referred to “dead animals”. Dead horses and other animals during the war were routinely processed (rendered) by both sides for their fats. Germany also noted that the short piece in the Berlin Lokalannzeiger was an account of an animal rendering facility.

Accusations and questions continued to fly as the story gained world-wide attention. Nearly all the French newspapers published the account with definite enthusiasm. Later, the New York Times wondered if the British had perhaps picked up an April Fool's joke put out by the German press, which the Germans were fond of doing. Still, while millions didn't believe the story, millions did. It wasn't a big leap of faith, once the atrocity was taken as fact, to imagine the corpses of British sons, husbands and fathers being fed into the Corpse Conversion Factory and turned into usable fats and animal food for the enemy.

“Justice” At Last

It wasn't until eight long years had passed, in late 1925, when the British government finally and categorically denied the truth of the Corpse Conversion Factory. Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Austen Chamberlain said in a statement before the House of Commons that there was never any foundation for the story. Long before then it had been discovered that the first Belgian newspaper to “publish” the story had ceased to exist before 1917. In fact, the whole thing had been concocted by Brigadier General John Charteris who was once British Chief of Intelligence. He later bragged about this in a speech at the National Arts Club in New York City. He said he was looking at two photographs, one of dead German soldiers being unloaded from trains for burial and the other showing dead horses in train cars being taken for processing into fertilizer. Using scissors and paste on the two captions, he created the inscription “German cadavers on Their Way to the Soap Factory” under the picture of the dead German soldiers.

Charteris did not realize there was a reporter present during his boastful speech and later complained that he was misunderstood. He claimed he'd been misquoted and, as if to provide irrefutable evidence that the reporter had got it all wrong, he said he'd been in British Intelligence and therefore had nothing to do with propaganda. His protestations were generally disregarded in what was considered one of the worst and damaging atrocity lies of World War One.

There followed much editorializing about the evils and brutalities of war, about propaganda and, in particular, the lessons of the famous “Kadaver” story. In an attempt to wring out even a shred of good from the whole revolting, sordid episode, one editorial found an encouraging sign. The fact that a lie about such a horrid act had been concocted in the first place in order to arouse men to fury spoke well of modern man's propensity for decency. That was the best spin they could put on the great German atrocity that wasn't.

Lessons Learned

The Germans certainly didn't forget the lesson they'd been handed. The outright lie had achieved the desired result. The fact that it was exposed as a big lie years later meant nothing. During the war, millions had believed that the Germans actually melted down their own dead for soap. The Nazis certainly learned about the Big Lie. Their own propaganda machine would become so much more efficient the next time around.

The British and the American people also learned a lesson: “These frank admissions of wholesale lying on the part of trusted Governments in the last war will not soon be forgotten.” And so later, when stories of Jews being put into ovens started to circulate, they were rather too horrible to believe-- just like in the last war.

English writer A. A. Milne (1882-1956) Famed for creating the "Winnie-the-Pooh" stories, previously unknown creator of the German Corpse Conversion Factories. Circa 1922.

English writer A. A. Milne (1882-1956) Famed for creating the "Winnie-the-Pooh" stories, previously unknown creator of the German Corpse Conversion Factories. Circa 1922.

Recently discovered documents have revealed that the author of the beloved Winnie-the-Pooh stories, A. A. Milne, was one of the figures behind the German “Corpse Conversion Factories”. It was his job during the Great War to concoct British propaganda as a member of the very secretive British military intelligence unit, MI7b, established in 1916. He and 20 others fabricated thousands of pro-British and anti-German stories which were published in newspapers and magazines. This included all the “original” sources for the “Hun corpse factories” story, though he was morally conflicted about it. One of the documents written by Milne in 1918 contained the lines:

In MI7b

who loves to lie with me

About atrocities.

And Hun Corpse Factories

Come hither, come hither, come hither

Here shall we see

No enemy

But sit all day and blather.


1. British Propaganda in WW1: The Corpse Conversion Factory

2. Kadaververwertungsanstalt

3. Huns and Their Dead

5. German and English Propaganda in WW1

6. The Corpse Factory

7. AA Milne, the Reluctant Wartime Propagandist

© 2012 David Hunt


walibooks on May 10, 2015:

Thanks david

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on April 20, 2013:

Thanks for the great comment, Peter. Yes, I think it's safe to assume that the "Angels of Mons" was...a fabrication. Still, it persuaded some people that god was on Britain's side. In fact, it was discipline and training that allowed the small number of old contemptibles to hold off the Germans and survive as a fighting force. My own belief is that god was missing during the Great War.

Peter Geekie from Sittingbourne on April 20, 2013:

Excellent article as always, well written and researched.

Brigadier General John Charteris was the British officer in charge of propaganda during the Great War and many believe he was behind the story of "The Angels of Mons". In this instance it may or may not have been fiction.

Voted up, awesome and interesting

kind regards Peter

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 27, 2012:

Thanks for commenting, aethelthryth. I think in times of war incompetence and cold-hearted manipulation are the norm rather than the exception. And truth is not an issue-- the desired effect at the moment is paramount.

aethelthryth from American Southwest on July 26, 2012:

Having had some government and contractor jobs, I think most problems caused by government are more attributable to bureaucracy than malice, though I'm not at all saying that the problems are trivial. Bureaucracies seem to stifle competence and turn good intentions into bad results.

People need to be able to trust their government to be able to respond to evil in the world, yet it is very hard for even the best of governments to earn the trust of people, and very easy to lose it instantly, for at least a generation, through one lie such as this. May leaders take warning.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 26, 2012:

Hi Graham. I'm glad you were uneasy-- I know I was until I read it was a total fabrication. The other bad thing about all the lies is when we're told the truth and don't believe it. The old boy who cried wolf and all that. I appreciate your comment and sharing. Have a great day.

Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on July 26, 2012:

Hi UH. Brilliant hub. I was uneasy reading this one and so glad when you made it clear that it was propoganda. The problem as we know is what to believe in the fog of war.

Voted up and all / sharing.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 25, 2012:

Charles, you make some interesting and very valid points. I attribute my interest in history to being concerned about what's going on right now (and has been going on) in all countries. For all the talk of needing an educated public, I think leaders prefer people who are ignorant about history and are actually afraid of an educated electorate. Thanks for the comment and vote.

Charles Hilton on July 25, 2012:

Excellent and interesting post.

I've learned, over the years, that any and all hype associated with war and the military-industrial-complex is nothing more than propaganda. General Smedley Butler said long ago that "war is a racket" and that all the military missions he participated in were for the benefit of Robber Barons. What escapes the public is that the Robber Barons are still with us and running things. They never left. Only the names have changed(some of them).

And that the British Chief of Intelligence was the source of the rumor isn't surprising. One need only to look at the behavior of 'intelligence services' in Britain and especially the U.S., throughout their sordid histories, to see what they're capable of.

Voted up!

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 25, 2012:

Thanks for reading and commenting, phdast7. I can't speak to the kitten story, but the British government did say that many of the baby/children/mother killings were untrue or unsubstantiated. Don't get me wrong, atrocities were committed on the Western Front but not as many as charged. There was one about a boy carrying a bucket of eyeballs, but I can't remember whether they were German, British or French eyeballs. Not true, in any case.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on July 25, 2012:

Harald - Very interesting hub. I had never heard anything about this one way or the other. Of course I focus on World War II and know just enough about The Great War so as not to embarrass myself in a freshmen Western Civilization class. I do remember something about the Germans nailing kittens to front doors during WW I. Assuming that is also untrue? Great read. Sharing. Theresa

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 25, 2012:

Larry, thanks for commenting and voting. That's another casualty of atrocity lies... how to tell the true ones from the lies.

Larry Fields from Northern California on July 25, 2012:

One of these days, some enterprising soul should write a history of Big Lies on the part of 'democratic' governments. Obviously a hub would not be sufficient. The accounts could easily fill a big thick book.

BTW gmarquardt, some of the WW1 atrocity stories are true. Example: the Armenian Genocide.

Voted up, interesting, and useful.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 25, 2012:

You are so right, gmarquardt-- like the one about the laughing, singing German soldiers marching with Belgian babies speared on their bayonets. And others. On all sides. Thanks for commenting.

gmarquardt from Hill Country, Texas on July 25, 2012:

Problem is, many of those myths of World War One attrocities are still around. Fascinating article, great work!