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World War 1 History: Britain “Exposes” Germany's Corpse Conversion Factory
Alive or Dead
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. Deep in a densely wooded area and protected by electrified fences, German soldiers unloaded the corpses and 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 in with pig feed or used as manure. Here was proof of the Huns' inhuman depravity and the effectiveness of the British Naval Blockade.
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 the bodies of their dead.
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 where they were 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 as well as 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 be protecting 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.
Collecting Animal Fats
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.
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.
Addendum: Winnie the Pooh Author and the Corpse Factory
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:
who loves to lie with me
And Hun Corpse Factories
Come hither, come hither, come hither
Here shall we see
But sit all day and blather.”
© 2012 David Hunt