The Kadaververwertungsanstalten (literally "Corpse-Utilization Factories"), also sometimes called the "German Corpse-Rendering Works" or "Tallow Factory" was one of the most notorious British anti-German propaganda efforts of World War I.
According to the story, the Kadaververwertungsanstalten was a special installation supposedly operated by the Germans in which, because fats were so scarce in Germany due to the British naval blockade, German battlefield corpses were rendered down for fat, which was then used to manufacture nitroglycerine, candles, lubricants, and even boot dubbing. It was supposedly operated behind the front lines by the DAVG-Deutsche Abfall-Verwertungs Gesellschaft ("German Offal Utilization Company").
The first accounts of the Kadaververwertungsanstalt appeared in the 17 April 1917 editions of The Times and The Daily Mail (both owned by Lord Northcliffe at the time), The Times running it under the title Germans and their Dead. The editorial introduction said that it came from the Belgian newspaper l'Indépendance Belge published in England, which in turn had received it from La Belgique, another Belgian newspaper published in Leyden, The Netherlands, and that it had originally appeared in the 10 April 1917 edition of the German newspaper Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger. The German newspaper story made no clear reference to the corpses as human, however the Belgian newspaper did. Additionally, the German newspaper account was a very brief story by reporter Karl Rosner of only 59 words in length, whereas the Belgian account had been extended to over 500 words.
The story described how corpses arrived by rail at the factory, which was placed "deep in forest country" and surrounded by an electrified fence, and how they were rendered for their fats which were then further processed into stearin (a form of tallow). It went on to claim that this was then used to make soap, or refined into an oil "of yellowish brown colour".
We pass through Evergnicourt. There is a dull smell in the air, as if lime were being burnt. We are passing the great Corpse Utilization 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 bones mill into a powder, which is used for mixing with pigs' food and as manure.
A debate followed in the pages of The Times and other papers. 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." Letters were also received confirming the story from Belgian and Dutch sources and later from Romania.
The New York Times reported on 20 April that the article was being credited by all the French newspapers with the exception of the Paris-Midi, which preferred to believe that the corpses in question were those of animals rather than humans. The Times itself did not credit the story, pointing out that it appeared in early April and that German newspapers traditionally indulged in April Fools' Day pranks, and also that the expression "Kadaver" was not employed in current German usage to mean a human corpse, the word "Leichnam" being used instead. The only exception was corpses used for dissection—cadavers.
On 25 April the weekly British humorous magazine Punch printed a cartoon entitled "Cannon-Fodder—and After," which showed the Kaiser and a German recruit. Pointing out a window at a factory with smoking chimneys and the sign "Kadaververwertungs[anstalt]," the Kaiser tells the young man: "And don't forget that your Kaiser will find a use for you—alive or dead."
On 30 April the story was raised in the House of Commons, and the government declined to endorse it. Lord Robert Cecil declared that he had no information beyond newspaper reports. He added that, "in view of other actions by German military authorities, there is nothing incredible in the present charge against them." However, the government, he said, had neither the responsibility nor the resources to investigate the allegations. In the months that followed, the account of the Kadaververwertungsanstalt circulated worldwide, but never expanded beyond the account printed in The Times; no eyewitnesses ever appeared, and the story was never enlarged or amplified.
Some individuals within the government nonetheless hoped to exploit the story, and Charles Masterman, director of the War Propaganda Bureau at Wellington House, was asked to prepare a short pamphlet. This was never published, however. Masterman and his mentor, Prime Minister David Lloyd George, never took the story seriously.
A month later, The Times revived the rumor by publishing a captured German Army order that made reference to a Kadaver factory. It was issued by the VsdOK, which The Times interpreted as Verordnungs-Stelle ("instructions department"). The Frankfurter Zeitung, however, insisted that it stood for Veterinar-Station (veterinary station). The Foreign Office agreed that order could only be referring to "the carcasses of horses."
Paul Fussell has also suggested that this may have been a deliberate British mistranslation of the phrase Kadaver Anstalt on a captured German order that all available animal remains be sent to an installation to be reduced to tallow.
On 20 October 1925, the New York Times reported on a speech given by Brigadier General John Charteris at the National Arts Club the previous evening. Charteris was then a Conservative MP for Glasgow, but had served as Chief of Intelligence for part of the war. The brigadier told his audience, according to the Times, that it was he who had invented the cadaver-factory story. He had transposed the captions of two photographs that came into his possession, one showing dead soldiers being removed by train for funerals, and the second showing a train car bearing horses to be processed for fertilizer. A subordinate had suggested forging a diary of a German soldier to verify the accusation, but Charteris vetoed the idea. Charteris may have concocted the story in order to impress his audience, not realizing a reporter was present.
On his return to the UK, Charteris unequivocally denied the New York Times' report in a statement to The Times:
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.
The question was once again raised in Parliament, and Sir Laming Worthington-Evans said that the story that the Germans had set up a factory for the conversion of dead bodies first appeared on 10 April 1917, in the Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger, and in the Belgian newspapers l'Independance Belge and La Belgique.
Sir Austen Chamberlain finally established the story as untrue, when in a reply in Parliament on 2 December 1925 he said that the German Chancellor had authorised him to say on the authority of the German government, that there was never any foundation for the story, and that he accepted the denial on behalf of His Majesty's Government.
In his 1931 book Spreading Germs of Hate, George Sylvester Viereck pictured the origin of the story, adding that Charteris' aim was to sway the opinion of the Chinese against the Germans:
Charteris, his face one broad grin, was comparing two pictures captured from Germans. The first was a vivid reproduction of a harrowing scene, showing the dead bodies of German soldiers being hauled away for burial behind the lines. The second picture depicted dead horses on their way to the factory where German ingenuity extracted soap and oil from the carcasses. The inspiration to change the caption of the two pictures came to General Charteris like a flash.
When the orderly arrived, the General dexterously used the shears and pasted the inscription "German cadavers on Their Way to the Soap Factory" under the picture of the dead German soldiers. Within twenty-four hours the picture was in the mail pouch for Shanghai.
The explanation was vouchsafed by General Charteris himself in 1926, at a dinner at the National Arts Club, New York City. It met with diplomatic denial later on, but is generally accepted.
A similar legend arose around the sinister "Reducer" or "Destructor", which was supposed to be a British installation located at the notorious Étaples training centre. Alfred M. Hale reported a version of this legend:
O'Rorke ... had said that [in Étaples] was the largest Destructor the British Army possessed. Everything that could come under the head of refuse was brought here from over a wide area, to be reduced to ashes—even, according to a sinister report, the arms and legs of human beings. It was also said that military executions took place here.
- Fussell, Paul (2000). The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press US. pp. 116–117. ISBN 0-19-513332-3.
- Brendon, Piers (2000). The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s. Knopf. p. 58. ISBN 0-375-40881-9.
- Knightley, Phillip (2000). The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo. Prion. p. 114. ISBN 1-85375-376-9.
- "Germans and their Dead – Revolting Treatment – Science and the Barbarian Spirit". The Times. 17 April 1917.
- Marlin, Randal (2002). Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion. Broadview Press. p. 72. ISBN 1-55111-376-7.
- "CADAVERS NOT HUMAN.; Gruesome Tale Believed to be Somebody's Notion of an April Fool Joke." (PDF). New York Times. 20 April 1917.
- "Cannon-Fodder—and After". Punch 152. 25 April 1917.
- The Times, May 30, 1917; National Archives, FO 395/147
- Fussell, Paul (2000). The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press US. p. 116. ISBN 0-19-513332-3.
- "Huns And Their Dead: Great Corpse Factory Last Word In Barbarism", Evening Post (Wellington, New Zealand) 30 May 1917
- Littlefield, Walter (29 November 1925). "HOW "CORPSE FACTORY" STORY STARTED". New York Times.
- Knightley, p. 105
- Charteris, John (4 November 1925). "War Propaganda". The Times.
- Viereck, George Sylvester (1931). Spreading Germs of Hate. London: Duckworth.
- Hale, Alfred M; Paul Fussell (1975). The Ordeal of Alfred M. Hale, the Memoirs of a Soldier Servant. London: Leo Cooper. ISBN 0-85052-171-8.