The corpse factory cartoon as it appeared in Punch in 1917

Kaiser to a 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.)

On April 10, 1917, barely four days after the United States had entered the war on the Allied side, a Berlin newspaper carried a story of a factory being used to convert corpses (kadavers meaning animal remains) into war commodities. A week later, the British press accused the German government of boiling down human corpses to make soap. An official investigation was launched to uncover the origins of the story. The German newspaper had indeed reported the discovery of a railway carriage in Holland loaded with dead German soldiers destined for Liège but diverted by mistake to Holland. A Belgian newspaper lied and claimed that the bodies were destined for a soap factory. No other evidence was presented other than words of a British army officer who reported that he had seen the Germans removing their dead from Vimy Ridge where there was an “unusual” absence of German war graves. The British press ran with the gruesome story anyway. Foreign Secretary Balfour even went so far as to claim that, however flimsy the evidence, “there does not, in view of the many atrocious actions of which the Germans have been guilty, appear to be any reason why it should not be true.”

The story of a German Corpse Factory was an utter fabrication concocted by both the British Government and the press in 1917, and was it not finally disposed of till 1925, when even at that late date they tried to pass the buck. From ‘The Times’ of October 22, 1925; New York Correspondent:

“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.”