False stories that masquerade as real news are not a product of the modern age. But few realise the modern era of ‘Fake News‘ began one hundred years ago – during the carnage of the First World War.
In the spring of 1917 some of Britain’s most influential newspapers published stories about the German Corpse Factory – a fake news story has been called ‘the master hoax’ and ‘the most appalling atrocity story’ of the 1914-18 conflict.
After three years of war and an Allied naval blockade, Germany was desperately short of some of the most basic materials that were needed for its manufacturing industry. Meanwhile, Britain was plotting to bring China into the war against Germany.
In March the English-language North China Herald claimed the country’s president had been horrified when a visiting German admiral boasted the Kaiser’s forces were ‘extracting glycerine out of dead soldiers’.
Rumours had been circulating since 1915, both in France and on the Home Front, that German war dead were being converted into munitions, animal feed and soap.
As one soldier put it ‘then other folk eat the pigs and poultry, so you may say it’s cannibalism. Fritz calls his margarine “corpse fat” because they suspect that’s what it comes from.’
But until 1917 these stories had not been presented as facts by any official source in the Allied countries. That was until Lord Northcliffe’s press empire amplified the gruesome claims and printed accounts from sources who claimed to have visited the Kadaververwertungsansatalt (‘Corpse-Utilisation Factory’).
Lord Northcliffe’s anti-German vitriol had so much impact that he was offered the post of director of propaganda by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. On 17 April 1917 two of his papers, The Times and the Daily Mail published what they claimed was convincing evidence the German Army were using a gruesome ‘corpse factory’ behind their front line.
The Times ran the story under the headline Germans and their Dead, attributing the claim to two sources – a Belgian newspaper published in England and a story that originally appeared in a German newspaper, Berliner Lokalanzeiger.
The latter was a short account by reporter Karl Rosner who described an unpleasant smell ‘as if lime was being burnt’ as he passed the a factory behind the German lines. He said the fats that were rendered there were turned into lubricating oils and manure, adding ‘nothing can be permitted to go to waste’.
Rosner used the word Kadaver, that referred to the bodies of animals – mainly horses and mules – not human bodies.
But the Daily Mail described this as a ‘callous admission’ by the Germans that the factory was for ‘extracting oils, fats and pig-food from the bodies of German private soldiers killed in battle’.
The Times quoted an anonymous account from a Belgian source who said bodies arrived at the plant on trains where they were unloaded by workers who ‘wear oilskin overalls and masks with mica eyepieces’.
Long hooked poles were used to ‘push the bundles of bodies to an endless chain, which picks them with big hooks…The bodies are transported on this endless chain into a long, narrow compartment, where they pass through a bath which disinfects them. They then go through a drying chamber, and finally are carried into a digester or great cauldron, in which they are dropped by an apparatus …In the digester they remain for six to eight hours, and are treated by steam, which breaks them up while they are slowly stirred by machinery’.
Soon afterwards the Daily Express weighed in with a story that accused the Germans of cannibalism. The paper claimed the Corpse-Utilisation Works or ‘fat farm’, as it was known by German soldiers, was established soon after the slaughter on the Somme in 1916.
‘Some people believe that there is only one German factory for this damnable work out of which Germans are making handsome dividends,’ it claimed. ‘This is not so. The factories are established in each army area, including Rumania. This the Germans have admitted’.
A cartoon published by Punch presented the story under the caption “CANNON FODDER – AND AFTER”. It shows the German emperor addressing a new recruit: ‘…and don’t forget that your Kaiser will find a use for you – alive or dead’.
The German government protested against what they called ‘loathsome and ridiculous’ claims they said were the result of a deliberate mis-translation of the German word Kadaver.
But their protests fell on deaf ears as both the Chinese ambassador and the Maharajah of Biikanir issued public expressions of horror at German treatment of their dead, the latter warning if the bodies of Indian soldiers were treated in this way this’ would be regarded as an atrocity that would never be forgotten or forgiven.’
In Parliament, responding to questions from MPs, Lord Robert Cecil, Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, said: ‘in view of other actions by the German military authorities there is nothing incredible in the present charge against them.’
But the German Corpse Factory did not exist. It was propaganda – designed to demonise the Germans and entice the Chinese to join the Allied forces. Propaganda always involves some form of deception, ‘whether through outright lying, omission of important information, distortion or misdirection’, according to Professor Piers Robinson of the University of Sheffield.
Some historians have blamed the Northcliffe newspapers for spreading this most false of WW1 fake news stories. But until now no one has been able to find conclusive proof that would settle the mystery of who created the story and set it running.
In 1928 Labour MP Arthur Ponsonby, in his book Falsehood in Wartime, pointed the finger of blame at the British government and their friends in the press who, he claimed, had both ’encouraged and connived’ in spreading the lie across the world.
For its part, the government failed to issue a complete denial until 1925 when Sir Austen Chamberlain admitted, in a Commons statement, there was ‘never any foundation’ for what he called ‘this false report’.
But in the same year the Conservative MP John Charteris, who as a Brigadier General had served as head of intelligence under Douglas Haig during the war, whilst on a lecture tour of the USA, reportedly admitted he had fabricated the story.
The New York Times revealed how Charteris, at a private dinner, confessed to having transposed captions from one of two photographs found on captured German soldiers. One showed a train taking dead horses to be rendered, the other showed a train taking dead soldiers for burial. The photo of the horses had the word ‘cadaver’ written upon it and Charteris ‘had the caption transposed to the picture showing the German dead, and had the photograph sent to a Chinese newspaper in Shanghai.’
The story was planted in the full knowledge that it would be followed up by European newspapers and generate horror and anti-German feelings.
On his return to Britain Charteris denied making the remarks and, since that time, no one has been able to discover the photographs or any paper-trail that would prove the intelligence services connived with the press to promote the corpse factory lie.
But I found what I believe to be one of the photographs in Foreign Office documents at The National Archives in Kew. The black and white image, dated 17 September 1917, clearly shows bodies of German soldiers, tied in bundles, on a train just as Charteris had described in 1925.
The covering letter, from a MI7 officer at Whitehall, is addressed to the Director of Information, Lt Col John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). It offers ‘a photograph of Kadavers, forwarded by General Charteris for propaganda purposes’.
MI7 were a military intelligence branch that specialised in anti-German propaganda in neutral countries. From 1916 its recruits were busily writing corpse factory pamphlets for translation into a number of foreign languages for distribution in Europe and the Far East. The branch was disbanded in 1918 because its work had been accomplished and according to one historian its records were destroyed on the grounds they could have been incriminating.
But we know that in 1917 MI7 employed 13 officers and 25 paid writers, some whom moonlighted as ‘special correspondents’ for national newspapers. One of their most talented writers was Major Hugh Pollard who combined his secret work with the role of special correspondent for the Daily Express, whose proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, became Minister of Information in 1918.
After the war Pollard confessed his role to his cousin, Ivor Montague, who writing in 1970, recalled
‘…how we laughed at his cleverness when he told us how his department had launched the account of the German corpse factories and of how the Hun was using the myriads of trench-war casualties for making soap and margarine. He explained that he had originally thought up the idea himself to discredit the enemy among the populations of Oriental countries, hoping to play upon the respect for the dead that goes with ancestor-worship. To the surprise of the authorities it had caught on, and they were now making propaganda out of it everywhere…the tears ran down his cheeks as he told us the story they had circulated of a consignment of soap from Germany arriving in Holland and being buried with full military honours. But even for us, the taste of some of his tales began to grow sour after he became a Black and Tan.’
For those who spread fake news in 1917 the Germans were so evil that anything could be used as a weapon against them – including rumours and lies. But lies have consequences. During the 1930s the corpse factory was used by the Nazis as proof of British perfidy during the Great War.
Historians Joachim Neander and Randal Marlin remind us how these false stories ‘encouraged later disbelief when early reports circulated about the Holocaust under Hitler, thus contributing to the early lack of response by nations asked to accept Jewish refugees’.
An edited version of this blogpost can be found on the BBC News website here.