At eight o’clock next morning we were loaded up and starting on our way…the Foret de Thiescourt, through which we passed, was very interesting. All this part had so recently been occupied by the Germans. The edge of the wood was absolutely honeycombed with little holes, scooped among the roots of the trees, looking hardly big enough to shelter any man. There were numbers of little graves, too, with a helmet stuck on the little cross.
Our next adventure was one of the most interesting of the tour. The ground we covered had been a good deal fought over near Péronne, and once more the shattered forests bore witness to the gun-fire. We knew that we were reaching the great “impregnable Hindenburg line”, and that forests of barbed wire in three strips would warn us of its neighbourhood… Perhaps half a mile on we passed more regular avenues of barbed wire, with trenches behind, all at right angles to our road. Beyond this the tidy little graves grew more numerous – German all of them. I noticed a few with cement borders and one indeed had a polished granite headstone. It was obvious that where the Germans had been for some time in possession and had the leisure, they took pains about the decent burial of their men. But it was equally true that in comparison with the French and British there were few German cemeteries. There is no doubt that when great slaughter occurred, their dead were taken away in bundles – “asparagus” as they were gruesomely termed – and as they were neither buried in France nor, as far as could be ascertained, in Germany, the inference was that the tales of the Corpse-Utilization factories were not unfounded. But here the Germans had been in full and leisurely tenancy, and they had not grudged the last honours to the dead, as they had not grudged them, in all honesty it must be allowed, to our British dead who fell at Zeebrugge.
This was a long day with lots of narrative but no photos taken, because “it was hopeless to think of getting a large camera down [into the mud], and my Kodak films were at an end”. I’ve chosen to share this section particularly because Edis mentions the grisly and, at the time, widely-believed myth that the Germans were building secret “Kadaververwertungsanstalt” (literally “Corpse-Utilization Factories”) to process the bodies of the dead – boiling them down to make fat for munition-making and to feed pigs and poultry. These rumours had been circulating since 1915 (Cynthia Asquith mentions it in her journal that year), but were solidified in 1917 by a “report” in The Times which claimed that German war dead were tied up in bundles (as mentioned by Edis above) and transported behind the front lines to be processed in factories. It was later claimed that the “report” was in fact planted by Brigadier General John Charteris, Chief Intelligence Officer at GHQ, who wilfully misinterpreted captions on two photographs which were recovered from German POWs, one showing German war dead being transported home for burial, and another showing dead horses being transported back so that fat could be obtained from them. Charteris allegedly paired the caption from the horse image with the image of the train carrying dead soldiers, and sent it to a newspaper in Shanghai. A week later the “report” was published in the Times. There are some doubts about Charteris’ claims that he personally invented the story, but there is no doubt that it was just that – an invention, probably inspired by the common practice of using animal corpses for fat production.
This horrific rumour was just one example of the propaganda machine hard at work in Britain during WW1. Like many people at the time, Edis evidently wondered whether there might be some truth in the stories. However unlike most of those who may have read the papers or heard the rumours back in Britain, she had the chance to see for herself a rather different story, and she felt it was worth noting in her official record.