World War I Killed Twice As Many Cows As It Did Humans

By Alan Boyle on Friday, November 1, 2013
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“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns.” —Wilfred Owen, from “Anthem for Doomed Youth”

In A Nutshell

During World War I, the Germans orchestrated a bombing campaign over England. The only aircraft at that time capable of carrying a payload the necessary distance were airships. Unfortunately, the best material available for holding hydrogen was a calf’s intestines, and it took upward of 250,000 young cows to make one aircraft. Germany built 140 of them. To maintain the supplies needed, the Germans banned sausage-making in every territory under their control, as sausages traditionally used cows’ innards as their lining.

The Whole Bushel

In 1915, Germany’s leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, approved the use of zeppelins to bomb Britain. His requests were relatively reasonable given the horror in the trenches, as he insisted only military targets be attacked. Residential areas and important cultural buildings, like palaces, were to be left alone. The bombing raids were less friendly to Germany’s bovine population. At the start of the war, Germany had two zeppelins, which simply wasn’t enough.

The membranes of a slaughtered calf’s intestines are known as goldbeater’s skin. The name comes from the fact that they’re used in the production of gold leaf. Gold is placed between the skins and beaten until it’s as thin as a sheet of paper. As well as being strong enough to withstand this beating, the intestines are also thin and airtight. They were the best material available for airships at the start of the 20th century.

By the end of the war, the Germans had built 140 airships, requiring the innards of at least 35 million cows. In comparison, around 16 million people were killed, with another 20 million injured. To feed this demand for cows, sausage-making was banned in Germany and anywhere else under German control. Austria, Poland, and even parts of France fell under the ban. The Germans gathered the skins systematically, making thousands of square meters per day. A report from 1922 described the tightness as “practically perfect.”

The zeppelin bombing campaign did limited damage at first but was hard to fight against. Britain’s planes couldn’t get high enough to engage directly. It wasn’t until 1917 that the British had ammunition that could set the craft on fire. Putting a few bullet holes in the side of the ships made little difference. Ultimately, the mass slaughter of cows (and absence of sausage back home) was effectively for nothing.

Show Me The Proof

National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics: Balloon Fabrics Made of Goldbeater’s Skins
The Guardian: Wurst luck – how Zeppelins hit German sausage-eaters
The Telegraph: Zeppelins: the beginning of modern warfare