Retorts for the distillation of materials such as lignite, peat, or sawdust having a high moisture content are disposed in series in two directions at right angles to each other in a single block of masonry and are separated by longitudinal walls pierced by channels for heating gases and for escape of the distillation products. The oval retorts have between them flues with passages for the escape of the distillation gases which pass to a main. The material is charged into a hopper serving all the retorts and drying the material by the hot burnt gases which pass from a passage through branches to ducts at the base of the drier, these ducts being covered by funnels for filling the vertical chambers. The distillation gases after purification in the by-product recovery plant are burned in burners and combustion spaces, the hot gases circulating in channels before escaping by passage. The temperature in zone A is 400 to 500/sup 0/C and in zone B a higher temperature is attained. The coke is cooled by superheated steam injected through channels, water gas being generated and the material is further cooled by steam circulating in passages.